Once upon a time there was an elderly priest named Zechariah. He had been serving God faithfully for a long time. He was a priest in the temple, a direct descendant in the lineage of Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Luke tells us that he was a good and righteous man who fulfilled his role faithfully, being earnest in his prayers and devoted in his service to the people and, most importantly, to God.
Zechariah was also a man who’d been waiting on God a long time. He’d kept the commandments and performed the rites of his tradition faithfully and well. But lately, something had been troubling him. He was getting older, silver-haired now, and he and his wife Elizabeth had never been able to have a child. His concern wasn’t for himself alone—he was sad for Elizabeth, who felt the stigma of being “barren” (in those days, being childless was seen as a lack of God’s favor)—but he was also worried that there was no one to take over his priestly duties at the temple when he was too old to perform them. Who would lead and serve the people? And so he prayed, hoping that God might answer his concern in a new way.
On a day that probably seemed like any other, it was Zechariah’s turn to serve in the temple, and he drew the lot that indicated he would make the incense offering to God. This was significant because the tradition of making an incense offering at dawn and twilight each day was an instruction that God himself had given directly to Moses. God had also provided the recipe for the incense and said that when his priests made the offering, “I will meet with you; it shall be unto you most holy.”
As Zechariah made the incense offering that day, maybe he didn’t expect God to keep his word—“I will meet with you”—in such a dramatic fashion. But suddenly, there, just to the right of the altar, stood an angel. Think about that for a moment. You’ve been praying to God about something difficult, something you really need help with. And you’re in the produce aisle at Kroger, or you’re doing the dishes, or you’re changing the channel on the television, when suddenly, unexplainably, without warning, there is an angel standing there on your right. Right there. How do our minds make sense of that? What do we say? In our normal lives, we pray and we pray but I wonder how many of us really expect the holy to break into our reality so directly. In a moment of holy encounter, we might rub our eyes and wonder whether we’re dreaming, but I think our hearts would know—and glow—if we could be still enough to notice.
In his encounter, Zechariah was understandably shaken, but the angel tells him not to be afraid—he brings good news. Zechariah’s prayers have been heard and are being answered. They will have a son named John, and he will bring joy and gladness to them. But even more importantly, this boy will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth—he will be instrumental in opening the way for the arrival of God’s love and light in the world. The angel tells Zechariah that John will have the spirit and power of Elijah, and he will play a big part in preparing the people for the Lord. What more could a devoted priest like Zechariah want?
But in that overwhelming moment, Zechariah’s mind was on overdrive as he tried to make sense of what was happening. Instead of simply taking in what the angel was telling him, he had questions. “How will I know this is so?” he asks, hoping for a sign of some sort, evidence that he is not dreaming or under the spell of some bad incense.
It’s part of the way we humans are made that our brains work hard at trying to make sense of our circumstances. This is that ancient amygdala working in the center of our brains, trying to keep us safe. But if our thoughts are running the show—if we are leap into action instead of settling down and getting quiet—we may miss the blessing God has for in that moment of contact, wherever and whatever it might be.
Gabriel immediately knows the struggle going on in Zechariah’s mind and decides to give him a gift of silence, a way to calm him and keep him from messing up the miracle that will be unfolding in the earthly realm. He tells Zechariah he is removing his ability to speak until the appointed time. Moments later, as Zechariah walks out among the people in the temple court, he’s unable to give them his customary blessing, although he tries.
In the commentary, Feasting on the Gospels, editor Cynthia Jarvis says,
“Zechariah was hardly the first to be struck mute in the presence of the holy…When the holy crashes into our world, and our assumptions are confronted with new realities, a response of fear, shock and even speechlessness would seem to be reasonable.
Was Zechariah’s speechlessness a punishment or a natural response to the presence of the holy? Was it perhaps a sign that God was at work? … might it also suggest that human speechlessness helps God to be heard, especially when God’s word falls so far beyond the scope of our experiences or expectations? In other words, is the problem that God is not speaking or that we are?”
