For the Monday prayer practices during Advent, I will be posting reflections on different characters from the Advent and Christmas stories. I pray a blessed and holy Advent for you all!
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I’ve noticed that lots of preachers and Bible commentators are pretty hard on Zechariah for being afraid, and for doubting God, when Zechariah encounters the angel in the Temple. The best sermon title that I’ve seen is, “How not to talk to an angel.” Apparently, you are not supposed to look at the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and say, “How can I be sure of this?” That’s the wrong response.
Still, I wonder if the way we generally read this story doesn’t sell Zechariah a bit short.
After Gabriel’s lengthy proclamation, the father-to-be responds, ”How will I know this is so?” The assumption is that Zechariah is questioning the fact that Elizabeth will become pregnant at such an advanced aged. But really, what kind of a stupid question would that be? “How will I know this is so?” You know if your wife becomes pregnant and bears you a son. It’s obvious.
Maybe Zechariah is not asking such a stupid question. Maybe Zechariah is questioning another part of Gabriel’s proclamation. Maybe he is questioning the part about the great works John will do. Maybe when he says, “I am an old man” it is not to say that he doubts that Elizabeth will be pregnant, but to say that he will not live to see the great deeds of his son. How will he know that his son will turn people to the Lord? How will he know that his son will prepare the way for the Messiah in the spirit and power of the great prophet Elijah? It is reasonable to assume that Zechariah will be dead by the time his son reaches puberty. How will he know the great works to come?
Many pastors who preach on this story end up by telling their listeners that they must not be afraid like Zechariah. They must not be doubters like Zechariah.
But I’m not going to tell you that.
People will tell you that Zechariah’s muteness was punishment for his doubt. But I’m not so sure. If Zechariah’s question, “How can I be sure of this?” is indeed about the distant rather than the immediate future, we can view his muteness as a grace.
Rather than punishment for doubt, perhaps the nine or ten months that Zechariah cannot speak is a gift from God; a sign that the prophecy about his son will indeed become true.
We could view these months of silence as a forced season of contemplation; a time when he, the priest, cannot speak the blessing and so must only receive it; a time when he cannot speak the words of God and so must only listen to them.
All preachers—all good church people—should have such a punishment.
I don’t think this story tells us that we should not be afraid or doubt. I think it tells us that God will surround our fear and our doubt with grace. With, perhaps, a time of silent waiting. Like these weeks of Advent leading up to the holy day of Christmas.
And I believe that if we enter into the silence—even if it is the silence of our own fear and doubt–we will be blessed by it.