FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
November 28, 2021
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us secured in the promise of your grace and love, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Title: Zechariah’s Silence
Happy New Year. Yes, as all liturgical nerds know, today we begin a new liturgical year. The long count of Sundays after Pentecost is completed, and we are ready to start all over again. And we start with the season of Advent – a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of our Savior – remembering the last time, looking to the next time. However, our new year does not begin with loud shouts and horn blasts as will the new year’s celebration that is just 33 days away. Our new year is starting with silence.
During this liturgical year, we will be reading mostly from Luke’s Jesus-story for our Sunday gospel readings. And in light of that, we will be spending these four Sundays in Advent walking though the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. A wonderful preparation for hearing Luke’s beloved second chapter that we read every Christmas eve. You know it, And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus – better stop there or I’ll be as guilty of jumping that gun as stores who have been pushing Christmas goods since August.
Luke’s first chapter – here’s a trailer for what we will be hearing and thinking on: two angel visitations, two promised babies, two unlikely mothers, two confused fathers (actually in Luke we only meet one of the confused fathers in this first chapter.) Certainly, a high point are two beautiful songs of faith. So moving and truth-filled are these songs that the church has included both of them in its daily liturgies of morning and evening prayer. That’s the teaser, but once again I’m getting ahead of myself. Why is it that anything having to do with Christmas ends up being rushed, hurried, moved along hastily? We just want to get to that wonderful gift, the baby in the barn. But let’s back up here.
I suggested a bit ago that our new year is starting in silence. Before the angels’ choirs, before the shepherds are shouting in the streets of Bethlehem, even before those two beautiful songs that we will hear and sing ourselves on the third and fourth Sunday in Advent. Before it all, there is an old man, and he is silent. It’s not the cat, but the angel Gabriel who has got his tongue.
As we heard, the old man is Zechariah, a priest, and husband to Elizabeth. And in a culture where a woman’s worth was determined by her production of children, – more points for male children – Elizabeth has been diagnosed barren and the couple’s home has never echoed with little footsteps. Elizabeth even uses the word disgrace to describe her childless situation.
And yet, she is one who should not have been disgraced. Not only is she married to a priest, but her family tree spouts from the original priest himself, Aaron, Moses’ righthand spokesperson whose lineage became the priestly class for that new nation. All that pedigree, and Elizabeth was still disgraced in her community. Simply because she could not have a child. Oh, for what we will inflict shame on others. Our times and our society has its own list, but that’s for another day.
And along with Elizabeth’s shame, there’s that silence that I keep eluding to. Zechariah’s silence. There he is, praying in the holiest part of the temple. Only one person goes in at a time and only on special occasions and only one of those holy people aka priests. He’s in there trying to make sure he does this right, lest his gift of incense be rejected by the almighty God and some plague or drought or pandemic be visited on the whole nation. When suddenly, the angel Gabriel appears and starts talking about the kid that Elizabeth is going to have, and Gabriel is laying it on real thick about who this kid is going to be and what he will accomplish. And all the old man wants is some assurance – “How will I know?” he’s asking. “Don’t get my hopes up unless this is real,” says the man who maybe had his heart broken with each failed pregnancy, each early term miscarriage. The man whose watched his wife as she was devasted beyond his own disappointment, as she sunk deeper and deeper into her feelings of shame. Come on, Gabriel, give the guy a break. He just wants some assurance.
For those of us who see nothing wrong with Zechariah’s question, who have been in his position ourselves, though with different circumstances, total empathize with him. How often we, like him, have just wanted some reassurance that it’s all going to work out in the end. And if you are standing with Zechariah, perhaps you have felt his punishment of lost voice, of enforced silence, a bit unfair, harsh even.
But, hey, it’s a new year, perhaps we’re up for a new perspective. Ready to try a new point of view on this story. Is it possible that Gabriel did Zechariah a favor by causing him to be silent? Hold on those of you who love to talk and can’t imagine life without it, you who suffer so when you have laryngitis. Imagine what would have happened to old Zechariah if he had emerged from the temple and shouted, “An angel just told me that Elizabeth is going to have a baby!” Would they have laughed at him? Maybe they would have never taken him seriously again. Defrocked him from the priesthood. Perhaps they might have even stoned him, thinking he was blaspheming, and doing that after coming from the Holy of Holies no less.
It’s not easy to talk about our encounters with the Divine. Have you ever tried? Were you able to find the right words? Could you find the person who might be open to what you experienced and what you had to share? Mystics have been martyred throughout history because their testimony was too…too…what’s the word? Unsettling? Unbelievable? Too down right shocking what they were saying – Joan of Arc, for one.
But here is Zechariah, who is saved from any attempt to speak about what has happened to him and all he can do is allow the effects of his experience to speak for themselves (or not speak).
Imagine the old man as he saw Elizabeth’s pregnancy take shape. Oh how he must have wanted to shout. Instead, he had the gift of silence, to further explore all that God had promised and was doing without having to worry about finding the right language. There is no pressure to explain or define, to publicly philosophize or debate with others. And when he finally gets his voice back he sings one of those songs I mentioned, and boy does he sing to his infant son and his God. It was a song nine months of silence in the making. Perhaps it was a song that could only be born out of silence. But there I go getting ahead of myself again. We’ll hear from Zechariah on the fourth Sunday.
God promises new life to each of us. At the font, at the table, in the word, in our gathering, on each day we arise. There is no angel perhaps, no breakthrough after years of barrenness. But there is new life in us through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Overcoming shame. Bringing new meaning. And like Zechariah, we testify to this new life by showing its effects, more than by the words we use to describe it. As St. Francis said: Preach the gospel always, when necessary, use words.
In this ever noise-increasing world, silence is a gift. Silencing not only the voice, but also the mind. Sitting silently in the presence of God, not with poetry and prayers, but just with our very selves – our questions and our doubts, our barrenness and our disappointments, our longings and our anger. And in that silence we can find peace. Renewed by the peaceful presence of God, reassured by the healing peace that is ours in the fulfillment of Christ, and rekindled by the power of the Spirit that is constantly surprising us into peace.
Take some time this advent to join Zechariah in his silence. Like him, you just might find a new song to sing. May it be a song of peace.
The Rev. Mark Erson