I was in the 7th grade, and it was the first year I’d gone Christmas shopping all by myself. My mother and I had gone to Nichol’s, which was my hometown’s early equivalent of a big box store, so she could shop for things like laundry soap and dog food and socks for my brothers. But as we made our way through the store, Mom had been drawn to a display of necklaces. They were pretty and dainty and sparkly. She liked the blue one best, of course; that was her favorite color. Eventually she moved on, but I took careful note of where those necklaces were displayed and which one she lingered over the longest.
A few days later I rode my bike back to Nichol’s, baby-sitting money in hand. I found the necklaces, but I didn’t see any blue ones. I looked and looked, growing more disappointed by the moment, because I knew this was the perfect Christmas gift for my Mom. Then I caught a glimpse of something blue and sparkly amidst a rack of a different style of necklaces. It was the necklace! I grabbed it, took it to the cash register, handed over my hard-earned bills and coins, and went home, feeling elated and triumphant. This was going to be the best Christmas ever!
Mom was in the kitchen when I got home. Seeing the big smile on my face, she asked me what had made me so happy. “I’ve been Christmas shopping!” I announced. “And I got your Christmas present. You’ll never guess what it is! You’re going to love it! You’re going to be so surprised! I knew exactly what I was going to get you. I was afraid someone else had bought it, because I had to look and look, but then I found it, and I got the last blue necklace . . . they . . . had . . .”
It’s hard to keep a secret. It’s especially hard to keep a good secret—one that you know will make someone else happy. You’re so anxious to share your good news and to see the delight on the recipient’s face, and know that their life will be better because of what you have to give them. When the time comes to reveal that kind of secret, you can hardly keep yourself from singing it out at the top of your lungs.
That’s what Zechariah is doing in our passage today. He has good news to share—wonderful news, astounding news, news about someone who will change the world forever and about his own son, who will prepare the world for that special someone to come.
The difference between Zechariah’s secret-keeping and mine, though, is that Zechariah had no choice. Before that day of John’s circumcision, Zechariah had been unable to speak. He’d been that way since a day some ten months earlier, when he had been carrying out his priestly duties in the temple.
That would have been a big day for Zechariah. At that time, there were too many priests for any one priest to serve on a regular basis. So, all the priests were divided into twenty-four groups, each one serving for two weeks at time. A list was drawn up of all the priests who hadn’t yet had a chance to serve, and the section drew lots for who would get a turn. You might only get one turn in your entire life! So, this was a momentous day for Zechariah—his one chance to enter the sanctuary of the Lord while all the worshipers were gathered outside, praying and waiting for him to come back out and bless them.
They wait, and they wait. Zechariah doesn’t appear. Because, unbeknownst to them, Zechariah’s time in the sanctuary has taken an astonishing turn. An angel has appeared—the angel Gabriel. And Gabriel has given Zechariah some wonderful but nearly unbelievable news. In spite of his wife’s old age, and his own, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have a son! And not just any son, but one with a special, God-given role to play in the world. He is the one who will prepare peoples’ hearts to receive their coming Lord. He will fill others with joy, he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before he is born.
This news sounds too good to be true. So, like many before him and after him, Zechariah wonders how this can possibly be true. He asks the angel how he’ll know that what has been promised will actually happen. So, the angel gives him a sign. First, Gabriel reminds Zechariah that his credentials alone should be proof enough but, he continues, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Sometimes Zechariah’s muteness is explained as a punishment for his doubt. But, honest doubt isn’t punished in Scripture. Instead, God typically provides a sign for the doubter—a way to affirm what the human mind can’t comprehend. Zechariah’s muteness will last only until all the things the angel has spoken of happens. When he able to speak again, it will be because everything the angel promises will have come to pass.
Sure enough, Elizabeth conceives in her old age. John is born healthy and already filled with the Holy Spirit, having leapt for joy in his mother’s womb in recognition of the unborn Lord whom John will go before. All through the time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and in the days immediately following John’s birth, Zechariah had been forced to keep his secret. He couldn’t say a word as he watched each part of the promise take place—the conception, the unborn baby’s activity in the womb, the birth, and finally the moment of naming, when Zechariah affirms Elizabeth’s announcement of an unusual name—not one that indicates his family connections or his priestly lineage, but “John,” meaning “God is gracious.”
