In this Advent season, I’ve been reading the book of Luke. Luke tells a wonderful, well organized story-he even tells us that “I … decided….to write an orderly account for you” and so he did. He begins at the very beginning, with the story of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth, who have been waiting to have a child. And my study Bible tells me that “among Jews sterility was regarded as a sign of divine disfavor, and therefore a disgrace.”
So where is Zechariah when our story begins? “He was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” Here’s what I learned from researching this. According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Easton%27s_Bible_Dictionary_%281897%29/Zacharias , this was a “once in a lifetime” event. A priest could only do this once.
Zechariah has been chosen to go into the holiest place, the sanctuary where the Jews believed that God resided. And while he is there, an angel appears to him, scaring the daylight out of him-Luke tells us “he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him” when he saw the angel. And what does the angel say? Your prayer has been heard! Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. So not only were they going to have a child, they were going to have a son!
Poor Zechariah! He’s been told he’s going to have a son. God sent him an angel to tell him, and what does he do? He asks, “How will I know this is so?” Well Zechariah, one way you know it is so is that God sent you an angel. And this angel, Gabriel, wasn’t too happy with Zechariah’s question. “But now, because you didn’t believe my words…you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Perhaps Zachariah had an idea of what God’s angel would look like. Perhaps Zechariah didn’t recognize the angel as a messenger of God. I know I have some ideas of how God will appear in my life-maybe you do too. God will appear in good ways, ways that don’t necessarily frighten me-after all I don’t want to be terrified. Luckily God hasn’t struck me mute-yet.
But here’s the real question: do we recognize God when God speaks to us? Brian McLaren, in The Voice of Luke, suggests that “Perhaps many of us in some way hear the voice of the Lord, but we don’t realize it because we’re expecting lightning flashes and a voice with a lot of reverb, a voice so overpowering that we are incapable of questioning and doubting it.” Maybe we watch too many movies where God comes out of the heavens and there’s no way you can’t realize that the voice belongs to God.
And what about Elizabeth? Elizabeth conceives, and says, “This is what the Lord has done for me.” She doesn’t ask, how did this happen? She recognizes God. Kathleen Norris has a very interesting view of what happens to Zechariah. Here’s what she says: “God’s response to Zechariah is to strike him dumb during the entire term of his son’s gestation, giving him a pregnancy of his own.” She goes on to say, “I read Zechariahs’ punishment as a grace, in that he could not say anything to further compound his initial arrogance when confronted with mystery. When he does speak again, it is to praise God; he’s had nine months to think it over.”
Zechariah wants knowledge and information: how wills this happen? Elizabeth recognizes the mystery
And us? What do we do? Kathleen Norris asks, when the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Or do I respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a yes that will change me forever.”
I wish for all of us an Advent that allows us to be Disciples around the manager, saying a yes that will change us forever.
Connie Knapp is a Ruling Elder at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown and a participant in the Commissioned Ruling Elders program of the Hudson River Presbytery.