Do You Need to Be Silenced?
We have been told so many times that Christmas is God’s gift to us that I think we sometimes relax into a problematic complacency.
Christmas and the coming of the Christ Child absolutely is a free and unmerited gift to us—God gives Godself to us in the Incarnation with no strings attached.
But what we forget is that if we choose to participate in this process, we will be changed.
Advent is actually all about change.
The valleys are being lifted up and the hills are being made low.
Our entire internal landscape is being rearranged—or it should be, if we have not gotten too deaf and numb to God’s presence in our lives.
This time of year it’s easy to bounce between frantic, consumer-driven gaiety and frightened depression at the state of the world and its violence.
But somewhere in the middle of the swirling commotion is a still point, where the chaos that comes from God and not from the world can reach our hearts and gently, lovingly, slowly turn us inside out.
Think of how Mary’s body changed over the nine months she was carrying Jesus.
They were changes so slow they could not be measured day by day, but so significant that she was unrecognizable to herself by the end.
That is the change we are to anticipate and welcome as we prepare for our Savior’s birth—and it may be every bit as awkward and uncomfortable as pregnancy!
Just ask Zechariah. He’s the one I actually want to talk about today.
We don’t read his story directly in our scriptures today, we only get the aftermath.
His canticle is in the place of our psalm this morning, a beautiful, powerful proclamation of the coming of Jesus and what it will take for the Word Made Flesh to become manifest in the world.
But before we get to that, let’s go back and remember how he got there.
Zechariah was Elizabeth’s husband.
As you recall, Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin, and considerably older than she was.
For Mary, still unmarried and quite young, it was very normal to not have children yet. In fact it was quite a scandal for her to be pregnant while still only engaged, and no one was questioning her fertility.
Not so for Elizabeth. She was a barren woman, that bitter experience combining personal pain with societal shame that plagued so many women in the Bible, women that God uses over and over to bring new life and hope out of nothingness and despair.
Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth—again and again God brings children from barren women and brings their voices to life.
Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, was a man of significant standing in his social context.
He had authority and power as a priest.
One could even say he spoke for God in his community.
But one day when he entered the sanctuary to offer incense before God, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son and they would name him John.
Zechariah is terrified at first, but his doubt and cynicism are enough to get him to question Gabriel.
“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.’ 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. 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.’”
And there it was. Zechariah could not speak.
What would it feel like if that happened to us?
Or, more to the point, what if we quit talking until we had something to say that expressed God’s will and God’s desire and God’s plan for the salvation of the world?
What does it feel like to be struck dumb by angel?
And are we even listening enough to God to risk that happening?
I guarantee you that I’m the wrong person to ask this question, because I’m sure you’ll have noticed that both as a priest and as a person, I certainly am never without something to say.
But notice what Zechariah’s enforced silence allows to happen.
First, Elizabeth gets to speak: “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.”
Then Gabriel visits Mary, Mary visits Elizabeth, and Mary sings her beautiful, subversive Magnificat.
The ones who are powerless are united in joy, and raise their voices in celebration and proclamation of the great works God is doing in their lives.
And all along, Zechariah is silent.
The silencing of his voice, the abrupt departure of his power and authority, makes room for Mary and Elizabeth, the powerless and the voiceless, to sing.
Who could sing if we shut our mouths for one moment?
Whose potential proclamation of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, that he is coming to save us and to bring us to new life, could be heard if we sat in the seat of the powerless and the voiceless for long enough to let someone else speak?
I’m sure it’s no mystery who needs to hear this sermon the most in this room—it’s me!
I’m the priest, the one entrusted in this community to bring the Word of God to the people of God, and when I read the story of Zechariah, also a priest, I have to ask myself, am I doubting angels?
Am I having Good News proclaimed to me and I’m dismissing it?
And so then I must ask myself: how could I surrender to silence more in my life, so the voice of the voiceless, the power of the powerless, could be used by God to bring about the salvation of the world?
This is something we all could think about, in the position of great wealth and power that we occupy in this world.
Look what Zechariah’s enforced silence brought about.
His silence gave room for Elizabeth, who gave birth to John, who made the way for Jesus, as we read in our gospel today.
And Zechariah’s silence changed him.
Before Gabriel’s visit, in his power and control, he responded to the good news with cynicism and doubt.
But when he lost his voice, when the silence and its ensuing vulnerability had time to work on him, he was changed.
The scripture says: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”
Zechariah put his silence to good use.
He learned to give up his authority and power.
Here, still silenced, he supports Elizabeth’s authority and power, she the barren woman who was looked down on by her whole community and who had no voice.
And when God sees what he has learned, God sets his voice free, and he praises God. Those are his words that we echo when we read his canticle this morning.
Here is what happens when we let silence and God work on us.
How do we do this in our own lives?
It’s called by a very simple name: prayer.
When we set down our own agendas and our own demands for outcomes, our constant need for control and power and being in charge of not only our own lives but everything and everyone else around us—when we put down these comforting burdens and let go into the freefall of the aching vulnerability that is silence with God, transformation happens.
Like Mary’s body changing through Advent, invisible day by day but undeniable over time, the slow, good work of God can take place in our souls if we but give it room to happen.
How can Jesus be born in us in this season if he is crowded out by our noisy, grasping selves?
He’s very small. He only needs a little space.
But be careful if you decide to give it to him.
Let yourself be struck dumb by an angel and you may never be the same.
The experience changed Zechariah forever.
He found that he no longer needed his own words, because the Word of God had been born within him.
So let us pray.
Pray not with words but with silence, and the silence will give birth to the Word Made Flesh within us, which God will give to the world.
If you liked, please share!