Bob Kaylor’s Top Ten Reads of 2011

Here's my addition to all the year-end retrospectives on this last day of 2011–the top ten books that I read this year. Not all were published in 2011, but all had my full attention.

Desiringthekingdom10. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation  by James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic, 2009). Smith turns conventional wisdom about Christian education on its ear, saying that what we practice and love forms us more than what we learn cognitively. The practice of worship is the primary way in which the worldview of the Gospel is formed in us. This is an excellent read that challenged my whole approach to worship and preaching. 

9. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene Peterson (HarperOn, 2011). I usually like the first half of Eugene Peterson's books, but the second halves have a tendency to drag. This one was interesting throughout, particularly because this memoir contains a practical theology of pastoral ministry that is sorely lacking in our megachurch/celebrity pastor culture. Drawing from his own life in ministry, Peterson paints a picture of ministry that involves staying where you are in order to bloom where you are planted and to help a congregation blossom as well. This is a good cautionary tale for those who would see church growth as the ultimate aim of ministry. It's not–disciple-making is! 

Matterhorn8. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marantes (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010). I rarely read fiction anymore, mostly because I find real life to be much more interesting. This novel, however, combines great storytelling with deep perspective on the life of a combat soldier. Marlantes' novel is based loosely on his own experience as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, and yet this is not your typical blood and guts military novel. Marlantes takes us into the heart of the moral and spiritual ambiguity of war in a way that few others have captured. His non-fiction book What It's Like to Go to War explores the themes raised in the novel more deeply, but this beautifully written and grippingly told story will stick with you long after you finish it. 

7. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne et. al. Best devotional book I've found. Common Prayer combines prayers, Scripture readings, and quotes from Christian leaders throughout history into a daily rhythm for people on the way to discipleship. 

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2010). This illustrates my truth is better than fiction approach to books. This is an incredible story of survival on the open sea, survival in a POW camp, and survival at home. I couldn't put this book down, and I'm guessing you won't either! 

5. John's Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel by Ben Witherington III (Westminster/John Knox, 1995). Normally I read a commentary like a reference book, just picking out the relevant pieces for studying a particular biblical text. This commentary, however, begs to be read sequentially. Witherington does a masterful job of addressing the unique character of the Fourth Gospel as a treatise on Jesus as the Logos or wisdom of God. This book put into place some of the questions I have long had about this very different Gospel in the New Testament canon. 

4. The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2008). Jenkins introduces western and Global North readers to the explosive Christian movement in Africa and Latin America–a movement that has shifted the geographical center of Christianity. Where the missionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th century sent missioners from the West to Africa, now the movement is more toward missional partnership rather than patronage. We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Africa, and this book is a start. 

3. The Mystery of God's Word by Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa (Liturgical Press, 1995). This is the best book on preaching that I have ever read (and I've read a lot). Cantalamessa is the preacher to the Papal Household at the Vatican, and he has written a gem on the relationship between the preacher, the Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. Every preacher should read this book! 

2. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright (HarperOne, 2011). No one, in my humble opinion, combines biblical theology, history, and scholarship like N.T. Wright. This book is the culmination of much of the work he's been doing for the last 15 or so years about Jesus. Wright is convinced, as am I, that an inadequate biblical and contextual understanding of Jesus has contributed to a divide between conservatives and liberal–both of whom have a truncated, extrabiblical, and gnostic understanding of what Jesus was really about. This book offers an alternative (and thoroughly biblical) vision of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that, if embraced by Christians everywhere, could radically change the direction of our faith in ways that Jesus himself actually called us toward. 

Christ of the mount1. The Christ of the Mount: A Working Philosophy of Life by E. Stanley Jones (Abingdon Press, 1931 – reprint by Kessinger Publishing). I discovered the writing of E. Stanley Jones while a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, and his classic work still continues to shape my understanding of Jesus and the kingdom. Jones died in 1973, but his work is still wonderfully fresh in the 21st century. This book on the Sermon on the Mount is in my list of the best and most influential books I've ever read. Jones, a longtime missionary to India in the early 20th century,  challenges the prevailing evangelical worldview that Christian faith is primarily about what one thinks or believes, over and against one's actions. Jones rightly points out that the creeds are great, but that they're framers missed an important aspect of believing in Christ–that is, in following him in deed as well. Jones' treatise on the Sermon on the Mount reveals this seminal teaching of Jesus as "the only practical way to live."  

