Then the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. . . .”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 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 proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. (Luke 1:11-22)
There are so many gates and doors that must finally be lifted high and opened wide, and there are still many prisoners who must finally be set free. For truly we are among the prisoners, and among the gates that should be opened, I include our closed ears and lips. Our lips! Because we are actually quite similar to poor Zechariah, of whom we have just read. After all, something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out. Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people — a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing, a stark truth — something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there.
It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us. It also saddens us to see other people coming and going, all in their own way, all in so much error and dullness when we have something to tell them that would help them. For we sense that their concern is at root our own concern. Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds — you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine. This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead. But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other.
And then we experience the fact that we are mute. Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness into community. Our talk is always such an imperfect, wooden, dead talk. Fire will not break out in it, but can only smolder in our words.
Hearing the story of Zechariah, I immediately have to think of myself. I have so often climbed up into the pulpit, and experienced just what is said here: “And when Zechariah came out, he could not speak with them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple. And he made signs to them and remained dumb.” I once thought it so easy to preach, but now it strikes me as harder and harder to say what needs to be said. All the better do I understand the men of the Bible, Moses and Jeremiah and others who beseeched God not to make them speak of him, because they simply could not. All our lips are bound. And my plight is also your plight. I am not able to speak, because you too are not able. You do not speak with me either. What you say to me is at most only an incomprehensible gesture; I hear only words. O, our closed up lips! Who can finally open them for us!
Zechariah was mute because he did not believe the angel. We all are just like Zechariah in the sanctuary. Every one of us has a hidden side of our being that is, as it were, in touch with God. We are secretly in a close connection with the eternal truth and love, even if we ourselves are not aware of it. And from this other hidden side of our being resounds a voice that is actually speaking to us constantly. “Gabriel, who stands before God,” spoke to Zechariah. We could think of the words of Jesus, that even the least have an angel who always beholds the face of the Father in Heaven (Matthew 18:10). This angel stands before God, but sometimes, in the sanctuary, he also stands right before us. He speaks with God, but he also speaks with us.
However else we think about it, the living word of God is available to us. It is a word that, in contrast to all human words, is clear, intelligible and unambiguous. Yes, this inward word of God, which God speaks to us by means of his angels, contains precisely that which so moves and unsettles us. It is this word that so delights and grieves us, and which we would so gladly tell one another.
Without this word we would not suffer so deeply from the need that presses in upon us, and from the injustice that we must stand by and watch. We would not be able to resist so powerfully and become so indignant against the lies and violence that we see dominating life apart from this word. We would not have the urge to exercise love and to become loving if it were not for the fact that within us is God’s voice, placed into our heart. In this way God spoke to Zechariah of something quite grand — a coming great decision and turning of all things, of the approaching better age at hand, of the Savior meant to become a helper for the people, and of his herald, whose father he himself would become.
Even if we have never seen angels standing “on the right of the incense altar,” the fire of God can actually burn us, the earthquake of God can still shake us, the floor of God awaits to rush around us, the storm of God actually wants to seize us. O, if we could actually hear, if we could but hear this voice that resounds so clearly within us as actually God’s voice. If we could only believe. Then we could also speak. As Psalm 116:10 says: I believe, therefore I also speak.
Believing is not something as special and difficult or even unnatural as we often suppose. Believing means that what we listen to, we listen to as God’s speech. What moves us is not just our own concern, but precisely God’s concern. What causes me worry, that is God’s worry, what gives me joy is God’s joy, what I hope for is God’s hope. In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does. In all that I do it is not I, but rather God who is important. Imagine if everything were brought into this great and proper connection, if we were willing to suffer, be angry, love and rejoice with God, instead of always wanting to make everything our own private affair, as if we were alone.
Just imagine if we were to adopt everything that gratifies and moves us into the life and movement of God’s kingdom, so that we personally are, so to speak, taken out of play. Simply love! Simply hope! Simply rejoice! Simply strive! But in everything, do it no longer from yourself, but rather from God! Everything great that is hidden in you can indeed be great only in God.
Don’t you think we would learn to talk with one another if we would cease speaking about our own separate concerns; if the human would cease putting itself in front of the divine? What would happen to us if we approached each other thinking: what he is saying is not on his own, but rather on a higher authority, not because he wants to, but because he must. Wouldn’t we then once and for all find the words, the right words? Might we not be able to truly hear and understand?
God’s thoughts are in us and over us. Yet we must learn to believe, believe that everything depends upon the God who stands behind us; we are in his hand. The greatest, the best in us is precisely not our own private concern, but rather God’s. Ah, if I could only believe it! It need not be complicated. Let the divine that you do recognize actually be divine for once! Or perhaps you and I like our insecurity and instability compared to the thoughts of God. Perhaps we prefer to place ourselves next to the truth instead of in the truth?
We must once and for all give up trying to be self-made individuals. Let us cease preaching by ourselves, being right by ourselves, doing good by ourselves, being sensible by ourselves, improving the world by ourselves. God wants to do everything, certainly through us and with us and never without us; but our participation in what he does must naturally originate and grow out of his power, not ours. O, how we could then speak with one another. For whatever does not grow out of God produced smoke, not fire. But that which is born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). We only need to speak with our fellow men on the basis of faith. So long as our words do not arise from faith, from our confidence in the power of God, we will be and remain mute. Only faith can speak. But faith can speak! This is how our ears must be opened and then also our mouths.
So now here we stand, simultaneously deaf and mute like Zechariah. Ah yes, we only want to pretend to be next to him. In spite of his unbelief, he was still a herald of Advent, one who waited for God. Otherwise the angel would not have spoken with him. Nor would he have become the father of John the Baptist. When everything came to pass which he could not believe and could not express, then he was suddenly able to believe and speak. For God does not stand still when we come to a standstill, but precedes us with his deeds and only waits so that we can follow. And so we will accept — even with all that we cannot say, and with all that we have not yet heard — that we are also heralds of Advent. We will finally believe, and then we will also hear.