What if … Zechariah believed the first time?

By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
November 27, 2022

Luke 1:5-20 

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. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 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. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 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.” 19 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. 20 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.”

Lord, we come today with longing. Sometimes with a certain prayer that we have prayed so long we barely say it out loud anymore. Hear us today, Lord, like you did Zechariah. And Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.

Advent is a season of preparation. We light candles. We count the days. We often treat preparation like a nice soft mental state, but I tell you, there are few times my kids are more wary of me than those last preparations before people come over. The last few minutes before the knock on the door are a count down with higher drama than the end of a reality show. Is anyone else like that?

As a late-career priest, Zechariah, from our reading today, knew all about preparations. How to set up the incense. How to say the special words at the right time. You could say he was a “preparations professional.” That year it happened, his name was selected for the once in a lifetime opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies, to set a trembling foot behind the curtain where God was thought to dwell and say that 400-year-old prayer for the redemption of Israel. I am sure Zechariah had that official prayer at the ready, the sanctioned one he’d waited a lifetime to pray. As a preparations professional, he knew what to do.

But, you know what else….I bet he had a second prayer. That deeply personal one he’d prayed so often it had worn grooves in his mouth, the prayer that had to be gulped back down when people looked at him and he had work to do. I bet Zechariah had a second prayer, a prayer for a child.

And then the day came. He went back there, to the Holy of Holies, felt the closeness of God all around him, and there I bet he prayed prayer number one for the restoration of Israel, like a professional. Of course he would. But I can almost guarantee he prayed prayer number two as well, sanctioned or not. He prayed it like any human being who can’t fake it before God even if he’s been putting on the brave face in front of the congregation. In the Holy of Holies, it all comes out.

Do you have that kind of prayer? The one you have been praying for so long or so hard that it is tattered around the edges? Maybe your personal prayer is that a relationship might heal. Maybe it is for a child, but your child and the worries around him or her are a lot bigger now that he or she is bigger. Maybe your prayer is to feel some sense of peace about what happened to you.

Well, in that darkness, Zechariah expected nothing would happen. Right until the very second that it did. An angel appeared to him Zechariah and said, “I have heard your prayer.” And I wonder if Zechariah thought, half terrified, half desperate… which one?  Which prayer? The one for the redemption of this nation, the one to save Israel from a Roman government that seems to bring out the worst instincts in all of us and deliver constant suffering to the most vulnerable? Or did you hear that other prayer, the one that I probably wasn’t sanctioned to pray, the one I am too old to pray with any seriousness but I can’t let go of? Which prayer did you hear?

The answer from the angel was essentially: “Yes. Big yes. All yes.” It strikes me that God doesn’t see the healing of our personal pain and the healing of the collective pain of the world as these vastly separate things, like we tend to. The angel went on to describe a child who is to be born, their child, a child who will be both a delight to his parents (how lovely is that?) and the one to prepare the whole nation to meet the Lord.

Next Zechariah asked this lovely ridiculous question, “How will I know this is so?” He asked this to an angel. I don’t know that angels speak with sarcasm, though that would have been understandable. The angel simply responded, “I am Gabriel… I stand in the presence of God.” That should have been answer enough.

So, what happened next may not be a story that makes the nativity scenes. Next, Zechariah, the explainer, the wordsmith, the professional preparer, was struck mute for 9 months. The angel says that it happens because he did not believe.

After this, Zechariah leaves the Holy of Holies and returns to the normal of normals. And lo and behold, Elizabeth did become pregnant and Zechariah still could not talk. I imagine people asking Elizabeth how it was to have a husband who wasn’t able to speak a word for her entire pregnancy. I imagine her saying with half a laugh, “It’s working out well for both of us. Thank you for your concern.”

For some reason, most of my life, I assumed Zechariah was struck mute as a form of punishment. Had he only believed the first time, he could have spoken hope to a weary people. Had he only believed the angel of God, he could have given voice to the coming redemption of the nation. I initially saw silence as judgment. Maybe that is because I am also a “preparations professional.” A word girl. An explainer. But I am seeing Zechariah differently this year. Now I see that there are times that are so holy our words fall short, there are times when our talking gets in the way, there are times when our preparations – as lovely as they are – put a cellophane of sound over the hope we long for. And this year, I notice how God removed those distractions from Zechariah. And we know what happened next: John the Baptist arrived and prepared the way for Jesus Christ to enter the world.

Human silence preceded the Word made flesh.

There are many times in life when silence is not punishment but a gift. Thomas Merton said, “there is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” Isn’t it often the case that the short sermons stay with you. Or that the friend who shows up and says the least but who listens the longest offers the most comfort. Or that the person at the mic in the moment of tragedy or overwhelming joy who just cannot speak communicates best what we all feel.

So, an invitation today as this Advent begins…. if you are seeking hope, and keep finding yourself overwhelmed, be still. Be quiet. Enter the pregnant pause of Zechariah. Not because your doubts are ridiculous. Not because your faith is not enough. Not because that second prayer you are praying doesn’t matter or that the pain of the world can be ignored. Be silent because silence makes space enough for hope to be discovered. Be silent because then you can hear what God is saying. Be silent because then you can eat the food God is giving you and feel the waters of baptism cool on your forehead assuring you that the healing of your own life and the healing of the nations has been God’s plan all along. Be silent to allow your soul to hear God, in the painful of painfuls, the joyful of joyfuls, or the normal of normal.

Amen.