Luke 1.5-23; 67-79

The Silent Prophet

Songs of the Season – II

Second Sunday of Advent

 

The three girls in my family used to have a nickname for me, one that Debbie still uses from time to time.  I’m not entirely certain how I acquired it, but I liked it.  There was a series of children’s books we had around the house that both girls read growing up; the series was by British author Roger Hargreaves, and some of the titles include Mr. Silly, Mr. Small, Little Miss Helpful, and Little Miss Chatterbox.  I suppose I was Little Miss Chatterbox’s counterpart; I was Mr. Quiet.  I’d like to think part of it is that I’m a good listener; I would just as soon listen to someone as to talk myself.  Another explanation might have been that I was outnumbered three to one, so it was the better part of wisdom to keep my mouth closed.  And when asked about the nickname, my stock reply was that I took my cue from television’s Mr. Ed – you remember Mr. Ed, the talking horse.  His motto became my own:  I only speak when I have something to say.  (It’s a good rule that more people might want to follow.)

You might think that being a preacher is an unusual vocation for a Mr. Quiet, and I won’t disagree.  But I have it easy when compared to poor old Zechariah the priest. As we heard from Luke’s gospel this morning, Zechariah was struck mute by the angel Gabriel for questioning the angel’s unusual, and let’s be honest, quite unbelievable claim that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, barren all her life and late in years, was going to have a baby.  Who could believe such a preposterous proposition?  Not Zechariah – and for his entirely logical response, he was dumbstruck.  Where have we heard this story before?

We heard a good deal of it last week when heard the song of Hannah, wife of Elkanah.  Now Elkanah was a devout man, not a priest, but like Zechariah his was a familiar face at the temple because of the strength of his devotion.  Like Elizabeth, Hannah had no children, and at her advanced age had no reasonable hope for any.  But God surprised her in the same way God surprised Elizabeth, and Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.  As we heard last week, her son was Samuel, who was destined to be the one who would anoint Israel’s very first king; through Samuel, son of Hannah and Elkanah, Israel became a nation.  And as we heard in Luke, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah also earned his reputation through anointing; their son John is the one who grew to baptize Jesus.  We also heard last week that Luke began his story of the birth of Jesus, by naming two of the day’s leading political figures, Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius of Syria; likewise at the outset of John’s ministry Luke gives us no fewer than five secular rulers and two religious leaders: 

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah.”

But I’m getting ahead of the story.  As Luke tells it, Zechariah the priest went up to the temple because it was his turn to bring the incense offering.  While he was doing so, Gabriel appeared to tell him that he and his wife Elizabeth would finally become parents after years and years of waiting.  They would have a son whose name was to be John.  But Zechariah had a difficult time believing what he was hearing, and his reluctance was understandable; they were both well advanced in age, and had resigned themselves to a life of childlessness.  “How will I know this is so?” Zechariah asked.  “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  And so, because Zechariah questioned Gabriel, he was struck mute.  Now if you ask me, this is a bit harsh, but it does have the effect of propelling the story along.

“Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary.  When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.  He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.  When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

And so Zechariah remained mute until the birth of their son.

Kind of a far-fetched story, right?  An old man who has been unable to produce a child in his lifetime, married to an equally aged childless woman, asks a legitimate question, “How will I know this?  I’m an old man married to an old woman.”  And so he loses his livelihood, his ability to speak, for roughly the nine months it takes for the child to grow in the womb and emerge a healthy baby boy.

