[Alexander Ivanov, “Archangel Gabriel Struck Zechariah Mute”]
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.”
Zechariah begins the story. Verses 1-4 in Luke chapter one are prologue, introduction, a fascinating expression of Luke’s direct voice (the only time he says “I” meaning himself throughout the Gospel). But the story itself begins with “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…” We meet him first, the first character Luke introduces. That means his part of the story also sets the tone for what we will read.
Zechariah’s part of the story is my favorite. Of course I love the birth of Jesus from a saved-my-soul-rescued-me-from-myself standpoint, but in terms of story,* I love this the most.
Can you guess why?
Zechariah doubts. He voices his doubts. He receives consequences (as we used to say in parenting) for expressing his doubts to an angel–yet Zechariah’s doubts do not disqualify him. In fact, Zechariah’s part in the unfolding wonder becomes more wonderful. I’m not sure he felt that way.
Look at this with me: Zechariah is a priest. He lives by God’s word, he obeys God’s law to his utmost ability. He is an old man who has served God in the temple all his life. He and Elizabeth have been married a very long time. They have no children and he does not know why; he has prayed for a child and received no answer from God.
That’s Zechariah’s life. “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.” Still a normal day’s work for a priest.
Business as usual.
“Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” Normal ends here. Of course Zechariah believes; Zechariah has dedicated his life to living his beliefs, to serving God and God’s people. But there is believing by faith (“and why is my wife barren, anyway?”) and then there is seeing an angel.
“When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” As we’ve seen, everyone’s appropriate response to seeing an angel: “Aaaah!” Why do angel’s always start with “Do not be afraid?” Because they’ve come to bring messages and their human recipients cannot receive those messages until they snap out of their stupor.
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.’”
We learn about the plan right here. We don’t yet know what “prepared for the Lord” means or who this Lord for whom their preparing will be, but we know who John will be, how it will impact him and Elizabeth, and even the role his child will play in the world. Most parents know nothing of the kind before their child is conceived. The angel just laid out not only news that Zechariah will become a dad but his baby’s gender and, oh yeah, his ministry. “With the spirit and power of Elijah” would especially trumpet in a priest’s ear.
Zechariah, normal, childless priest, married to a faithful but barren woman, a shameful position in Jewish culture, stands in the temple face to face with one that terrifies him by its very being and then hears of wonders that will happen to him, through him, in answer to his prayer!
“How will I know that this is so?”
Oh, my gosh, this is priceless!
Zechariah went from being too stunned to speak to finding his tongue for these words. “How am I to be sure this is true?” Or better yet, “What sign will you give me to prove this to me?”
You mean like the angel standing in front of you, delivering a prophecy about how God has heard your plea and is about to change not only your life but your people’s history? A sign like that?
“How will I know this is so?”
I want you to understand, beloved reader, that I delight in Zechariah’s response not out of perverse pleasure in his lack of faith. No. I can summarize it in a single word, a word one of my daughters has taken to saying recently to describe watching others struggle: relatable.
“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Wow. In this moment, Zechariah’s negative faith in his and Elizabeth’s sterility outweighs his belief that a God who would send an angel to him might also give him a child. I believe Zechariah has prayed for this child again and again, year after year. When we see Elizabeth’s response to her pregnancy–“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people”–we grasp how much she suffered. I’m conjecturing here, but I think we see Zechariah’s heart shown through his fervent, relentless prayer. Zechariah watched his wife’s anguish–a woman would be both blamed and devalued for being barren–and kept at God. God sent the angel to Mary to foretell Jesus, but to Zechariah for John. “God heard your prayer.”
Instead of “Wow!” or “Praise God!” or even “I’m a bit overwhelmed and trying to process what you’ve said,” Zechariah responds with “How will I know that this is so?”
And it’s wonderfully, laughably relatable, right? I can pray for decades, maybe half a century for a miracle, but when it comes, I doubt. I can live my life daily demonstrating that I believe these things, I can shape my life choices around my faith, but at the same time am I really sure? It makes me laugh, but not a judgmental laugh. At all. No, only empathy here.