Here's to 2012 and another year of reading great books! 

On God Becoming Human

Gregory_of_NazianzusFourth century church father Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, "God became human and poor for our sake, to raise up our flesh, to recover our divine image, to recreate humanity. We no longer observe distinctions arriving from the flesh, but are to bear within ourselves only the seal of God, by whom and for whom we were created. We are to be so formed and molded by Jesus that we are recognized as belonging to his one family. If we could only be what we hope to be, by the kindness of our generous God!" 

The incarnation shows us that we are not "only human," but that we were created to be "fully human," reflecting the image of God. Sin makes us less than human, less than we were created to be. As you continue to reflect on the coming of Christ this week, may you also embrace the opportunity to open yourself to opportunities to grow even more into the image of God in 2012!

Away from a Manger – A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2011

Baby-Jesus-away-from-a-manger-It-s-sadLuke 2:1-20

It’s a familiar scene that we see everywhere at Christmas—a loving mother and a slightly bewildered father, a group of awestruck shepherds, some regal wise men, a few assorted barn animals and, perhaps, a decked out camel – all gathered in a stable to gaze in holy countenance upon a manger and the little one who’s laid there…at least you hope he’s still there.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but apparently there’s been a rash of thefts of baby Jesus-es from outdoor nativity scenes around the country. Just Google “Stolen Baby Jesus” (this is the kind of stuff I do) and you’ll see page after page of stories about disheartened and disappointed churches having the holy infant stolen right out of the manger, leaving all the characters looking at nothing but straw.

Hard to imagine people stealing from a church, but stealing Jesus? Why would anyone do such a thing?

Well, police say that most of the thefts are pranks, and that baby Jesus thieves are usually not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Take the case of the five sorority sisters arrested in Monmouth, Illinois a couple of weeks ago, who stole the baby Jesus out of the manger scene on the town square and dumped him on the lawn of the Monmouth College president’s home. Guess where they hatched the plot? In a bar (go figure).

Or how about the woman in Fredericksburg, Virginia, who stole an 80-pound statue of baby Jesus (80 pounds!) and then bragged about it on Facebook, even posting a picture. One of her Facebook friends turned her in. Duh.

Of course, there are others who steal baby Jesus out of anger against Christianity. There are plenty of people who want to remove Jesus from the public eye, and stealing a plastic baby, while not exactly grand theft, is nonetheless symbolic of a desire to get rid of him before he and his followers cause more trouble.

But regardless of whether it’s out of stupidity or out of anti-Christian vandalism, little baby Jesus-es are disappearing at an alarming rate. What’s a church to do?

 Enter a company called Brickhouse Security, who is offering to install free GPS trackers in baby Jesus-es used in outdoor nativity displays. The idea is that a church could use a computer or smartphone to track baby Jesus’ whereabouts when he is “away from the manger”—ostensibly to get him back. St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey — about 40 miles (64km) southwest of New York City — installed the device after suffering from thefts and vandals several years in a row. "There's been no attempt of theft since we announced that we're tracking our Jesus," said Alan Czyewski of St. Ambrose Church. "This is our third year, and we love this. People are now well aware of our GPS Jesus, so they leave it alone."

I wonder what the sign looks like in the front yard of that church:

We are tracking Jesus. Leave him alone.

Now, nobody likes to have things stolen, and that’s certainly wrong, but I thought about that a lot after I read that, and I started to wonder—what’s the bigger problem here, really: stealing Jesus, or just leaving him alone, secure in the manger? Work with me here a minute…

One of the problems with preaching on Christmas Eve is that everyone knows the story—Mary and Joseph, no room at the inn, a baby born in a barn, shepherds, angels. We know it well, or at least we think we do. We come to church on Christmas Eve expecting to see Jesus in the manger, and we’re happy about that. Who doesn’t love babies? Who doesn’t love this scene? Why would anyone want to wreck that by stealing him away?

