From a sermon preached by Associate Conference Minister Kelly Gallagher at the Congregational Church of Westborough, 3 December 2017
It is important to know this powerful song of praise uttered by Zechariah did not come immediately from his encounter with an angel. Way back in verse 13 of chapter 1 is where Zechariah meets Gabriel. Zechariah is a priest of the temple of the order of Abijah, and his wife Elizabeth is a descendent of the house of Aaron. They are pretty well established institutional faith people. He knows his way around the temple, and his lot has been drawn to go and light incense at the altar – a huge honor which no priest is allowed to do more than once in their lifetime. While he is there an angel appears before him and tells him that his wife is going to have a baby and that the baby will be filled with the Holy Spirit, great in the eyes of the Lord – kind of what we hear Zechariah say in his song. Gabriel says, “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” But good old Z is skeptical. “How is this possible?” he asks, for my wife and I are old. (You would think an angel standing before him might be a clue to the possibility…)
I don’t know if angels get irritated – but if they do I can imagine Gabriel feeling a little tetchy at this point. Here he has appeared out of nowhere and offered a prophecy. And Zechariah has the chutzpah to not believe – or at least not begin with the benefit of the doubt. He says, “How will I know this is so?”
Zechariah – a person of position and privilege – had lost the ability to engage the divine – had been incapable in that moment to enter into the miraculous possibility of the Holy One. Ironically, this happened standing in front of one of the holiest places for the people of Israel. In the sanctuary – where only priests chosen by lot could go. In this sacred and holy place, Zechariah showed no openness to the divine even as it stood right before him.
Such is the danger of privilege and power. Zechariah believed he knew God and what God could do. He believed he knew the order of things and his place in them. His confidence in how things are and should be disrupted the humility and openness that might make space for miracles.
We are plagued with confidence and assuredness in this day even in the midst of doubt and fear. It is almost as if the more frightened we are, the more sure we need to be. With so much information inundating us every day – there is huge pressure to know where you stand and what you believe about everything. We are divided by our separate truths that no one can convince us could be looked at another way. Do you know of what I speak?
As a country – and even as church - everyone is so sure of what they know. So sure that we don’t even want to talk about it, hear another’s position, ponder shifting our own – I wonder if we, like Zechariah, would be incapable of seeing the Divine, even if it came and stood before us, if the angel offered us an idea that was inconceivable?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that Zechariah, as evidenced by this beautiful song of praise, got there eventually. But not of his own doing, completely. When Zechariah challenged the angel, Gabriel said, “I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God…(insert “Duh!” here)…And because you did not believe me you will be struck mute until these things come to pass.”
Zechariah had to be quiet. He had to, for the first time in his adult, male privileged priestly life, listen. Suddenly, in this patriarchal society, his household became a platform for his wife, Elizabeth. I like to think she got to say a lot in those nine months! It is in this time of
Zechariah’s silence that Gabriel goes to Mary, and Mary goes to Elizabeth and we hear the words of the Magnificat – we hear the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts, and the low are raised up. This open space where the margins get to speak. Is it possible that we only know this story because Zechariah had to listen? Is it possible that in his quiet time he began to hear the voices that otherwise are drowned out by the dominant culture? And perhaps, when he gained his voice back, he used his privilege to make room for others to speak and listen?
It is in his silence that he comes to believe all that the angel Gabriel says. In his silence that his wife is empowered to be the first to name their son – something the people themselves did not want to accept. It is when Zechariah affirms what Elizabeth has said, “His name is John.” - Only when Zechariah uses his privilege to make room for and exalt the voice of the margin – is he given back his own ability to speak. And his first words are not about himself – or the clearly incredible experience he has had. His first words are words of praise and humility, affirmation and belief. In his silence he has come to hear the words of the angel, and the words of the women, and the promise of children.
There is much to be said about silence. Advent is meant to be a quiet time. For those of us in positions of privilege – economic privilege, racial privilege, gender privilege – for those of us who have become quite confident in the order of things – perhaps our silence this Advent could make room for the margins. The Christmas story is one of God’s power birthed in an infant, a reminder that the Holy resides in places we cannot imagine.
Can Advent be a time that could prepare us as we seek to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign? Can we become silent and seek to hear voices that we often don’t listen to? What voice isn’t being heard in your life? Who is missing? What word have you heard from the poor recently? From people of color? From those whose ability to navigate this biped upright world is challenged? From the young? From the earth?
Let the angels of awe strike us mute for a while. Let us – as Christians – use our privilege to prepare the way that we and others might be able to hear a cry from the wilderness, a song of a pregnant unwed teenage mother, the coo of a baby in a manger.
Let us pray that it may be so. Amen.