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The Angel's Song to Zechariah: When Silence Speaks 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

NOVEMBER 27, 2011

The Angel's Song to Zechariah:
When Silence Speaks
Malachi 4:1-5
Luke 1:5-23

If I were to ask you to tell the rest of us the Christmas story, where would you begin? I suspect many of us would be inclined to begin with Luke's memorable words, "In those days, a decree went from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor…." What a wonderful way to begin the great Christmas story! Others, though, might want to step back just a little bit to that moment when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" We might begin with that moment we call The Annunciation, because the angel announces this stunning, great good news that Mary, a Virgin, is going to give birth to God's Son.

Some of us might want to get more theological and find our place in the first chapter of John's Gospel and begin the Christmas story: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth…," because Christmas announces the Incarnation, that God was born as a baby in Bethlehem. And still others who love the ancient connections of the Christmas story with Israel might begin the story with the wonderful words of the Prophet Isaiah, "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon His shoulders and His name shall be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." 

You would do well to start telling the story of Christmas in any of these places. But Luke, who tells the Christmas story better than anyone else who has ever told it, begins the story where we began today with the account of Zechariah and Elizabeth, both from priestly heritage we are told, and Zechariah a priest in the Temple. In a way it is a strange place to begin the Christmas story, because these two chapters in Luke are the only places in the Bible where we hear anything at all about Zechariah and Elizabeth. They appear on the stage of scripture for a blessed moment and then they are gone. We are told by Luke that they had no child because "Elizabeth was barren" and both "were advanced in years." So in a sense, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an unusual place to start the story, but in another sense we recognize them immediately because we have heard this same story many times, this same theme repeated throughout the magnificent narrative of Israel that we know and love as the Bible. Abraham and Sarah were both advanced in years, remember? And Sarah was barren. Isaac and his wife Rebekah were advanced in years and Rebekah, we are told, was barren. Jacob had many children with Leah, but the wife he loved best, Rachel, was barren, and they waited and waited for the promised child to come. And then even further into Israel's history there is the figure of Elkanah and his wife Hannah, and Hannah weeps and weeps because she longs for a child and that child does not come. So we have met Zechariah and Elizabeth before throughout the history of Israel as couple after couple pray to the Lord and wait for that for which they long. 

Walter Brueggemann has pointed out that often in the Bible it is out of barrenness that God's new work often emerges. And not just literal barrenness, but barrenness as a powerful biblical metaphor for us who feel empty, waiting, humbled, pleading as we stand before God. And so on this first Sunday of Advent, as we visit this remarkable account of Zechariah's encounter with the Angel Gabriel, let me place three simple words before you, and see if you can find a way to connect with them in your own lives. 

The first is the word "waiting." How long must have Zechariah and Elizabeth been waiting? For years, they were waiting, praying, longing for this child that simply did not come. It is amazing to me how important the whole act of waiting is to the life of faith. We tend to think of it negatively. All of us have probably found ourselves thinking, if not saying, "I hate to wait! I want what I want and I want it now." But Simone Weil, that great twentieth century Christian mystic, said, "Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life." We do not like to wait, but God teaches a great deal when we wait in expectation. John Calvin said, "There is no place for faith if we expect God to fulfill immediately everything He promises." All of us know what it is to wait. And truth to tell, deep in our souls, we all have longings, we all have yearnings, prayers that come from the very depths of who we are and rise up to God, and all we can do with those is wait. We all know what the psalmist was talking about when he cried out to God "out of the depths." Do you remember what he said? "I wait for the Lord. My soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope." Paul understood what it meant to wait. In Romans 8:25, he says, "If we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it with patience." 

So in this season of our waiting, let me say a good word for it, because in waiting gifts come to us, as uncertain and painful as that waiting may be. We learn patience and we learn humility. We cannot make things happen on our own apart from God. We learn trust and maturity and, of course, we learn to persevere. So hang your hat in this Advent season on waiting. 

As Zechariah enters the Temple in order to engage in that once in a lifetime act of a priest's in Israel's life of making the incense offering in the holy of holies to God, let's consider a second word, and that is the word "hearing." Zechariah as a priest was likely one of maybe twenty thousand priests in Jerusalem. They were priests because they were born into priestly families and they had to have certain physical characteristics in addition to that in order to qualify to serve. And yet, among the twenty thousand plus priests, some of them would never have been asked in their whole lifetimes to enter to make the incense offering. This was Zechariah's day, this was his moment, it was a once-in-a-lifetime calling, when we are told that his lot was drawn and it came upon him to offer the incense offering in the holy of holies to God as "all the assembly of the people" waited for his return from that place. I have read elsewhere in Old Testament scholarly musings on this text that there were times and seasons when they would tie a rope to the leg of the priest in case something happened. They were fearful of the presence of the Living God, and if something happened to the priest, they could yank him back out safely by the rope without threatening their own lives. 

Who knows what was really on Zechariah's heart as he entered the holy of holies? But we are told in Luke 1, that at that moment an angel of the Lord appeared to him, an angel that does not at first give his name. Zechariah is scared out of his mind. The angel says what angels often say in the Scriptures, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard." The God for whom we wait is a God who hears. Indeed the God to whom we pray is a God who listens, a God who has perfect hearing. It is good news, dear friends, that the angel announces and I hope you hear it spoken not just to Zechariah, but spoken to you as well: "Do not be afraid for your prayer has been heard." The name of Zechariah, by the way, means "God remembers." And even when Zechariah wondered if his deepest prayers would ever be answered, his name alone speaks of this God who hears and this God who remembers each and every one of us and never, ever forgets us.

And finally, one last word that comes to us in this story, and it is no word at all. It is "silence." Zechariah is silenced by God. We often think of his being silenced as a kind of punishment for his lack of faith in God to deliver on His promise. And in a sense the story leaves us with that conclusion. But let me say a word on behalf of silence, because I think there is something holy, something sacred, something utterly life-giving about silence before the Lord. "It is silence in which God in known," says Dietrich Bonheoffer, "and through the silence of His mysteries that God declares Himself to us." Bonhoeffer said, "We are to be silent at the beginning of the day so that God can have the first word to us. And we are to be silent when we lie down to sleep at the end of the day so that God can have the last word also." Baron von Hügel, that great nineteenth century mystic, said, "Be silent before all great things. Let them grow inside you." I wonder what was happening with Zechariah all those months where he waited for his promised child to come. Not only was a baby growing inside Elizabeth, but faith and a new recognition of the greatness and power of God was growing inside Zechariah. Von Hügel said, "Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith." 

We will sing it at the end of today's service, but I hope these words will live with you throughout this entire Advent season. They were written by Phillips Brooks, a great Anglican preacher of the nineteenth century at Trinity Church in Boston, from the hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem: "How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of his Heaven. No ear may hear His coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him, still The dear Christ enters in."

The angel says to Zechariah, to his claim that "I am old," "I am Gabriel." (We will be good friends with Gabriel by the end of this Advent and Christmas season!) But Gabriel sings a magnificent song of faith to Zechariah, he sings of the coming child John the Baptist, who comes, he sings, "to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." More than anything else, that is my prayer for you, that you will be "a people prepared" for whatever tomorrow holds!

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