Rev. Teri C Peterson
Luke 1.5-13, 18-22, 57-80
20 December 2015, Advent 4, NL 2-15
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years. They probably knew it was Zechariah’s last time in the rotation of priests called to offer sacrifices and prayer at the Temple. He would make this journey, and he would do his duty, serving God and people, and when he journeyed home he might still do a few things around the local synagogue now and then, but he wasn’t likely to have extensive work duties anymore.
I wonder what Elizabeth did while he was away, with her last chance for a little peace and quiet. I’m sure she knew that when her husband retired, nothing would be the same. Especially with no children or grandchildren around, the transition to just the two of them at home all the time…well, I suspect that it was as rocky then as it is now for many couples!
Imagine her surprise when he returned home and said nothing.
I suspect there are some couples who would find the unexpected silence a beautiful and joyous thing, especially in those early days of retirement.
And some might find it unnerving, at least at first.
We don’t know what Zechariah did to communicate with Elizabeth. Perhaps he wrote on tablets for her—though it’s unlikely that she could read. Maybe he was a very good mime. Or maybe she was so happy to have some time to think her own thoughts that it didn’t matter what he wanted to say. Either way, the silence was always there.
This Advent season we have been exploring different ways to give voice to God’s promise—we’ve heard about when the Israelites rediscovered God’s law and they spent time together listening to God’s word, we’ve pondered how to speak God’s unending faithfulness to a people who are fickle and shallow in comparison to God’s grace, we’ve persevered in following God’s call in the midst of opposition and heartache. In many ways, today’s story feels the most like the theme—because it ends with Zechariah literally giving voice to God’s promise. He sings this song that tells all that God has done and proclaims this great faith in what God will do. Our candlelighting liturgy says “God’s promise is the foundation of all life”—reminding us of true reality, and our job to find ways to make God’s love known and seen in the world. With his song, Zechariah is practically the poster child for Advent 2015: Giving Voice to God’s Promise. He lifts up his voice and lets the word be heard, echoing through him, his family, his town, and history.
But I think it’s possible that the real lesson in Zechariah’s story comes not from his amazing song, but from the silence which precedes it—a silence that probably lasted about a year.
Zechariah, as a priest, was probably used to knowing just what to say. But when Gabriel appeared in the inner sanctuary and gave him the news that he and Elizabeth would have a son after all these years…well, he did not say the right thing.
I am often asked why Zechariah’s question got him punished, while Mary’s question to Gabriel got her an answer. On the surface, it really does seem as if both of them, in their encounters with the angel, responded in the same way, but the angel Gabriel reacted very differently. Why?
Zechariah meets Gabriel in the inner sanctuary, next to the altar—a place where ordinarily no one was allowed, so he should have known something special was happening. When he hears Gabriel’s news of an impending son who will be a great prophet, he asks, “How will I know?” Or in the newest English translation, the Common English Bible, he says “How can I be sure?” Mary meets Gabriel in the midst of everyday life. Some traditions suggest he met her at the town well, others in her kitchen. In any case, he delivers the news that she will bear the Son of God, and Mary asks “How will this happen?”
Mary’s question seems to be one of mechanics—how will this thing be accomplished? To ask that question, she must have already known it could and would happen—she simply wanted to know what any young person might want to know. Would she have to break her engagement vows? Will it hurt?
Zechariah’s question is one of control—how will he know? How can he be sure this thing is really going to happen? It seems like he doesn’t want to get his hopes up again, after so many years of disappointment and grief, so he is looking for certainty for himself.
In other words: Zechariah’s question reveals his fear, while Mary’s reveals her trust. Mary’s question is a “yes, and…” response, while Zechariah offers Gabriel a “yes, but…” When we are acting out of fear, we often try to get concrete answers, to control outcomes, and to force certainty. Zechariah did not trust that God could or would do this thing—he needed personal certainty if he was going to walk home and face his wife with this news.
We usually read the silence as a punishment, but what if it was a gift? Without his voice, Zechariah has no choice but to trust. He cannot explain himself. He cannot explain things away. He cannot control situations with his intellect or his witty conversation. He cannot defend himself. He can’t force his way. All he can do is listen.
For many months, Zechariah listens. He can see God’s grace taking root in his own house, he can hear the buzz in the square. He must have become very attuned to the excitement and fear and wonder and joy all mingled together everywhere…and to the voices of the women like Elizabeth and Mary, who have space to speak boldly since Zechariah can’t. He, the man of the house, the priest who was chosen for the highest honor, the elder of the community, is silenced, and for perhaps the first time, he has to really pay attention to life, to people, and to God.
At last, John is born and named. Zechariah listens to the wonder and fear of his neighbors…and then finds his voice again. And his first words are a song of trust beyond imagining—he sings of all God’s promises to care for the people, to save them from oppression and fear, to deliver them into abundant life and light. And he sings of all those promises in the past tense. Not “God will do this” but “God has done this.” He sings of God’s goodness as a present reality, and God’s redeeming grace as something that has already been accomplished. Finally able to heed the angel’s instruction to not be afraid, he gives voice to God’s promises fulfilled.
This trust is born out of silence. To trust God at this level—the level where we can see, know, and freely proclaim God’s promises as true reality, and to act from that reality rather than from our fear—we need significant practice letting go of all our means of control and certainty, defense and manipulation. It takes work to move from saying to God “yes, but…” toward saying “yes, and…”, to accept the premise of God’s word and move forward with that into the new thing God is doing in our midst.
That is the practice of Advent—to be still and know God, to listen in the deepening darkness and watch what God can do in the world and people around us, and then to go where God is going. Advent preparation is not about busying ourselves so we can celebrate—it is about emptying ourselves so we can be filled. As the day of God’s birth draws near, let’s listen, and persevere, and trust—and then speak.
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’”
May it be so.