[The message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the third Sunday of Advent, December 12, 2021. It can also be seen and heard on the Perinton facebook page.]
I don’t know that it’s ever been easy being a father, but it certainly isn’t easy today. We have a load of cultural expectations for fathers: To be good providers; strong and steady; and successful in their work. And then we have another set of expectations for fathers: To be tender, sensitive, understanding, and kind. Sometimes it seems like these sets of expectations are clashing. There is a kind of masculinity today that can be toxic. For the single man: be athletic, tough, and have a great job that enables you to buy lots of expensive toys to impress others, both women and men. For the married man: to rule the roost and wear the pants in the family, to marry a trophy wife (which sounds to me like a cold statuette; not very interesting); to have high achieving children whose diapers he never had to change.
Luke 1 has something else to say about masculinity. Two men are mentioned: Zechariah and Joseph. Zach is an old man, a devout priest, and the husband of Elizabeth, an old woman who has never had a child. That puts her womanhood and his manhood in question. Joe is a young carpenter in the last stage of engagement to a young teenager named Mary. One makes his living with words and the other with wood. Before Luke puts the spotlight of the ages on the two women, he puts the spotlight on the priest, the oldest of the four primary players.
The old priest starts this chapter by speaking and ends by speaking (maybe singing), but in between he isn’t allowed to talk for nine months, which is no easy task for a man whose work involves speaking to God on behalf of the people. Joseph never says one word in the New Testament. Luke 1 looks a little like a musical with two outbursts of praise songs: one from the old priest and one from the young teen with child, and then an angelic chorus in chapter 2 when Jesus is born. It also looks a little like a situation comedy as this angel keeps appearing and scaring people, who then try to come up with good excuses not to believe the angel. And it looks a little like the waiting room of a gynecologist as two women who never expected to be there at this stage of their lives talk about how their lives—and bodies—are changing by unexpected pregnancies.
It starts with that angel and Zechariah. Zach and Liz are old. How old? Old like me, but probably not quite as old as I am. One commentary suggests they are in their 60s. Oh, to be in my 60s again! When the angel announces that old Liz is finally going to have a baby, Zach can’t believe it and says, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The literal transition is even better. He says, “I am a Presbyterian and my wife is advancing in years.” The Greek word for elder is presbyter, and Zach is old. The word for Liz advancing in years is more like galloping than creeping. The angel is not impressed, and declares that for not believing, old Zach wouldn’t speak until that baby is born.
I think Zach’s line was nearly as good as Mary’s, which we heard here last week, when she told the same angel, “How can this be since I am virgin?” Mary is too young, Elizabeth is too old, Zach is a Presbyterian, and Joseph says nothing, which seems to indicate that he has a colossal headache and can’t top what the others have said.
It is notable how Zechariah gets his voice back. It is not at the moment John is born. It is at the naming. In recent times something has developed called reveal parties. I have never been invited to one and would be content for it to stay that way (if the food is really good, send me leftovers). A reveal party is where friends and family gather to find out what gender a baby still expected will be. A cake or cupcakes will be brought out at one point, with the color of the frosting being pink or blue. Back in the time Luke wrote, the reveal party was after the birth of the child and what was revealed was the baby’s name. In Luke 1 it happens a week after Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s baby is born. In Luke 2 it happens a week after Mary’s and Joseph’s baby is born.
Something remarkable happens at this naming party. Some relatives and friends gather. They expect that the baby will be named after his father or grandfather, which is custom. My grandfather was named Harry and my father James, so I was named Harry James. Maybe someone ordered a sheet cake from Wegmans that said, “Welcome, little Zechariah.” “But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’” That stops the party with a thud. John is not a family name and Elizabeth isn’t the father. Now watch what happens. Zechariah, still unable to speak, steps forward: “He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” In publicly submitting to his wife, his voice is restored.As wonderful as custom and tradition can be, a new order is breaking in and grace and truth matter more than custom or tradition.
Naming really is important. The words spoken through the prophet Isaiah centuries before Luke writes have been framing our Advent series: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Today we focus on the third name: everlasting father. That name raises two questions: 1, Is God an old man?, and 2, Aren’t the father and the son distinct in the Trinity?
God is beyond gender. God created us in his image, male and female. That tells us that male and female together best reflect the image of God. Michelangelo made a mistake in painting God the creator as an old white-haired man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is God, and while I often use the male pronoun to refer to God, I do not do so exclusively, for God is beyond gender. The essential meaning of calling God father is to portray the relational nature of God. When we see how lovingly Zechariah and Joseph accept their roles, we see God reflected. And when we see how lovingly Elizabeth and Mary accept their roles, we see God reflected.
Jesus was born into a world dominated by patriarchy and he challenged it. His masculinity wasn’t toxic, but tender; never domineering, but always empowering. He brings a new and better way, mutual submission one to the other, exemplified by Zechariah. When we see men living in this way, we see a reflection of God. It’s not a perfect reflection, but it is an accurate one. Jesus alone merits the name everlasting father, because he alone perfectly reflects the nature of God. Listen to these verses in the New Testament about Jesus:
- He is the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15)
- For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, (Colossians 2:9)
- He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1:3)
Before Jesus is born, God calls these humble, flawed persons, male and female, old and young, to prepare the world and us for the incarnation, the eternal word becoming flesh. There is no toxic masculinity in Zechariah and Joseph. They are real men with tender, humble, teachable spirits, willing to love and serve God as they love and serve their wives. There is no self-deprecating, false humility, “I’m just a woman” spirit in Elizabeth and Mary. They are real women with intelligence, spunk, courage, teachable spirits, willing to love and serve God as they love and serve their husbands.
In 12 days we will celebrate again this miracle of miracles, the birth of God our savior into our flesh and our world. But first, we honor these people God used to prepare the way. We thank God for Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. We thank God for loving fathers and mothers that shaped and continue to shape our lives and our faith. Love is here. Love has come, a light in the darkness!