November 30, 2011-11-22
Advent 1 Midweek
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saint Luke reports that Zachariah and Elizabeth were both righteous, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
This was not righteousness in the strict sense, as spoken of so often by St. Paul, but is a Hebraism not so different from modern American speech where we say someone is a “good person.” Here righteous simply means pious, decent, reliable, trustworthy, good.
The phrase “commandments and statutes of the Lord” was a common way of dividing the Law. The commandments were those particular commandments given by God to the Hebrews through Moses. We sometimes call them the “ceremonial law.” The statutes of the Lord were those things which are required of all humanity. We sometimes call the statutes “moral law.” Thus, in a good, pious, and external way, Sts. Zachariah and Elizabeth kept the law. They were ritually pure and morally decent, as such, they were honored by their peers and recognized as “good” or “righteous” people.
From this we may well infer that they were sincere and active in devotion toward God and reverence for His Word and Temple. Their childless home must have been full of love and laughter, even as they must have been showing constant charity toward their neighbors and also engaged in the communal care and teaching of children. And, finally, they most certainly held a fervent and expectant hope that looked for the consolation of Israel in the coming of the Messiah.
None of that is really spelled out by Saint Luke. It is expected that we will know what it means to be righteous, to walk blamelessly in the commandments and statues of the Lord, that even if we are self-victims of divorce, perversions, gluttony, pride, and greed that we would still be able to recognize what the Law of God upholds and desires, and that even from within our failures and shame we would honor it as good.
Now for Lutherans that last bit, that Saints Zachariah and Elizabeth held a fervent and expectant hope in the Messiah, may not seem so obvious. Because, Saint Luke says nothing of their faith, only of their deeds. But where we might get hung up, the Holy Spirit did not.
We were birthed in the heresy that works are required for salvation and aren't quite able to forget it. It was an age that had mostly forgotten what faith is and which found faith's greatest defender since St. Paul in the blessed reformer. Nothing wrong with that. But single-mindedness can be a sort of blindness. We need to confess that even though faith alone saves, faith is never alone.
Perhaps an incredibly wise man could keep the moral law in an outward way, out of his own self-interest, apart from faith. Because, the moral law only requires of us that which is good for us. Aristotle comes awfully close to at least recognizing this reality, if not quite living up to it. So did Cicero. Nothing immoral is ever expedient, useful, or helpful. Gossip and slander, for example, don't just hurt those who are talked about. They also hurt those who do the talking and though it may not seem so on the surface, in fact, the talkers are hurt worse and more deeply than the talked about.
But no man keeps the revealed Law of God, as given though Moses, without faith. There would be no reason to. Because, apart from faith the sacrifices, the cleansings required for various impurities, and even the absolution have no value at all. So while it is theoretically possible for a person to keep the moral law apart from faith, simply because he recognizes the goodness of it, it is impossible to keep the ceremonial Law apart from faith.
Thus when St. Luke records the deeds of Zachariah, he is recording his faith and hope. While faith alone, apart from works, saves, faith without works is dead and faith is never alone. Still, this righteous man was infected with original sin. And righteous though he was, he sinned in the most holy place. He doubted the Word of the Lord from the mouth of Gabriel.
Our instinct is to defend him. It was a small thing. It is not like he laughed, as Abraham and Sarah had or tried to argue with Gabriel. Humanly speaking, it was completely understandable. How long had it been since Zachariah had prayed for a child? Certainly he and Elizabeth had prayed for this very thing when they were of child-bearing age. But that time had come and gone a long time ago. It was far from his mind, the last thing he would expect and an angel to tell him at his age and that in the Most Holy place.
At some point, we do give up. We figure it simply isn't going to happen. Imagine if one of our 90 plus widows was praying to get pregnant. We'd think she was more than a bit odd. So if an angel suddenly appeared to you and said Great-Grandma Schimdt will have a child, wouldn't you have a little trouble swallowing it immediately? Might you ask how you would know this? Doesn't it seem reasonable to ask for a moment to contemplate it?
That is one of the striking differences between us and God. He doesn't understand. He Himself endured all that we endure and more, yet He never failed, never even slightly. We think the Law ought to be tempered with mercy, with extenuating circumstances. But that is mainly because we ourselves are hoping to somehow get off and to escape the threatened wrath. We are quick with excuses. But the Law doesn't care for excuses, only facts. How fast were you driving? It doesn't matter why. What matters is what the law says and what you were doing, nothing else. Zachariah should have realized that if an angel appears in the Most Holy place and tells you something, it is true and needs no other proof.
Still, he got some proof. The silencing was a miracle. It was proof. No doubt, it was difficult, but so also it must have been a joyous assurance that the angel's word was true, for I doubt that Zachariah's doubts all disappeared in an instant. But every time he tried to talk, he was reminded of the truth, of what had happened. I'd guess that brought some relief and comfort to the nine months of silence. He was able, even without a voice, to insist that John be John and not Zachariah. For God is gracious. And when his voices came back, he sang God's praise, not for John really but for the Messiah.
What a joyful time it must have been for them, Elizabeth hidden away in solidarity with Zacharias' silence. Imagine the notes he wrote, the glances, the kisses, the laughter they must have enjoyed as their lives were ending, their son was being born, and most significantly the new age was dawning. For if the Lord is harsh with the Law, He is generous and extravagant with grace. He even answers prayers we've stopped praying, along with prayers we are too timid to ask.
There is joy for the barren couple, for the single mom, for the lonely man. The Lord sets the lonely in families. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. He remembers us and works all things together for good. But greatest of all joy is that known by sinners who have a Redeemer, whose Lord has taken up flesh to be a sacrifice and turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.
The name Zachariah means “the Lord remembers.” Elizabeth means “God's promise” or “God's daughter.” John means “God is gracious.” Indeed. He is all those things, and has remembered His gracious promise to us in giving us these saints, in giving us His Son.
In +Jesus' Name. Amen.