Third Sunday of Advent - Choral Evensong

  • Preacher

    The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

  • Readings

    Isaiah 35; Luke 1.57-66

He is speechless. He emerged from the holy place unable to say a word.

What he’d heard had left him without the words with which to respond.  Zechariah was speechless. The reason for this was because of what the angel had told him as he was going about his priestly duties at the altar of incense in the tabernacle of God, the temple, that his barren wife was to be fruitful, that in his old age he was to become a father. What he heard had left him doubting not only his own sanity but the very word of God – and with his last words he questions God.

Sarah was reduced to laughter.  She overheard from another tabernacle.  She was at her duties preparing food in the tent for three strangers.  They were speaking to her husband of a child, her child.  But she was as dried up as the wilderness they’d been travelling through.  It was a joke, it was a laugh – and she laughed and the angels heard her and took the smile off her face.

An unnamed woman is out in the field, doing her work when an angel startles her.  She has no children, she can’t have children, she can’t bring joy to her husband Manoah.  But the angel tells her she will have a child.  So she tells her husband who wants to hear it for himself – a woman’s voice could not be trusted and he prays for a second angelic visit.  But again the angel comes to the woman, who, when he appears, asks him to wait whilst she fetches her husband.

A young girl was collecting water at the well.  It was the village well where she always went with her mother.  Now she is alone and an angel appears.  She was a young girl, not yet a woman but doing a woman’s work.  She was to have a child, the angel says.  But how could this be, she was a virgin.  But she does not laugh, she does not disbelieve, she does not seek out another witness, she simply says ‘Let it be to me as you have said’. And with that the angel goes and she picks up her jug of water.

God surprises people throughout the scriptures and they react, they respond. But none respond with the clarity and the courage and the trust of Mary.  But for all of them, whatever their initial reaction, when God’s outrageous promises were fulfilled there was liberation.

As the prophet Isaiah said in our First Lesson

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

R S Thomas speaks in his poem ‘Arrival’ of the end of the journey of the traveller and concludes it like this

catching this
one truth by surprise 
that there is everything to look forward to.

There was everything to look forward to for Sarah and Abraham, for Manoah and his unnamed wife, for Elizabeth and Zechariah, for Mary – there was everything to look forward to – Isaac, Samson, John, Jesus – each the unexpected child, the catch your breath miracle, that takes the words from the mouth, that stops the heart for a second, that makes the inner tears give way to outward laughter, that makes the wilderness blossom and the fruitless fertile.  This is the surprising way God works, this is part of our Advent journey. We must live as people expecting the unexpected.