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.”
I’m not going to delve deep into angelology here, but a couple things: we understand angels to carry out God’s will, always. They obey. I have no idea how much leeway God gives them within that–do they always know exactly what God wills? But Gabriel seems ticked. Did God tell Gabriel, “If you encounter any doubt, go ahead and take Zechariah’s voice for, oh, nine or ten months?” Was it more Gabriel’s idea?
This is who I am, this is what I do, and this is why I’m here. By the way, what I told you will happen. You just won’t be able to say anything until it does.
And that, according to Scripture, is the end of the conversation between Gabriel and Zechariah.
“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.”
Remember, inside the Temple life has veered away from normal, but outside the people have no idea that something unusual is happening. Zechariah comes back out and oh, now he can’t speak. He was speaking fine when he walked in. He’s gesticulating wildly, this elderly, steadfast priest. Something happened in there. Something happened to Zechariah. He saw something.
“When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.” So wonderfully matter of fact. Life, completely not usual, does go on, his work ends, and he goes home.
What communication takes place between Elizabeth and Zechariah? I had a young adult suggest that Zechariah wrote her notes to explain. Perhaps, though the likelihood that Elizabeth could read and write was very low in a culture that had few literate and did not value educating women.
Of course, Zechariah’s condition looks like a punishment, a “consequence” of his doubts. But on another level, did not the angel give him that much more certainty? You walk out of the temple still terrified and in awe. By the next morning, in the bright light of day, or by the time you got back home with the sheer familiarity of routine and the commonplace of your own possessions, couldn’t you convince yourself you imagined it? Wishful thinking? Maybe you fell asleep and had a fanciful dream?
Nope. Every time you open your mouth, every time you try to use your vocal chords, you know its true.
And come on, for relatable: How much did Zechariah go over this conversation in his head? Do you think he spent any time in the next ten months pondering, “So I could have said…” I’m sitting here laughing, because how much do I spin such questions in my head over interactions that are of little or no consequence.
Do you get why I love this?
But then look ahead in chapter 1 of Luke. The baby arrives. “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” Zechariah still doesn’t speak! Is he freaking out? Or has he now become so sure of what God has done that he can wait patiently?** Very soon, eight days from now, Zechariah will find his tongue–will be given back use of his tongue–and will burst forth immediately praising God. We’ll leave Zechariah’s prophecy as a reflection for some other day.
So what do we learn from Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel?
Did I mention I love this?
God didn’t choose a man who would never doubt–Zechariah doubted to Gabriel’s (glowing) face.
God didn’t cut Zechariah off for doubting. He gave him a consequence that both cost Zechariah and reinforced to Zechariah that God would do exactly as promised.
We live by faith. Even looking an angel who stands in the presence of God right in the eye, we choose whether to believe or doubt.
Praying is an act of faith, even the most doubting prayer. Just because we’ve prayed for something a million times doesn’t mean we believe it will happen. And God knows that and sometimes answers the prayer, anyway!
These are not absolutes. I mean, we might take away as a principle: If an angel appears to you and tells you wondrous news in answer to your prayer, when you regain your wits, start with “Thanks!”
But I believe Zechariah was a great man of prayer and a faithful servant of God who doubted. For speaking his doubt, Zechariah suffered yet perhaps grew even closer to God, and certainly came through on the other side not embittered but joyful, spilling over with God’s spirit.
There are things in our lives that we make bigger than what we believe God can do. “God can send an angel, but God can’t make me able to father a child at this age.”
Finally, it makes me laugh to realize that Gabriel actually answered Zechariah’s question:
This is how you will know it is so.
This will remind you, every day and each minute, that what I said will come to pass.
God did not merely answer Zechariah’s prayer, but made the answer part of Incarnation. God’s answer frames our Advent.
I love this.
*I want to be clear, when I use “story” here, I do not mean to imply fiction. I believe these events occurred in history, just as my writing this and your reading it. I mean “story” as the narrative of God’s entrance into our world in human form. The Bible is the story of God’s love and redemption.
**”But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:25