Sermons from San Diego

How Can a Weary World Rejoice?

December 03, 2023 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 2 Episode 1
How Can a Weary World Rejoice?
Sermons from San Diego
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Sermons from San Diego
How Can a Weary World Rejoice?
Dec 03, 2023 Season 2 Episode 1
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

The season of Advent begins the journey to Christmas.  This sermon starts in Luke 1 with the angel Gabriel telling Zechariah that his wife would become pregnant with the one to precede Jesus.  Read Luke chapter 1

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Show Notes Transcript

The season of Advent begins the journey to Christmas.  This sermon starts in Luke 1 with the angel Gabriel telling Zechariah that his wife would become pregnant with the one to precede Jesus.  Read Luke chapter 1

If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California


 Rev. Dr. David Bahr


 December 3, 2023


 “How Does a Weary World Rejoice?”


Luke 1: 1-17The Message

So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story’s beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.

 5-7 During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.

8-12 It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.

13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.

15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”


And the angel Gabriel said, “Don’t be afraid.  God has heard your prayer.  Elizabeth will have a son and you shall name him John.”  You know what he said next?  “Do you expect me to believe this?!”


So, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful birth.  Well, not a tale, not a fantasy, but a gospel, good news that Luke sat down and took great pains to put together for a man he called the most honorable Theophilus.  A story by Luke about Jesus that doesn’t start with Jesus but the messenger before him whose birth was improbable.  Born of a couple too old to conceive, prompting the sentiment, “Do you expect me to believe this?” 


Too old to conceive.  If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s supposed to.  Luke makes the connection that Abraham and Sarah were also too old to conceive.  You heard their story this summer.  90-year-old Sarah improbably gave birth to a child named Isaac, whose son was Jacob and onward, the beginning of a line of descendants so large it’s like trying to count the stars in the night sky.  That whole story we followed has continued here with Zechariah in the line of descendants from one of Jacob’s 12 sons named Levi.  Elizabeth, too, by the way, was in this line, a descendent directly through Aaron which was even more special.  


Most of Jacob’s sons had been designated a piece of land, but everyone in the line from his son Levi were to be priests, dispersed among all the tribes.  They were not priests because they individually felt a special calling from God.  It was their family business.  No son ever sat under the stars looking up and wondering what he might do when he grew up, although it wasn’t a full-time profession in the way we might think.  About every six months, among hundreds of priests, a division would serve for a week, but an individual would only go into the inner sanctuary if chosen by lot – randomly chosen.  It might be a once in a lifetime privilege.  Zechariah happened to be chosen that day, although with God, things like that are rarely random, a coincidence.  Imagine his joy over such an incredible honor.  He would have been as giddy as he was reverent and would have expected to be alone with his thoughts, which made Gabriel’s presence even more shocking, not to mention Gabriel’s improbable news.  To which Zechariah exclaimed, “Do you expect me to believe this?”  


Gabriel responded indignantly – “Hey, you ungrateful peon, don’t you know who I am?”  Well, not really, but he did offer his credentials, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to you to bring this good news,” before adding, “But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth.  Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time – God’s time.”  And with that, Gabriel left.


Zechariah emerged from the inner sanctuary looking dazed and the congregation, which had wondered what was taking so long, saw that something incredible had happened.  They could see on his face that he had had a vision.  But when he tried to talk, to explain what had just happened, no words would come from his mouth.  He was literally speechless and he communicated with them with his hands.  Bewildered by it all, he finished up his week at the Temple and returned home.  


Now who do you suppose told Elizabeth?  There’s no mention of the angel stopping by and letting her know in advance, “By the way, you’ll soon be pregnant.”  At least Sarah overheard a conversation between Abraham and some travelling strangers.  She eavesdropped and laughed to herself.  She didn’t ask, “Do you expect me to believe this?!” even if that’s what her laugh meant, but at least she and Abraham could whisper to one other late at night when no one else could hear them discussing something so absurd.  


Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t talk, but somehow, she knew.  Perhaps not even surprised.  She said, to no one in particular, maybe just to herself, so this is how God has removed the disgrace I’ve been burdened with by other people’s judgments.  Yes, of course, in those days, if a woman didn’t have children, it was her fault – not for some biological reason, but some sin or character flaw.  A disgrace, a punishment.  A belief not so far from the surface even today.  Never, of course, a mention that men had any role or responsibility for pregnancy or lack thereof.  But it’s a beautiful line.  “This is how God has removed the disgrace I’ve been burdened with by other people’s judgments.”  She knew, the burden wasn’t of God; it was people judging her.  


Back to Zechariah.  Some people say that his inability to speak was punishment for doubt.  But must we always explain why things happen as punishment?  Maybe this silence was a recognition of something extraordinary, too important for mere talking.  A time when speech itself is pregnant, waiting for the fullness of time.  


So, Elizabeth conceived and went off by herself for five months – where or specifically why we don’t know.  But since Zechariah couldn’t speak, it wasn’t to escape his incessant chatting.  You know, the kind of retirement, go get a hobby, I need some peace and quiet.  


After five months, Elizabeth finally went back home and the next month, she was overjoyed to see her favorite, much younger, cousin Mary walking toward the house.  Except that this not-yet-married, teenage girl, was walking toward her house with a baby bump.  I can imagine Elizabeth seeing her condition and fearing the worst, the same kind of disgraceful looks by neighbors that Elizabeth had been burdened with.  She stood ready to offer Mary the unconditional love she knew no one else would give.  But Mary told Elizabeth it’s OK, she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and Elizabeth knew immediately she was right.  It was just as improbable and wonderful as her own pregnancy.  Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb upon hearing Mary’s voice.  Mary stayed until Elizabeth gave birth and then she went back to Nazareth.


When Elizabeth gave birth to a son, her family and neighbors were overjoyed and celebrated with her.  When they all went to his circumcision 8 days later, they expected the baby to be called Zechariah after his father.  She said, no, his name shall be John.  Those celebrating family and neighbors stopped smiling and looked at each other suspiciously.  Delicately they asked, “Honey, who is John?  Why would you name your baby John when there are no other Johns in our family tree?  Is this not Zechariah’s son?”  So, they turned to him and asked what he wanted the baby’s name to be.  He asked for a tablet and wrote “John.”  The time for his pregnancy, nine months without speech, had now been fulfilled.  His mouth opened, his tongue unloosened, and he began praising God:  


Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who came to set the people free, deliverance from our enemies and every hateful hand.  Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, the sunrise will break in upon us.  Shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, my child shall prepare the way for salvation.  He will show us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.


The crowd marveled and a deep, reverential fear settled all over the Judean hill country.  People could talk about nothing else.  And all they could say is, “What will become of this child?  Clearly, God’s hand is in this.”


Thirty years later, this John would be known as the Baptist, the Baptizer, offering people a way to begin again unburdened from disgrace and judgments, like his mother.  He preached a fresh start through forgiveness from our own past faults and failures.  And he was clear that his role was to prepare the way for his cousin Jesus.


Every year we come around to these same stories, somehow always fresh, somehow always relevant.  This Advent, when we watch the news and hear of the horrors experienced in war, we might wonder how a weary world can be hopeful.  Do you expect me to believe this?  With our own personal tragedies and health and strained relationships…  It’s hard to feel cheerful when we talk with family or neighbors who are just as fiercely polarized as in Washington.  How can a weary world rejoice this Advent?  Many people are not feeling very optimistic about a lot of things.


Dr. Cornel West explains how “hope and optimism are different.  Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there's enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better.”  At this moment in history, that’s a hard sell.  But Dr. West describes how “hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘It doesn't look good.  Doesn't look good at all.”  Hope, on the other hand, goes “beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious enough to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever."  That’s hope.  That’s the possibility Elizabeth knew was real.  While Zechariah asked, “Do you expect me to believe this?!”  Elizabeth said Yes.  Absolutely.  


Believe this:  God loves taking unlikely and ordinary people facing daunting or impossible obstacles to do extraordinary things through them.  Ordinary people like you and me who say yes despite not seeing a way forward, who can’t seem to overcome an impediment, especially those created by the judgments of other people… God loves to surprise the world.


That’s why I can say, without a doubt, Luke is not telling a tale or selling a fantasy, but proclaiming gospel.  You and I may not feel optimistic right now.  But, hear the good news:  the more improbable hope may seem, the more possible it becomes.  Can you dare believe it?