Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021
“Expected The Unexpected” Rev. Brent Gundlah

“Expect the Unexpected”

         Back when I was in school, I worked for my father during breaks and over summer vacations. My father is an electrician and I was his helper. Most of the time, this involved simple (but strenuous) tasks like carrying heavy coils of wire and cleaning up the messes of sawdust, sheet rock and wire clippings that Dad had created. Every once in a while, though, he let me do some actual electrical work under his watchful eye.

         One morning while we were rewiring a bathroom, my father, who was on a ladder installing a light fixture, instructed me to swap out the old light switch for a new one. For reasons I do not recall, the power was still on — which my father let me know when he said, “Be careful, the switch is hot.”

         So I grabbed a screwdriver and set about doing the job I’d been assigned. I removed the top screw and then the bottom screw holding the old switch in the place. Then, after checking to make sure the switch was off, I grabbed it by it’s sides and started to pull it out of the junction box in the wall. But I’d failed to remember a crucial piece of information: when a switch is hot — even if it’s in the off position — simultaneously touching the terminals on both sides completes the circuit. Suffice it to say, I discovered this the hard way.

         As 120 volts at 15 amps coursed through my body, my arms tingled and shook, and my teeth chattered. I fell backwards into the wall behind me, which was probably a good thing because the impact separated me from the switch, removing me from the circuit and quickly ending my ordeal.

         My father peered down from his ladder and, after gleaning that I was more-or-less okay, did what fathers sometimes do in such situations — he bowed his head, shaking it from side to side, and rolled his eyes in disbelief. As he turned his focus back to the work he’d been doing, he matter-of-factly said: “Son, I’m glad you’re doing well in school, because you’re not very good at this.”

         I wasn’t offended by what he said; we both knew that he was right and, frankly, I never once felt compelled to make this my life’s work. And despite the fact that my father, his brother, and their father were all electricians, I don’t believe that Dad ever wanted me to make it my life’s work either; he knew that he had a really difficult job and hoped I would discern a less arduous calling. He toiled six days a week in the cold and the heat and the rain for most of his life; he’d come home exhausted; he never took a sick day; and there always seemed to be cuts and bruises and scars all over his hands.

         The pain and embarrassment of my unfortunate experience notwithstanding, it provided the necessary jolt that took the idea of me being the latest in our family’s line of electricians off the table once and for all, which was a huge relief for both of us.

         I can’t help but feel that Zechariah had kind of the opposite experience. Today’s reading from the end of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is a hymn that’s commonly known as either “Zechariah’s Song,” which sounds kind of nice, or the “Benedictus,” which sounds kind of intimidating. But “Benedictus” is simply the Latin rendering of the first word of today’s text, which, in English is “Blessed.” Zechariah, it seems, feels compelled to sing out loud to praise God for all that God has done. Because this happens at the end of Zechariah’s story, you have to head back to an earlier point to put these events in context. The Bible often calls us to do that.

         At the beginning of the Gospel, Luke tells us that Zechariah is a member of the priestly order of Abijah, one of the twenty-four groups of priests that served two one-week stints each year at the Jerusalem Temple. Zechariah is married to Elizabeth, who herself is a descendent of Aaron, Israel’s very first priest. Luke really wants us to know that “priesting” (if that’s even a word) is their family business.

         The couple had no children because, as Luke tells us, “Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” But this is the Bible, and so sometimes strange and surprising things can happen.

         Zechariah is on duty at the Temple when the angel Gabriel appears out of nowhere and tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son, and that they will name him John. Their son John “will be great in the sight of the Lord… [and] will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Basically, Gabriel tells Zechariah that John will be a great prophet.

         Unsurprisingly, Zechariah’s response to all this is, essentially, “Yeah, right.” And for this lack of belief, the angel appears to punish Zechariah, rendering him speechless until the day these things come to pass.

         Zechariah heads home and, low and behold, Elizabeth conceives a child. And when the time came, she did, indeed give birth to a son. Their neighbors and family show up, assuming that they will name this child Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth, who is having none of it, tells them, “No; he is to be called John.”

         Zechariah, who still cannot speak, grabs a chalkboard and confirms what Elizabeth has just said: “His name is John,” and immediately Zechariah regains his ability to talk. Understandably, this scared the life out of all the neighbors and relatives, because they know they’ve witnessed something incredible even if they don’t understand what it actually means. They realize that this John kid is pretty special, and the whole community rightly ends up wondering “‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was upon him.”

         This whole experience has clearly left it’s mark on Zechariah as well. Luke tells us that he “was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy,” which is the little ditty we heard today. Just for the record, the child at the center of all this will grow up to be John the Baptizer (or John the Baptist, if you prefer) — the one who will cry out in the wilderness, the one who will prepare the way of the Lord. And this is story that Zechariah sketches out for us in the lyrics of his song.

         In the first part of it, Zechariah praises God for being faithful to the covenant that God made with God’s people. God has redeemed them, God has raised up a mighty savior for them, God has spoken to them through the mouths of the prophets, God has not forgotten them — indeed, Zechariah’s name means, “God remembered.” And what are we to do for our part in this covenant? Well, we are to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.

          And this is where things get a bit more… complicated. The second half Zechariah’s song is directed toward his son, John; it is a job description, of sorts. John, you see, has been called by God to go into the family business.                           Zechariah, remember, is one of the temple priests, and he appears to be blessed, to a limited extent, with prophetic ability; in the introduction to our passage for today, Luke tells us that he “was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” And the prophecy he speaks indicates that John will be a prophet too, albeit on a much higher level; he tells young John that he “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people.” This John kid is going to be a really big deal.

         Now Zechariah may not have been a prophet on the order of, say, Isaiah or Ezekiel (or even his own son, John), but he was a professional nonetheless. He’d studied his scriptures, he knew full-well what a serious prophet’s life entailed; he understood that this was the kind of job that, when done well, could very well get you killed (which is, in fact, what happens to John).

         If I was a menace to myself because I was a really bad electrician, then John was a menace to himself because he was a really good prophet. And if my father could breathe a sigh of relief when he realized that his son wasn’t called to be an electrician, then I wonder how Zechariah must have felt when he realized that his son was called to be a prophet. It’s a bittersweet moment when you catch that first glimpse of who your child is and what they are called to do, and realize that it is not going to be easy for them. Then again, who ever said life was supposed to be easy?

         It is, however, blessed.

         And what does that mean?

         It means that God has looked favorably upon us and redeemed us;

         it means that God has raised up a mighty savior for us and sends us prophets to show us the way;

         it means that God shows us mercy and saves us from the hand of all who hate us;

         It means that God remembers the covenant God made with us.

         Which means that we are free to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.

         Because, at the end of the day, as God’s blessed children, that’s our family business.