Out of the Silence

Marsberg Out of the Silence

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; December 5, 2021

Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:67-79


I still remember our middle son’s first Christmas living on his own—mostly because of the flurry of text messages I got from him one evening. Seth is our quiet son—a true introvert who can go for days working on a project all by himself—perfectly happy. Because Seth is so quiet by nature, when he was growing up, I quickly learned to pay attention when he was in the mood to talk. Sometimes that meant starting a conversation at 11 o’clock at night and practicing my listening skills with my eyes half open. But no matter. When Seth started talking, as a mother I felt compelled to listen—and to listen carefully.


Zechariah is in the talking business, we might say. A priest in the days of King Herod, his vocation is to talk about Yahweh. Maybe he has even gotten into the habit of talking TO Yahweh more than he listens. We just don’t know. But we do know that when they were young, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, prayed for a child. They prayed and they prayed. But when old age came to visit, understandably, they gave up on that prayer. In God’s time Zechariah is chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. There he is—about the business of Yahweh—when the angel Gabriel shows up and scares him out of his wits. The angel tries to relieve his fears with that—oh so familiar angel phrase: “Do not be afraid.” Then Gabriel delivers God’s message: “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.”


Zechariah is dumbfounded and asks, “How will I know that this is so?  I’m an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” In other words, “Are you kidding me?” While Zechariah’s question seems reasonable to us, for some reason the angel is not in the mood to be questioned—at least not by a priest of Yahweh—a man who is supposed to be in the business of believing the unbelievable. So, Gabriel hands down a shocking sentence to Zechariah: “Because you did not believe my words, you will be unable to speak until the day these things occur.”


Zechariah, a priest in the talking business, will talk no more—not for a while—not for 9 months or so. In essence, Zechariah is sentenced to a time in the wilderness—alone in silence. The text actually indicates that not only can Zechariah not talk during his wilderness time—he can’t hear either. Why else would the people have to motion to him concerning his son’s name?


I daresay most of us have little exposure to time in the desert or the wilderness. Throughout Scripture, however, wilderness time is good time. It is listening time. It is learning time. Moses comes upon the burning bush and, thereby, God, in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that Elijah learns a very important lesson: God is not found in noise and chaos. God is found in a still, small voice. Zechariah’s own son, John, will dwell in the wilderness and it is from the wilderness that he returns to hand on to others what he has learned there: Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand! Jesus, too, spends 40 days in the wilderness. There he is affirmed in his mission to stand against Satan wherever Satan may be found.


Zechariah enters his wilderness time and from that quiet place, he sees the hand of God working in wondrous ways. Elizabeth does in fact become pregnant. During her pregnancy, Mary comes to pay a visit. Sitting in silence, dwelling upon how, through God, all things are possible, I wonder what Zechariah thinks of Mary’s story: “An angel of the Lord came to visit me. He said I had been chosen and that the Spirit of God would come upon me—and it was so.” How can Zechariah doubt the angel’s visitation on Mary when he, himself, has just had such an encounter?


Evidence of God’s mighty hand is ever present as with each passing day the baby in Elizabeth’s womb grows. Finally, the words of Gabriel come to pass, and Elizabeth gives birth to a son. At the “Naming Ceremony,” there are those present who assume the baby will have a family name, but Elizabeth is adamant. Unconvinced, they turn to the mute Zechariah who asks for a tablet—on which he writes, “His name is John.”  And with the scribbling of a few words on a tablet, Zechariah ends his wilderness time, his desert time, his silence. His mouth is opened, his tongue is freed, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the old priest praises God.

Zechariah offers a word of praise and prophecy. He praises the Covenant God of Israel, recalling God’s redeeming acts in the past. Then he speaks of the future—of the Redeemer who will bring freedom and holiness and righteousness. He speaks of salvation and a light breaking forth from the shadow of death. A new era has come. Zechariah weaves together the promises of old and the promises about to be fulfilled. He believes—oh, now he believes. His mind—once filled with doubt—no longer underestimates the love and power of God. His boy, John, will announce the arrival of the Redeemer. God’s promises are here! There is much to sing about! True joy is silenced by unbelief.  Zechariah knows something about the silence caused by unbelief.  And Zechariah knows something about the joy of faith renewed.

Perhaps you have heard me say my favorite Christmas movie is the classic It’s a Wonderful Life starring Jimmy Steward and Donna Reed. It just so happens that It’s a Wonderful Life was the topic of Seth’s text messages. On the evening of his flurry of text messages, he had just finished decorating his Christmas tree. Among the text messages, Seth sent me pictures of the lights adorning the outside of the house and the lovely Christmas tree in the living room. I responded with what I thought was adequate enthusiasm. But I was missing the real message. “No, Mom,” the text read. “Look at the tree skirt.” Finally, I saw it. Seth’s tree skirt was a woven throw I bought many years ago picturing the town of Bedford Falls. It’s the setting of the movie in which George Bailey has his own wilderness time. Thinking all is lost, he is about to give up but the prayers of people who love him result in a gentle angel, Clarence, coming to earth to offer George the help he desperately needs. With the gift of a vision to see things from a different perspective, George realizes that his life has mattered. His life has been truly wonderful. Because of George’s wilderness time, his faith is restored and renewed.


Still today, we are drawn to stories like these because we are people still searching—searching for light amidst shadows and darkness. Some days it feels like the world is addicted to anger and hatred and fear, so much so, we may be tempted to stick our heads in the sand until the storm passes over. But it shows no signs of abating. With so much pain—within us and around us—our hearts are broken asunder. What is ours to do? What is ours to say?  While I certainly don’t have all the answers, I know who does, and so I bang on the doors of heaven—just like you do, I imagine.


Could it be that one person who can show us the way forward is none other than Zachariah, who lived through his own wilderness time?  Might his experience light the way for us? Perhaps what Zachariah has to teach us is that there are times when it’s best to speak less and sit in silence more. Maybe, out of the silence we can truly hear the leading of the Spirit. If we are brave enough to enter the wilderness, we might be amazed by the still small voice that leads us into the light.


As followers of Jesus, we are called to offer another perspective—something other than faith in all that glitters. At the very least, we can affirm our belief in the enchantment and wonder of Almighty God entering the world as a helpless baby—who came to right the wrongs in the world and to teach us to do the same.


For a time, Zechariah sits in silence, but his mute state ends with a clear mind and a loose tongue. Ultimately, he is transformed. His doubt takes a back seat to faith—faith in the God of Israel who made a holy covenant with Abraham—faith in the God of Israel whose plan of salvation includes Zechariah’s only son. John is born with a mighty task—he will prepare the way for the Lord—he will lift up Christ as the light to those who sit in darkness—he will guide their feet into the way of peace. In the end, Zechariah’s song of praise is a joyful, triumphant invitation to people living in darkness: Embrace the light. Be released from the shadow of death. Believe and be silent no more.


In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Cover Art by Ella Hawkins, used by permission