From Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent
And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believes not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
Traditionally we read Luke 1:20-23 as God’s punishment of Zechariah for his lack of faith in God’s words. The angel comes to Zechariah and speaks on God’s behalf. Zechariah questions the angel’s seemingly ludicrous proclamation. Then the angel basically says, “Well, it’s true, but since you didn’t believe me you can’t say another word until you see it for yourself. Now hush up and watch.” Doubt did not prevent the miracle from coming to pass; it just forced Zechariah into silent retreat.
We may not be stretching the text too to consider some additional perspectives on Zechariah’s muteness. On some level, yes, how dare Zechariah question the word of God? But really he was just doing what most people would have done, seeking confirmation. “Just tell me how I can be sure. I mean look at Elizabeth and me!” What if the silence God bestowed on Zechariah was not fully punishment but also an odd blessing? What if God was offering Zechariah nine months to sit with the news, to ponder God’s words, and to process the stupefied awe in which he surely found himself? What if the time of formal silence was God granting Zechariah the gift of some necessary internal solitude in preparation to receive the miracle and to dwell in God’s faithfulness?
Sometimes, when God offers us a word, vision, or dream that seems too good to be true, we require a lot to believe it. It is almost as though we have conditioned ourselves to have little or no expectations of divine generosity extended toward us. We reason that if we do not get our hopes up then we will not have to worry about being disappointed. We try to safeguard ourselves from the possibility of being hurt by learning not to anticipate much. We do this not only with God but also in relationships with one another. The problem with living this way is that such a posture becomes where we are most comfortable. So when a new, life-giving word comes from God, we question it and struggle to accept it. Then we begin to elicit confirmation from other people about the impossibility of God’s offer. We call up a friend and say, “This is crazy, right? I’m crazy to believe this, right? I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, aren’t I?”
Maybe part of Zechariah’s forced silence was to protect him from himself and from trying to have such conversation with others. God said it. Now he had to sit with God’s word until he could receive it.
Lord, your compassion extends beyond what we can imagine. Where we may only see punishment and holy reprimand, help us look for a holy invitation to a deeper understanding of you. Amen.