Luke 1 has been my go-to for Advent reading for a second year in a row. Last year, “the tender mercy of our God” was what fueled my joy. This year, I’ve been over the Magnificat several times as my sweet Catholic neighbor and I discuss our differing views of Mary. My neighbor sees “all generations shall call me blessed” as proof of Mary’s veneration. Meanwhile, I’m struck by “He who is mighty” as I tell her that Mary’s song of praise is less about herself and more about her God. Around and around we go, explaining and defending and sharing and asking.
After all of our talking, talking, talking, when it’s just me, Luke, and the lights on my Christmas tree, it’s Zechariah’s silence that quiets my heart. You remember Zechariah. Priest. Husband of Elizabeth. Father of John the Baptist. He was serving in the temple when Gabriel appeared and made an amazing proclamation — that Elizabeth will bear a son, even though she is barren, and Zechariah and his wife are advanced in age.
With such weighty words to ponder, Zechariah’s response is exactly what I think mine would be: stunned disbelief. For demanding a sign, he is struck silent on the spot, and remains so for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
And I wonder, as I always wonder, why would God do that? Why is Zechariah being punished for not believing? Can You really fault the guy, God, for being taken off guard by a heavenly messenger and what seemed like an impossible promise? Can You not give him a minute to let it all sink in?
Then I realize with a jolt — He did. God did for Zechariah what He has done for me: gave him time to think.
I know this because without my hearing aids, I can’t hear either.
Does that surprise you? It surprised me! Zechariah’s deafness is not explicitly stated, but why else would his neighbors “make signs” to him (v. 62)? If he could hear, they would have just used their mouths to ask. And why would the angel say he would be silent and unable to speak? Because as long as you can understand what people are saying, you can participate, even without the use of your vocal cords. As long as you can hear, you won’t be silent.
So it stands to reason that for nine whole months, Zechariah can’t hear, can’t speak, can’t celebrate the news with his friends, can’t acquaint his son growing in his wife’s belly with the sound of his voice, can’t whisper words of joy to Elizabeth as they marvel at their pending parenthood.
Why does God make Zechariah deaf? I don’t know Zechariah’s heart, but I know mine — I know ours. We are a forgetful people, and I think God does the things He does so we won’t forget. If Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, left out the bit about being silent, and then sent him on his way back to Elizabeth, it would have been easy for Zechariah to forget. To chalk this otherworldly visit up to a dream, or a figment of his imagination. To pretend it had never happened.
But because Zechariah’s ears and mouth were closed, every time he tried to talk, or every time he witnessed the laughter of a crowd around him and his heart broke at being left out, he would have to remember why. He’d have to bring to mind Gabriel and his strange announcement. Zechariah would have to remember it was the Lord who opened Elizabeth’s womb, not merely luck or timing that brought him and his wife a long-awaited child.
Perhaps most importantly, he was shrouded in silence to know who God is. “Because you did not believe my words” is a stern rebuke, because our God is not one to be trifled with, but it is also a loving discipline — because this is a hard saying, and much to take in and marvel at, because I love you, I will give you time to understand. It will not feel like a gift, but it will give birth to joy.
Nine months. Nine months God gave Zechariah to help him believe. Nine months of loneliness, of feeling cut off from his own people, with nothing but his thoughts and his God to keep him company. Nine months of unfettered communion with the Lord, of reflecting on the covenant, on all God had done and promised to do for His people, for generations upon generations. Nine whole months for joy to grow and unbelief to be purged. God filled Zechariah’s silence with something better than sound or speech — He filled it with His own presence.
When the time finally comes to speak, the joy of Zechariah’s heart is not that his tongue is loosed, or that his hearing has come flooding back, but that His God, His Rescuer, His Redeemer is on His way. Nine months’ worth of questions and opinions and doubts and statements could have come tumbling out in that moment, but like Mary, all Zechariah can do is break into song.
At the end of his silence, at the end of his waiting and his longing — at the end of ours — is the good news of great joy that Jesus is coming soon.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
And that, Charlie Brown, is what Advent is all about.
Merry Christmas, friends. You are so loved!