God’s story of interacting with humans is peppered with interruptions. Lots of them!
Just think about it for a moment – from the serpent interrupting Eve in her daily food gathering, to Joseph being sold as a slave, to Moses surprised by a burning bush, to Samson bringing the house down on his captors’ party, to Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den, to the grace of Cyrus, king of Persia, to let the people return to their homeland.
Who can help but smile at the donkey who interrupted the deceitful prophet Balaam in his journey of treachery. Or who can fail to cheer when Saul is thrown off his horse, interrupting his mission of terror. Jesus’ ministry was a continuous stream of interruptions. How many times do we read that Jesus was “on the road to…” or “on His way to…” when something significant happened? He was a guest at a wedding when the party ran out of wine. This interruption began Jesus’ miracle ministry. Remember the time he was on his way to heal a child, when a woman interrupted him, touching his clothes to receive healing? Or Bartimaeus calling Jesus aside from his journey to Jerusalem in order to be healed of his blindness.
And these are only a few of the stories. The Advent story is full of interruptions! Luke sets his pen to telling the educated Theophilus about the story of Jesus. He seems compelled to reassure Theophilus that the stories he had heard about Jesus were true, and there was even more to be told. And so, Luke begins. Where does he begin the story of Jesus? The story of Zechariah starts it all off, a landslide of life interrupted!
Zechariah was a priest in the division of Abijah. All the priests descended from the line of Aaron were divided into 24 divisions, taking their turn in Temple service for one week, twice each year. Each day, the lot is cast to see which priest will have the privilege of performing the tasks inside the Temple’s Holy Place. There are about 18,000 priests who regularly served at the temple, but only one could go into the Holy Place and burn incense as they prepared for the sacrificial offering. As a priest, one would only get the chance to do this once in a lifetime.
At this momentous beginning, the lot fell to Zechariah. There were probably a myriad of emotions he was dealing with. On the one hand, there was the excitement that came from having this incredible honor that he had anticipated all of his life. On the other hand, there was probably a holy fear of what it meant to minister in God’s presence. To step inside the Temple was far from safe. When the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies once each year, a rope was tied around his waist so that if he was struck dead, he could be pulled out. The first sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu were consumed by fire because they dared prepare the incense in their own way. King Uzziah also was struck ill and lived the rest of his live in confinement because he dared to light the incense in the Temple himself. Isaiah, the prophet remembered this judgement when he saw the Lord in the Temple: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips… and I have seen the Lord Almighty!” (Isaiah 6:5). Zechariah knew all these stories. He knew that this task was done in fear and trembling, in awe of the presence of God.
The altar in the Holy Place was just in front of a tall curtain behind which was the Holy of Holies. This is where the Ark of the Covenant resided and where the Jews believed the very presence of God’s glory dwelt. This is as close as Zechariah will ever get to that place.
Zechariah would burn incense that day at the altar. The mixture of spices produced a heavy smoke that symbolized two things. First, it pictured the prayers of God’s people, rising up to heaven. It would be seen outside as it filled up the room and billowed out from the openings around the tops of the walls. Second, it was also shielded the priest from God’s presence, so the priest would not die from seeing God.
As the incense Zechariah lit filled the Temple, a messenger from God appears at the right side of the altar. Why the right side? The right is considered the side of favor. So this is supposed to be a positive sign. Now keep in mind that Zechariah is standing inside the Temple. The other priests and the people are standing in the courtyard outside praying and seeing the incense rise – a good sign. But before long the crowd grew anxious. He was taking too long! Something was wrong.
The priestly routine was abruptly interrupted by a messenger from God.
I found a website this week called changingminds.org. It’s purpose is to provide resources for all the ways we “change what others think, believe, feel and do.”  An article described the “interruption principle.” One way that we can influence people to change is by finding a familiar pattern and then interrupting it. Then use the confusion of the interruption to change minds. They offer questions which can work as interruptions to a chain of thinking or patterns of conversation. We use this principle at the Shepherd and the Knucklehead. When someone begins to talk as if things just are that way, we can simply tilt the head and gently say, “I wonder about that.”
We live most of our lives by following familiar patterns, often enacting rituals and playing social games or retracing thought cycles without realizing that we are doing them. On the one hand, these patterns help us cope and allow us to handle things without too much thinking. But on the other hand, they keep us stuck in a rut, when new thinking is required. Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” 
An interruption breaks a pattern. And when a pattern is broken, we become confused and start to seek new patterns in order to re-establish our sense of control. In this brief period of seeking, we are open to new ideas and will even grasp at straws. The interruption first puts us into confusion and then gets us off the dime, open to new possibilities.
The interruption principle worked perfectly on Zechariah, as it had on Isaiah, Balaam, Joseph, Moses, Paul and many others. For Zechariah, though, he got a double interruption.
First, his priestly duties were interrupted by a messenger from God. Its kind of ironic, really. Here he is, moving about in the dwelling place of God, praying with all Israel for God to come and save them. Yet, he is shocked into fear when God’s word comes to him. How many times do we come here on Sunday and just go through the motions? We walk in, sit down, stand up, sing, sit down, stand up, and walk out. Do we meet God? What if God showed up in the kind of presence Zechariah experienced? I must confess that I would be much like Zechariah, or Isaiah – Woe is me! I love the pattern of our life together, of our music and prayers in this place. But do I come expecting God to show up? Even though we invite God repeatedly to do just that? Usually God comes to us in much quieter ways, off the beaten path with no one around, in an animal stable…. But we’ll get to that part of the story in a couple of weeks.
Zechariah was given a second interruption. A long-term interruption of his lifestyle. Zechariah was given the interruption of silence. Some of our wake-up call interruptions are like a sudden rush of awareness, accompanied by a racing heart, sweating palms, an eerie sense of not knowing where we are. But then, just as suddenly, we know that we are okay, we take a deep breath and begin to live into what has changed. It didn’t work this way for Zechariah. He had a long time to reflect on what had happened to him. He didn’t get the opportunity to make excuses or explanations or amends. Just silence. The gift of silence was his journey into change.
There might be something for us to learn in this. Sometimes changing our mind, which is essentially the meaning of repentance, is something that happens in silence. When all our posturing and need to be right sloughs off and we are left with the silence of our souls. In that place the still small voice of God whispers in immense confidence that we are not alone, and that is all that matters. The advent of God.
God’s interruptions are often not easy to accept. They often look like disasters. Like life cannot go on from here. There are people in the life of our community who we thought we could not live without. Yet, some of those, God has taken to his presence. And we are asked to enlarge our faith, to live big into God’s vision of reality. These difficult interruptions force us to rely on God and each other to face whatever is next.
Then, of course, there are the delightful interruptions. Zechariah had one of these too. A child. A long-desired child was born to him and Elizabeth. And a child is definitely an interruption! A child running around the house making noise and breaking things. Joys are interruptions, too. Our gifts change our lives and our ways as much as our losses.
One more thing. We often think of these gifts and losses, these interruptions, as threats to God’s way in the world. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe they are not interruptions to God’s way at all. The opening couplet of a poem by C.P. Cavafy seemed to me to get it just right:
Hasty and awkward creatures of the moment,
it is we who interrupt the action of the gods.
Advent simply means “coming.” The truth is that God is always coming to us. We notice when we pay attention. And Zechariah learned to pay attention, in his priestly duties, in his silence. Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mysteries, Yes,” says it so well.
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
…Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads. 
In the meantime…, expect interruptions.
 C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992;
 “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver, from Evidence: Poems. © Beacon Press, 2010.