Several years ago I heard a sermon on this passage that didn’t sit well with me. The sermon interpreted Zechariah’s muteness following his angelic encounter as punishment for his lack of faith in the promises of God. I can see how the preacher got that from the Bible story— Gabriel says “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.” That “because” word suggests the imposed silence is a consequence of Zechariah’s unbelief. Can we interpret this as a punitive consequence? Sure. But need we hear it as a punitive consequence? I think not.
As I have shared with some here already, Kevin and I endured a four-year fertility struggle before we were blessed with the gift of Caroline. Four years, that sounds rather paltry. But four years is 48 months– 48 consecutive months of cycles of hope and disappointment, each disappointment more crushing than the one before. Even a one-year struggle to conceive leaves scars; every additional year the scars deepen. I share this memory, this testimony, because we’ve just entered into the season of Advent— a season of improbable pregnancies, of expectation, of hope— and if anyone in this community is currently in the midst of a fertility struggle, or even in the midst of supporting or loving someone in such a struggle, these can be painful stories to hear. It seems to be inevitable… when one deeply desires a baby, everywhere one looks one sees a pregnant belly, a babe in arms, a stroller… and then when one comes to church and hears about old women conceiving, and virgins conceiving… well, it can all feel like just a bit too much.
I think though, that the experience of infertility is what allows me to read Zechariah’s response, and eventual silence, differently than some of my colleagues might. It is surely this experience that leads me to interpret his silence more as a gift than a punishment, to interpret it as a wholly fitting response to the promises he heard.
Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “getting on in years.” Later in the story Zechariah uses this phrase again to describe his wife and flat out calls himself an old man. The angel suggests that the promises he is bearing are answers to prayer. Elizabeth says at the end of the passage that her miraculous conception has taken away the disgrace that she had endured among her people. Endured. This disgrace, this shame… it has been an enduring experience, a lasting experience. They are getting on in years. For years they have wanted to conceive new life. For years they have prayed. How many consecutive 12-month cycles of hope and disappointment did they endure? Surely more than my four. 10? 15? 20?
Zechariah is fulfilling his priestly duty when the angel shows up. He is doing what he has done countless times before. He traveled to Jerusalem from the hill country outside the city to stay in the temple for a period of priestly service. He was selected by lot to burn incense in the holy of holies, the innermost part of the temple, while the people of Israel prayed in the outer chambers of the temple. It strikes me that just as Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for YEARS for a child, so too had he been carrying out these priestly functions for YEARS. The angel’s appearance disrupts the continuity and stability of those many years. And what the angel says is even more disruptive. Gabriel offers BIG promises— by my count- five of them— or four expansions on one main promise.
First, main Promise- Elizabeth will bear a son who is to be named John.
Second Promise- You and many will have joy!
Third Promise- The child will be great.
Fourth Promise- The child will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Fifth Promise— The child will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
I suspect that Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up hope for a child of their own some time before. So the first–the main, the root– promise was staggering. But the second promise, or the first expansion, the promise of joy, that was no less staggering. I suspect that the cumulative burden of disappointment and disgrace had robbed them of any expectation of, let alone experience of, joy. They probably were striving for contentment instead. Joy? Nah. Too much. Not possible. And as for the rest of it— a great child, filled with the Holy Spirit, who will turn many of the people of Israel towards God— surely for a righteous couple, a priest’s household, they could have had no higher hopes for a child to be born to them. This child was to be a carrier of hope for the salvation of their people. These were HUGE promises. Mind-blowing promises.
“How will I know?” He asks. Of course he does… these promises are spoken into an air thick with disappointment, grief, shame…. each of these emotions clouding Zechariah’s vision like the smoke of the incense swirling about him. And Gabriel responds “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.” Here’s how I hear his response- You can trust my words, Zechariah, because they’re God’s words. But I see that this is difficult for you. So you’ll hold these words, these promises, in silence until you can see for yourself that they are true.
I think it is a gift that Zechariah didn’t have to go home and tell Elizabeth what he had heard. What could he have said that would have sounded believable, trustworthy? Nothing. And when Elizabeth conceived her son, she kept herself in seclusion for six months— secluded with her silent husband. It seems to me that Elizabeth too, in the midst of this great expectation, needed to keep silence. We get one line out of her— one line that speaks to her awe, and her grief. Awe and grief- Awe at what is promised. Grief over what has not yet come pass, and what has transpired in all the years of waiting. Awe plus grief is, I think, a great formula for silence. When such great promises are spoken to broken hearts, silence, it seems is most appropriate. Silence leaves space and time for the words to sink in. For the recipients of the promise to come to believe…
Elizabeth was in seclusion for six months we’re told— six months is right about the time that, for many first time moms, one’s pregnancy becomes much more apparent to the world— one’s belly asserts itself. And six months is even around the time when pregnancy becomes more apparent to moms themselves, as they start to feel the baby move with some regularity… six months is a time when indeed, it would have been beginning to become apparent that these promises are being fulfilled… the day of their fulfillment is drawing near. But I know that even as my belly grew, even as I felt movement within me, even as I actively labored (6 years ago this week)— I struggled to believe that I was actually bringing a baby into the world. Even for a full month after she arrived it all felt unreal. Perhaps if I had been able to seclude myself, to sit in silence for a spell… it might have been easier to give my heart fully to the promise of the child within. Perhaps.
I know that most of us are not hoping against hope for babies right now. But all of us are the recipients of great promises— every time we come to worship, and perhaps especially in this season, we hear the promises of God— promises of grace, hope, and peace— promises of wholeness, salvation, light that darkness will not overcome, WORLD changing promises— promises of change to our personal worlds and the world as a whole. And they are spoken to a world, and a people in the world, that needs changing– a world where young people die violent deaths; a world where centuries of injustice and inequality bursts forth into angry protests and cities on fire; a world where too many people are hungry, and lonely, and afraid. Often the response to the brokenness of our world is a whole lot of chatter— and there’s a place for this. There’s a place for lament. But today I want to let this story of Zechariah invite us to claim pockets of silence in this season— moments when we sit with our grief over a broken world and our awe at the promise of its healing— sit and let the promise sink deeply in.
Hard to imagine, I’m sure, in these whirling, hectic days— but we have prayer chapel here… that welcomes your silence. Or perhaps you connect more readily with God’s promise in nature— I’m sure you can bundle up and sit by the river or walk through the woods. Or perhaps there’s a special spot in your home— where you might sit with a cup of tea. Or perhaps your silence comes on a yoga mat. However it comes… may God grant each of us the gift of silence this Advent— for this will prepare us to receive the joy that God promises to deliver.