5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
This week I want to enter the story through the eyes of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John. Each has different things to teach.
Before we get to his exchange with Gabriel, try to imagine a lifetime of faithful service juxtaposed with a lifetime of unmet expectations and yearning. Zechariah’s future hinged upon leaving a son to take his place in the priestly order but though he was righteous—“living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord”, he was childless. This was not the way it was supposed to be. He had done his part. He had been faithful but the lack of an heir closed off his future. The suggestion in the text is that Zechariah had prayed regularly to have a son—but for naught.
Many of us have been disappointed by God. Though most of us would deny it, it is hard to escape the idea that our righteousness should be acknowledged if not rewarded. It is quite painful to learn that we can work hard and do our best but the outcome is disappointing if not disastrous. Singles yearn for partners. Couples yearn for children. Parents yearn for the welfare of their children. Yet, even among the faithful, some of these ordinary heartfelt desires end in disappointment and despair. Some people never find a partner. Some families never have children, others must watch children lose their way. And harder still, sometimes our dearest desires are met but they are ripped away by injury, illness or death.
Zechariah, Elizabeth and the religious community needed an explanation in the face of ‘bad things happening to good people.’ And the easy one was to find out who was at fault. In the first century, this was a no-brainer. It was Elizabeth’s. She was barren. No chance that it was because Zechariah was impotent. Skipping the obvious problem of misogyny, the greater problem is that our need to explain denies our helplessness. We might be able to determine a biological cause but we still must deal with the theological why. That is a question we cannot answer. We do not like to stand naked and dependent so we focus upon reasons and rationality—but ultimately we will be left dumbfounded.
Though it can easily be read that Zecharia is being punished for his lack of belief, I believe Zechariah is mute because there are no words to explain their childlessness or their promised parenthood. If you have ever had something wonderful and unexpected happen, you can experience the joy but you will have a very difficult time explaining the wonder much less the ‘why did this happen to me?’ If you must find an explanation, you will often miss the gift. Sometimes we are far better served to suspend our need to explain what is happening and wait to see what does.
Zechariah does not stay without words. When the unexpected and the unbelievable undeniably occurred in the birth of his son, “ … Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Elizabeth had even more at stake than Zechariah. In her culture, her identity as a woman rested in her ability to bear children. Though the scripture makes it clear that she was a righteous woman, it also tells us that Elizabeth endured disgrace among her people. As far as the community was concerned, her righteousness must have been flawed. No matter how faithfully she appeared in her life, her barrenness testified against her. In every encounter with other people, there would be an invisible, and sometimes visible, questioning look. It is hard to keep your head up in the face of such powerful community doubt. Though a servant of the Lord in her own right, she was marginalized and disgraced. Yet, God favored her.
There was an interview this week on 60 Minutes of Viola Davis. For those of you who do not know (and I didn’t), Viola is the first African American actress to receive acting’s “Triple Crown ”—winning a Tony, an Emmy and an Oscar. She discussed a childhood of abject poverty which included hunger and rats. It was hard to be poor. She said that being poor, however, wasn’t just about having no money—It was also about shame and invisibility. People who did see her poverty wondered (spoken and unspoken) if she wasn’t ambitious enough or perhaps she was unwilling to work hard enough. Though she has now ‘made it’ in her career and now lives very comfortably, she says she still needs to remind herself she is no longer poor. The mark of her stigmatization remains. For her, that is not an entirely bad thing.
The marks of her past help her to be more grateful. There were and are many, many young children living in poverty who will never know anything different. It is hard to feel entitled when our good fortune is viewed as an inexplicable gift. In the words of Elizebeth: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” It is no accident that Mary is sent to this deeply grateful woman for support and counsel.
Whether it is the wonder of an unbelievable birth or it is the coming messiah, we must be prepared to receive. We must keep what is truly important before us and we must stand humbly before God when every human avenue is closed and every explanation fails us. We can miss the gift with our entitlement and we can miss the gift with our explanations. In both cases, we compete instead of deferring to God.
John’s call to repentance is a call to recognize our limits and to recognize that in the end, we are all dumbfounded. We don’t know. Prayer is far less about getting what we want—and even less about getting what we deserve; Prayer is about being in right relationship with God. In the words of another prophet, Micah, that means we are “to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.“ John called the people to turn toward God. In that new orientation, lives are transformed.
Turning toward God means seeing the marginalized and the unseen. We must be silent long enough to see what we are being given. Jesus certainly did not fit expectations. But he showed us what is important and what lasts. John’s job was to “…turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Only then can our hearts and minds be open. All of this emerged from the broken dreams of a childless couple. It was and is unimaginable.
May we wait for the Lord in humble silence. May we tolerate our unknowing. May we always remember God acts in ways beyond our imagining. He is coming. May we rejoice in the gift. Let it be so.