In November 1999, a 57 year old Florida woman named Judi Roberts, a transplanted New Yorker, suffered a stroke that left the right side of her body paralyzed and she lost her ability to speak.  After many months of physical therapy, her paralysis began to ease, and she started talking again, though haltingly.  It wasn’t until the following year that she regained her voice completely, except that it was not her voice.  Well, it was hers in the sense that it came out of her body, and possessed a somewhat similar tonality.  But Judi Roberts, who all her life had spoken with a Brooklyn accent, now spoke with a heavy British accent.  She had never been to Britain.  Her family and friends were dumbfounded.  One doctor told her she wasn’t trying hard enough to speak in her pre-stroke voice.  And Judi herself thought she had lost her mind.  Not only was Judi’s British accent impeccable, she also had the lingo, using words like lorry and loo and boot like she was born to the manor.  It wasn’t until some months later that a friend of hers sent her a news article about an Oxford researcher whose work showed that Judi suffered from a rare but legitimate medical condition called “Foreign Language Syndrome,” which is exactly what it sounds like:  a neurological disorder where an individual inexplicably begins speaking in a completely different dialect, as the result of some sort of trauma.  Foreign Language Syndrome was first identified in 1941, when a Norwegian woman was wounded by a piece of shrapnel in the heat of World War II; it caused a brain injury in her, and the result was she experienced severe speech difficulty.  When she eventually recovered, she spoke with a heavy German accent.  Her community, both suspicious and outraged – remember, this was in the heat of World War II - ostracized her.

When Zechariah recovered his speech, he did not speak a different language.  But there was still something different about his words.  Consider this:  he had been mute for the entirety of his wife’s pregnancy, and a lot had happened in the interim.  While Zechariah remained silent, Gabriel appeared a second time, this time to Mary, and told her that she too would bear a child, and her situation was even more inconceivable than Elizabeth’s, if you’ll pardon the pun...  Elizabeth was old and barren; Mary was young and fertile and a virgin, or more accurately in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, a “young maiden.”  When Mary learned this, she rushed to be at the side of her older cousin Elizabeth.  And when the two women met, Elizabeth for the first time felt her child kick.  This was real; something was happening between the two of them, or by now, among the four of them, Mary and Elizabeth and the children they were carrying.  And  while Zechariah still couldn’t speak, his son was born.  Though he might have thought the curse ended there, it did not; it did not end until the time came to dedicate and name the child, on the eighth day according to the custom of the Jews, Zechariah and Elizabeth took their son to the temple, and were asked the boy’s name.  Elizabeth said, “His name is John.”  Again, this was unusual, because you always named your boys after one of your male ancestors; there was no John in either Elizabeth’s nor Zechariah’s lineage.  Naturally, the temple elders dismissed Elizabeth and turned to her husband to learn the boy’s real name.  So Zechariah gestured to one of the temple leaders for a tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.”  And in that moment, his tongue was freed - Zechariah regained his speech.

Now, unlike Judi Roberts, when Zechariah recovered his speech, he did not speak a different language.  But there was still something different about his words.  First, an awful lot had happened in the interim, an awful lot of world-changing moments that few, if any, understood at the time, but moments whose meaning would eventually be revealed.  But people also heard Zechariah differently.  They recognized he had been visited and touched by a divine messenger.  His words carried more authority.  People could hear the God in his voice.  As Luke describes it, “All these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  All who heard them pondered the… for indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

And I wonder.  How do things change for us when God lays an unmistakable hand on our shoulder and calls us to participate in God’s presence in the world?  We talked about the power of silence a few weeks ago, and part of Zechariah’s experience prompts us to wonder about the ways God can write in our silences, what kinds of things are possible when we listen for the voice of God.  But it also makes us wonder what happens – or at least, what can happen - between our encounter with God, and our yielding to God’s desire for us?  In what ways does God transform us?  One moment Zechariah was but one among many temple priests – when next he spoke, he was regarded a prophet.  You and I may not speak an entirely different language between God’s calling us to mission and ministry and our assent – but then again, maybe we will.  Maybe we will talk less about ourselves and more about the concerns of others.  Maybe others will hear in our words a desire for mercy, forgiveness and peace, or observe in our actions a commitment to justice and righteousness.  Maybe we will learn to talk less and listen more.  The thing is, the person within does change in the encounter with God, and like the people in the temple that day who saw Zechariah and understood that he had been touched by the holy, those who know you and me best may also understand that our lives too have been touched by something holy, something sacred, something extraordinary.  When Zechariah found his voice again, he lifted it up in a song of praise.  We’re going to close this morning with that song, in the knowledge that when God graces human life, we are never the same person again, and our lives, and yes, even our voices echo the gratitude and praise Zechariah could finally put into words. 

Amen.

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