19 December – The long shadow

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
(Luke 1.5-25)

At certain times of the year shadows stretch a long way. It’s to do with the angle of the sun, I suppose. Sometimes we look on the ground and our own shadow or the shadow of a tree stretches out before us. There is a shadow here that stretches from Abraham and his wife Sarah to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Both were loving, righteous couples, both were older and both desired but didn’t have children. To both an angel comes and makes a promise. Sarah thinks it is so ridiculous an idea that as she listens into the conversation of her husband with the angel she laughs from within the tent. Zechariah is incredulous, he doesn’t laugh but instead is struck dumb for his lack of belief.

The long shadow

The long shadow

The first miracle that Jesus will perform will be to change water into wine. He took what was unpromising, ordinary, not fruitful and transformed it and the wine overflowed, more than they could ever need for a wedding reception. God does this all the time, taking the least likely, the unpromising, the hopeless and transforms it, takes the water and makes it wine, takes the barren and makes it bear fruit, places a baby in the arms of a couple who had given up hope, saying to an old man ‘you will be father of many nations’, saying to a priest at his duties ‘your wife will bear a son’.

My life isn’t the best soil from which to produce fruit. I read the parable of the sower and see so much of myself there – in every aspect – the hard, compacted soil that won’t give way, the shallow soil in which things can’t take root, the overgrown ground in which a shoot would be choked, stones and dryness abound. But out of the most unpromising soil God produces a harvest, out of water God makes wine, from the barren and the dry new life springs forth.

Sarah laughed and Zechaiah was incredulous and we laugh and are in awe at the wonder of God. There is no limit to what God can do and that is the truth. When we stop believing this then we too will be dumb, as Zechariah was, only able to go through the motions in the sanctuary until his tongue was loosed and with Sarah and with Elizabeth he could laugh and praise the God of miracles.

Praise the God of miracles

Praise the God of miracles

As we are Bethlehem bound, look at the soil, look at the fields of our life and pray that we too will be fruitful.

Make the barren soil of my life
bring forth fruit,
Lord of the harvest,
Lord of my life.
Amen.

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