December 20th, 2013

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Zechariah’s gift

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Scripture: Luke 1:5-24; 57-80

Alone, burning incense before the altar to fulfill his duty as a Levite and priest, Zechariah is confronted by an angel who speaks of answered prayer.  ‘Do not be afraid,’ the angel tells Zechariah, ‘your wife, Elizabeth is going to bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’

I love the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  I love that the miracle of this conception is linked to an old worn out prayer.  A prayer,  that this graceful couple who the gospel writer Luke describes as, ‘righteous and blameless’ prayed throughout their married life.  Did they wrestle painfully and finally release their loss into the unfathomable mystery of God’s ways?  We don’t know, but we do know that the angel’s announcement caught Zechariah entirely off his guard.  In that moment he faltered, doubted and asked for a sign to test this announcement.

Why did the angel respond to Zechariah’s dismay with displeasure?  The angel reassured Mary, and gave the shepherds a sign, but Zechariah’s request is responded to in a back handed way that resembles a punishment.  It makes me wonder if angels can be moody, because it seems out of pace to me with the rest of the birth narrative.  It’s so out of pace, that I wonder if his inability to speak was meant to be a gift, or at very least a sort of instructive discipline.

(Alexander Ivanov, Archangel Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute, 1824)
I often describe my household as speechless.  It isn’t entirely speechless of course — I talk –  and sometimes John does.  You’d be surprised though, how much can be communicated without speech.  You learn to look for different cues, your awareness broadens.  I suppose it’s a little like the way your other senses compensate if you loose your sight or your hearing.  You begin to watch people, faces, gestures, body posture, and vocalizations.  When Zechariah couldn’t speak, did his perceptions shift and was he able to comprehend God’s word to him in a different way?

We only have the record of his response after John is born to make this judgment.  He named his son John, against the wishes of his family.  When his speech returned, he didn’t engage his relatives in argument, instead he blessed God.  Next to Mary’s speech it is perhaps for many believers one of the most familiar passages of the birth narrative.  Over those nine months of speechlessness and silence he sorted out his doubts, watched God grow a child in his too old and barren wife and accepted God’s answer to a long worn out prayer.

“…and you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Lord Jesus, as we turn toward Christmas, turn our hearts toward you. Amen