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‘In the days of King Herod of Judea’ – Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader

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Title: ‘In the days of King Herod of Judea’

Preacher: Canon Peter Collier KC, Cathedral Reader 

Readings: Judges 13:2 -7, 24-25; Luke 1:5-25

Psalm: Psalm 71

Date: Sunday 23 June 2024, The Eve of the Birth of St John the Baptist 

 

May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea”. One of the things about Luke’s writing, which is very often about miraculous and other worldly things, is that he always grounds what he is describing in its real, historical, and political context. So here in Ch 1, it is “in the days of King Herod of Judea”. Similarly, in chapter 3 it begins “in the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius”. Luke knew that any work of God, any experience of God is, always rooted in a real place and time. So for us today, living Christ’s story is done here and now in the days of a conservative government, a labour controlled local council and whatever other political context you want to give, as well as your own family and other social contexts. Because our experiences of God as we follow Jesus Christ here and now can happen only in those real-life contexts.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea” there was a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Let’s look for a moment at their here and now. Zechariah was a priest from, as they would say, “up north”. He came to Jerusalem twice a year when it was the turn of his division of priests to do their Temple ministry for a week.

Zechariah was married to a priest’s daughter, so would be regarded as especially blessed. Their piety as a couple was well known. They kept the laws and followed all the relevant regulations. They were faithful people.

But they were childless, and they were now both getting on in age; their days were almost over. And that absence of children was a source of much pain and grief to them. Elizabeth in particular would have felt ashamed amongst other woman, as the law seemed to say that if you were faithful then you would be fruitful and have families. And she would have been very self-conscious of how others viewed her, and what she sensed they were saying about her behind her back.

But let’s be clear about this – suffering pain is not sin. And many today suffer pain in their families, or perhaps because of their families or maybe because of how other people look at them. Feeling different, feeling excluded is a common experience, especially in a religious environment. And it can be very painful. I expect there will be many here this evening, who feel real pain for some such reason. And if you take nothing else away tonight it should be that to be in pain is not to sin. Because like Zechariah and Elizabeth we can remain faithful and trusting in God whatever we are going through in or families, in our church, and whoever is running the country.

“In the days of King Herod of Judea”, Zechariah was about to have a remarkable spiritual experience. God who seemed to have been silent for 400 years, was about to speak prophetically to Zechariah through the angel Gabriel. It happened on what was a very significant day for Zechariah. Significant because he had drawn the lot that day to offer the incense at the altar. According to Jewish oral tradition, a priest could only do that once in his lifetime. So for Zechariah as a priest this would have been the most important moment in his whole life.

And as he came to offer the incense, there suddenly appeared an angel. And whatever else he might have expected at that great moment it was not that. And he was terrified. But the angel spoke, and said “Don’t be afraid; your prayer has been heard.”

I am confident that the prayer that was referred to by Gabriel was not a prayer for a son, but the prayer that he and the nation prayed day after day, longing for God to come as he had promised and once again redeem his people. In a couple of chapters’ time Luke will also tell us about Simeon, whose song – the Nunc Dimittis – the choir has sung again tonight, and of 84 year old Anna. He tells us that they both spent their time in the temple praying for God’s salvation to come. And the answer to Zechariah’s prayer is that God is about to come and redeem his people and that Zechariah and Elizabeth are to have the Elijah like child who will come and prepare the way and get people ready for the Messiah to come. And so, says Gabriel, they and many others will have a lot of joy because of what this child, their child to be, will do.

Now Zechariah cannot get his head round this, it is all too much for him. How can this happen he says. I am old. My wife is getting on in years. I just don’t get it! I can’t get it!

The angel responds by saying that he had come directly from God to tell him this and because he hadn’t believed it, he would now be mute until the child was born.

Now all this would have taken a little time and it meant that he was in the sanctuary longer than people expected and they began to wonder what was going on. And when he did come out, obviously he couldn’t tell them what had happened and it must have been a very weird sight as he tried to indicate in some sort of basic sign language what had happened. They realised he had had some sort of extraordinary spiritual experience, perhaps a vision. Of course later he would be able to write down what had happened, and no doubt when he got home at the end of the week that’s what he would do to break the news to Elizabeth.

And as we know in due course it all came to pass.

Spiritual experiences can have many different effects, sometimes quite dramatic as with Zechariah or you perhaps remember in the Old Testament, Jacob when he wrestled with God went away limping. Sometimes as here there is an impact that is visible to other people. Though more often that is not the case.

But when we do have an experience of God very often it takes time to work out what has happened, what it means and how we move forward from there. Zechariah needed time to do that processing – there were to be a lot of implications to what he’d just been told – a baby when it was really time for grandchildren, the boy would have to grow up with them, there were special instructions about the diet – no alcohol whatsoever. And what about all that lay ahead for the boy as the Elijah like prophet; how different their lives were going to be from now on. There was an awful lot for Zechariah to process.  And God gave him time, time when he couldn’t talk but could do a lot of that internal processing.

And when we have any experience of God in our lives we need to pause and reflect and process what it means.

So on the eve of the feast of the birth of John the Baptist what are we to make of all this? What impact might it have on our lives in the days not of King Herod of Judea but of King Charles of Windsor? What are our circumstances? Our here and now? Are we feeling excluded and consequently experiencing pain? Are we open to experience God in new ways? And are we making space to process what we do experience of God, day by day and week by week?

May it be so for his name’s sake. Amen.

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