Have you ever wanted something for a long time? Worked for it, waited for it, dreamed of it only to experience what feels like the deep silence of God? What does it mean to hope in God when we are in the midst of facing life’s difficulties, when life doesn’t turn out the way we desire? What to do? We enter into the season of Advent, the liturgical time of waiting and anticipation, and light the Advent candle symboling hope. Hopes that don’t necessarily have an answer yet. And so, we enter into Zechariah’s story.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were both descendants of priestly families. Elizabeth descending from Aaron’s tribe, and Zechariah from the priestly line of Abijah. They want to be parents, and are expected to pass on their priestly line. As they grew older, they suffer a silent pain having of never being blessed with a child. Elizabeth was barren.
There were 24 groups of priests who divided the priestly duties by tending the Temple for two weeks during the year. There were more than enough priests in each group so their duties were distributed by lot. The most sought after duty was to enter the sanctuary to perform the most solemn part of the Temple’s daily service alone before God, in the Holy Place, separated from the Holy of Holies only by a thin veil.
The smoke the priests produced would carry the prayers of the people to heaven, perfuming them as they rose to the heavens. The priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies speaking God’s blessing upon the people. No priest was permitted to perform this duty more than once in their lifetime and many were never even chosen. Imagine Zechariah’s joy when the lot falls to him for his 15 minutes of glory.
As the people gather outside waiting for the sweet fragrance and smoke to drift up from the altar symbolizing their prayers being lifted to the heavens, Zechariah is confronted with an angelic presence. Angel visitations were rare, even in the Holy Place. Zechariah is terrified – and it’s hard to know if it’s Gabriel’s presence or what the angel tells him,
“Your prayer has been heard.” You can hear Zechariah thinking:
“I pray all the time! Which prayer is he referring to?” He has prayed all kinds of things faithfully for years. It might be a prayer he is no longer praying. Too little, too late, he might be thinking.
Gabriel continues, “You will have a son. His name will be John. Joy and gladness, power, wisdom and righteousness” will be born with this child.
There’s a bit of cynicism when Zechariah asks, “But how can I be sure of this?” His response indicates an unwillingness to accept a bigger reality. His questioning Gabriel did not go well. When asking for a sign, he gets his request. He is silenced.
Some scholars view Zechariah’s going mute as punishment for his lack of faith his disbelief and doubt. Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if Zechariah’s response was not so much the sin of disbelief but rather “the failure of imagination, the fear of yet more disappointment and a lifetime habit of hopelessness.” Zechariah had been disappointed for so long that he had gotten used to not being heard by God. How was this time to be any different? My sense is that it would prove a powerful sign of God’s presence in Zechariah’s life.
Zechariah has been praying for a child for so long he isn’t ready. Faced with the truth that his prayer might finally be answered, he couldn’t get the hope of it inside. God seems to like the challenge of surprising people who’ve given up hope.
Leonard Cohen sings:
Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.
When his priestly assignment was completed, Zechariah want back home. It wasn’t long before his wife, Elizabeth, conceived. She went off by herself for five months.
Both are alone. Both are waiting….with Zechariah waiting in silence. When they come back from their time of waiting, both of them sing songs of total trust in God. And total openness to whatever future they, and God, and their child are going to step into together. At John’s circumcision and naming ritual, Zechariah’s voice is heard. And he sings praise & trust:
“You, my child, ‘Prophet of the Highest,’ will go ahead of the Master to prepare his ways, present the offer of salvation to his people, the forgiveness of their sins. Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” ( The Message)
These are the first words Zechariah spoke in over 9 months. This is also the first public prophetic witness to Israel in more than 450 years of silence following Malachi, the last prophet in the OT. During this great silence Israel falls into the hands of the Romans.
Zechariah could have hardened his heart during this time of silence. Instead, the time of waiting and the birth of his son marks a spiritual rebirth. Zechariah’s praising God compels us to believe that he used those months of silence to develop a more intimate way of communicating with God. Perhaps during the imposed silence and isolation and waiting, Zechariah could now search for a new connection with God. Could it be that this divinely enforced silence was actually a hidden gift from God? As with Zechariah, there may come a time when God will present us with a greater reality than what we have previously known.
So like Zechariah, may we continue to pray, even though we are not certain we are heard or that we’ll ever get the answer we want. May we continue to offer God our worship and offer God our service even when we are not sure if God is there or if God is paying any attention. May we choose to be faithful in the midst of our questions and doubts. May we choose to bring all of it to God, even when we aren’t convinced that God is listening. That is Advent faith!
Advent marks the start of a new year. Advent is a time to rekindle hopes, to trust God again because God isn’t finished with us yet. The best is yet to come.
Thanks to Elizabeth and Zechariah who show us how to wait.