But the truth of the story is that we often miss is that there were people who wanted to steal the real baby Jesus right after he was born. The Gospels make it clear that the arrival of this baby, while a joy for many, was a threat to many more.

Matthew tells us the story of Herod the Great, who was so threatened by the possibility of a rival to his throne that he ordered all the babies in Bethlehem under two years old to be taken from their cribs and killed—a lot of empty mangers and empty homes were left behind. And while Luke’s story, which we just read, is not as violent, Luke implies that the baby Jesus is still vulnerable. The story starts with Caesar Augustus, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Roman Empire, ordering a census. Augustus didn’t know that Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed king, had been born in Bethlehem, but had he known he would certainly have made sure the Bethlehem baby didn’t live to see adulthood.

Call them what you will, but I think that those who want to eliminate Jesus from public view out of anti-Christian angst actually get the story of Christmas better than most of us, because they know what Herod knew and what Augustus would have known—this baby is dangerous. That’s the back story of Christmas. The child who is born in the postcard manger scene will grow up and be a threat to the status quo, a threat to those who wield power through force of arms or the force of their bank accounts. He will expose the inner thoughts of human hearts and call people to a way of living beyond themselves. He will talk about a God who is intimately involved in public, in politics, and with people, rather than a God who is merely private, quiet, and spiritual.

Jesus will preach about a kingdom that has nothing to do with power, wealth, and military might, but everything to do with servanthood, sacrifice, and suffering. Indeed, he will act as though that kingdom was already becoming a reality. He will spend his time eating and associating with people on the margins of society—the sick, the poor, the outcast, the prostitute, the tax collector—while rebuking the religious, the elite, the insiders. He will challenge the powers of sin and death by taking them on directly, all the way to the cross. You can’t defeat someone who wants nothing from the world, who practices what he preaches, and who is willing to die while forgiving his tormentors. Such a person is dangerous to the status quo and must be removed.

Interestingly, the world seems to get that, but many Christians do not. We want Jesus to stay right where he is. “We are tracking Jesus. Leave him alone.” We want a Jesus whom we can keep track of, a Jesus who stays within our own set of doctrinal boundaries, a Jesus whom we can keep privately and quietly on display at church while we ignore him the rest of the week. We want a Jesus who matches our expectations, and who blesses our political agendas—a personal Jesus who orbits around us: our purposes and our needs.

We want a baby Jesus we can admire, rather than the living and active Jesus who cares less about our religious expectations than he does about the world’s redemption.

I find it interesting, for example, that every year we hear about the “war on Christmas.” You know, Christians believing that there’s some nefarious Grinch-like plot out there to offend Jesus (and them) by getting rid of Christmas. They are furious about replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” and “Christmas tree” with “Holiday tree” (that the tree is not a Christian symbol is something to note, but I digress).  The same bunch of people who sing about peace on earth and goodwill toward humanity are quick to scream at a store clerk for giving what they perceive to be the wrong greeting. I saw that at a Costco a couple of Christmases ago. Woman in line in front of me finishes purchasing two heaping cart loads of stuff and the checkout girls says, “Happy Holidays.” The woman went ballistic. “It’s Merry Christmas, dagnabbit (words substituted)! Don’t you know that Jesus is the reason for the season!?”

Really? Is Jesus really the reason for people to engage in an orgy of rampant spending? Is Jesus the reason that many people will experience crushing debt trying to make sure that everyone on their list is materially satisfied with the gifts they want? Is Jesus the reason that tempers flare in mall parking lots, shoppers get zapped with pepper spray by someone desperate for a bargain, and store clerks become punching bags for impatient or self-righteous people? Is Jesus the reason we fight over placement of religious symbols? Is Jesus the reason that more people become depressed and lonely at this time of year than any other? 

