On the day after Thanksgiving, Connie drove off for work from our Air B&B cabin at am. Our displaced dog anxiously nuzzled me awake, so we set off on a long predawn walk. The first rays of sunlight broke the horizon to dance on the glassy lake waters. As if called up by the light, fog rose from the lake gliding on an easy breeze towards deeper waters. Geese assembled a formation to raise their loud morning praise. Pale bands of back-lit blue, yellow, lavender, and pink radiated from a neon cranberry core. On the edge of the sunbeams, thin tufts of wispy white clouds broke away escaping into the bluing sky. Wanting to capture the beauty of the moment, I took out my phone in hopes of posting a trophy on Facebook. However, no matter how I adjusted the frame or played with digital filters, my photos failed to capture the moment. That sunrise like so many experiences transcends our words and photos..
Indeed, upon closer review, my photos accurately showed the lake at winter pool with floating docks casts about, stationary docks offering ramps to nowhere, an old tire fish attractor, and about 60 feet of muddy denuded shoreline. The beauty of my sunrise walk, may well have sprung from the joy of having both boys under our borrowed roof. Still, even our most mundane holy experiences transcend photos, phrases, punctuation and paragraphs.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s experience is one of songs and silence. Zechariah will sing after a long silence. Zechariah’s experience runs deeper than the words in Luke 1.
In our story the lot fell to Zechariah. With hundreds of thousands of lay priests, this was a once in a lifetime experience. Every morning and evening, the priests placed handfuls of sweet smelling incense on the altar. Its sweet aroma ascended to God from the red hot coals. Smoke billowed through the Temple. How did it smelled? Did the morning sunlight dance off the mountains and paint the desert sky an electric lavender? Did the evening sunset cast the Temple limestone in a golden hue? Luke’s verses cannot contain all Zechariah saw and felt. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s experience of the holy ran deeper than the pages of our holy book. Holy experiences exceed words. God’s unbounded Love cannot be restrained by punctuation and prose.
Imagine yourself, prayerfully pouring the incense over hot coals, the smoke ascends and an angel arrives to answer your prayer: “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son. You must name him John (Yahweh- Is-Gracious). The child will be a joy and delight. Many people will rejoice. The Holy Spirit will fill this child, Yahweh-Is-Gracious, before his birth. Yahweh is Gracious and through John (the Baptizer) God will bring many people back to the Lord. The power of Elijah will enfold John and his message will turn the hearts of parents back to their children, and the wayward back to right paths. John will get people ready for the Lord’s coming”
All of us would be stunned. All of us would struggle to believe what we just saw. Before the story ends, Zechariah is muted by this holy encounter. Perhaps, our holiest experiences always still our tongues- leaving us speechless. Maybe silence is the proper response to an holy moment. Paul tells us once we taste Heaven’s perfect love, all preaching ends. (1 Corinthians 13) Paul speaks of “Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19) and “God’s Peace that surpasses understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) Perhaps, lost in deep wonder, love, and surprise, words elude Zechariah for nine months.
As read these stories, let us remember, there is a God who transcends the words in this book. There is a Spirit that inspires beyond Luke’s Testament. There is a Savior whose grace extends beyond “the days of Herod.” The Bible points us toward God, but the Bible is not God. God is still at work. Holy experiences still occur. The Spirit still speaks. God is writing new stories in our lives. Indeed, “If anyone be in Christ, there is a new creation, Behold, everything is made new” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Advent never ends. The Creator stands ready to break into our worlds. Advent arrives again.
Jesus beckons, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened, ask and you will receive.” We best understand the Bible as we seek to experience the Holy. Seekers find. The Gospel is not a legal contract, dropped from heaven to be signed by us, but a series of divine encounters and lessons, wherein God invites us to enter into relationship with the Holy. The Bible is about Experiencing God. Our experience matters.
Wesley said to “Read the Bible seeking to know the will of God. Be resolved to do God’s will when you learn it. Keep an eye open for the analogies of faith. Find the connections and harmony with God’s grand themes. Pray. Pray knowing that “Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit that inspired it.” Frequently pause and examine your heart and life in light of your reading. And whatever light you receive in study and prayer apply that light immediately, and God’s Word will become God’s power in your living now and forever.”
Prayer somehow mysteriously tunes our hearts- bringing a kind of harmony with God to our experience. Prayer edits, interprets, and illuminates our experience. If we detach the Bible from prayerful experience, reducing the Bible to verses, forgetting that God transcends the Bible, then we make the Bible a soul deadening rule book. However, the Bible’s story is “Emmanuel” or “God with us” from Eden to the End of the Age. The Spirit still stuns us into speechless silence. The Spirit still speaks. Christ still brings new songs. The sun still rises amid the bleakest winters. God works even as evil kings sit on the throne. Jesus’ love never ends. Advent comes anew. The Creator declares: “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Silent for nine months, God incubates a song in the silent solitude of Zechariah’s soul. When the day comes to name the child. Luke tells us ““They” were going to name him Zechariah after his father (ignoring the wishes of his mother, after Elizabeth pushed life into the world with joyous squeals of a new life). They argue with Elizabeth and discount her voice. Perhaps this trusting in what “they” know resonates even today? Do we not still discount some voices, trusting in what we received, while ignoring the possibility that God might be making something new?) “None of your relatives has this name.” But Zechariah wrote on a clay tablet: “His name is John -Yahweh-is-Gracious”
Immediately Zechariah’s tongue is freed for praising God. Filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah sings a tender and prophetic lullaby. I imagine Zechariah holding the longed-for child singing a blessing incubated inside a deep silence. Listen as Zechariah pours justice and love into this child. Listen as Zechariah seeds this baby with truths that will shape the fiery and fearless prophet John the Baptist. I imagine this dad weeping, his long dormant voice cracking with newfound use and deepest love, for both joy and fear for the future…
“Bless the Lord our God, who comes to deliver and help us.
The Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us,
As God promised through the holy prophets long ago.
God shows mercy and keeps covenant with us
Oh John, serve the Lord without fear, as long as you live.
Oh You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
You will go before the Lord to prepare the way.
You will tell of salvation and the forgiveness of their sins.
Oh, Through God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
The dawn will bring light to those who sit in darkness,
For God comes to guide us along the path of peace.”
Luke tells us: the child grew up, becoming strong in character. I wonder, as John sat in King Herod’s jail cell, did he remember his father’s song? Did he hear God whisper: “Oh John, serve the Lord, for you child, stand in line with the prophets!” Did he find courage there?
The Bible calls us to renewed hope. It’s words point to the deepest experiences of the Holy. We are inspired by the Spirit who inspired it! Let us remember, there is a God who transcends the pages of this book. There is a Spirit that inspires us as it inspired Zechariah’s song. There is a Savior whose grace extends beyond “the terrible days of an evil King Herod.” The Spirit still speaks. God is not done writing new experiences and stories in our lives. Advent sings anew. Come let us open this book of holy experiences- opening ourselves to the Spirit who inspires it, embracing Christ who embraces us, and listening as the Creator speaks hope into the night: “Behold, all things are being made new.” Amen.