About eleven years ago, I was part of a team that helped start a church in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It’s called RISE, and it’s a faith community that grew out of a campus ministry there and became a refuge for those who had been hurt by the church or disconnected from the church for whatever reason. In so many ways, it’s that experience that propelled me onto a path that’s led here.
The pastor there was (and still is) a woman named Amanda, and Amanda is one of the most formative people for me in my life. She taught me so much about what it means to be a pastor and about life in ministry. So many of her words from countless meetings over countless bagels and countless cups of coffee still roll around in my head on a weekly if not daily basis.
Our rhythm there on Sunday mornings was a lot like it is here in so far as we have someone other than the pastor do the welcome and read the scripture and offer the prayer — because we believe it’s important to hear from as many different people as possible during the worship service. To have as many different voices as possible present. And so, just like it is here, the first time you’d see Amanda, the pastor, was when she stood up to preach.
I remember our very first Sunday morning service way back in 2010 in the basement of an Ethiopian restaurant when Amanda stood up to preach. She said, “Well, good morning! My name’s Amanda, and I’m the pastor here at RISE. It’s so good to see you all! We’re so glad you’re here. And we want you to know that you are a gift. You are a gift. You are a gift from God to us, and there are so many places you could be on a Sunday morning, but you’re here, and we don’t take that for granted. And if you take nothing else away from this morning, we hope you’ll hold onto this: You are a gift.”
It was a beautiful way to welcome people who weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into. To speak peace over those who had taken a risk to be there and weren’t sure about this whole church thing. Blessing over those who had reason to doubt their giftedness.
“You are a gift,” she said.
The second Sunday came, and Amanda stood up again to preach. And just like the week before, she began, “Well, good morning! My name’s Amanda, and I’m the pastor here at RISE. We want you to know that you are a gift.”
And then the third Sunday: “We want you to know that you are a gift.”
Week in and week out, Amanda’s first words to all who’d gathered were, “You are a gift.”
After a few months of this — week after week after week, someone came up to her after a service and said, “Amanda, we get it. We’re a gift. Do you have to keep saying that? Do you have any new material? Don’t you think people know by now?”
Amanda responded, “Well, it’s something I know I need to hear again and again. And we need to hear things seven times before it sticks. It’s science. And maybe it’s not your first time here, but it could be someone else’s — someone who needs that reminder today. And I want that to be the first thing they hear from me.”
So she kept saying it. Week after week. She says it to this day even. You are a gift. You are a gift. It became a thing. They put it on t-shirts and stickers. It took on a life of its own. You are a gift.
What Amanda was doing each week was laying a foundation. Amanda was laying a foundation of God’s belovedness. She was speaking a truth each week — or perhaps for the first time — that not only carried with it a declaration about God’s love but also served as a promise to hold onto. To return to.
It’s what Zechariah was doing, too, as he held John, his newborn. And as we continue our journey through Advent this morning, this is the idea we’re going to explore: Laying the foundation.
It’s part of our sermon series for Advent called “Close to Home,” and this is the second week of the series. If you missed last week and want to catch up, check out our podcast feed or find it on YouTube.
As a refresher, the word Advent, remember, literally means “coming” or “arrival,” and it’s in this season that we spend these four weeks not only waiting for the coming of the Christ child that we commemorate on Christmas but also for the arrival of God’s promised day when the world is, at last, as it should be. We’re longing for the day when heaven and earth kiss and the world, fully and finally, feels like home for all.
But in the meantime, we find ourselves, well, there. In the meantime. In the middle. In the in-between. That’s the reality that Advent names. We’re in between the coming of Jesus and the arrival of God’s promised day. Between the already and the not yet. And the season of Advent brings that reality, that longing, into sharp focus — that while we are close to home, we’re not there yet. So the power and purpose of Advent is that it beckons us to pause amid the holly jollies and the decking of halls to take time to name our deep longing and deep need for God to come close to us, to come near, to be made local, and to make a home of this place.
This tension, this longing, this feeling of already and not yet is what we’re exploring this Advent through our series, “Close to Home.” It’s about where we’ve been. About where we’re headed. And the journey on which we find ourselves.
Zechariah’s been on a journey, too — the one who prays and sings over his newborn child who would become John the Baptist — the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. We’ll spend some more time with John the Baptist next week, but the words that Zechariah sings as he’s filled with the Holy Spirit are the first words Zechariah has voiced in quite some time. That’s because, to this point, he’d been mute.
Zechariah is a priest, and he and his wife Elizabeth are up there in age. Luke describes them as “getting on in years.” They’d prayed for a child but had not been able to conceive. And the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and says, basically, “You’re going to have a son, and you’re going to name him John.”
But Zechariah’s like, “Wait, what? I’m an old man. My wife is up there, too. How is this possible?” But Gabriel then rebukes Zechariah for these questions rooted in disbelief and renders him mute, saying that Zechariah won’t be able to speak until the day all that the angel had said would come to pass.
So for nine months and some change, Zechariah can’t speak — which has got to be challenging for a priest. Fast forward to the scripture we hear this morning, and Elizabeth gives birth. As was a Jewish custom, eight days after the birth, they were preparing for the circumcision, at which point the child would also be named.
