I took this picture a few days back on an early morning walk.
This image of the ‘dawn from on high’ is one that I cherish, whether I am up early enough and out in a place where I can actually see it or not.
And yes, it is so that these words have spoken across the years to me. They have come to mind especially as on occasion I have been called to participate in the funerals of family members which have fallen in Advent. I have turned to these words then and the promise they hold as in the midst of grief we have stood once again on the edge of celebrating the incarnation of God’s love once more. For the promise is so beautifully spoken here, isn’t it, as we hear of God’s tender compassion and of how its promise is made a little more known to us in something we experience every day in the rising of the sun?
Now it is so that I have long been taken by Zechariah’s entire story which leads to these beautiful words of promise — what little we hear of it in Luke’s Gospel. Indeed, other than King Herod of Judea, Zechariah is the first one mentioned in Luke’s telling now — the forerunner of the forerunner, if you will. And while we do not know much of him, I expect we know what matters. For in Luke’s first chapter we hear that…
- Zechariah was a priest by birth and by practice.
- He was married to Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron.
- They were righteous people, seeking to live according to what the Lord intended…
- Zechariah and Elizabeth had been unable to have children…
And, finally, that ‘they were getting on in years…’
And then we tag along with Zechariah as he enters the sanctuary and we listen in on the remarkable news which the angel, Gabriel, has been sent to share.
Only as we know, the story turns and Zechariah is unable to take in this announcement that Elizabeth will soon conceive. And so he fumbles out an argument of sorts and soon we hear that Gabriel is having none of it and for the next nine months Zechariah is sentenced to silence, unable even to speak the words of blessing which the people were expecting that day as they waited in prayer outside the sanctuary.
I find that I wonder now at the effect of such as this on one who was accustomed to speaking and being heard, one who had long taken this for granted as do many of us, I expect.
Luke does not tell us, of course.
No, instead we are given:
- The joyful response of Elizabeth;
- The story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce another, even more momentous birth;
- And, finally, the familiar account of Mary’s hurried visit to her cousin Elizabeth and the wondrous exchange between them.
By the end of the first chapter, we hear that the child has been born and that Zechariah assents to giving him the name, ‘John.’ And then, after all of this, we hear these remarkable Spirit-filled words recounting in a few short verses God’s saving activity across time and space, acknowledging in a few words the unique role John will play, and finally summing it up with this marvelous promise:
“By the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79
So it is that this time through I find myself wondering about those months of unchosen silence which brought Zechariah to the point of speaking aloud such beauty.
I wonder if as a result he found himself not only hearing, but listening more closely to all that was going on around him and within him. (Yes, I know there is some debate as to whether Zechariah was not only mute, but also whether he may also have been struck deaf… for now I am going with the understanding that he was only unable to speak.) Perhaps with the utter inability to speak the many responses he may have been formulating, he just settled in as a ‘receiver’ of all the sounds around him and spent his time assimilating everything that he was hearing in order to discern deeper meaning which surely comes out in today’s offering.
And in this time when he was less distracted by the sound of his own voice, I wonder if Zechariah also found himself more watchful now — able to more fully take in the joy on Elizabeth’s face and the wonder in Mary’s, too, as they greeted one another… as he observed the changes in Elizabeth’s body and bearing in the months that followed, as he witnessed an entire community caught up in the wonder of all of this as they, too, found themselves seeing something they surely never expected to see.
Indeed, I wonder if those months of not being able to express himself as he always had, in the end, made Zechariah that much more able to say what needed to be said most of all in the words of promise and hope which are ours to share on this 2nd Sunday in Advent.
And I wonder now at how we might just see ourselves in both Zechariah and Elizabeth in ways perhaps we never have before.
Perhaps this is so for me, at least, because I, like Zechariah find myself now closer to the end of active ministry than the beginning. Having seen more than one round of all of this, it is a little too easy to let skepticism take over, to allow repeated experiences (not always positive) to calcify into impressions which are not easily altered, to not expect that at this ‘late date’ God could possibly do anything new. Oh, without a doubt, very often I know now that I would do well to first be quiet for a while in order to be able to hear and see more clearly what God is up to right before my eyes.
In fact, I find myself considering now that in all that has been so hard in these last more than nine months, maybe the ‘forced quiet’ will turn out to be gift in ways I could not have imagined when all of this began and which, to be honest, I have not yet fully embraced as I continue to rail against it. And it is so that there has been much to decry, hasn’t there, as too, too many have unnecessarily died leaving too, too many loved ones with so much loss with which to contend? Oh, there has been so much to rail against as we have been forced to see more clearly a world many of us had not begun to imagine existed now laid bare before us with the deadly effects of racism and poverty now painfully evident for all to see.
Indeed, with all of this and more, there have been moments when I have been struck as mute as Zechariah, my heart simply only drenched in tears.
And while such prophetic poetry will never likely be mine to utter, still the lesson that was Zechariah’s to receive is also mine: that maybe (maybe even often) there are times when silence is necessary until I am able to not only see the world as it is (which Zechariah surely does), but also until or unless I am able to more fully receive the promises of God who is still and always active in the world. And maybe, just maybe, this last long stretch of time has not only been full of suffering and struggle — which it has — but also is and has been as pregnant as Elizabeth was with the promise of the one who would prepare the way for something, for Someone more.
So much more.
Indeed, I carry some of both Zechariah and Elizabeth in me now.
Perhaps you do, too.
Mostly I find myself praying that hope will override the skepticism which still sneaks up on me and that when it does, God will use the times when I am called, sometimes forced, into silence to somehow form in me words of promise.
As was so with Zechariah.
Words which are actually worth repeating.
- A long time ago a mentor chided me when I said the ‘sermon wasn’t ready yet.’ In his experience, one simply sat down and wrote. One did not wait. For much of my ministry I have taken his advice to heart, sitting down to write as the week drew near to Sunday and much of the time the words have been there. And yet, I suspect there was wisdom already in that young still learning pastor who knew that sometimes one had to wait. As Zechariah did. How has this been true (or not) for you?
- This week I tried to write on Friday and it just wouldn’t come. I read and I read, I started sentence after sentence on paper which is usually enough to get things started. And then a trusted one as well as told me that this was because I was supposed to be resting, not writing on Friday. Perhaps this was also so for Zechariah? Maybe the enforced silence which at first seemed like punishment was actually a gift to prepare him for what would be his to say? What do you think?
- How has this recent extended time of ‘forced silence’ informed or shaped what you are called to say now? Indeed, with all that has been, do Zechariah’s words sing differently for you this time through?