For the nine and a half year before coming to Sydney we lived in a part of the country frequented by cyclones and previously I had experience of these storms in Darwin and the Solomon Islands. It was a rude awakening for this Kiwi who had lived deep in the South and started life in Australia in the South, and who grew up with cyclones being mentioned rarely on the news prior to moving to Darwin, the Solomon’s or Townsville. One thing I did learn about cyclones was to expect the unexpected.
More than once, a beautiful sunny morning has turned into an overcast day spent in locked inside one’s house waiting in front of the TV weather report with the echo of sirens warning us in the background. My previous storm experience growing up was rain, snow and the resultant floods. This included days of weather coverage, allowing plenty of time to head to the grocery store for bread and milk, prepare for potential power outages, and pray that the storm would only be bad enough to close school for a couple of days!
In terms of expecting and waiting for the Messiah, the Jewish people seemed to have more of this second kind of weather experience. After all, their Messiah was prophesied for generations, giving them theoretically plenty of time to prepare. Yet, what God intended for their salvation was something totally unexpected. Today as we begin our Advent season, we can read various scriptures about waiting. The scripture passages in Luke tell as part of the story of a devout Jewish man performing a sacred duty only to encounter something completely unexpected.
As a priest, Zechariah no doubt had spent his life waiting for the promised Messiah. Longing for the salvation of his people, he probably spent many hours praying for the fruition of God’s plan. He probably believed that he had a handle on what to expect from the Messiah. As he prepared for his once-in-a-lifetime service opportunity in the temple, Zechariah’s main concern was most likely performing his service as perfectly as possible. He surely wasn’t anticipating a powerful personal encounter with God. As Luke 1 opens, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are what we might call “seniors or elders.” They are upright Jews who have lived righteous lives. Like other Jews, they have probably spent their lives expecting the Messiah.
Expectation has filled their home in other ways for many years, however. Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless. No doubt for years (millennia before medical science could address such things) Zechariah and Elizabeth waited, expected, anticipated a child, only to be disappointed year after year. I can imagine Elizabeth’s prayers to God as she remembered the miracle stories of women like Sarah and Hannah. By the time of Zechariah’s temple service, however, any hope or expectation for a child has long subsided. It is probably the farthest thing from Zechariah’s mind that morning as he prepares. He may be expecting, even hoping, for a God moment, but he never expects that God’s plan for the redemption of God’s people will personally involve Zechariah and Elizabeth, answering their personal prayers in a way they never could have anticipated.
Upon entering the temple to burn the incense, Zechariah encounters the angel Gabriel. Startled by the presence of the angel, he is immediately told not to be afraid and then informed of God’s plan to send a son (named John) to him and Elizabeth, including John’s destiny as the predecessor to the coming of the Lord. I have often thought at this point that the angel is a little hard on Zechariah. After all, this is a lot of information for a priest who thought he was going inside the temple to burn incense. He may have been concerned that the angel had the wrong person. After clarifying with he is struck silent until the time that his son is born.
I can imagine an excited Zechariah exiting the temple anxious to share his news, waving his arms around in a kind of crazy charades-like sign language, only to be stared at by the onlookers. Months will pass before Zechariah’s speech returns and he names his son John. Expectation was a powerful part of the belief system of the Jewish people. They expected God to send someone to restore their people to their status as God’s chosen people, evident to all through the strength of their kingdom. They expected God to operate as God had throughout the ages. They expected miracles and wonders ushered in by a powerful chosen man of God.
They were expecting what Isaiah 9 describes, one who will reign on David’s throne, establishing and upholding through justice and righteousness. They were not expecting God’s plan to begin with an elderly priest, his wife, and a young peasant girl. To be fair, this plan would have shocked no one more than it shocks Zechariah. As he processes this over his months of silence, I imagine Zechariah spends hours thinking about God’s plans, and how very different it is from what he expected. God was sending a Messiah for them personally and this plan may not have included a new monarch or a military victor. God may not have chosen to crush their enemies in some miraculous way.
Even better, however, God chose to send a Messiah to intersect their lives personally. Just as Zechariah experienced in the temple, God intended to draw God’s people closer than ever, by meeting them personally where they were. On this first Sunday of Advent, we are expecting the coming Christ. We are reflecting on God’s promise to God’s children throughout the ages to send One who will offer salvation to all. Let us remember as we begin this journey the great news that God is the God of the unexpected. Just when we think we’ve figured out how God works, God does something in our lives that is totally unexpected. Our God meets us in those places we least expect, just as our God met Zechariah.