No, I have a feeling that’s one manger Jesus would be happy to be away from. We need a vision beyond Christmas—a vision of Christ.

The truth is that while some people might be stealing Jesus, we who claim him must actually go a step further and let him run loose in our lives. The manger-born baby, God’s Word made flesh, came to change the world and us along with it. In one of the little-used readings the lectionary offers for Christmas, Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul writes these words:

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:5-8).

What Paul is saying here, I think, is that God’s goodness and love is poured out to us in Jesus, and when that love runs loose in us then it will find its way outward in good works toward others. We receive a gift and we pass it on. We don’t hold on to Jesus, we share him with the world. There are many—like the Herods and Augustus-es of the world—who do not know love—only power. Like Jesus, we are to love them anyway, even when they try to steal our joy.

Interestingly, Paul ends that passage in verse 9 by talking about avoiding stupid controversies—kind of like the war on Christmas!

See, Jesus doesn’t need to be protected, guarded, tracked, or defended—he just wants to be followed. And if we follow him, he will take us out among those who need the gift of his love the most—people who hatch drunken plots in bars, people who clamor for attention, people who are angry at the world, angry at God, people who are broken and have no happy in their holidays. It’s a love that’s dangerous because it calls us to risk ourselves in service to the world, but that’s where Jesus’ love goes—toward those who have none. The prophet Isaiah was right, “A little child shall lead them”—one who is born not to only be admired in a manger, but to be “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We don’t track Jesus in order to bring him back into our lives. Rather, we track him biblically, prayerfully, joyfully in order see where he wants to lead us.

In Dittmer, MO, Pastor Scott Lohse of St. Martin’s United Church of Christ recognized that baby Jesus gets stolen out of outdoor nativity sets every year, but rather than devise another way to keep the manger occupied, Scott had another idea: “We didn’t want to be found nailing Jesus down or tying him to an anchor or putting him on a chain,” he says. “We wanted to find a way to put a display on our lawn that symbolized the season, but also symbolizes the fact that Christmas is really about giving.”

So, the church has a nativity display, but in the manger there’s no statue or doll of baby Jesus—instead, there are hundreds of ornaments depicting the baby and a sign that says, “Free, take one.”

“Christ is a gift,” says Pastor Scott. “He doesn’t belong to us and so you can’t steal him from us.”

A gift to be shared–away from the manger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Carols: Nunc Dimittis

SimeonLuke 2:22-38

 So, what’s on your “bucket list?” You know, those things you want to do in life before you kick the bucket?

Mine? Well, mine’s pretty simple: First, finish my dissertation! Then write a real book that more than ten people will read, spend some time living and studying in Scotland, teach a college class, have season tickets to the Rockies, you know, stuff like that.

We all have those personal goals of things we want to do, but as I’ve gotten older there are some things that emerge as being even more important than the things on the list—things that, in the end, will last beyond me. One of the things that I really want to see—and I think all parents would agree with me on this—is to see my children and, perhaps someday, grandchildren growing into happy, healthy people who are making a difference in the world. That would be a blessing beyond measure.

And the second has to do with what I can only describe as “finishing well” – to come to the end of life knowing that you did the absolute best you could to live as the person God created you to be. To come to the end of life having been faithful to all of your relationships and commitments—to your spouse, to your family, to your calling, and most importantly to God. I can’t imagine anything better than that.

The description of Simeon we just read is a description of that kind of person—one who was finishing well. We don’t know exactly how old Simeon was, but the text implies that he was probably nearing the end of his life. Luke describes him in three ways. First, Simeon is “righteous and devout” – a biblical way of describing a man dedicated to living rightly and justly according to the law of God.

Secondly, Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He knew the Scriptures and the promise of a coming Messiah. He would have known those texts that talked about the coming days of Israel’s comfort, like Isaiah 40 – “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Because Simeon was steeped in the story of Israel, he lived his life expectantly, confident that God would redeem Israel’s past and secure their future.

