Advent 2B. 7 December 2014.
Alexander D. MacPhail
If you really want to know someone you almost have to know their family and how they grew up. I want to tell you about two very devout people named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth were from similar backgrounds. They were both born into priestly families in the Jewish tradition. Zechariah was born of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth of the tribe of Aaron. Aaron, you may recall, was Moses's helper, and from his family, a tribe was formed.
When I say they were of priestly families in the Jewish tradition, you must understand that the priests were the men who served in the Temple—and the Temple, you will recall, stood in Jerusalem. It was this massive stone structure with inner courtyards and outer courtyards and places and buildings for everything. I spoke about it last week.
There is no way to describe how large and how meaningful that place was for the Hebrew people. There were many synagogues in which the faithful would worship and learn the sacred story; but, there was only one Temple. The Temple was the place. The Temple was where the physical presence of God abided in the stones that Moses had inscribed with the Torah—the Law. The stone tablets were kept inside a gold encrusted box, called the Arc of the Covenant. The Arc was kept inside the Holy of Holies, which was the most special room in the Temple. Only the Temple priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then, only one day of the year, which is known as Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.
The Temple had a system of hierarchy that was just as intricate and political as, for instance, Washington DC. You have your insiders and your outsiders. You have honest and dishonest. Inside the system, you know exactly who you are, and who everyone else is. If you were born to a Temple priest, then you were at the top of the social ladder—you are a Sadducee. You could not join the priests—you were born one. You knew who your father's father's father was. You knew that you would always, always have a place in the system—because the Temple was too large and too important to fail or be destroyed. We will always have a Temple; we will always need the priests to care for it—guaranteed job security and social status.
The Pharisees were a different group—highly devout, very political—but for the most part these were the middle class. We almost can't see them clearly anymore because Jesus spends so much time fussing with them, and sermons that mention the Pharisees almost never really paint a full picture.
I don't mean this to sound offensive—truly—but the modern day equivalent would likely be us. I'm not saying that we're hypocrites. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites. But it's this group of people were the rabbis, the people who went to synagogue regularly and gave to support the widows and orphans. Yes, some of their folks were corrupt—and yes some of them got in trouble with Jesus.
Most of what Jesus did not like was their lack of care for the less fortunate, and their inflexible social structure. Jesus did not like that they often taught one thing and did something else—but they were not without merit. In one place, Jesus says, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees." Meaning that they were a decent group—but not as righteous as the followers of Jesus should be.
But now, as with the Sadducees, if you were born a Pharisee, you were a Pharisee. You may have become a rabbi, or a cantor, or some other official in the synagogue, but you could not be a Temple priest.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and had no children, though they had prayed and prayed for a child. Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, and one of his duties was to offer incense in the sanctuary—which was the enclosure just before the Holy of Holies. People would come to pray outside the sanctuary, and the priests would take turns offering incense in the sanctuary.
One day, while Zechariah was offering incense the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been heard, and the God was allowing Elizabeth to have a son. Gabriel said, "You will name him John and he will make you very happy, because the Holy Spirit will be upon him. He will turn the hearts of many of the Israelites toward their God."
Zechariah was thrilled, but doubted. "How can this be?" he asked, "Elizabeth and I are too old to have children." Gabriel responded, "I'm not the pizza boy, Zechariah. I stand in the presence of God, and I'm telling you, you're going to have a son. But because you have not believed, you will be mute, and unable to talk until these things have happened."
So Zechariah was unable to talk, and Elizabeth did, indeed, become pregnant. And after she gave birth to a boy, and it was time to circumcise him, they asked for the boy's name—although it was a foregone conclusion what the child's name should be. Zechariah. His dad's name. Temple priest, born to Temple priest, Order of Abijah. Zechariah was the son of Zechariah, who was the son of Zechariah. Plain as the nose on your face.
