Zechariah's Silence

K   |   December 22, 2021 

I am not comfortable with silence. When it is too quiet, I want to turn on the TV or play some music. When I ask a question in class, and no one answers, I long to jump in and fill the quiet with my own words.

The Christmas narrative begins with silence - four hundred years of it. To give this context, it was as if God had not spoken to the Israelites since a decade before Shahjahan built the Taj Mahal. No prophets, no new words, nothing.

For four hundred years, the Israelites waited. They waited when they were conquered by the Greeks in 333BC and the Egyptians a decade later, the Syrians in 204BC and the Romans in 63BC. For the most part, they kept the religious laws and practices and lived, always waiting for God's silence to end. Festival after festival, year after year, they heard the promises of the coming Messiah, but after 400 years, it was hard to imagine that anything was going to change.

It was on one of those ordinary days of waiting that a middle-aged priest finally got his one chance to enter the Temple and offer the daily sacrifice. Zechariah[1] had been dressed in the robes of his calling and had the rope tied around his waist (just in case he was struck down by God). He had trained his whole life for this one moment; had heard the stories from fellow priests, had soaked up their descriptions of the beauty of the Temple, had memorised their instructions of what to do.

For all of his preparation, Zechariah was not expecting God to break the silence of four hundred years on this day. I can imagine Zechariah's astonishment (and terror) when an angel appeared beside the altar of incense. Unlike our modern "pretty" angels, Biblical angels were pretty scary in appearance (which is probably why they keep telling people to "fear not!"). This angel then tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would finally have a son, who God would use to prepare the world for the coming Messiah.

After 400 years, this was a lot to take in, and understandably Zechariah was filled with doubts and questions. He and Elizabeth had given up on the possibility of ever having a child, and now this angel was telling them that God was going to give them a baby. So (bravely, I think) Zechariah asks the angel how this can be, and the angel responds, "God sent me, so since you don't believe, you are not going to be able to talk until the baby is born."

I have always found this response to be a bit confusing. Just a few verses later, Mary will ask almost the same question, but her angel, Gabriel, encourages her by explaining the mechanism by which she would become pregnant. Why the different response? Why is Zechariah "punished" for his doubts and Mary encouraged for hers? And is Zechariah's disability (he was not just mute but probably deaf as well) really a punishment?

In Romans 8:18-30, Paul explains the place of suffering for us as Christians. In short, he says that suffering is intended for our good (v28) because it is how God conforms us to the image of Jesus (which was his plan for us from before creation) (v29) and all of this brings us closer to God and gives Him glory.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived through decades of the monthly disappointment and perpetual shame of infertility. So instead of his disability being a punishment, what if Zechariah's inability to speak and hear during this period was, in fact, an opportunity for healing? What if the angel's response to Zechariah's question was just as encouraging and generous as Gabriel's to Mary?

Months later, Elizabeth gives birth, and Zechariah obediently writes that the child's name is John (which means Yahweh is a gracious giver). His physical healing reveals the inner healing that God had been doing in Zechariah's heart during those months of silence. And his first words are filled with praise and worship to a great God. A God who not only answered the prayers of Zechariah's heart but the prayers of generations of waiting Israelites.

Just as God invited Zechariah and Elizabeth to a season of silence and solitude through Zechariah's disability, so God invites us to seasons of healing through our suffering.

Where has God brought suffering into your life this past year? Have you wondered if God is punishing you? Are you struggling with coming to terms with a long term illness or disability? Perhaps you have assumed that God was angry with you, that He no longer cared.

What if you reframed your understanding? Instead of asking, "Why are you angry with me?" What if you asked instead, "How are you seeking to make me like Jesus?" or "What are you inviting me to learn through this suffering?"

At the beginning of Romans chapter 8, Paul reminds us that there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ. God is not angry or disappointed with us (He knows us too well to have unrealistic expectations). Instead, He seeks to love us into being what He designed us to be, reflective images of the triune God.

When the angel first appeared to Zechariah, his doubts and questions left him unable to respond in thanksgiving and praise. The words of Zechariah's prophecy (Luke 1:68-79) leave no doubt that through the months of silent waiting, God had healed Zechariah's heart, and he was now a man ready to praise his God.

This Christmas we wait for our Saviour to come again. We know that when he comes we will be like Him (I John 3:2), our hearts fully healed of the damage done by sin. But like Zechariah God comes to us with an invitation to heal our wounded hearts now. That invitation asks us to say yes to God, to dive deep into whatever he brings our way. For it seems that there is something in suffering, in disability, in sickness that makes us malleable, that opens us to be formed into the character and nature of Jesus. How will you respond?


[1] You can read Zechariah & Elizabeth’s story in Luke 1:5-25 & 57-80


Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

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K is an Aussie transplant who has lived in North India for the last two decades. Her biggest buzz comes from being able to help others to learn and to enjoy a deeper relationship with Jesus. K can frequently be found in one of the cafes in her adopted home city drinking hot chocolate since real decaf coffee has yet to make its way to India.

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