And, third, Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit rested on [Simeon].” His righteousness and hope were not merely products of study and knowledge, but of a deep relationship with the Spirit. It was the Spirit who revealed to the old man that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. If there was one thing on Simeon’s bucket list, and indeed the bucket list of every devout and faithful person in Judea, it was to see the Messiah finally come. The irony is that most of them missed his coming because this Messiah didn’t meet their expectations. Simeon saw him and held him, because he opened his life to the leading of the Spirit.

Simeon was in the temple that day because the Spirit had led him there. Luke doesn’t give us the sense that Simeon was a priest or part of the temple staff—just an old man seeking what everyone else was passing by without notice—a couple with a baby who had come to have him circumcised and dedicated just like so many other couples and babies who were there in the temple every day. Through the crowd, Simeon saw this poor little family, and he knew that his bucket list was complete.

I imagine that scene—the old man approaches the couple, who are overwhelmed by the impressive size of the temple in the big city, standing in the crowd, and a kindly stranger approaches. “May I hold the baby?” And the old man looks into those precious eyes with deep love—like a grandparent looking at his grandson for the first time—and all he can do is sing:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Simeon sees his past, Israel’s hope, and the all in the face of the child. He sees the end of his life as another begins, he sees the future, he sees the reconciliation of all people, Jews and Gentiles, he sees the salvation of the whole world in this precious bundle. Simeon comes to the end of his life rejoicing for a hope that will live beyond him. It is his mark of finishing well.

Luke also tells that someone else joined Simeon and the little family at that moment—another faithful senior, a prophet named Anna, who had been a widow for most of her 84 years. Like Simeon she had been waiting, and the arrival of the baby in the temple was, for her, a bucket list moment as well. Luke says she was so devout that she never left the temple, but worshiped there with fasting and prayer every day and night. And now, as she too looked at the baby, she could only praise God and started telling everyone she knew who had been waiting, too.

It’s a beautiful scene—the rejoicing at the birth of a baby, the realization of hopes and dreams. But in many ways it is also a tragic one. Both Simeon and Anna know from their deep lifetime of experience that real hope will not come without suffering. “Simeon and Anna have both been living in a world of patient hope, where suffering has become a way of life. And here God reveals how he will deal with that suffering—not by ignoring it or sanctioning it or alleviating it, but by sharing it himself. Those who are guided by the Scriptures and the Spirit know that there hope does not become a reality without sacrifice.

Like all parents, Mary and Joseph had their own hopes and dreams for the future of this child, but Simeon knows where the story will lead. Because this baby, this Messiah, will not be what is expected, he will bring conflict, and in the midst of that conflict he will suffer. He says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And,” he says to Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” This child will suffer in order to make hope a reality, and Mary will suffer, too.

This is, after all, what happens when kingdom of God confronts the kingdoms of this world. Simeon’s bucket list proclamation foreshadows what is to come. Mary will be frantic when she can’t find her 12 year-old son because he stays behind in the temple. She will look on as her son is rejected by the very people he came to save. She will think he’s gone mad as he confronts the religious establishment. And then—in a scene that is unimaginable for any parent—she will watch him die as a crucified criminal. Simeon tells her, in effect, that while we make bucket lists of things to do before we die, dying will be at the top of Jesus’ own list. The one who will “cause the falling and rising of many in Israel” will fall victim of evil and death.

But he will rise as well. Suffering will turn to joy. This is the witness of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit. Simeon understood all of this because his bucket list emerged out of a life-long engagement with Scripture and prayer. Grounded in the word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit, he finished well. He saw what few others had seen—the real Messiah in the form of a helpless baby carried by an unmarried couple who had delivered him in a barn—a couple who lived the kind of life that was on no one’s bucket list. “This was not the sort of revelation the world was expecting, nor the sort of glory that Israel wanted, but it is both, but true revelation and true glory nonetheless” (Wright 26).

