December 2018   
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A Sermon

Luke 1: 68-79 Song of Zechariah December 9, 2018


Our scripture this second Sunday of Advent brings us to the home of an older couple. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. They were “they were getting on in years,” Luke says. They were not looking for change. Their lives, like their sofa and dining room table, had been in the same place for years. They were set in their ways. The first thing we learn about them is they had no children. Being childless was something of an embarrassment in that time and place. And, if you were a woman, it was worse. The blame for this embarrassment was placed entirely on you. When families didn’t have children, it was because the woman was barren. It was a harsh word that got the point across. Elizabeth was like a fruit tree in winter. Perhaps they had prayed for a child when they were younger, but after a while, there are some things you just stop praying for, and for Zechariah and Elizabeth, prayers for a child had long since ceased.

Although it must have been difficult for Elizabeth, it was probably tough on Zechariah too. He was a priest, after all. It probably wasn’t easy to stand up in the pulpit and talk about the steadfast love and the faithfulness of God, when the number one sign of God’s love and faithfulness – having a child – was something he had not received.


Now, as a priest, Zechariah was in charge of doing all the kinds of things we ministers do to get the church ready for worship. He unlocks the doors and switches on the lights. He turns up the heat and sets out the bulletins. He makes sure the sound system in working – well, maybe he didn’t have to do that. Then, on very rare occasions, a priest is chosen to do the holist job of all. They are elected to go into the Holy of Holies – the place where they kept the Ten Commandments. The priest enters the inner sanctuary, alone, and while there, he adds incense to the alter. Afterwards, he is supposed to emerge and give a blessing to the congregation who is waiting outside.

On this particular Sabbath, Zechariah is chosen. It is a once in a lifetime honor. He enters and just when he is about to light the incense, something happens. Luke says the angel Gabriel appears. Zechariah is terrified. Gabriel says what angels almost always say in the Bible, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, something wonderful is about to happen: Elizabeth is going to have a baby and you will name him, John. He will be a source of great joy and hope for the world and what’s more, he will prepare the way for the Messiah.”


Now, you would think Zechariah would be thrilled by all this, but, no, he can’t believe it. He questions the angel: “No way?” says Zechariah. “Yes, way!” says Gabriel. “Yes, Zechariah, I am sure. But, since you are so doubtful, you will not be able to speak until the baby is born.”

So sure enough, when Zechariah exits the Temple, he is mute. The people gather around him to ask what’s going on, but Zechariah is speechless. He waves. Makes signs. He clearly wants to say something, but he can’t.

Imagine that, you have the whole congregation standing there, waiting for you to say something and you have nothing to say. There is probably nothing worse if you are a preacher. It is like being in high school and having that dream where you find yourself in class with nothing but your underwear on. I don’t know what the bad dream is for dieticians or doctors, but I do know that for ministers it has to do with preaching. You step into the pulpit and look down to realize you left your sermon at home. Or, maybe it’s that dream where the alarm doesn’t go off. You open your eyes to see it’s time for church and you’re still in bed. I remember my first Easter Sunday began with a Sunrise Service at 6:AM. I was so nervous I didn’t get to sleep until 4:00 a.m. the night before. My alarm didn’t go off. I opened my eyes at 5:45 a.m. Luckily, I lived in the Manse only two minutes from church, but needless to say, I could have used Gabriel there telling me, “Don’t be afraid.”

So, Zechariah is having the preacher’s worst nightmare. It’s the most important day in his life; the whole congregation is waiting for him to step out and give them a blessing —and he can’t talk.


Of course, as bad as it seems, and it was bad, it may not have been the worse thing in the world. Sure, being a preacher and having nothing to say can be embarrassing, but it might have been more embarrassing if Zechariah had spoken and said something foolish.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

What happened to Zechariah in the Temple defied explanation. So, rather than allow Zechariah to blather on about something which he didn’t quite yet understand, God did Zechariah a favor. God took away his voice until Zechariah’s faith caught up with his mouth.

There is so much talk in the world and so much of that talk is mindless tweets, mean comments, careless gossip and ill-conceived e-mails. The only thing worse than reading one of those thoughtless e-mails is realizing you were the author. How many times have we spoken when we should have been silent and just listened?

I heard a minister tell a story. He was preaching about that scene in the Bible where the angel tells old and barren Sara, she is expecting a baby. Sara laughed. Now, it wasn’t a happy laugh, more like a, “Dear God, YOU’ve got to be kidding kind of laugh.” They would go on to name their surprise child, Isaac, which means, “laughter.”

The minister said, “I went on and on about how wonderful it was and how joyful Abraham and Sarah must have been to finally become parents, and how they must have laughed a lot together.” He said after church his choir director took him aside. She was older and wiser. She was the mother of two teenagers and had a two-year-old little boy. She said, “I became pregnant long after I expected to or wanted to. And while I love my son dearly, at the time it was no laughing matter. So, next time you talk about pregnancy, think a little bit about who might be out there in the pews.”

He said he was embarrassed, but she was right. He said there are women who are pregnant and happy but also women who are pregnant and not happy at all. There are women who are NOT pregnant and want to be. There are women enduring fertility tests and there are women who are struggling with the painful question of whether or not the right thing to do is to end the pregnancy altogether. He said, he learned there are some things in which it is better to listen more and talk less.

Not long ago there was some governmental panel convened to talk about women and their reproductive rights. It was filled with old gray-haired men, politicians and ministers, who were pontificating about abortion, contraception, women’s reproductive health in general. I am probably not the only one who started to think maybe this is one of those times it would have been nice if the angel Gabriel would have once more intervened and closed their mouths. Maybe they should have taken a cue from Zechariah and not said anything and just listened for a change?


