Advent & the silence of Zechariah

One of the most-omitted Christmas stories is that of Zechariah and the angel in the temple (Luke 1:5-25). We all want to jump right to the birth of Jesus and focus on either Matthew 2 or Luke 2, with occasional forays into the previous chapters for Joseph’s dream or Mary’s angelic encounter. But where Zechariah is Luke’s starter, we tend to leave him sitting on the bench.

Luke starts with Zechariah because his story is ultimately his son John’s story. And all four gospels give John the Baptizer significant ink early on in their Jesus stories. Why? Because John was more well-known and more universally accepted than Jesus among 1st century Jews. That primary position was soon eclipsed by his younger cousin as he hoped it would be, but John’s message and baptism were widely known throughout the Jewish community around the Mediterranean Sea. He was the first prophetic figure to arrive on the scene for several hundred years, after all.

So, we get Zechariah’s story because of his son. But it’s a brilliant story on it’s own right.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been trying to have children for years. Lots of years. And as is the case with my friends now who struggle with infertility, this inability to have children tore at them. From the telling of the story, we hear of their many prayers throughout the years and of the “disgrace” Elizabeth says she felt among the people around her.

As the fifth of five children and the father of four, infertility isn’t my story. But we all know barrenness in our own ways. Feelings of emptiness and failure and shame come at us from many different angles.

But what strikes me about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they don’t stop praying. The angel Gabriel refers to their many prayers throughout the years.

Two things are important about their prayers. They didn’t stop praying them. And God didn’t stop hearing them.

Jesus taught on this more than once, telling stories about people who bugged neighbors in the night and pestered judges who were slow to hand out justice, urging us to pray and not give up (Luke 11:5-8; 18:1-8).

I confess that I am quick to stop praying, quick to give up and move along. Even though all of the evidence points to the contrary, I trust myself and my strength more than I trust God and his strength. It’s foolish. I know that. And yet, that’s what I tend toward.

Zechariah and Elizabeth challenge me, in the face of their pain, to keep praying and not give up.

But not only that, the exteriors of their faith were also exemplary. They kept the Torah’s commands to the letter and Zechariah continued to serve diligently as a priest. Personal emptiness didn’t lead to religious or vocational emptiness. He pressed on faithfully.

Faith provides its own wells in the barren land of our lives. Even when it doesn’t give us the thing we’ve set our hearts on, still it nourishes and strengthens us. It keeps hope alive, even if hope grows thin.

But not only had Zechariah’s hope grown thin, so too had his trust.

When Gabriel appears to him in the temple, he goes knock-kneed like everyone else in the Scriptures who is confronted with the angelic. Even a reflection of the Glory is enough to induce panic in us humans, and Gabriel gives the typical angel response: “Don’t be afraid.”

Gabriel then gives a fairly long speech about the son that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have. And somewhere during this speech Zechariah regains his composure enough to ask a question.

Interestingly, his question is quite similar to the one asked just a few verses later by Mary. He asks, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18). Later, Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Notice the similarity? Each includes a “how” followed by a significant physical obstacle to conception.

But where Gabriel responds to Mary’s question without questioning her motives, he calls out Zechariah for lacking trust.

But hasn’t Zechariah continued to pray for all these years, where God was silence if not unhearing? Hasn’t Zechariah continued to obey the Law of God? Hasn’t Zechariah remained faithful to his priestly duties and to his wife? Aren’t these signs of abiding trust?

I can only assume that the angel is privy to the inner workings of the heart and sees a difference between the questions of Zechariah and Mary that is not obvious in the words themselves.

Somewhere along the line, a switch has been turned off in Zechariah’s heart. Even though he has continued to mimic the signs of trust in his outward behavior, a measure of mistrust has darkened his heart toward God.

After all those years of unanswered prayer, I don’t blame him. This is “blameless” Zechariah, after all. But the angel does chastise him for it. The angel speaks speechlessness to Zechariah. Not believing God’s words to him means Zechariah will speak no words of his own until the words of God are shown to be true and trustworthy.

Zechariah is given the gift of silence to meditate on just how solid the words of God are.

The ability for Zechariah to voice his mistrust in the face of such an obvious display of power — a display that had caused him to cringe in fear — points to the need for these months of meditation. He needs this time to turn on the heart switch that had been turned off.

And so I think about the disappointments, the failures, the unanswered prayers, the unmet expectations, the thousands of hours of service that seem to have gone unnoticed — I think of all these things that have undermined my own trust in God and I am grateful for this season of Advent.

Advent is the 3+ weeks leading up to Christmas, starting four Sundays before Dec. 25. It’s meant to be a quiet time, a reflective time, a penitential time. Where our culture bounces off the walls with shopping and music and outward expressions of excess, we are called inward. (Sure, we can take part in the cooking, eating, buying, decorating, singing, and partying of the season — we don’t want to be Grinchy about it — but it’s essential to protect and retain the heart of Advent, with its meditative preparation for the coming of Jesus.)

Zechariah reminds me of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). After years of towing the line, he finds himself outside in the dark, angry, and referring to himself as a slave while a party is going on inside his father’s house. A switch in his heart had gotten flicked off.

He reminds me, too, of Jesus’s story of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Half of them had been foolish, not buying oil for their lamps, and ten of them had been wise, buying oil. But all ten of them fell asleep. Even in his faithfulness toward God, Zechariah’s heart had fallen asleep.

The Scriptures are filled with this theme. And so, too, are our lives. Advent is the gift which comes in the darkest part of the year, prodding our souls to wakefulness and renewed trust. For the Light is coming and he is brighter than all of our hopes and expectations.