And it’s a glory in which  we are called to share. Advent invites us to orient our lives around a very different bucket list—one that emerges out of Scripture and prayer, one that involves a vocation rather than a vacation. Advent reminds us at the beginning that whole story will finish well, but not without some effort. Each of the people we’ve looked at in these 2 chapters of Luke had their lives altered by an encounter with God to which their response was a song of praise and a new vocation.

  • MARY – Mary is a young girl whose life is altered by an angel visit. In an instant, her life and vocation changed. She would risk her reputation and her life to bring God’s Son into the world, raise him, care for him, and watch him leave on the road to the cross. And yet, she says yes to it all and sings of what God has done for her and for the whole world. Her life is changed forever.
  • ZECHARIAH  - Zechariah is and old priest who is largely going through the motions of prayer and ritual, when an angel visits and challenges his doubts and fears, telling him his prayers have been answered After a time of silence, the old priest bursts out in a song of praise. He and his wife shift their vocation to raising their son to be a prophet dedicated to the Lord. His life is changed forever.
  • SHEPHERDS – The shepherds are outcasts and outlaws with nothing going for them whatsoever, and yet an angel visits and tells them that a Savior has been born for them—for those whom everyone else has forgotten. Their vocation turns from grazing sheep to glorifying God! Their life is changed forever.
  • SIMEON – The old man Simeon and the elderly prophetess Anna had been keeping up their faithful vocation their whole lives, praying that one day they would see God’s salvation come. They did, and they died in peace.

The question for us is, what does the news of Christmas and the Messiah’s coming do to our vocation, our bucket list? The truth of these stories is that every one of us has a role in what God is doing in the world. This story is our story, and our vocation.

But it’s a story we’ll only truly understand and integrate if we, like Simeon, are fully immersed in the Scriptures, and we’re fully connected in a relationship with God in the power of the Holy Spirit. A bucket list for finishing well involves a daily practice of connecting to God and listening for his future for us.

And what will happen if you listen? Well, maybe your bucket list will include sharing the good news of Jesus in the public eye—preaching or meeting the glaring needs of people who are suffering. Maybe it will include becoming a prayer warrior, or a teacher of the Scriptures. Maybe your bucket list will include helping people who are broken by illness or addiction, or holding someone’s hand who is suffering or grieving. The point is that all of us are called to a life of faithfulness and service to God and his kingdom, and when we are faithful—according to the word of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit—then our lives impact the world for eternity. Live that vocation and we will leave behind a legacy that will not only bless our children, but bless the whole world.

So many people spend their lives in the pursuit of titles, of things, and of personal pleasure. In the end, they want to have it all.

The Gospel invites us to pursue a very different kind of life—a life like Simeon’s. A life of faithful living, a live immersed in God’s word, and a life that is led by the Spirit. A life that waits expectantly, suffers hopefully, loves extravagantly, works diligently, serves sacrificially. A life that doesn’t see death as its end, but a life that is invested beyond our years into the lives of others. Simeon departed in peace because he had lived such a full, expectant, and sanctified life. He finished well.

In the end, that’s the kind of life I want to live. I know it won’t happen without some struggle, nor will it happen without others to help along the way. How about you?

Now, what’s on your bucket list?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Carols: Benedictus

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

  ScrollsOne of my favorite places to visit in Israel is the national museum, which is kind of like our Smithsonian—a repository of things that define the history and culture of the country. The Israel Museum has a number of magnificent exhibits, including a 1/50 scale model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus (the Second Temple period) which is immensely helpful in orienting visitors to what they will see when they walk around the old city. You can also walk through the amazing archaeological exhibit, which contains artifacts from every period of Israel’s history, including the oldest artwork in the world—a female figurine from a quarter of a million years ago, inscriptions that mention the House of David, ancient coins, and a piece of the Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70—a stone marking the place where the trumpeter stood to blow the call to worship.

Israel’s history is grounded in the biblical story, and the centerpiece of the museum campus emphasizes that fact. The Shrine of the Book is where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are displayed. On this last trip in October, we had just come up to Jerusalem from Qumran the day before, the site down by the Dead Sea where the scrolls were found in 1947, so this was an exciting opportunity for many of us to see the scrolls for ourselves.