When Zechariah stepped out of the Temple unable to speak, it may have been an act of grace. I suspect it was not so much a punishment as it was a gift. What he experienced in the Holy of Holies was beyond words.

So, for nine months, while the baby grew in Elizabeth’s womb, Zechariah’s faith is given time to grow in his soul.

For ministers, it is tempting to want to explain things. We are supposed to explain things, or at least try. That is what we are paid for. But there may be times when discretion is the better part of valor and what we should do in the face of the holy is be silent and just point – we point to the cross or we point to the tomb – we just point - which is what Zechariah did. He must have seemed foolish standing there and waving his arms, but it was probably a grace. Better for him to stand there looking like a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Better for him to wait nine months for the right thing to say, than to say just anything just for the sake of hearing himself speak.

We began the story today believing Elizabeth was barren. But, in reality, we learn it was Zechariah who was barren. Zechariah was like the fruit tree in winter. He didn’t have faith and until he did, God put a stop to his speaking. He didn’t believe, and it was better for everyone if he was silent until he did.

Zechariah’s barrenness is that he couldn’t imagine a future different from the present. It is a barrenness of all of us can get after a while. We stop hoping. We stop expecting. We hear that barrenness in addiction when people don’t think they can ever change. We hear that barrenness in relationships when people fall into ruts. We hear that barrenness in politicians who only imagine retaliation as the best way to deal with conflict. And, we even hear that barrenness in churches when people say, “We never did it that way before.” They believe they are defending the past when what they are doing is undermining the future.

Barrenness is believing that God is all done. Faith is believing that right now God is working to redeem the world, including our particular part of it. God is not a paper theory but a living Messiah come to cast light into the shadows of our fears.

Even though it took nine months, when Zechariah finally does believe, Luke says the flood gates of faith opened up and this beautiful song poured from his mouth. When he sees his son, he realizes everything Gabriel said was true. He sings about the coming Messiah. He praises God for the hope Jesus is going to bring. And the whole thing ends, with Zechariah saying some of the most beautiful words in the Bible.

“By the tender mercy of God, a day from on high will dawn. It will give light to those who sit in darkness and hope to those in the shadow of death, and he will guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Perhaps one of the best things we can do to get ready for Christmas this year is to remember the great hymn of Advent, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Let us silently prepare for the tender mercy of God.






Church: A model community of the imperfect


Eugene Peterson, from his Introduction to the book of James.


When Christian believers gather in churches, everything that can go wrong sooner or later does. Outsiders, on observing this, conclude that there is nothing to the religion business, except, perhaps, business – and dishonest business at that. Insiders see it differently. Just as a hospital collects the sick under one roof and labels them as such, the church collects sinners. Many of the people outside the hospital are every bit as sick as the ones inside, but their illnesses are either undiagnosed or disguised. It’s similar with sinners outside the church.

So Christian churches as not, as a rule, model communities of good behavior. They are, rather, places where human behavior is brought out in the open, faced and dealt with.


Together in Christ,



The Presbyterian Church was an unexpected offspring of a religious movement called “The Reformation.” Two of the leading Reformers of the time, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), had no intention of forming a new church, at least not initially. Their desire was to reform the present day Catholic Church, to purge the Church of corruptions and set it more in line with the traditions and theology of Scripture and of the early church. The Reformers became known as “Protestants” because their requests for change sounded more and more like protests.

The Presbyterian Church is one of several churches that can trace their origins to the Reformation. Presbyterians get their name from the Greek word “presbuteros” which means “elder.” The term refers to the system, in apostolic times, of choosing leaders from among the wisest members of the church. A prominent doctrine of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Reformed churches designed themselves in ways that gave more power to the congregation. The Presbyterians established a representative system where elders, presbyters and commissioners were elected.

The French organized the first congregation in 1555 and the French Huguenots were one of the first Presbyterians to reach America, followed closely by the English, Dutch, German, Irish and Scottish. In 1706 the first American presbytery was formed in Philadelphia and soon after the Synod of Philadelphia in 1716. 1789 marked the First General Assembly in Philadelphia.

The Church grew and diversified as it headed westward. By 1800 there were 20,000 members. In another thirty-seven years, there were 220,000. With the growth in numbers came an increase of conflict, separation and sometimes reunion. “Old School” and “New School” divisions plagued Presbyterians for years. The most infamous of issues was slavery. The Civil War severely divided the Church.

The next 120 years saw movements toward reunification. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America merged to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American (UPCUSA). In 1983 the two largest Presbyterian Churches united at the Atlanta General Assembly (G.A.): the southern-based Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the northern-based (UPCUSA). In 1985 the G.A. approved a seal for the new Church. There are some powerful images in the symbol which reveal what is important to us as Presbyterians. Today there are about 2,000,000 members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the largest of the mainline Presbyterian denominations.

“Unexpected” may seem like a good way to describe the beginnings of the Presbyterian Church. But for Presbyterians it has always been the “providence of God.”

Together in Christ,


Contact Us  
Churchville Presbyterian Church

2844 Churchville Road
Churchville, Maryland 21028
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Phone 410-734-7344

8:30 a.m. Informal Service   

9:15 a.m. Adult Class

9:30 a.m. Youth & Children Sunday School

10:30 a.m. Traditional Service 

December Events

Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Services: 5 p.m. & 8 p.m.