I used to sit on the Board of Ordained Ministry for the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. Candidates would come to us who wanted to be pastors. They were at various stages in their education and training.
Often we would hear stories something like this. “When I was younger, in high school, I heard a call to ministry. I knew God wanted me to serve in full time ministry. I could tell that God had given me the gifts to be a pastor. But I was afraid.”
Then they would say something like this: “So I went to college and studied accounting,” or “I became a teacher;” or “I went into business and became a sales person. I did this other thing for years. I got active in a local church. I would teach Bible study. I became chair of the Church Council, but still God kept pursuing me.”
Or maybe they would say, “I ran as far away from the church as I could, but still God was there.” “Finally,” the person would say, “I could not run any more. God won. I answered the call. I went to seminary. I have decided to be a pastor, and now my heart is at peace. I know I am living the life God put me on this earth to live. I am surrendering to the future God has in mind for me. And I’m on fire to serve God.”
These people make really great pastors, because they know, without a doubt, this is what they are called to do. They have tested God and they have tested themselves. And they have come home to be the person God created them to be.
Today’s story is such a story of answering God’s call (Luke 1:5-25 from The Message Paraphrase for those following along from afar) . Zachariah was already a priest. He had a wife named Elizabeth. The emptiness in their lives was that they had no children. But we’re told they were honorable people, living blameless before God. It just happened that Elizabeth could not conceive. One day, came Zachariah’s time to serve in the sanctuary of God, the temple in Jerusalem which was the center of worship for the Jews. This was probably the one time in his life he would be called upon to serve at the Jerusalem temple. It was a high honor and it was his turn.
The congregation was outside praying and Zachariah was inside burning incense, when lo and behold an angel appeared to him! He was frightened as anyone would be when an angel appears. The scripture says he was paralyzed in fear. But the angel reassured him. A conversation ensues between them:
“Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”
18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”
Zachariah went back outside to the congregation. They were wondering what had been taking him so long. They realized he could not speak and they knew he must have had a vision. He went home and not long after that Elizabeth conceived a child.
Now we didn’t read this part of the story, but as the story goes on Elizabeth gives birth to the child and everyone is calling the baby Zachariah, expecting him to be named after his father. Elizabeth says his name will be John. The people are puzzled because no one in either of their families is names John. They go to Zachariah and he writes on a tablet: “The baby shall be called John” and at that moment his speech is returned.
You see, Zachariah finally understands that he must answer God’s call upon his life. He decides to be faithful. Just like all those pastors who came before the Board of Ordained Ministry and after years of saying “no” finally said “yes.” The call of Zachariah and Elizabeth was to be the parents of John the Baptist. They waited a long time to be parents, so long that they were sure their time had passed.
But God had other plans. God needed them to be the parents of John who would prepare a way for Jesus. John preaches and baptizes and gets people ready to hear the message of Jesus. John clears a path in the desert and makes a way for Jesus to come on the scene. Without John, the people would not have been ready. Zachariah and Elizabeth were crucial to this whole sequence of events. They had to say “yes” to the call that God put upon their lives. But at first Zachariah said “no.” He said to the angel, “You are crazy. My wife is too old to have a baby.” He forgot that nothing it too amazing for God.
Just like those pastors who denied God’s call upon their lives, Zachariah said to the angel, “God can’t be giving us a baby. You must be mistaken.” The angel got perturbed that Zachariah would not listen and the angel made Zachariah mute in order to get his attention. It worked.
During those nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Zachariah must have prayed long and hard about the angel’s prophecy about their son, that he would herald God’s arrival and get people ready for God. When the time came to name the baby, they gave him the name of God’s choosing: John.
Zachariah was faithful to God. Elizabeth and Zachariah raised John to be the person God needed him to be. They did not fail God.
So, what about you? Have you ever felt God calling you to do something? Perhaps one of you has felt a call to ministry and now is the time for you to say “yes” to that call. Or perhaps God is nudging you to something else? There are many, many ways that God can use us.
This is the season we call Advent – four Sundays leading up to Christmas. In this season we wait for Jesus. We wait to celebrate his birth once again, and we wait to experience the in-breaking of God’s love into our world in a fresh way. This is a time to watch and wait. This is a time to pay attention. This is a time to pray and ask God: What do you have to say to me? Are you calling me to some new thing? Advent is a time of new beginnings.
Is God calling you to something new? A new job? A new relationship? Perhaps a new attitude? Zachariah and Elizabeth were called to a new attitude. They had given in to the attitude of being old and washed up. They had given up on the idea of new life being part of their future. And then God surprised them with a baby of all things. Are you stuck in an attitude? Does God have a surprise in store for you? Some new start? Some new way of being? What might the Christ child bring to you at Christmas?
When we step into something new, we have to leave behind something old and familiar. We have to give up old habits that are dragging us down. We have to give up patterns of thinking that are not productive in order to turn to new ways of thinking that are better and more creative. Zachariah and Elizabeth had a small view of life. He was a simple priest and she was a wife. But now, well, now God was calling them to be the parents of the one who would prepare the way for the Son of God! They could no longer think their lives were small. They had to dream big about what their son would be and do and who this Messiah would be.
Are you caught in a small view of your life? Is it possible God might have big dreams for you? What would it look like for you to join God in dreaming big about your future? Think about it for a minute. Don’t worry about practical constraints. Just dream about who you could be if you were filled with all the potential God has placed inside of you.
This story is about God taking ordinary human beings and doing extraordinary things through them. Zachariah and Elizabeth had long given up on the idea of being parents and yet God made them parents of the one who would prepare us for the coming of Jesus. Every day, someone who feels unworthy, answers the call to be a pastor. Because they put their trust in God. We are just ordinary human beings, giving ourselves to the extraordinary task of ministry.
So what about you? Are you ready to dream with God? As we enter this Advent season of new beginnings will you open your ordinary self to God’s extraordinary dreams for you? I hope you will use these four weeks to listen to God. Imagine what new adventures God might have in store for you. Put your trust in God. And when you hear God calling, be ready to answer with a resounding “YES!” Amen.