Luke 1:5-25; 37-52
There are so many kinds of silence, aren’t there? There’s the silence as everyone holds their breath during a crucial football pass. There’s the silence before an orchestra concert begins when the conductor holds up his/her hands and everyone waits in anticipation. There’s the silence of having an empty house and not knowing what to do with it; or leaving a full house to go on a walk and clear one’s head.
In our Scripture this morning, there are all kinds of silences to deal with, and each one, in many ways, tells its own story.
In all of the Gospels, Luke is the only one who tells us Zechariah’s story. (There are four books of the Bible that talk about Jesus’ life, and only two of them tell the story of his birth, and only one of those tells us about Zechariah!) But, of course, it is not his story alone. He is married to Elizabeth, and they have been waiting a long time for a child. They’ve been waiting so long, in fact, that they have forgotten they were waiting. They had given up. People had been praying for them for so long, no one knew anymore what to pray for. Zechariah knows what it is to pray for something with all of your heart, and hear only silence in response. That is a lonely silence.
There’s another kind of silence that is also happening in this story, the silence of the community around them. Zechariah and Elizabeth are living in an age where a couple, and mainly the woman, was blamed for not being able to have a child. While it is unfair of me to think that the community would be able to reach outside of this cultural understanding and act any differently, it’s still worth naming that so often communities— whether they be towns or churches or schools or neighborhoods— choose to be silent; and in doing so, magnify the pain that is present in our lives. That is a painful silence.
And then there is the holy silence that is very present in this story, as Zechariah is chosen to offer incense in the Sanctuary of the Lord. This was the holiest of holies, the place where it was thought that God lived, the inner sanctum of the Temple. How quiet it must’ve been as Zechariah entered the most sacred place in all of Jerusalem, with all of his community praying for him just outside, to offer incense on behalf of the people of God. When I think of this moment in Zechariah’s life, I imagine it to be a silence of expectation, of some trepidation, a place of awe. But not even Zechariah was ready for what was about to take place. This is the silence that so many people are scared of— the silence that reveals to us who we really are; a silence that re-flects not only our fears, but our disappointments, our hopes, and our dreams. And it is in that silence that Zechariah looks up from burning incense and finds himself looking straight into the eyes of an angel. And he is overwhelmed by fear.
I realize that it’s a little strange to be talking about silence when our theme is Voices of Courage. But I think silence plays an important role in helping us to know when to use our voices, how to have the courage to use our voices, and how to know what to say when we choose to use our voices.
In 1968, David Francis had an experience that overwhelmed him and changed his life. He was living in LA and driving to work one day when he saw an oil tanker tip over and oil go everywhere. He was astonished by the mess, by the destruction in its wake; and he felt somewhat responsible as someone who drove a car, so he vowed that day that he would walk everywhere from that moment on. Well you can imagine how this went over with friends and family. Everyone thought he was crazy. Everyone argued with him that one person giving up riding in cars was not going to change the world. xxx voice got louder and louder as he argued with people and defended his action and he didn’t like the sound of his own voice anymore. So one day, xxx stopped talking. It was just for a day so that he could find some peace and stop arguing all the time. But what he found, is that he liked it. So the next day, he decided to do it again. And everything changed for him. By choosing not to use his voice, he found that could actually listen to what people were saying all around him instead of trying to think of what to say himself. He no longer felt threatened or challenged when people disagreed with him, because he couldn’t defend his position anyway— so instead he was able to learn all kinds of things that he wouldn’t have understood before. xxx ended up living without speaking for seventeen years. And then when he chose to speak again, he found that his voice was completely different. His habits of listening didn’t go away when he chose again to speak.
When Zechariah hears the angel tell him that he is going to have a child, all these years after he has already given up hope of every having one, Zechariah expresses his disbelief. And it is here that I love Zechariah. Zechariah is a priest— a man who’s supposed to know how to say yes to God, and yet he questions God instead. Zechariah is a man with an active prayer life, whose supposed to know that God answers prayers, and yet he doubts that God will do that. Zechariah is in the holiest place in the whole world— a place where you would think anything can happen— but life has also happened to Zechariah, and so he doesn’t expect to run into God in the very place God lives. In other words, Zechariah is so very much like me— and maybe you too. And while we are told that Zechariah then loses his voice for not believing, which makes it sound like a punishment; I wonder instead, if this is exactly the blessing that Zechariah needed. He no longer had to explain himself or God. He didn’t have the voice to debate with the people around him whether he’d really seen an angel. He didn’t have to come up with some fancy theological reason that God now looked with favor on him and Elizabeth when they have been barren for so long. God gives Zechariah the gift of silence so that he is able to listen to God’s voice instead of his own, and to see what God is doing in his life.
Poet and writer Maya Angelou once wrote “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
Through this gift of silence, Zechariah was able to find the courage to trust in love one more time; to trust in God and God’s amazing promises. So that when Zechariah receives his voice again, at the birth of his son, he begins to sing. He sings of the great things that God has done; he sings God’s amazing promises and God’s infinite mercy. Zechariah sings a song to tell his son who he is— that John will be the one that prepares the way for the Lord; that this child, born miraculously and after much longing and waiting, will be the one who helps the people get ready for the Messiah.
Zechariah finds within himself his voice to courageously proclaim that although things look dark, God’s light is with us; although life can seem empty, God’s promises will be kept; although fears and doubts may be all around you, God’s angels are with us to say to us, “Do not be afraid; God is with you.”
If you are coming to Advent this year with a heavy heart; or with too much to do; or with dreams that you fear you may not be able to make happen, or with grief overwhelming you, then know this— God’s love is meant for you. Do not be ashamed of your doubts or your concerns or your fears. Instead, listen to God’s voice in your life; have the courage to name that which needs to be named in the silence; keep praying and bravely ask those around you to pray; and trust love one more time and always one more time.
Resources Consulted: workingpreacher.org Interpretation Commentary on Luke by Fred Craddock Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro