a sermon on Luke 1:67-79 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached on December 9, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Some years ago, back in seminary, I found myself silenced by laryngitis for nearly a week. It started as one of those late spring colds—you know, the gentle tickle in your throat when you wake up a little stuffy in the morning—but pretty soon I knew something else was going on. I kept on going through that day, speaking and singing normally, until that night after choir practice, when I knew something was really wrong. All of the sudden, the pitch of my voice dropped, but I tried not to be worried about it.
The next morning, I had something to worry about. I could not speak at all. Well, yes, I could talk briefly, but speaking for more than a minute was painful, and singing was certainly out of the question. I asked everyone I knew for their magic cures, and within twenty-four hours I had nursed my voice back to a softer version of “normal,” but my disregard for its tender state soon brought me back to silence.
During those four or five days that I had no voice, I was supposed to sing a solo on Saturday and then sing with the choir on Sunday for the last time before leaving for the summer. It was a pretty major inconvenience for me, but about a week later, I could talk without sounding like I was whispering all the time. Thankfully it’s been a long time since I felt like that, but I’m always afraid that I’m only one stuffy nose away from another week of silence.
In our scripture today, Zechariah had one major case of laryngitis. It all started one day when he drew the short straw among the priests and went into the sanctuary to offer incense to God. He took a bit longer than expected in there, and when he finally emerged, he couldn’t answer everyone’s questions about what had happened because he was entirely unable to speak. The people knew that something important had happened, but they had no way of knowing what, because Zechariah could not tell them. Zechariah went home when his term as priest was over—probably a bit earlier than expected because he couldn’t talk—and he and his wife Elizabeth were finally able to conceive a child after years of being barren.
While Zechariah was silenced, Elizabeth could speak about what she knew, for she had had her own visit from the angel Gabriel. She celebrated with her relative Mary who came to visit and share the news of her own miraculous conception and the coming birth of Mary’s son Jesus. They both cried out with great joy and amazement about what God was doing in their midst, about all the things that would soon come into being through the two children that they were carrying. Even through all of this commotion, Zechariah, the priest, the spokesman for God, the proud father, the one who normally would be first to speak, remained silent, watching and waiting in the midst of a moment of great joy, hoping for a moment when he could speak again.
The silences in our lives may not be cases of laryngitis—like my springtime affliction—or sudden muteness after encountering God—like Zechariah. We might be so stunned by something happening around us that we do not know how to respond. We might be ordered to remain silent to protect some sort of secret that cannot be revealed. We might be so bound by grief and loss that words cannot emerge from our mouths. We might be so constrained by the limitations of the world that we cannot speak what we really want—and need—to say. We might be called to speak words so dissonant with what we hear around us that they would fall upon deaf ears.
In these moments, sometimes silence may actually be the right thing to do. Sometimes we need to offer quiet space in the uncertainty of the moment. Sometimes we must allow others permission to be quiet so that they can be faithful to their experience and understanding of God. Sometimes we need silence to find safe places to express our deepest feelings. And sometimes we are called to conserve our voices so that they might be heard more completely in another moment. Nonetheless, even all these good silences must eventually be broken, for God calls us all to speak words of joy and praise and hope and love and peace.
After many months, Zechariah broke his forced silence with the words of our scripture today. His words were not his own—it was more than clear by then his words could only come from some other place—but these words came to him from the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, Zechariah moved from complete and utter silence to loud and joyful song:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!
He was finally able to speak all the words that he had been wanting to say ever since his encounter with the angel in the temple where he learned that he would be a father. All that had been promised to him had been realized, and since there was no longer any doubt about these things, his imposed silence was ended. Zechariah could finally offer praise to God and express all the ways in which God’s faithfulness would be realized in the world through the birth of his son John the Baptist and the coming Jesus.
When he finally spoke again, Zechariah could only give thanks to God for what he had finally seen—for his dreams of a child that had been realized, for his hopes for Israel’s future that would surely become reality in the life of Jesus, for the ability of the people to serve God faithfully and without fear. In the tradition of the great prophets, Zechariah claimed the promises of God for his own generation, speaking of certain salvation, great mercy, a faithful covenant, and fearless service as grateful response.
Although these words echo the prophets and the psalms, they also move beyond these promises of the past. They are more than fulfilled in the life of this “mighty savior” but also point toward the joyous future that surely lies ahead. No longer must the people sit in darkness or wait for God’s redemption to come. Such glorious redemption has come and can only bring new life to those in darkness and peace to those who remain at the hands of their enemies. Zechariah recognized the great joy of finally having a son, but this personal joy was far surpassed by his gratitude for what God was beginning to do throughout the world that would find expression in these two children.
So at this beginning of the story of Jesus’ life, we see its ending described already. In Zechariah’s song, the promises of God are laid out before us and called fulfilled long before we can even begin to imagine how they might take shape in our midst and form the new creation that is already moving toward us. Zechariah’s prophetic words speak to us out of his silence—and penetrate our own silence—as words of hope and promise of what is to come in this world and the next.
Now, we must ask, can we speak these words today? Can anyone today offer such prophetic calls to recognize God at work in our midst? Can anyone today recover from a case of laryngitis to immediately offer joyous and prophetic song? Can anyone today emerge from silence to claim this sort of God at work in the world today, a world where God seems absent from everyday concerns, a world where God seems simply used to support some political, economic, or religious agenda, a world where God seems inseparable from some people and entirely unavailable to others? Can anyone today hope to move beyond seemingly endless war to see God “[guiding] our feet into the way of peace”?
I believe that Advent is a wonderful time to break the silence around us and speak of the incredible grace and love of God that comes into our world at Christmas and is present with us every day. These are days when it becomes clear that we must break the silence even amidst everything that encourages us to keep quiet, even when it hard to be faithful in changing days, even when things around us make it hard for us to be heard, even when it seems best that we should simply be silent. Silence is probably the easier choice here—the choice Zechariah probably would have made were it all up to him, the choice we too probably would make if we could have it our way—but, just as during Zechariah’s time, the Holy Spirit continues to call us to speak out of our silence, to remember God’s great promises, to celebrate God’s good gifts, and to proclaim the continuing and coming reign of Jesus Christ our Lord in all that we say and do.
So blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
who has looked favorably upon us
and has redeemed us
and has shown us mercy,
that we might serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness all our days.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Thanks be to God! Amen.