You enter the Shrine of the Book through a dark, quiet passageway where there are displays showing some of the clay jars and artifacts found in the caves of Qumran, but then you enter the hallway to see the main attraction—the center of the shrine around which the greatest discoveries are kept—fragments of the scrolls and the large and virtually complete scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah (a replica as the original is kept in the dark to preserve it). It’s a site that’s worth the journey in itself because here the Bible becomes real as you look at the careful writing of some ancient scribes who copied and preserved it.

I think about that sense of anticipation for the main attraction when I read this first chapter of Luke. We know that the real heart of the biblical story is the gospel about Jesus, and yet Luke doesn’t tell us about him right away. Jesus isn’t born until chapter two. Like a patient scribe, Luke wants to take us on a journey through biblical history before we get to the main attraction.

Luke starts with an old familiar biblical story—a faithful couple who are well past childbearing age. Zechariah is an old priest who travels to Jerusalem from his home several miles outside the city when it’s time for his division to perform the regular Temple liturgy. His wife, Elizabeth, has been barren all these years, which in those days was considered to her fault—a curse from God. Luke tells us, however, that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (1:6).

 Luke wants his readers to remember back to the story of Genesis 12 and the fact that Abraham and Sarah were the original old and childless couple from whom the family and nation of Israel arose. They were so old that Paul says they were “as good as dead,” but three strangers come to tell them that they will have a son. Abraham and Sarah laugh, but the impossible happens. In Judges 13, an man named Manoah and his wife are both old and childless, but God grants them a son, Samson, whom they dedicate to the Lord. And in I Samuel, a woman named Hannah is barren and pays to the Lord for a son, whom she promises to dedicate to the Lord. God hears her prayer and grants her and her husband Elkanah a son, who will become the prophet Samuel. What will happen to Zechariah and Elizabeth will not be a new thing. The birth of their son, a prophet dedicated to the Lord, will link the Old and New Testaments together—something worth waiting for.

Zechariah probably wasn’t thinking about any of this, however, when it was his turn to go into the Holy Place in the Temple to burn incense on the altar. That was a big deal for a priest, but as with many religious rituals you do them without really expecting anything unusual to happen. We come to church every Sunday, week in week out, we hear the Word, we sing the hymns, we have a good experience of worship. We’re lifting praise to God, but we don’t often come expecting anything unusual—like God himself showing up and standing in the chancel! Zechariah went into the holy place to do his regular job, just like priests do every week, but he didn’t expect God to show up.

And yet, Israel’s history tells us that God does show up. The prophet Isaiah was in the temple one day when he says, incredibly, “I saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” (Is. 6:1-8). The Lord spoke to Isaiah there and sent him on a mission as the seraphim flew about him and cleansed his lips with a coal from the altar.

Zechariah in templeIn the midst of an ordinary day of worship, God shows up and speaks to Zechariah through the angel messenger Gabriel. Notice how Gabriel begins: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” The old man had to be quaking in his sandals. This wasn’t church as usual! But then he says this: “Your prayer has been heard.” Zechariah and Elizabeth had long been praying for a son, even as they prayed for the Messiah to come. Now their prayer was going to be answered. The angel tells the old priest that he and his wife will have a son, who will grow up in the mold of the prophet Elijah and prepare the way for God’s Messiah. Gabriel would later spread the news to a young girl in Nazareth named Mary, who would bear the Messiah into the world.

As we said last week, Mary said “yes” to the angel’s message. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” When Zechariah gets the news, from an angel, in the temple, that his prayers have been answered, and that the thing he had hoped for his whole life was about to become a reality, he responds not with faith, but with doubt. “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Instead of saying, “yes,” Zechariah wants a sign. And the angel gives him one. Because of his unbelief, he will not be able to speak until the baby, who is to be named John, is born. Zechariah’s sign was silence.

