dec. 18 - silence

by Rev. Magrey DeVega, St. Paul's UMC, Cherokee, Iowa

First, read Luke 1:19-20

Zechariah was an elderly priest who lived under the rule of King Herod. He and his wife Elizabeth were quite elderly and childless, despite their most earnest prayers. One day, as he was in the Temple performing his priestly work, the angel Gabriel came to him, terrifying Zechariah, and saying, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. He will do God’s will, he will be like the greatest prophets of old, and he will prepare the way for your Lord.”

Wow. Talk about good news! You would think this would have given him reason to rejoice. If this were a word association game, we would assume that Zechariah’s next words would have been, “Hallelujah,” or “Amen,” or “Thank You.” 

Nope. To paraphrase verse 18, Zechariah said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Are you nuts? Do you see this face? Do you know how old I am? Do you know how old my wife is? And how do you suggest we raise this child? I may be dead and gone by the time the kid reaches puberty!”

Now, before we criticize Zechariah too harshly, let’s just be honest here. Isn’t his reaction similar to the kind of disbelief and skepticism we display once December rolls around and we prepare for Christmas? Have any of us, even in the last few days, thought or uttered something like:

“Peace on Earth? You've got to be kidding. There’s nothing like that nowadays.”
“This is a season of hope? I can barely keep my life together right now!”
“Joy and gladness? For me? How is this possible?”

It’s true. In the midst of all this chaos and frustration, when the good news of Jesus comes to us, we can hardly believe it. It all seems too extraordinary, too wild, and too far-fetched to believe. So, like Zechariah, we say, “How will I know that this is so? How could this be?”

To which the angel responded: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Suddenly, the priest Zechariah lost his voice. Now I don’t know about you, but I could hardly imagine a worse fate for a clergy person. A preacher who couldn't talk? It would be like a chef who couldn't taste or a taxi driver who couldn't see. Sounds pretty complicated. 

But something happened to Zechariah. Over the next nine months, in the quiet of his own mind, he had time to reflect and think. Perhaps he was put on leave from his priestly duties. Maybe he spent more time at home. Maybe he had lots of opportunities to imagine his life with a little boy to call his own. Perhaps he watched his wife’s belly get bigger and bigger and noticed his deepest anxieties grow smaller and smaller.

It turns out that the silence from the angel was not a curse after all, but a remedy.

After the child was born, a disagreement arose over what the child’s name should be. Some said he should be “Zack, Jr.” But a still mute Zechariah picked up a writing tablet and wrote the words, “His name is John,” just as the angel had told him.

At that moment, his throat tickled and his tongue wiggled, and the vocal chords that had been atrophying into nothing burst into new, purposeful life. And Luke records an amazing song of praise that Zechariah offers to God, in gratitude for the amazing gift of his son, and acknowledging the impact he will make on the world. 

Now, do you think there is any way for Zechariah to have come to this conclusion were it not for the silence he endured? Do you think there is a lesson to be learned from this man who was at first much too distracted by his present reality to believe something that ultimately could change his life? 

You bet there is.

How much do you really have to do this Christmas time? How about this? How about being as intentional in creating moments of stillness and silence as you are in crossing off to-do lists? It would seem impossible at first. After all, there are presents to buy, parties to throw, events to attend, houses to decorate, preparations to make, costumes to sew, food to cook, calls to make, cards to mail ...

... And then, the angel came to Gabriel and said,  “I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” ...

Isn't it time you unplugged all the Christmas noise? Wouldn't it really be okay if you attended one less party this year? Wouldn't it be fine if you gave someone a card for Christmas with a thoughtful message rather than an expensive present? Wouldn't it be nice for you to boycott Christmas commercials and newspaper ads? And wouldn't the glow that comes from experiencing God’s hope and love shine more brightly than even the most lavishly decorated tree?

Gracious God, Silence all voices but Yours, that I might hear the message you have for me. Teach me to focus my attention on eternal matters, and minimize untoward distractions, that I might be fully ready to receive the Christ anew. 

At Advent, we learn of the birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist and his parents’ responses to the angel Gabriel’s announcement of his birth. Though they were both faithful people, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t believe they would become pregnant as they were old and past childbearing years. When Gabriel announced this to the temple priest Zechariah, he was filled with so much fear and shock that he couldn’t speak. Since he didn’t believe, the angel told Zechariah that he would remain silent until the birth of his boy.

Have you ever become so overwhelmed you couldn’t speak? Silence is not only a natural human reaction to awe, it also provides us with time and space to pray and ponder over matters of faith and significance.

Tonight, read the story of John the Baptist and his parents from Luke 1:5-15 with your children and talk about the story together and the way Zechariah’s silence allowed him the time and space he needed to think about what was to come. Then, enter into a time of silence until bedtime. No talking. No music. No television. Explain to your children the way in which silence allows the Holy Spirit space to move in our hearts.

Instead of a bedtime prayer, make the sign of the cross on your children’s foreheads as pastors do. When you wake in the morning, take a few minutes to talk about your time of silence. Did God speak to you in the silence? How can silence help us to hear the words of God?