Over the Christmas holidays I was thinking about how Luke doesn’t start his Christmas story with the birth of Jesus, but with the birth of John. He starts with the story of Zechariah, John’s father. The story goes like this. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were older and had never been able to have children. Zechariah was a Priest. He was at the Temple performing his duties when an angel appeared to him. It was Gabriel, the same angel who had appeared to Mary. He told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth were going to have a son. Their son would be the one who would be the forerunner to the Messiah. He would spend his life pointing people to God.
The problem with that promise was that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying to God for a child for years. It didn’t seem God heard their prayer. They had finally gotten over the disappointment. He wasn’t sure this could be for real. So he asked Gabriel, “How will we know this is so?” Gabriel gave him a sign. He told Zechariah that he would not be able to talk until the child was born.
From that moment on, Zechariah could not speak. He stumbled out of the Temple unable to talk and everyone knew something was going on, but not sure what. He went home and sure enough, a short time later Elizabeth became pregnant. Maybe, she liked him better this way, the strong silent type. Zechariah remained silent until John was born. On the eighth day, when it was time to name him, Zechariah spoke his first words. He said, “His name is John.” It seems that during the time of silence Zechariah was able to figure things out.
Most scholars say that the angel punished Zechariah with silence for not believing his word. That is the way I have preached it as well. But, these days I am more in agreement with Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote that his silence was not a punishment, but a gift.
I think she is right. I think maybe silence is what we need more of these days. We have heard so many words. Words defending God. Words trying to explain God. Words telling us to keep trying, keep praying. Words that, after a while, seem as old and tired as we sometimes feel.
I think Zechariah is a good example for the church these days. I understand that the church can’t be completely silent. But, I think we could talk less. Instead of so many words of correction and condemnation, maybe we should just go find the people we disagree with and be silent together and do something useful. Instead of rushing to the defense of American civil religion we should treat the marginalized more like Jesus did. Maybe we don’t have to have an answer for everything. It seems that we are so busy giving answers. Then, if people don’t listen to our answers we shout them louder. Maybe if we spent more time being silent and listening we might actually find some answers. “You can’t learn anything when your mouth is open.”
We try to explain God when maybe we should just invite people to be with us and experience the mystery that is God.
Words come at us so fast. Words that try to convince of something, words that manipulate us. Words that condemn us (spoken in love, of course). We don’t trust words so much any more. So maybe we need less words. More silence. More action.
The night Jesus was born there was a chorus of angles that sang. I am sure the shepherds were noisy when they marched their way up to the barn. No doubt the animals in the next stall caused a ruckus at times. But, sooner or later the baby had to fall asleep. Mary must have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion. I picture Joseph lying there on the straw in the silence. And it was then I believe that he began to understand what was really going on. You don’t come to those realizations in a noisy room. We need silence. We can’t see God for who he is in the midst of a noisy life.
This is my prayer for the new year. I pray that our lives be filled with laughter. The sounds of warm conversation. The clamor of good food being cooked in the kitchen. The noises of family and friends. But, I also pray that somewhere, sometime, there will be some times of silence. I pray that in the silence we can get our bearings like Zechariah and Joseph. I pray that in the silence we truly discover the mystery of God’s love for us that none of our words can adequately explain.