Part of the temple ritual was that after the priest lit the incense and came out of the holy place, he was supposed to give a blessing to the people. Here comes Zechariah out to the waiting crowd and…nothing. Imagine the kind of sign language he tried to use to tell them he’d seen an angel! But Zechariah’s silent frustration and fear no doubt turned to joy when, days after his return home, Elizabeth was actually pregnant. While Zechariah is quiet, she exclaims with joy: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and too away the disgrace I have endured among my people!”

I think Luke begins with this story because it’s about ordinary people like you and me—people who are always caught up in a mixture of faith and doubt, hope and despair. We come to worship, but we don’t necessarily expect God to show up. We pray to God, but we only half expect God to answer. We have hope for the future, but present circumstances tend to distract us to despair. This story is our story, and it’s the biblical story.

In first century Israel, most people believed that God had been silent for a long time. After the amazing liberation from Egypt, the establishment of a kingdom in the promised land, Israel stopped listening to God. So God stopped speaking in pillar of cloud and fire and in smoke on the tops of mountains and, instead, spoke through the voices of the prophets. Israel managed to silence many of those prophets by ignoring them or killing them off. So God sent his people into exile, far away from home…and the silence continued.

But the silence didn’t mean God wasn’t with them. In only meant that the people had lean in in order to listen to God. Silence has a tendency to sharpen our focus, attune our hearing, help us to go deeper within ourselves and be aware of the world around us. It’s only when we are silent, when we stop pouring out words, that we can truly hear what God is saying to us.

Zechariah was silent for nine months. Imagine that. Nine months of simply listening, nine months of pondering the angel’s message, nine months of listening to God and discerning what God might be up to through the birth of his long-awaited son and even longer-awaited Messiah. The silence was both a sign and a gift—a chance to hear the depth of God’s saving mission that was coming to reality through his own impossible family.

Elizabeth_babyIt’s little wonder, then, that when Zechariah finally speaks, holding his son in his arms, his first words are a song of praise. “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them!”

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Zechariah’s silence was broken, and so was the silence of Israel’s God, who would speak his ultimate Word in the form a savior—the Word become flesh, and the Gospel of John calls him. After a long time of silence and waiting, God was going to have the last word, and Zechariah joins in singing his carol of praise.

He looks at the child in his arms, and sings, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.”

This baby, John, will grow to be a prophet in the manner of Elijah of old—a throwback to the Old Testament and a herald of the New. Like a watchman, he will announce the breaking of a new day, a new age, a light that pushes back the darkness of sin and death and illuminate the way of peace. The Messiah, Jesus, will lead his people on that way—the king leading his people to the kingdom.

Zechariah’s song is one of praise and promise, but it comes only after a time of silence.

Advent is a time of waiting silently. Like tourists in a museum, we have to walk through the corridors of the long history of Israel until we come to the climactic exhibit that puts everything into perspective. We can’t run through the museum haphazardly, or we’ll miss the context of the main attraction. We have to stop and read all of the placards and signs. Advent calls us to slow down, be observant, to listen, and to expect the unexpected.

Problem is, we’ve gotten so used to the same old same old that we miss the dynamite of the story. We’re too busy to be quiet—making sure that all the details are right for Christmas, breaking down the doors of stores at midnight and running through a plethora of holiday events and expectations. We’re really good at talking about God, but less good at actually hearing him.

Zechariah was struck speechless by an encounter with an angel. Perhaps we need to once again be struck speechless by the power of this story—to be silent and listen for what this God, who came in person in Jesus and continues to work through the Holy Spirit, is up to.

Every time I look at those scrolls in the Shrine of the Book, I think about the people who copied them, carefully, painstakingly forming each word. They did it because they believed those words would one day leap off the page and become a reality. Christmas tells us that they were right. Whether we’re priests or prophets or parents or people with problems, we can believe that God keeps his promises, hears our prayers, and saves the world.

I want to invite you this Advent season to take some time to be silent and listen to what God is saying to you, and how God is calling you to be a part of this great kingdom story. What chapter will God write with your life? When others look at your life, what does the exhibit tell them? What song will you sing?