Rev. Martha Jacobs
When Silence Speaks
Psalm 62, Luke 1:5-25
Sunday, December 11, 2016
As we begin this morning, let me give you a little more detail about how this priest thing worked so that you can understand a bit more about Zechariah and this story of waiting, humility and silence.
Zechariah is one of the Priests, deemed so because he was born into the priestly line, which is traced back to Aaron, Moses’ brother. So, he is among those qualified to enter the Temple in order to engage in that once in a lifetime act, when one is lucky enough to draw the right lot; that of making the incense offering to God in the holy of holies, that most sacred place. Zechariah was likely one of maybe twenty thousand priests in Jerusalem. And yet, many of them would never get this opportunity to offer the incense. On this day, as our pre-Christmas story would have it, Zechariah draws the lot that enables him to enter the holy of holies.
So, imagine Zechariah’s excitement at entering this place that was thought to be God’s personal space here on earth. This was his moment, a once-in-a-lifetime calling. He was to enter the holy of holies to offer the incense while all the people waited for his return from inside that awe-filled place. In one of the background pieces I read on this text, it was noted that there were times and seasons when a rope would be tied to the leg of the priest in case something happened while he was in the holy of holies, since no one else could go in unless their lot was drawn. No one knew what might happen if they ventured in to assist the priest… because of the fear of incurring the wrath of God by entering God’s sacred space without permission. This way, if something happened to the priest, they could yank him out by the rope without threatening their own lives or angering God.
This was a huge deal for Zechariah. I wonder what was going through his mind as he entered that most sacred place. Was he scared, was he humbled, was he feeling proud that he was to have this experience that so few would ever have. Most likely, he wasn’t thinking about Elizabeth being barren and that he had prayed, probably at least 15-20 years earlier, that she would become pregnant.
So, when Gabriel says, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John,” it is understandable that that was definitely not what he was expecting to have happen in the holy of holies. So, his response, “How can I be sure of this?” isn’t surprising to me. In fact, as I was working on this sermon, I wondered if Zechariah was actually thinking to himself, “What do you mean my prayer has been answered? Now? Boy it sure took God a long time to hear it!!!”
Well, I can definitely relate to that sentiment, can’t you? There are some things I prayed about many years ago that I just thought God didn’t hear or ignored. Or, I thought God might have thought me crazy for asking for that particular thing – So, as I was working on this sermon, it occurred to me, what if what I prayed for 20 or 30 years ago were to happen now….Gosh, the thought of what I prayed for at the age of 30 coming to fruition now…Wow! That might strike me mute, too!!!
But, I digress. So, here are Zechariah and Elizabeth, barren, which was, similar to Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel – the forefathers and foremothers of Judaism. Here is yet another couple having to wait for a descendant until they are older. And, similar to the late-born children of our foreparents, John, who is to be born to Elizabeth and Zechariah, will play an important role in our faith history as he introduces Jesus to the people of his time, and to us.
As I wrote in today’s Advent reflection, Walter Brueggemann, the great theologian, has pointed out that often in the Bible, it is out of barrenness that God’s work emerges. Sometimes, he notes, it is not just literal barrenness, as was the case with Elizabeth and Zechariah, but as a powerful metaphor for we who might feel empty, waiting, and therefore, humbled. Based on that, I asked in my reflection: Can barrenness ever bring about hope? Can waiting and being humbled bring about joy?
Waiting – that is one of the most difficult of disciplines for me. I want to know now, I don’t want to have to wait – and yet, like all of us – I do wait. For our seniors in high school this is a time of anxious waiting. For those who applied for early admission to college, this is a torturous time. They feel that so much is hanging on whether or not they get accepted to a particular college. They see their whole life hanging in the balance. For those of us who have gotten through college and moved through our careers, we may have forgotten what torture it was while waiting to find out what college we were going to be accepted to.
