After the Angel Gabriel’s lengthy proclamation to Zechariah, the father-to-be responds, “How will I know this is so?” Most people assume 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:the part about the great works John will do. How will Zechariah know that his son will turn people to the Lord? How will he know that John 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?
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.
I don’t think this story tells us that we should not have fear 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.