St. Philip Lutheran Church
5 December 2021 + Advent 2c
Luke 1.68-79 (Luke 1.5-23)
Rev. Josh Evans
Almost two years ago, when my best friend was ordained as a pastor, by the time that day finally rolled around, it had been such a long journey … with roadblocks and hurdles and difficulties almost every step of the way.
Their story is theirs to tell, so I won’t go into specifics … but their story is, sadly, also not unique to them alone. Which is perhaps why for my friend – and for so many other pastors who’ve faced difficulties on the journey toward ordination – the story of Esther resonates so much.
Long story (super) short, Esther (a Jew) becomes queen of Persia (a foreign empire) in a sort of warped beauty pageant when the king of Persia decides to replace his former queen who dared to stand up to him. In the course of Esther’s rise to royal power, one of the king’s right-hand men contrives a plot to have all the Jews in the kingdom killed. With Esther’s Jewish identity concealed, her cousin convinces her she’s actually in a position to petition the king (her husband) to save her people. “Who knows?” her cousin says to her. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
For such a time as this. That verse became the cover of my friend’s ordination bulletin, and it’s a verse that has resonated with many other pastors, myself included, who have experienced roadblocks and hurdles and difficulties on the path to ordained ministry. For many of us, that verse has given us hope and persistence in our calling – that maybe, just maybe, God has something in mind.
Though I have to admit: Lately, it doesn’t often feel that way. Lately, I think a lot of us – clergy and lay folks alike – have found greater resonance with the story of Zechariah.
Not the song of Zechariah that we sang as our psalm of the day. But the story that comes before that. The story that starts off explaining that Zechariah and his wife had been unable to have children – enduring the pain of infertility and maybe even miscarriage, time and time again – and that they were both “getting on in years.” They were old. They were at the end of their rope, resigned to live out their life as it always had been, quietly, uneventfully, faithfully.
You can imagine Zechariah’s shock when the angel appears to him, out of nowhere, in the course of his regular priestly duties … and tells him he’s going to have a son?!
That should be good news, shouldn’t it? Not “for such a time as this.” Twenty years ago, maybe. But we’re old. We don’t have time for this now. Let me just do my job, offer this incense, and go home. Quite literally, for any other time besides this.
This past Wednesday happened to be the anniversary of my own ordination. The Facebook memories and photos started popping up. Three years ago, on December 1st, the eve of the First Sunday of Advent, I was surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues as I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, ready and eager to begin my first call as a pastor “for such a time as this.”
I also happen to share an ordination anniversary with one of my seminary classmates, who was ordained earlier in the morning that same day. This past Wednesday, over a text message exchange of wishing each other “happy anniversary,” we realized we’ve been pastors during a pandemic longer than we’ve been pastors not during a pandemic. 15 ½ months before, to be specific, 20 ½ after (and counting).
Pandemic church is hard. Even as we start to reclaim some of the traditions and customs that were pulled out from underneath us last year, we still mourn the loss of “the way things used to be” and the adjustments we’ve had to make for our “new normal.” The energy and joy for the same things “before” doesn’t quite seem to fully be there now.
We didn’t sign up for church “for such a time as this.” We’re tired. We’re burnt out. We might even be angry. Hoping against hope, and sometimes not even that. We feel Zechariah’s frustration and doubts at the angel’s promise: Something new is coming.
New ideas for ministry, new ways of doing church, new opportunities to grow in community. That should be good news, right? Two years ago, maybe. But we’ve been through a pandemic. We’re vaccinated, but what about breakthrough cases and the omicron variant? Let’s just mask up, show up, do what we can, and call it a day. Something new? That’s for any other time besides this.
Something changed for Zechariah. Nine months isn’t really that long of a time, but when an angel of the Lord has taken away your ability to speak and granted you a vow of silence you didn’t sign up for, you suddenly have a long time with yourself to think. We don’t really know what went on in Zechariah’s mind during that time, but I wonder at what point it clicked for him that his wife was pregnant, that what the angel said to him was coming true.
What we do know is Zechariah’s song, after his son is born:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!
God has looked favorably on their people.
God has raised up a mighty savior.
God has remembered their holy covenant.
It’s a complete 180 from only a few verses before. Zechariah’s is a song of praise and thanksgiving – a bold confession of faith and trust:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us.
As certain as the dawn of a new day, so too is the certainty of God’s mercies, new every morning. As certain as the dawn of a new day, so too is the certainty of God’s faithfulness to see us through. As certain as the dawn of a new day, so too is the certainty of God’s ability to do something new in and through us.
We are in a season of journeying and following the path of faith – a path that is hardly ever “straight” but circuitous, winding, and filled with detours. We’ll get lost. We’ll feel scared. But even on the path, we remember that we are also in a season of Immanuel – God with us – and a God who never leaves us to journey by ourselves…
…especially in such a time as this.