It is interesting to me that this is happening for our youth at this time of year, since during Advent, it is a time of waiting – a season of waiting – hoping for the brightness of a future where we may sort of know what is ahead. But, we don’t really, since life gets in the way of our plans and hopes and dreams – and so we wait. In waiting we learn patience and we learn humility. My guess is that Zechariah learned patience and humility as he waited all those months for his son to be born.
Humility – is a second part of Zechariah’s story – hearing the words from the angel Gabriel, not believing them, and, as a result, spending the next months, only being able to listen. Upon hearing the words of the angel Gabriel while also seeing him in the holy of holies, our reading says that Zechariah was “gripped with fear.” While I joked earlier about God taking God’s time to respond to our prayers, what this does remind me of, is that God does hear our prayers, God does listen, which is humbling. Gabriel’s words, “Do not be afraid for your prayers have been heard,” are not just for Zechariah; they are for us as well. So, we too can learn from this story that God does remember our prayers and while they may not be answered when we think and hope they will be answered, sometimes the answer comes years later. And, sometimes we can look back and see that they actually were answered, just not in the way we wanted them to be, or were glad that they weren’t answered in the way we had hoped. It is with humble hearts that we are able to acknowledge God at work in our lives and through our prayers.
And lastly, there is the silence and what Zechariah, and we, can learn from his being struck mute until after his son is born. Silence in this story is seen as a penalty for Zechariah doubting Gabriel’s words. But sometimes, silence is holy, sacred, something that we really need. As I have mentioned before, it is in the silence that God can get a word in edge-wise with me. I need that quiet time, that silence, in order for God to get through to me.
And, especially, in this time of Christmas prep, I am worrying about the pageant, whether or not we will sell all of our Christmas trees, whether everyone will be able to complete their pledge from last year and prayerfully increase their next years’ pledge, whether the Advent candles will be lit in the right order – like God really cares which week we light the pink candle – if the poinsettias will make it through Christmas, whether the orders of service will be done on time for the holidays – without mistakes! – will the Advent reflections be done, and will I remember the soup for our Wednesday Advent Soup and Service, and do we have enough battery-operated candles for our 5 pm service and enough regular candles for the Candlelight service, and will all of you and Keith and the choir be willing to get up on Christmas morning and come to church to help celebrate Christmas morning together! All of these human things, these worries go on in my head. And I am guessing that all of you have a whole laundry list of things going through your mind too, as you prepare for Christmas. God is trying to let me – and you – know that not unlike Zechariah, we too need that silent time.
I wonder what Zechariah was thinking and feeling as he awaited the birth of his son, John. Not only was a baby growing inside of Elizabeth, but most probably faith and a new recognition of the power of God was growing inside of Zechariah because, when he does finally speak, it is described this way in Luke 1 verse 64: “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” The scriptures tell us that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to sing God’s praises, which he does for about 12 verses. He is clearly joyous. And that is a good advertisement for spending some time in silence. The joy that can follow taking that time to be with God and with yourself is priceless. Silence can speak to us in ways that noises and voices and the craziness of our lives, and particularly this season, can’t.
I know that something shifts in me when I take the time to be silent and listen to God, so I also believe that something changed within Zechariah and his relationship with God. How could it not? As I asked in my Advent reflection: Is there something within you that can relate to the need to be silent and wait for God’s voice to speak to you? Does allowing yourself to sit in silence, even for just 5 minutes, change you? Can you use that silence to bring you closer to God?
As Advent continues, I encourage you, even as I encourage myself, to let the bustle and craziness of getting ready for the holiday be silent now and again and wait, expectantly, for the love and grace that God freely gives to us and the joy that we experience when we do spend quality time not only with our loved ones, but also with God.
Dear God, as we draw ever closer to Christmas Eve, help us to pause now and again to be silent, to listen, to allow your love and grace to fill in those places within us that feel empty, are yearning for something, and are humbled by your grace that is there for the taking. Help us to be open to the hope, the joy, and the peace that you bring, that peace that surpasses all understanding. Amen.