In that moment, when all that the angel spoke of had come to pass, Zechariah’s mouth is opened. His voice is freed, and he is able to sing aloud the news he’s been unable to speak of all those many months. He is able to sing his answer to the question all his neighbors and relatives are asking: “What will this child become?”
A better question would be, “What is he already?” Because John is an affirmation. John is the confirmation that God has already acted to redeem God’s people. The first half of Zechariah’s song is in the past tense. No longer do the people have to wait for God to act; God has already accomplished what is required to redeem God’s people—to bring them back into the covenant relationship God desires, to tune their hearts to hearing and embracing the will of God, to living in accordance to God’s will. God has already acted. The Lord is on his way, and with him the day when the people will worship God and serve God in holiness and righteousness.
Then Zechariah’s song turns to his own child and the future. “You, child, will be the prophet who calls the people to prepare their hearts for the coming Lord. You will be the one who announces the good news of salvation that will come with the forgiveness of sins. The news you bring will be like a bright light, breaking in on all whose minds and spirits are now clouded by darkness and the specter of death. You will be the one who enables God’s people to recognize the Lord when he comes and guides them into his path of peace.”
When I first began reflecting on this passage, I thought about how we can so often be like Zechariah—unable to speak about how God has worked and is working in our lives. An angel may not cause us to become mute, but something silences us when it comes to talking about what great things God has done for us, and for the One Great Thing God has done for the world in Jesus.
Maybe it’s shyness. Maybe it’s fear of how others will respond—that they’ll think we’re religious nuts. Maybe we’re afraid that if someone questions or challenges us, we won’t know what to say. Maybe we’re still wrestling with doubts of our own. Whatever it is, we keep our song of good news to ourselves.
But, I also started to think about the people who would have heard Zechariah’s song. What would they have thought? After all, Zechariah is their neighbor, their cousin, the guy who’s lived down the street from them all their lives. If he’d lived in Whitehouse, he’d be the guy who volunteers with the Fire Department, cheers on the Generals, and lives in the house next door to the one his great-grandparents built. Elizabeth would have been Aunt Betty, who crochets a special baby blanket for each newborn niece and nephew, and who makes cookies for the neighbor kids.
But here’s Zechariah speaking to his son in the hearing of everyone, about how John is going to be a prophet of the Lord. He speaks of how John would be the one who would get people ready for the Lord’s coming—to teach them about how they would find salvation in the forgiveness of their sins. He speaks of them—his neighbors and relatives—as people who have been shrouded in darkness and the fear of death and how, through is baby’s prophetic ministry, the light would dawn on them that a new way of living was to be theirs for the taking.
How would his listeners have responded? Would they have been skeptical? Would they have been a little offended at Zechariah’s suggestion that they are all in the dark? Would they have brushed off Zechariah’s song as the overly-excited expression of a new father’s hopes and dreams for his baby? Or did they hear in Zechariah’s song a Spirit-breathed prophecy that was meant for each and every one of them? Did they hear a challenge, an invitation, a promise that their lives were about to change? Did Zechariah’ song fill them with awe at God’s power? Was this what they pondered as the news went viral through the Judean countryside?
I wonder how we would receive such news. We have the benefit of hindsight. We know what and who John proclaimed, and we know what happened when Jesus walked the earth. But how would we react to Zechariah’s words if we didn’t already know the story’s ending—if we were hearing them for the first time?
I’d like to think we would have been among those who listened with open hearts—that we would have been the ones who pondered Zechariah’s words and thought about what they might mean for us. I’d like to think that we began looking toward the horizon with expectation, waiting for that light to dawn. I’d like to think that we would have begun that very day to praise God as Zechariah did for all that God has done and to look forward to what God had in store for us.
I’d like to think that we can be just as open today to those who speak about what God has done and is doing in their lives and in the world. We encounter people who want to sing their songs to us, and their words can be just as prophetic today as Zechariah’s were so long ago. If we are willing to listen, their songs can illuminate our own faith journeys and help us to see more clearly what God wants from us and for us. Their songs, like the song Zechariah sang—like the words John would speak—can guide us into holier, more righteous ways of living, if we are willing to listen.
The good news of salvation in Jesus was never meant to be a secret. “Go, tell,” Jesus says. “Go tell it on the mountain,” we sing at Christmas. The light Zechariah prophesied has dawned on us. The way of peace has been opened to us. As the light of Christ continues to grow in and around us, we have songs to hear and songs to sing about how God has rescued us, so that we may serve him in holiness and righteousness all our days. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young