For 9 months Zechariah is silent.
He cannot speak; he can only communicate through sign.
Imagine the initial frustration when he cannot form the words to express his strange experience inside the temple when an angel stood beside the altar and said to him that he would have a son.
Imagine Elizabeth’s frustration when her husband won’t speak to her and tell her what’s going on.
Imagine the angel’s frustration when he tells Zechariah the good news that his prayer has been heard, and all Zechariah can say is, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’
For goodness sake, Zechariah! This is Gabriel! He is an angel. He stands in the presence of God. He’s bringing you good news that you will have a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
Zechariah! Don’t you get it?!
Perhaps we can also understand Zechariah’s apprehension. He’s been around a while. He’s seen a lot. He’s cynical.
Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are righteous and obedient...and dubious. Zechariah knows that God has been faithful to his people and his promises, yet he also knows that Israel has had a long run of bad luck: oppressive ruler after oppressive ruler after oppressive ruler. Why would it be any different now? Why would God choose to intervene at this time?
So Zechariah spoke of his suspicion, and the angel was not impressed. Gabriel tells Zechariah that a miracle is about to happen and Zechariah doesn’t believe him so he is struck mute. He is silenced, he cannot say a word.
Silence is different from speechlessness.
I bet Zechariah had a lot he wanted to say.
Yet, his silence reflects what was happening in Israel at the time. It had been 400 years since God had spoken through the prophets, since anyone had heard the word of the Lord. It seemed that God was silent. Not speechless because God has a lot to say, but silent.
Why was God silent?
Was it because the Israelites were disobedient and disbelieving?
Was it because nobody was actually interested in what God had to say?
Sometimes, when we feel that God is silent, we assume God is being passive aggressive; ignoring us or avoiding us until we figure out what we’ve done wrong, giving us the silent treatment until we get on our knees and grovel.
And so we cry out all the more loudly, ‘answer me! Speak to me! O Lord, do not be silent! Turn our ear to me and hear me!’
A few weeks ago we talked about lament and how necessary it is to be able to cry out to God in anguish at the injustice we see and experience. Lament is an act of faith which leads to hope. And it is in that space between lament and hope where we wait, where we are silent, where we listen.
Elizabeth and Zechariah had been waiting a long time for a child. They had prayed, and no doubt they had lamented. And they had been heard. God had been silent, but God had also been listening. God was present and active.
Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is not listening.
Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is absent.
Just because God is silent doesn’t mean God is inactive.
It’s not so bad after all.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes there are too many words in my day and all I want is a bit of peace and quiet.
When I was training with Knox I attended General Assembly, a three day hui of Presbyterian ministers and elders where they make big decisions. It’s a long weekend of formal meetings and discussion groups and catch ups. There are a whole lot of words at an event like that. And at that time, because I was a student we also had our own debrief meetings so there were even more words.
I am an introvert practiced in the art of extroversion, but I can only fake it for so long and that weekend was almost too much for me. One night we a debrief meeting that finished at about 11pm. I was like a zombie, foaming at the mouth. Instead of going back to the dorm room where we would debrief the debrief meeting I went and hid in the bathroom for a while. Everyone else was in bed so I had the whole place to myself – not just one cubicle, but the whole room. It was bliss! I had the world’s longest shower and nobody spoke to me, and I didn’t have to speak to anybody. It was the best thing! Honestly!
Silence can be thick and awkward and abrasive. And silence can be beautiful.
Silence is a spiritual discipline, and though it was imposed on Zechariah, maybe it was the best thing. Maybe in those months Zechariah learned to listen; maybe he learned to be present and active even in his silence. Maybe he learned something about God.
Maybe silence is the best thing for us too? Maybe there is something we can learn about God. Maybe we need to learn how to listen, how to be present and active, how to be silent.
You see, when you choose not to speak for a time you become very intentional about what you do say later.
Silence is like fasting. It’s good for us to practice it every now and then.
Now is one of those times. For two minutes I am not going to speak, and neither are you. We are going to be quiet and be still, and we are going to listen.
We will listen to the sounds of the world around us:
- The road noise.
- The clock ticking.
- The children playing outside.
- The grumbling of empty bellies around you telling you it’s time for morning tea.
We will listen to ourselves:
- Thoughts we have in our heads.
- The things we need to remember.
- The people we are concerned about.
- The words we want to say.
And we will listen to God:
- The gentle, quiet whisper.
- The steady prompting of the Holy Spirit.
- The creative word of God.
- And maybe even the silence – the quiet knowledge that God is here.
So, as we sit silently, listen: to the world, to yourself, and to God.
Into the silence God speaks.
In the beginning, God spoke and the world was created.
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was God.
The silence doesn’t last forever.
The Silent Years of the Israelite history lasted a long time, and ended with John – the last of the prophets who prepared the way of the Lord.
Into the silence, God speaks.
God speaks through messengers and prophets and every day people.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be silent until the day that the message he had brought from the mouth of God is fulfilled. And during the months of Zechariahs’ silence, God is speaking. God’s sending messages to an Average Joe and his girl in Galilee. God is enlightening John in utero. God is becoming incarnate – God’s giving us his Word.
Israel’s silence, Zechariah’s silence, it comes to an end. The final prophet of the Most High has come. John has been out of the womb for eight days, and he is given the name God has been gracious. Immediately Zechariah’s mouth is opened and his tongue is released, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and his mouth is filled with praise, he is free to speak. And what is the first thing he says?
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he came and set his people free.
He set the power of salvation in the centre of our lives,
and in the very house of David his servant,
Just as he promised long ago
through the preaching of his holy prophets:
Deliverance from our enemies
and every hateful hand;
Mercy to our fathers,
as he remembers to do what he said he’d do,
What he swore to our father Abraham—
a clean rescue from the enemy camp,
So we can worship him without a care in the world,
made holy before him as long as we live.
Zechariah praises God. But, before all this, Zechariah had been so unsure. He didn’t know whether or not to trust what the angel had said. But now he is sure, he trusts that God is faithful, that God keeps his promises, that God keeps his word.
And so Zechariah speaks words of praise and words of prophecy: he speaks the truth of who God is, what God has done, and what God is doing – that kind of prophecy.
Into the silence God is speaking through messengers and prophets and every day people.
One of my favourite authors, Frederick Beuchner, says this:
If God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we, all of us, have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all – just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and we are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks. But what do I mean by saying that God speaks?
He speaks not just through the sounds we hear, of course, but through events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens. As to the meaning of what he says, there are times we are apt to think we know.
To try to express in even the most insightful and most theologically sophisticated terms the meaning of what God speaks through the events of our lives is as precarious a business as to try to express the meaning of the sound of rain on the roof or the spectacle of the setting sun. But I choose to believe that he speaks nonetheless, and the reason that his words are impossible to capture in human language is of course that they are ultimately always incarnate words. They are words fleshed out in the everydayness no less than in the crises of our own experience.
Into the silence, God speaks, through messengers and prophets and every day people.
Into the silence, God speaks, and the Word of God takes on human form. Ihu Karaiti: Jesus the Christ – who is alive, who is present and active in us and through us by his Spirit.
And so we say, ‘speak Lord, for your servants are listening.’