Worship » Sermons » The Tablet

The Tablet

with Rev. Alex Lang

November 27, 2022

Every story surrounding Jesus’ birth has an object of significance that makes the story come to life. For our first sermon in Advent, we are focusing on the tablet Zechariah used to write John’s name.

The Scripture

Luke 1:5-13

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.

Luke 1:18-23a; 57-64

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.

57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.

Read the Full Text

If you can believe it, we are already in Advent and hurtling towards Christmas. This is my tenth year preaching Advent in this church. During that time, I’ve experimented with all kinds of different approaches to Advent, which can be kind of hard because we are limited to only a handful of texts that are really Advent approved. So, as I was reading these stories, something popped out at me that I had never seen before—every story hinges on object that facilitates that story coming to life.

In this way, I envisioned our Advent series called Christmas Tableaus. A tableau is an illustration, often with religious overtones. If you’ve ever happened upon a tableau scene, it’s usually based off of famous paintings or photographs a scene that has been created with physical models of the objects. The idea in this series is that we are going isolate one object from a scene associated with Jesus’ birth and discuss its importance to our lives.

Finish reading

The idea of each sermon will be to take the illustration (which could be objects, animals or things like stars) and discuss how the particular illustration informs, not only the story of Jesus’ birth, but also our faith. In all, we will be examining five illustrations that are associated with Jesus’ birth. As we will discover, each of these illustrations within the birth narrative have particular significance to us as Christians. They tell us interesting information about the person of Jesus, who he was and how we are supposed to live as Christians.

This morning we read the story of Zechariah, a priest in the Temple. As a lower-level priest, his job was to perform the more mundane rituals like overseeing the burning of incense. I’ve told you in the past that the Jewish Temple plays a big role in Jesus’ birth narrative in Luke because the Temple was seen as being corrupted by the influence of Roman politics. As a result of this corrupting influence, many religious Jews believed the Temple needed to be cleansed of this foreign influence. The idea being that Jesus is going to bring purity back to the Jewish faith by removing the need for priests altogether.

Zechariah is married to Elizabeth and, according to the story, they are both getting along in years. This is of particular importance because Elizabeth is barren, meaning she was never able to have children. In the ancient world, not being able to have children to carry on the family name was a horrific prospect. A woman’s worth was defined by her children and men relied on their sons to carry on the family name.

Being that Elizabeth is now elderly, we can say with assurance that ship has sailed. Of course, this story is a throwback to, can you guess which book? Genesis, of course! This narrative is similar to the Abraham and Sarah story. God tells Abraham that Sarah will bare a son. Sarah hears this news and laughs because she is well beyond her childbearing years. However, not long after the promise is made, Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac.

When Zechariah is told that his wife will bear a son, he is skeptical. However, his skepticism earns him a punishment where he is no longer able to speak. His disbelief causes him to become mute. I find this particular punishment to be fascinating because there’s an interesting correlation between a person’s belief in something and their ability to speak about it.

When you don’t really believe in something, it can be very hard to speak about it. For instance, if you’re selling a product you don’t believe in, it can be very hard to speak about the product with authenticity. I can always tell when somebody is hawking something that they would never purchase themselves. One of my favorite stories of this is when TC and Adam visited a Buffalo Wild Wings and they asked the waitress about whether they should get a box and bring their surplus food home with them. After a little back and forth, their waitress was like, “Oh, I never eat this food.” When the waitress working at your restaurant won’t touch the food, that tells you a lot about the quality of the meal you’re eating.

But this is not just true in sales. When you’re in a conversation and a topic comes up and the person with whom you are speaking is silent, then one of two things are true: either this person has no opinion on the subject you’re discussing, or their opinion differs from your own and they don’t want to offend you. Another example of silence that I find interesting is what a person chooses to disclose when you’re getting to know them. When you meet a person and they never mention they have a spouse or children and you later find out that they do, that tells you where their priorities lie. Silence often speaks a greater volume than words.

But I digress. The angel silences Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, does indeed become pregnant. After giving birth to her son, Jewish custom dictates that a child is named on the eighth day after his birth during his circumcision. At this point, Zechariah could still not speak and everyone assumed they would be naming the boy after his father. However, Elizabeth was aware of what the angel specified about her son: his name is to be John.

This was unusual because Jewish custom was to name your child with a family name. The name John had nothing to do with their family. At this point, Zechariah needs to communicate about the name of his son, so he grabs a writing tablet and writes that the name of his son should John, supporting his wife’s pronouncement. Of course, John the Baptist will figure in prominently in Jesus’ story. Not only does he baptize Jesus, but Jesus was likely part of John’s community before branching out on his own.

