Luke 1.5-25, 57-80
Zechariah was at the top of his game. And a mighty good game it was, at that.
He was a coveted member of the tribe of Levites, the priestly class whose job it was to attend to the work of the Temple. Each day, the Israelites attended Temple worship, and gazed with awe at the Levitical priests and their beautiful flowing robes, their sense of authority, and the gravitas with which they did their work. Zechariah was not only one of this well-placed class, but his wife Elizabeth was, as well. Both of them were well-respected and seen as leaders in their community. There was the problem of the fact that Elizabeth had failed to become pregnant, but Zechariah figured that that wasn’t really his fault, and wouldn’t really get the blame as much as his wife would.
Today was a special day for Zechariah. The Levites didn’t all live in Jerusalem near the Temple; they lived in their own homes and took turns serving the various roles of at the Temple. They would move to Jerusalem for a time, and then return home once their duties were done. While there, they were chosen to do the various roles of Temple: placing the elements, lighting the lamps, burning the incense. They used the practice of casting lots, and believed that if the lot fell on a particular priest, then God had chosen him to do this duty. Today, the lot had fallen to Zechariah. He had been chosen to serve in the Holy of Holies, to offer the incense. He had been chosen by God to offer the incense in the place where they believed God in all God’s holiness reached down and touched the earth, at that point of all humanity gazing upward. Here, at the threshold of heaven and earth, Zechariah stood as priest before all of the people.
But that was only the beginning.
Zechariah stepped into the place of honor and found that he was not alone. There, behind the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the people, stood an angel. And this wasn’t one of those Precious Moments angels with a diaper and pudgy cheeks. This was a Ninja Warrior Angel: Gabriel. Standing there all stacked and powerful and ready to deliver a message from the mouth of the Holy God. And deliver he did: Gabriel told Zechariah that God had heard his pleas for a child and that his wife Elizabeth would deliver a baby, even in her old age. Not only that, but the baby would be “great in the sight of the Lord” and a forerunner to the Messiah. The one thing in Zechariah’s life that wasn’t perfect soon would be addressed. Zechariah was absolutely at the top of his game.
And that’s when everything started to fall apart.
Zechariah here asks quite possibly the stupidest question in the history of stupid questions. He asks the angel for a sign. Think about this for a moment. The priest, blessed by birth to be in a powerful family ordained by God…whose turn it was to work at the Temple and stand at the threshold of heaven and earth…who had just been chosen by God via lot to serve in the Holy of Holies…had just been visited by an angel standing in front of him speaking to him in his own language so that he could understand clearly…and this angel had told him that he and his wife were about to have a miracle baby who would have a place of honor and prestige. This is a man who has just received just about ALL THE SIGNS one man could have, asked this angel standing in front of him, “How will this be so?”
What on earth could be wrong with Zechariah for him to ask this question? Here is my theory, and it is a perfect introduction to our Advent series: fear. I think that Zechariah was a scared little child in the body of a grown man. Now, of course, it is always dangerous to psychoanalyze a Biblical character 2,000 years after the fact. But I think my theory has grounding in the text. In fact, look at what it says about Zechariah: “he was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” It says it twice. Two different Greek words here for the concept of fear. This is more than just, “the angel startled him.” No, I believe that this was an existential fear. A profound fear that drove Zechariah, impacting him and his decisions.
It is a story that we unfortunately see over and over again. Those who look like they are at the top of their game, who look like they have everything that anyone could ask for, end up making decisions that reveal that they are terrified. Terrified to lose what they have. Terrified at the prospect of holding it all together. Terrified to be found out as less than perfect. Terrified that someone might challenge their place. Or at that existential level, terrified that maybe they are not worthwhile, that deep down they really are sham and don’t deserve anything they have received. What they want more than anything is security. So they create these systems of protection: physical protection, financial protection, emotional protection, to make sure that they have this iron-clad certainty that everything is going to be alright.
My theory is that was what Zechariah felt when he walked into that situation. Why else would he ask the angel for a little more certainty. A little more protection. “I appreciate all that you have done here, Gabe, but are you sure? Could I get this in writing?”
How many of us are motivated by a similar fear? What if I mess it all up? What if I lose everything? What if there is a mistake and all of this good stuff was meant for someone else more deserving? My theory is that Zechariah took more than the incense of God in with him to the Holy of Holies. He took with him a heart seized by fear.
But even though that is what he took in with him, look at what God gave him in return.
Throughout Scripture, one of the greatest gifts that we see from God’s messengers is this word of blessing: “Do not be afraid.” Some folks have counted up a total of 365 times. I think you have to get a little sketchy with the numbers to get there, but what is not in dispute is that it is said A LOT. A whole bunch of times, people who are afraid get told by a messenger of God “do not be afraid.” In fact, this Advent, we are going to look at four times that it happens in the Christmas story alone. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds in Bethlehem. In the middle of fear-riddled times and fear-riddled souls comes this promise: “Do not be afraid.”
So the first time that we hear it, it is spoken to the first main character in the Gospel of Luke, the first person in the birth narratives, the first key figure in the Christmas story. The story starts out with this command and this promise: “Do not be afraid.”
For Zechariah, it was a little more complicated than that. He asks this question, demands a little more security, and in response, Gabriel takes away his voice. He instantly becomes unable to speak. Now, usually when I hear this story, it is interpreted that Zechariah blew it and God is punishing him. Gabe is saying, “because you didn’t trust me enough, you failed the test, and now you will have to pay.” But I’d like to offer a different possibility. What if this was the biggest gift that Zechariah could have received? Because all of a sudden, this guy at the top of his game, who was planning to come out of the Holy of Holies with a strut and a big head and his chest all puffed out, and prove to all the naysayers—and the voices in his own head—that he really was worth it…. Now big, bad Zechariah had to humble himself. He had to trust others and let them help him. He had to acknowledge that he couldn’t do it all himself. He had to be patient and humble and acknowledge his fears and his limitations. He had to trust God and those around him.
What if we were given that gift? What if we were given a season in which we took time to be silent. Took time to humble ourselves. Took time to listen. Took time to be patient and rely on others. Took time to sit in the quiet and acknowledge our own fears and our own doubts and our own regrets and our own pain? What if we could take this season of Advent and receive the gift that is given? And what if one of the things that we held during that season were the promise, the invitation ever before us, “Do not be afraid?”
Fast forward with me. A few verses and nine months later. Zechariah has returned home and he and Elizabeth have conceived a child. It is time for the child to be dedicated. According to custom, the child should be named a family name, an honor and testament to the power and prestige of the Levitical role. Perhaps Levi, or Aaron, or even Zechariah after his father. That’s what the old Zechariah might have insisted upon. But this is a Zechariah who has had nine months of silence. Of listening. Of humility and patience to practice. This Zechariah pulls out a writing tablet and writes what the angel told him to write that day in the Holy of Holies: “His name is John.” And immediately, Luke tells us “his tongue was freed” and he could speak again. And before anyone knew what was happening, the man who could not speak became the man who couldn’t stop speaking. Couldn’t stop singing. He sang a song of praise and honor of God. And round about the fourth verse, he sang these words: “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him…without fear.”
Today, may we bring our fears to the altar of God and may we begin to learn what it means to serve him without fear. May we silence our arrogance and our assumptions and listen with humility. May we pause this Advent season and learn a new song: of fearlessness, humility, and hope.