When I was growing up, family vacations had a similar rhythm pretty much every year. My parents picked a place that was a few hours away and the 6 of us packed into our minivan and headed somewhere on the outskirts of the Midwest. As we started out, we would be playing our game boys, looking at the scenery or just conversing with one another. But before long we would start to get antsy and then one of us would ask that question that is required by every child under the age of 12. That question is of course, “Are we there yet?” There are two things that seemed to occur when this question continued to be asked by my 3 younger siblings or me. First, my dad seemed to stomp on the gas a little harder hoping that if we can make it there five minutes earlier it would keep us from asking that question one more time. The second thing that occurred was that my mom would make up games that involved the 4 of us children staying quiet for as long as possible. I think my mom could have made a best selling book with games involving silence for children under 12 on vacation. They started with the simple “Let’s see who can stay silent the longest” to the more complicated “How about we write down all the state capitals from all 50 states.” And when that started to fade, she would make up games that involved each of us individually. She knew that my brother Kyle loved tractors, so she would have him write down all the tractors that dad owned on the farm with some descriptions about them. Looking back, all my mom and dad were looking for was some silence. Silence allowed them peace and quiet if only for a little bit.
Silence wasn’t so great for Zachariah. You see he was a priest who was performing various duties in the Temple. In the middle of worship it was his job to offer incense in the most Holy part of the temple. So while people are worshiping he goes into this part of the temple and he runs into an angel. The angel named Gabriel tells Zachariah that his wife is going to have a child. And this was not just some hazy promise of one day having a child. But this was a full on vision and promise, with details including the baby’s name, calling and future. He was to be called John, be raised under strict guidelines, and promised to be a prophet like Elijah.
This would often be cause for celebration, but you see, Zach is way past the age to have children and so is, Elizabeth, his wife. So instead this is where you expect Zachariah to laugh or ask if the angel has the wrong address or ask the angel to repeat what he just said.
Now Zechariah and Elizabeth certainly wanted to have children, but they were unable to have one when they were in the child rearing years, so they figured that was that. This fact, though, left them in an awkward position since everyone could plainly see that they were not part of God’s promise to Abraham that was about multiplying their descendants. Those able to have lots of children were obviously part of that ancient covenant between God and Abraham, so to be barren seemed to leave them outside that promise.
So what is Zachariah’s response to the angel that is bringing him this news? His response isn’t angelic like Mary’s who sings a song rather it’s the same response that I would have and probably many of you would have as well. He found the angel’s message laughable and asked, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy? Maybe you meant to bring this message to the other priest who is half my age.”
But because of Zachariah’s response of how unbelievable all this sounds, he is to be struck mute until his son John is born. Silence.
But unlike my parents hope for our long car rides on vacation, Zachariah did not expect to find God (or at least peace) in the silence. So why does God silence him? I think it was because Zachariah was not ready to share the promise of the good news that God has given him.
Picture this for a moment; Zachariah has this congregation that is waiting for him to return from deep inside the temple. They are getting restless because Zachariah has been back there longer than he should have been. It’s like how many of you who have been around long enough know when there is an unintended silence in the worship service. Zachariah’s congregation knows something is up.
But if Zachariah had been able to talk, he would have come out laughing or disbelieving and the message to his congregation might have sounded something like this, “You will never believe what happened because neither do I, but this angel came to me and told me some really crazy things. He told me that Elizabeth is going to be pregnant. What a nut! That angel is going to get his wings taken away for that kind of nonsense. When God hears what horrible rumors Gabriel is passing around, he is going to be de-commissioned. He even told me the name of the child among other things. Wow that incense must have been even stronger than I thought.”
But instead he comes out mute and everyone seems to know that Zachariah has seen God. So instead of spreading doubt to the people he is struck mute. He was afraid. And can you blame him. If the angel’s message were true he has some long sleepless nights that he could have handled 30 years ago, but those days are gone. So he hears the message from God and he doubts. This muteness, this silence, then, is perhaps not welcome for Zachariah, but it plays an important role—it points to the power of God. Because Zachariah is unable to speak, everyone knows that Zach’s message is really true. Perhaps the silence then is a gift after all…at least in God’s eyes. And who wouldn’t enjoy a mute pastor for at least a few months.
The famous pastor and writer Frederick Buechner had a good friend who died in his sleep. As Buechner says, good for his friend, but a bit hard for those who did not get a chance to tell him goodbye. A few months after the death, Buechner and his wife were staying with this friend’s widow. And that night Buechner had a dream. A simple dream where his friend came to him and talked with him. Buechner told his friend how much he missed him and finally asked, “Are you really there?” His friend’s response was to pull a strand of blue wool from his shirt and throw it to Buechner, who caught it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he woke up.
When he shared that dream at breakfast, his wife mentioned seeing a strand of blue wool on the floor by the bed. Something she had wondered about because it had not been there the night before. Buechner ran upstairs and sure enough there was the blue wool.
He doesn’t say exactly how he felt, but I get a sort of odd feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach just reading about it. Buechner does admit that he doubts. That the thread could have been there all along, unnoticed the night before.
Fear and doubt seem to be natural reactions to the direct intervention of God in our lives. So Zachariah’s reaction fits.
But it’s the midst of those fears and doubts where we hear the promise as well. The promise of God’s son who will be born this season into a world full of fear and doubts. God made flesh. For some of us this promise might leave us silenced for a bit. What does it mean that Jesus was born in a manger 2000 years ago in a town called Bethlehem? We need to see something more concrete before we can go forward sharing this promise. And that’s ok because I am struck by one final thing about this text. And that is that Zachariah is not silenced forever. He is silenced until he sees the promise himself in the flesh and blood of his son, John. Sometimes in the silence we are able to see things and experience things that we are not able to see otherwise. For Zachariah it allowed him time to understand that this promise was real and it was coming like it or not. For my parents it allowed them just a moment of peace in an otherwise crazy (and loud) existence with 4 young children. For us it might mean finding moments this Advent season to find some peace and quite in the midst of all the craziness and busyness that this season brings. May God meet us in our silence.