The act of writing down John’s name on the tablet opens Zechariah’s mouth so he can speak again. Although we take it for granted today, there is something powerful about writing down our words. In the ancient world, when words were written in a contract or in a book, they were seen as having special power because they were binding. They were binding because they came from the person and were seen as part of that person.

By writing the name John, that is what made it binding for Zechariah. Part of the reason why they saw it this way is because so few people were literate. To give you a sense of just how few people were able to read, in Galilee, the area where Jesus was from, the illiteracy rate was about 96 percent. Therefore, the written word was a form of power very few people possessed.

Today, the global literacy rate currently stands at 87%. Most developed countries have achieved a 99% literacy rate. Because of this, we have lost touch with the power of the written word. With the advent computers and social media, we’ve become even callous in our use of language. We are so used to posting whatever vomit pops into our minds on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that we have lost touch with the power of the written word and how it can change lives.

Personally, I take writing very seriously. I think through everything that I write, particularly in sermons, because those words hold enormous weight for people and I want to make sure what I am saying not only resonates, but has been thoroughly thought through. This is particularly true when I’m talking about something that I believe will cause angst or discomfort. We spoke about many topics in our last series that I knew would not be easy, so often I was walking a tight rope because the last thing that I want to happen is for someone to become so upset by my words that they walk away, which has happened before.

And I’m not the only one who’s had this happen to them in their lives. How many times have you said something in the heat of the moment that has caused rifts in your relationships? Words that were not thought through carefully before speaking them? And in most of those situations, those words are often spoken. They don’t have the permanency of being written down, which is why writing is such a powerful tool.

So even though this tablet might seem like an artifact from an ancient time, there is something quite profound and powerful about placing words down in a way that people can return to them again and again. Consider Jesus’ story. Originally, it was passed down orally from one generation to the next. The reason why you’re here today; the reason why you’re anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ birth is because 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, someone bothered to take all those stories and write them down. Without those Christians pressing pen to papyrus, we would not be here.

That’s the power of the written word and it’s what makes Zechariah’s tablet so critical to this story. Remember how I told you that when Zechariah wrote down John’s name on the tablet, that made it binding? Well, part of the reason why they perceived writing to be so important is because the ancient Hebrews believed that words have the ability form and shape our reality.

Recall that in Genesis chapter 1, God speaks our reality into existence. In John’s gospel, Jesus is said to be the Word incarnate, the idea being that when Jesus speaks, God words are emanating from his mouth and those words, shape, form and change people’s reality in profound ways. Now, I don’t know if you buy into this idea, but I do. I believe you speak your reality into existence. Unless you say it, it won’t happen. So I want to end this morning by telling you a story of a time when I spoke words that had profound impact on the direction of my life.

When I was at my last church in Pennsylvania, Pine Street, we were preparing for our new mission and I had given a presentation to the elders in our church about what we were planning to do. Things were moving very quickly and one of my good friends on session pushed back and said, “Your timeline is too fast. We need more information before moving forward.” I reluctantly agreed to slow things down. But after the meeting, I came up to him and said to him, “I’m pushing for this to happen fast because I may be at a new job in a few months and not be able to see this through.”

Now you have to understand that when I said that to my friend I had never before said to anyone that I was even considering looking for a new job. I didn’t even know in my mind if it was even a possibility. I didn’t have any job prospects. I hadn’t put my resume together. I hadn’t even mentioned the idea of finding a new job to my wife. But I said it out loud because something about it felt true. Amazingly enough, four months later, I get a voice message on my answering machine from Tom Carroll. I spoke the words and the words became a reality. Like God, we speak life into existence.

I want to end this morning by asking you the question, “What is on your heart that you need to speak into existence?” Maybe you have an idea that you want to bring to life? Something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, but you’ve been too scared to say it out loud for fear of judgment. I say speak it into the world. Maybe you have a relationship with someone where you need to say what’s on your heart? Maybe you need to say out loud, “We need to be together,” or maybe you need to say, “We need to be apart.” Whatever you’re feeling, speak it into the world.

Maybe you’re struggling with understanding the next steps of your life? You don’t have a clear idea of where you want to go or how you’re going to get there. Speak your concerns into the world and God will answer you back. Or maybe your concern is for others, for decisions that your family and friends are making. Speak those concerns into the world and tell them of your worries, your hopes, and your dreams for them. Whatever it is, speak it into the world, because speaking brings forth life.

So as we anticipate the coming of Jesus on Christmas day, as we anticipate God speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ into our lives, may we remember the power of words to shape our reality. God’s Word started our world, God’s Word came to us through Jesus and, I am here before you because I believe God is still speaking through us. God is still shaping our world and God has given us the power of the spoken word to change our own lives. So don’t be shy, speak your word into the world because you never know how God might bring it to life. Amen.