[Isaiah 40:1-5 / Luke 1:5-25]
God commands a word of comfort to His people: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” A word of comfort, pardon, grace, and huge gift. And yet this word from God is often met with skepticism. Can He mean me? Surely not. Not after all I’ve done. Such a word of comfort and grace cannot be meant for the likes of one whose sin is like mine.
And there are none who so feel their sin as those who live closest to His holiness – those whom He regards as righteous by their faith and trust in Him. They see their sin and feel its weight in a way that the world never can understand. It takes the nearness of God to bring the weight of sin to bear on the conscience and the heart.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were such. The evangelist tells us that they were “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.” If you asked them, they’d have told you a different description. They’d have said: No, we are poor sinners, who plead the mercy of God and wait for His redemption. But such people who live by faith and who are righteous because they see their own sin and utterly despair of themselves and put all their hope on the mercy of God – they are the ones who above all struggle to believe that God could be gracious and kind to the likes of them.
And so the old man stood there attending to his duty, offering the sacred incense and as the smoke began to swirl toward the heavens and the sweet smell filled the darkened room, he became aware of a presence. There at the right side of that altar where he had so lately thrown on the coals the offering of incense, the sign of prayer, stood an angel.
What is the response of a man who knows his sin when he sees such a thing? Does he rejoice and thank God that he is counted worthy of such a vision? No. Zechariah shows his righteousness by his humility. He is troubled and fear falls on him. But the angel was not sent to scare him, but to comfort him. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Gabriel was sent to announce the dawn of the redemption for which Zechariah had longed, and in which he would play a key role.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
“My prayer?” thought Zechariah. “But that was years ago. I’ve long since stopped hoping or even dreaming of such a thing. Why, it’s just not possible.” So his thoughts must have run as the angel went on, heedless of the perplexity on Zechariah’s face. “You shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn the hearts of the children of Israel to the Lord and will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Zechariah is blown away that God could be so good, so gracious, so kind to Him. He can’t get his mind around it. And his unbelief and fear conquer him. “How shall I know this?” he asks. “I am old; my wife beyond the years of bearing a child. How can this be?”
If it is terror to see an angel to those who know their sin, even more terrifying is seeing an angel riled. Gabriel speaks a word of judgment that turns out also to be a word of promise. Not a word can pass from Zechariah’s lips until they open in praise of what God has done, for the words He gave to the angel will come to pass, fulfilled in their time. God’s words cannot and do not fail.
And then the angel was gone. And Zechariah was struck dumb before the goodness and the mercy of the Lord – goodness and mercy unlooked for. That he and his wife would have a child. That that child would be the long awaited prophet to go before the Lord Himself, preparing his way. That their child would be the appointed ambassador of the King of kings to announce the ultimate comfort. That God has come into the flesh to triumph over the enemies of the human race – to make common cause with the flesh He now shares and to raise the fallen sons of Adam to their high destiny as children of God.
And like Zechariah, we stagger at the promise. Me? Can He possibly mean this comfort for me? That I who fail Him so often every day will be forgiven, made welcome in the home of the Eternal Son, made to sit with Him at His table and to reign with Him over all things? Me? How can it be?
Advent invites us to enter the silence of Zechariah and to wait and see the Words of God come to their fulfillment at the proper time. As he left the temple and couldn’t even given the final blessing because of his sealed lips, his heart was burning with the hope that words of God had given him. And he began to see their fruition not many days later. Elizabeth laughed and thought “Why, it’s Abraham and Sarah all over again.” The prayers that they long since had given up on were answered by God in His goodness in a way beyond their imagining.
People loved by God, your God commands comfort to be spoken to you too. His love for you will indeed astound and silence you, as you behold Him taking flesh from the pure Virgin and coming among you as your own brother to lift you to His glory. The comfort of this message is for you – you who think yourself hopelessly sinful and a failure. He says to you: For you I have come. For you I have sent my messenger to prepare my way. Do not fear. I am your Emmanuel. Watch in silence and see my salvation unfold! Amen.