The Gospel of Luke begins by introducing us to two characters: an old priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. They come from good stock and live righteous lives. They follow the law and are pretty well respected among their peers.
And that should be our first clue. Because God has a habit of choosing people who seem to have their act together, who have the right references… God likes to mess with their straight-laced (and frankly, boring) lives for the sake of the gospel.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had wanted kids and tried to have kids and grieved not having kids, but spent those years on other relationships, poured into faithful work, and finding comfort in a familiar routine that became their strength over the years. Now, in their old age, they’ve made peace with the way things worked out and think they have a pretty good idea of what still lies ahead.
And that’s when God likes to get ya. Right? Just when you’ve settled into self-assurance or a metric of how things work — who deserves what and how you got to where you are.
I’m guessing you know how this works. This crowd is familiar with a reasonable amount of success and acceptance… or we know how to filter and spin the complexities of life so the story stays within grasp. We do this whenever we’re updating resumes or writing Christmas card letters or posting on Instagram — acknowledging the mystery from the driver’s seat.
I’m speaking from experience up here.
I went on my first global mission trip as a teenager to rural Bangladesh. I was traveling with a choir, giddy about the piles of sheet music and everything I was learning about the language and culture. I was excited about getting to know my travel companions, trying new foods and exploring a different part of the world.
I’m sure I could have externally processed the whole trip like the giddy extrovert I am. Instead, I promptly contracted Denge Fever and lost my ability to stand and speak and sing. The disease made me weak and vulnerable. It changed me for a season into a quiet, internal and wary observer. I had to learn in different ways. I had to receive and listen with awkward patience that felt foreign to me.
When I remember that trip and the months of recovery that followed, I think about the parts of myself that I might not otherwise have known… and the things I might not otherwise have noticed about the people and country around me. I listened (out of desperation to be included and because speaking was not an easy option) and it made for an entirely different experience than the one I was expecting.
The joke is on me. The joke is on Zechariah. The joke is on all of us when we are clipping along, minding the status quo, doing our thing and accepting a simple fate. This is when God loves to show up, stirring the pot with more possibilities and characters and perspective than we would have mustered on our own.
You might remember from this Advent season that Zechariah is an elderly priest, highly qualified for a visit from an Angel, but he doesn’t know what to do when it actually happens. Instead of being inspired and open, he’s feeling skeptical. He has logistical questions. He does a little bit of mansplaining. And that is all it takes for God to zip his lips.
God decides there is room for other speaking roles in this epic drama. If Zechariah is going to stick to what he’s sure of — the facts, the stats, the pragmatic possibilities — then he will be fitted with casters and join the stage scenery while others speak and sing and take on starring roles. It is time for the old priest to do the thing he has never thought to do… to listen, to watch, to observe, to depend, to hope… while others travel, connect and declare what they know to be true.
This respite from Zechariah’s speech makes a straight path for Elizabeth’s delight and Mary’s song, words we might not have known if the man of the house had been verbal. He is becoming the father John the Baptist will need.
I’ve often heard his tale as a punishment, but this year I’m coming around to the texture of Zechariah’s story as a blessing. One more funny-looking, risky and awkward blessing before the season of Advent is complete.
This blessing is jagged and complicated because it challenges everything about his identity: A priest in the temple needs to be able to say prayers and lead worship. A husband of this period must speak on behalf of his family — and has some explaining to do when Elizabeth becomes pregnant. But his silence keeps opening to the wonder and mystery of God, the strength and character of women around him, the new perspective writing a song on his heart before he can sing it.
Zechariah invites us into awareness and compassion for those who do not have a voice, whose stories are not written into history or believed in real-time, who wave their hands frantically hoping to be seen and honored as part of the cast of characters.
It is not enough when Elizabeth tells the assembly that her newborn son will be named John. They are skeptical of her choice and strongly suggest Zechariah Junior. She persists and they turn to Zechariah who motions and flails, desperate to name this boy John, just like the angel told him he would.
I love Zechariah because, like so many of us, he takes the long way around. He finds his voice and affirms the gift of a child with a song, not only for John but also for the baby young Mary still carries in her body. After all, he could only listen while she visited with Elizabeth for three months. He heard his wife’s blessing and Mary’s song — and he believes so that it is all he can sing once his voice returns.
He declares with jubilee everything he questioned a few months ago. Not because now he can explain or prove it, but because he has felt the power of God changing his own life, transforming his own power, developing his own character from the familiar safety and stature of the temple to that of a new father who prophesies in song that God is up to something. Something holy and good. And if an old priest can be made new, then look out world. A revolution is near.
This is the texture of the blessing. It welcomes our footing for the journey while we’re stumbling toward something that hushes the establishment so a much bolder, much holier song can begin to rumble in every heart.
Zechariah’s Song is like children making noise in worship. It is like the prayers you write on the Welcome Cards. It is like separating “having to know for sure” from “belief” and “faith”. It is like the healthy boundaries hold for yourself and your family this week, even and especially when they are challenged by folks who have none.
It is like the third shift and public health workers who keep communities humming, who go unnoticed until they are so desperately needed. It is like a confirmation student sharing why they don’t want to publicly affirm their faith with their peers. It is like a church called Bethlehem sheltering families experiencing homelessness these winter break weeks through Families Moving Forward.
It is like whole extended families signing up to hang out here on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to celebrate the holidays with our guest families. It is like the college students from this congregation who are coordinating schedules so they can bring a few meals and play with the kids. It is like female clergy nine months pregnant preaching the gospel this season with their words and their bodies.
It is like showing up on Christmas Eve with eyes wide open for the visitor and the voiceless, daring to believe your hospitality and welcome may be the greatest gift they receive this Christmas.
Zechariah’s Song is like an old and faithful man who thought he knew what he knew… but then listened for a good long while and learned a new song worth singing:
We praise the One who redeems, who comes, who saves, who shows mercy, who remembers, who promises, who rescues, who leads!
And we celebrate the One who prepares the way, who grants knowledge, who teaches forgiveness, who guides our feet on the pathway to peace.
May God bless your listening and your singing,
your changing and your flailing on the way,
your priesthood and parenthood of many,
and the texture that makes it all real.