There was talk and some intrigue from neighbors and family members about what Elizabeth and Zechariah were going to name the child. The consensus was that this child would be named Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth protests and says, “He will be called John.” But unsatisfied, they’re like, “Let’s ask the dad.” So when they do, Zechariah asks for a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And when he does this, the passage says, “His tongue is freed.”
What’s striking about this is that in Judaism at the time, it was customary for the father to name the child, and it was often a family name. This is why there’s an assumption that the child’s name would be Zechariah, like his father. But note that Elizabeth is the first to speak the child’s name. “He is to be called John,” she says. And so, when they ask Zechariah, he affirms this choice. And this is big. He could’ve said, “No, his name will be Zechariah like mine.” He could’ve said, “It’s important that our family legacy continues.” But instead, he gets out of the way. He de-centers his own story. He surrenders his own plan. He opens himself and humbles himself so that all that the angel had said — including the name — might come to pass to give way to the greater narrative that God has in store.
When he does, his tongue is freed. When he opens himself toward God’s future, he’s able to speak again. And his first words are a blessing — a blessing over his son. A prayer about how God keeps God’s promises of salvation and rescue. About how this child will be a prophet of the Most High. About how he’ll go before the Lord — Jesus — to prepare the way. To tell them about what’s coming. To show them that love is breaking through. To give light in places shrouded in darkness and guide their feet in the way of peace.
These are the very first words spoken over John.
Words of promise. Words of hope. Words of peace. Words to live into and build a life on. These are, like Amanda’s words, words that lay a foundation.
I heard a story once from a professor of mine at the Divinity School. He described how he was working in campus ministry, and he met this student who got super involved. She was eager to learn more. She asked great questions. He said this student was bright. She was pre-med—a big future ahead of her in the health care field. But after meeting this campus minister, getting involved in the ministry, encountering Jesus, and asking all of the questions, the student decided to lean into a different calling. She decided she didn’t want to be a doctor anymore and instead applied to Divinity School — feeling a tug toward ministry. A life of downward mobility.
The professor recounted how shortly after that decision had been made and the student had applied to Divinity School, he got a call from the student’s parents, who were livid. “She had such a bright future ahead of her. She was going to go to this prestigious med school. She was going to be a doctor! This is your fault. You wrecked her life.” The professor just listened before finally responding, “Well, it wasn’t me. It was Jesus.”
I think about this story often — not only because there are days I feel like Jesus has wrecked my life, always killing my vibe, but also because it’s a reminder of what we can do and what we can’t do — but what God can do and will do.
Maybe there’s someone in your life who’s having a hard time or going through a rough patch. Or perhaps you’re like these parents, and there’s someone who, in your mind, just seems to be making poor decision after poor decision. It might be one of your kids, or it could be a family member or a co-worker or a classmate or a loved one. I don’t know who it is for you.
If it’s about a decision, you want so badly to get in there and fix it—to insert yourself and meddle because of what you know to be correct and what you think is best. If it’s a person who’s struggling, you want so badly to do everything you can — to come to their rescue out of care and concern.
I talk to folks often who are worried about their kids or other family members or people they love who might be trying on different faiths or just aren’t interested in church or are asking tough questions that seem out of bounds.
In each of these situations — and any others that involve those we love, those with whom we’re in relationship — I think we can learn a lot from Zechariah here.
Zechariah, remember, is in disbelief when the angel Gabriel says that they’re going to have a son — so much so that his mouth is closed, and he goes mute. Perhaps he wants to meddle. To fix. To try to control the outcome. But instead, when he surrenders his will and trusts that God keeps God’s promises, his tongue is freed, and he can sing again. Perhaps his mouth being closed gives him a chance to listen, discern, and pray in ways he hadn’t. It makes me think of a prayer from my former bishop in Virginia who would pray, “God, your will. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else.” In other words, God, shape my life and bend my will toward yours.
Because God has promised a day — and here in Advent, we wait for that day — when there will be no more mourning or crying or pain. When all things will be made new. When relationships are made whole. When there’s no more cancer. When violence will cease. When every child has enough to eat. When students won’t have to crouch under their desks in fear. When the poor are lifted, and the oppressed are free. When a peace that surpasses all understanding comes to rule in every heart.
We can’t see the end, but God can. In the meantime, we wait for that day and plant seeds, and trust that God keeps God’s promises.
That’s true for the ones you love, too. Those you lose sleep over. Those you can’t stop worrying about. Watch what Zechariah does. He prays over his son. Sings. Offers blessing.
Until that day, Zechariah does what he can do. He plants seeds of love and lets God give the growth. He lays a foundation of peace — speaking words of blessing and love over John. Words that — like a light — will be a guide home for any and every weary traveler.
In a world in which there are so many competing voices telling us who and whose we are, so many screens and influencers vying for our attention, so many ways we can lose ourselves and stumble off the beaten path, the words of blessing and encouragement and love and promise that we offer now over those we love — those who, like us, are just trying to make it in this weary world, lay a foundation for God to build on. Amanda’s words each week, “You are a gift,” served as that foundation just as Zechariah’s words did for John. Hopefully, just as these words will for you.
You are a gift. In the name of our Foundation — God, Spirit, Son — Amen.