Advent is a time of expectation. It is a season of watching for the ways that God will be present with us. It is a period of waiting for God to transform us and our world.
But, no one told Zechariah that he was supposed to kick off the Advent story. All they told him is that he was on priestly duty that week. So he reported to the temple. And you get the feeling that he wasn’t expecting to actually encounter an angel of God there, because the Bible says that when the angel showed up, Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear.”
He was afraid. And after he heard the message from God, he doubted.If you read commentaries and sermons on this passage, you’ll find that many people are pretty hard on Zechariah for his response here. One sermon title I came across was, “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.
But I wonder if the way we generally read this story doesn’t sell Zechariah a bit short.
After Gabriel’s lengthy proclamation to Zechariah, the father-to-be responds, “How will I know this is so?” The assumption is usually 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 parts 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?
The same preachers and scholars who criticize Zechariah’s reaction to the angel will tell you that his muteness is punishment for his doubt. But I’m not so sure about this, either. 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. His silence becomes the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things he will not see.
Perhaps these months of silence are a forced season of contemplation; a time when Zechariah, 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.
I don’t think this story tells us that we should not be afraid or doubt. I think this story 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.
This reflection is adapted from a sermon I preached at Peace Mennonite Church in 2009.