This morning I read and re-read the account of Gabriel’s dealings with Zechariah in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke and decide history has been too hard on him.
By all accounts, he was an upstanding, righteous man. Both he and his wife, Elizabeth, loved God and obeyed God’s law. But they suffered barrenness, a severe affliction in their time and culture. They had lived with the stigma their whole married lives and known the sorrow of disappointed hopes. Now they were too old.
Zechariah was a priest, one of twenty thousand priests during the time of Christ. No priest offered incense in the Holy Place more than once in his lifetime, so Zechariah had waited his whole life for this moment. It was finally his time, and then Gabriel shows up.
The old priest is more than startled; he’s terrified. The angel speaks to assure him, saying:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Luke 1:13-15
Gabriel had a lot more to say about the child to be born, but I think Zechariah may have stopped listening after he heard – your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son. His reply to the angel is what people remember most about Zechariah: How do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man, and my wife is too old to give me a child. What sign can you give me to prove this will happen?
Suddenly, Gabriel is less reassuring and more menacing.
“I am Gabriel. I stand beside God himself. He has sent me to announce to you this good news. But now, since you did not believe my words, you will be stricken silent and unable to speak until the day my words have been fulfilled at their appointed time, and a child is born to you. That will be your sign!” – Luke 1:19-20
Do you want a sign? I’ll give you a sign! And just like that, Zechariah is struck dumb.
He finishes out his days of priestly ministry and goes home, still mute. And, of course, everything happens as Gabriel said it would. In the meantime, Gabriel visits Mary and receives a very different response. She doesn’t doubt his words; she’s just curious as to the how.
I think of all the gloriously favored characters in the gospel advent story – Elizabeth and Mary accept their gifts with joy and burst into prophetic song. Joseph dreams prophetic dreams; lowly shepherds witness a sky full of angels. Simeon believes and sees; Anna believes and breaks out in praise. But that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of this Zechariah.
I ask my daughter, the theology student, what she thinks of Zechariah. She’s working on her Master’s degree, so it’s getting more challenging for me to track our conversations. Mostly, I nod a lot. I ask her to use small words and tell me the first thing that comes to her mind. He’s the priest who doubted God’s messenger and was struck mute, she says. And oh yeah, he was the father of John the Baptist. I ask if she has anything else to add; she says she identifies with Zechariah because we all suffer doubt.
That’s when it hits me – if I were in his sandals, I would have responded exactly as he did.
When God spoke to me about adopting our youngest, I was 42 years old and swamped in full-time ministry. I had been given promises about this child for a decade. But it took months, another painful miscarriage, and an undeniable sign before God had my full attention and obedience. Even after we started the process and witnessed miracle after miracle, even after we had her name and picture, I still doubted. Steeling myself against possible disappointment, I refused to assemble her crib. I was trying to control something that was beyond my control.
We are all human; we all struggle with unbelief, especially those of us who have experienced many disappointments; when hope deferred has made us heartsick. I learned a lot during those torturous months of waiting, as God prepared my heart to travel to the other side of the world and meet his promise face to face. God also prepared Zechariah during his months of silence, to raise the one who would prepare the way of the Lord.
I can only imagine the words he pondered in his heart.
After his son’s birth, Zechariah writes the name John on a tablet, and instantly, he can talk. He’s filled to overflowing with the the Holy Spirit, delivering a powerful prophecy about God’s faithfulness and his son’s calling. Doubt is vanquished; only praise remains.
In silence, we learn to listen; we learn which words to speak and which to leave unsaid. Clearly, Zechariah learned well.