Speechlessness has sadly become a lost art. In our Twitter-world, surrounded by blogging celebrities and the Insta-famous, critique and commentary have become the lingo of choice. The moment anyone says anything, everyone has everything to say back. Rarely do we allow life to leave us astounded to the point of wordless wonder anymore. In short, we say too much with our words and too little with everything else.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were good, God-fearing Jews in the first century. We read in Luke 1 that, “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” But all was not well. Whether or not you’ve read this story before, this part should sound familiar. We try to live as righteously as we can and yet all does not seem to ever be well. Something is always amiss. Something always goes awry. For Zechariah and Elizabeth, it was this:
“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.”
If you or someone close to you has struggled with infertility, then you know some of the unique hurt and self-loathing that can often accompany this deeply private struggle. Zechariah and Elizabeth were in such a place, quickly losing hope that a child of their own was possible. But they were still praying for it. Then, a miracle. An angel appears to Zechariah.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
First, let’s take a moment to marvel at this man’s tactful wording. “I’m old. My wife? Let’s just say, she’s well along in years.” Well done, Zech, well done. But I digress. The point here is that Zechariah responds the way many of us respond to moments like this. The impossible materializes and our first response is to critique, comment, question, and maybe even condemn. Our cynicism, pompous self-importance, and inflated sense of intellectualism take over and we are left unable to sit in the silence of the miraculous moment. We’re overwhelmed by a seemingly uncontrollable need to fill the quiet of the astounding with the meaningless noise of the ordinary.
“How can I be sure of this?”
“That’s great and all, but have you thought about…”
Zechariah is overcome by the restraints of his own mind, by his paradigm of what is and is not possible, and lets it be known. The angel’s response?
“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Zechariah goes mute. He’s unable to speak for nine months. We might see this as divine punishment, and it can be argued as such, but is it possible that there’s something wonderfully generous in this forced silence? When God promises Zechariah a son, the appropriate response should have been exactly that. Silence. Wordless awe. Jaw-dropping-astonishment. And so that’s where Zechariah ends up. Nine long and quiet months to purge his heart and mind of grown-up doubt and to replace it with childlike wonder.
When his son John is born, Zechariah’s “mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” These were his first words:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. – Luke 1:68-79 [NIV] –
These words matter. These words are humble. These words push us further into mystery rather than trying to explain it away. And these are some of the great lessons of Advent. To make our words matter. To speak humbly. To speak ourselves into the beautiful mystery of this season. And when speaking falls short, to be OK with that. To be silent. To be quiet. To be speechless and say more than our inadequate words ever could.
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