Luke 1:8-20 NRSV Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 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.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Luke is a master of irony throughout the Gospel of Luke and he gets right to it here at the start. We begin with Zechariah, a priest of the order entrusted to care for the most Holy of Holies in the Temple. There is no greater honor than that entrusted to those tasked with entering the Holy place to offer incense. When Zechariah is chosen by lot to be the one, he is at the top of his game, the pinnacle of his priestly career; and one imagines him to be devout, attentive, and receptive to the presence and leading of the Spirit of God.
He is aware that when he gets into the sanctuary of the Lord he is not alone! A messenger appears and Zechariah is understandably terrified. The angel says what all angels say, “Fear not!” Then Zechariah is given an astonishing piece of news – Elizabeth is pregnant and with a child that God intends to use in powerful ways to reshape the people of God. He is incredulous – he is ancient, she is past menopause. How is it possible for her to be pregnant?
Then an odd thing happens. Gabriel causes Zechariah to become mute until the child is born. The priest who is at the height of his career – the guy who is entrusted with the most holy tasks and who is expected to bear witness to what he has experienced – is left mute. His witness communicated in charades.
And yet, while the great priest is left to gesture in frustration, his wife – someone who would never be allowed into the most holy sanctuary - has in her very person a growing witness to the extraordinary grace and power of God. The woman who had no voice in the structures of the Temple is given an undeniable miracle, which cries out into the wilderness of her time and place, “With God, nothing is impossible!”
Our creed says that the Spirit of God helps us to “...hear the voices of those long silenced.” Indeed! God can and will use those people we so easily write off as having nothing to say. We do well to remember that God is always choosing the losers, the dispossessed, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the uneducated and the poor to be God’s servants and witness bearers; and if we want to receive the good news of God’s redemption, we will want to look to them as often as we look to our religious leaders for the message they will bring.
God in whose kingdom we imagine there will be only music and silence, you have always spoken your powerful word out of the divine silence. So instill in us a love of silence. Guide us to listen more deeply and to those we formerly dismissed, that we might catch sight of the surprising ways you continue to declare your love for all of creation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.