Elizabeth said, "No; he is to be called John." "Excuse me, did you say, uhm…John?" "Yes, John." Well, now wait a minute. We need to ask the father. The family line comes through the mother, but he's a boy, and his father is entitled to pass along the name. Zechariah is mute. Unable to speak. But they ask him just the same, and he said, "His name is John." And everyone was in shock, because he had been unable to speak until then.
And Zechariah praised God and fear came upon everyone—they said to one another "We're going to have to keep our eyes on this child. He's going to be something special—the hand of the Lord is upon him. (Pause.)
The Bible does not tell us anything about John's childhood or puberty, but look at his background. He was born into the class and culture of the Temple priests. He was surrounded by a community that prayed and worshipped regularly, and frequently. He learned the Torah from the best scholars, he learned the intricate choreography of Temple worship, its hierarchy, its privileges. I am sure that he learned the under belly—he saw the corruption, the pettiness.
I would imagine that he played with other little boys, born to Temple priests, and knew the families who were jockeying for position and power. He would have been tested and graded and scrutinized and altogether expected to become a Temple priest. Even though his name is different, even though the story of his birth is a little different than the others—his life is mapped out.
What happened to him? What happened to make him leave all that behind and become a prophet in the wilderness? What made him trade the fine clothing—long cassocks and embroidered capes—for camel's hair and a leather belt.
I think I know. I think John grew up learning the Torah so well that he looked around at the Temple system and said, "There is very little in the way we do things here that corresponds with God's Law to care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers."
"I don't see how we can expect the poor to come and pay the fees we are telling them they need to pay to offer sacrifices in the Temple. They come and empty their pockets to sacrifice pigeons and sheep, and what happens? We slaughter them, and then we have to clean them up, and if we don't burn the carcass, who get's the meat? The people who paid? No. We do. We're eating and drinking at their expense—and here, we're supposed to be helping them.
"And what about the sacrifices? David said in the Psalms, "For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:16,17.
"I think we have a problem here. I think we have some systems that have very little to do with God, and an awful lot to do with keeping the poor down and the rich rich. And what really turns my stomach about it is that we're doing that in the name of God." (Pause.)
John knew the Torah. He started at a very early age and probably knew it better than Zechariah. He knew about the prophet Elijah, who was supposed to come and herald, or announce, the end of the age—the coming of the Messiah. John knew that Elijah was described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt. He knew the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one who cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."
So John packs up his things, shakes the dust of the Temple off of his sandals. Shakes off the traditions and the culture and the hierarchy, and he makes his way to the region around the Jordan river. He puts on the clothes of the prophets of a bygone era. No one wore camel's hair and a big leather belt. These were the vestments of Elijah. To see him out there in the wilderness was to see the Torah come to life. The Word was becoming flesh in John. The Word of God, written in the book, leapt off the page and there he was. Is he….Elijah?
John was rooted in an incredibly devout background. The son of a son of a son of a Temple priest, and with all the learning of his aristocratic background, he shed every vestige to bring the Gospel to the average, poor, lonely people of Israel. He came to the lost sheep. And his message was simple, "Repent, prepare…there is someone coming who is more learned and powerful than I am. I am baptizing you to clean you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to clean you with the Spirit of the Living God. You might think I'm something, but I am not worthy to shine his shoes." (Pause.)
John's message has become the Church's message in Advent. A call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the Messiah. Like John himself, this time is deeply rooted in tradition, but always new and relevant.
It is time to wake up, shake the dust of worthless endeavors off our sandals, and reclaim the true teaching of the Torah—to care for the poor and the helpless, to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
John's background made it possible for him to carry the best teachings of the Torah out to the countryside, and made space for the Holy Spirit to move anew. We all have this ability. We have all been groomed in the Church with the wisdom of the Torah. We have feasted at the table of plenty. Now, the wilderness is calling. The mission field awaits. So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way. The King is coming.
 Adapted from a sermon preached on 4 December 2011.