That is a great question. Have you ever had a case of laryngitis so bad that you simply couldn’t make a sound? Perhaps the doctor told you not to try—you don’t want to strain your vocal chords—and maybe you struggled through with a whisper or wrote notes so you could still get things done. Being without a voice—for a day or a week or even longer, as in Zechariah’s case—would certainly be jarring and inconvenient and a challenge when we need to deal with the practical things of life.
But we could also look at it another way. Everything would change if we knew—because the angel said so—that the silence was a gift, a kind of “time out” for our minds, giving us a chance to receive and hear more, know more, see more, unhindered by our mind’s continual attempts to make sense of the world and offer it our opinions.
It could be a delicious release of pressure. We don’t have to speak. We don’t have to decide. We don’t need an opinion. It might bring us a bigger awareness of why and how and when we do speak. Are words really needed now? Are they going to help this situation? Perhaps a little silence would be better.
It reminds me of a drawing I saw last week. A man is sitting in profile at the top of a hill, and in big white letters above his head, the text reads, “A wise man once said…nothing.”
Silence has been an important part of Quaker worship as long as our tradition has existed. George Fox discovered that Christ comes to teach his people himself and the only thing needed is a receptive, earnest, listening soul. In 1654, Margaret Fell wrote an Epistle to Friends, saying:
“Therefore, my dear hearts, be faithful every one in your particular measure of God’s gift which he hath given you, and on the invisible wait in silence, and patience, and in obedience to that which opens to the mystery of God, and leads to the invisible God, which no mortal eye can reach unto, or behold.”
When in silence we become willing to experience God, already here, we start to change, inwardly and outwardly. A sense of peace and ease begins to glow within us. Instead of our thoughts rushing like a raging river, with a torrent of plans and comments and replayed memories, they slow to a gentle stream, leaving us plenty of time to breathe in beauty and rest. With a little practice, it gets easier and easier to turn from that loud, rushing, river of thought to quiet reality of God’s presence, simple and sweet, immediate and close. That is a miracle worth being silent for.
I’m glad to say that what the angel said to Zechariah that day did come to pass, and his voice came back at the appointed time. When the baby arrived, neighbors came to rejoice with them and they asked Elizabeth the baby’s name. When she said, “His name is John,” they were surprised, because the tradition was to name the first-born son after the father. They asked Zechariah, who motioned for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” At that moment, his speech returned and he began praising God out loud. This startling event—the holy breaking into the here-and-now right before their eyes—frightened the neighbors and they went scurrying over the countryside, telling what they’d seen and asking, “What then will this child become?’ For indeed,” the scripture says, “the hand of the Lord was with him” and it was evident even before his birth.
It’s important for us this Christmas to remember that the hand of the Lord is with us, too. We might not see angels—but we may. We might not yet have the answer to that prayer, but it is probably on its way. Perhaps we can remember, when the holy comes crashing into our world in small and big ways, that turning toward peace is an option. Instead of resisting, questioning, or doubting that the contact is from God, perhaps the better choice is to just stop speaking, stop struggling, stop thinking for a moment and start listening.
None of us knows what God has for us next. Maybe a new adventure? A new idea? A prayed-for healing? Help for someone we love? A new possibility we haven’t considered? A sweet and unexpected blessing?
Yes and yes and yes and yes. Everything is possible, if we can allow God’s love within us to speak and lead and teach. We might not know what God has for us next, but God does, and we can trust that. And as our trust in God grows, and we get better at turning toward stillness when we’re tempted to react, the peace that shines naturally from us—on our faces, in our voices, through the circumstances of our lives—shares that of God with everyone we meet. And the incense—the sweet perfume of God’s presence–gets offered once again.
- NT: Luke 1: 5-25
- Feasting on the Gospels—Luke, Volume 1 [pg 10]: https://www.amazon.com/Feasting-Gospels-Luke-Word-Commentary/dp/0664235514