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Virtual Advent Wreath, Week 1 – The Silence of the Priest

Welcome to the Rabbit Room Virtual Advent Wreath.  Over the course of the next several weeks leading up to Christmas, we will be posting a series of meditations focused on the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels.  For more on what Advent means and why many Christains observe it, here’s a short introduction.  If you’d like to make a wreath of your own for your family or study group, here’s how.  The text for this week’s reflection comes from Luke 1:8-80.

8 While Zechariah was serving as priest before God… there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense saying,  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John… He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah… to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”   19And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words…”  22And when he came out, he was unable to speak…  And he kept making signs to the people and remained mute.

57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son… And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.    –Luke 1:8-80 (ESV)

Children have inquisitive minds.  They want to make sense of the world they inhabit.

There were men among the twelve tribes of Israel who must have held a mysterious presence in the imaginations of the kids who grew up in those towns—men who forever smelled like smoke and iron and were always splattered with blood.  When these men would pass by on the street, the children would stare as their parents would explain that that man’s work was bloody because it was holy.

These men were the priests, and the blood they wore was the residue of the sacrifices they offered on the behalf of the people.

That river of blood flowed as far back as any of them could recall, all the way back to their slave days in Egypt when the Lord delivered them from Pharaoh’s tyrannical rule, but not before sending the devastating plague which took all the first born sons in the land.  The only families who survived that catastrophe were those who had sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood over the doorposts of their homes.

God’s people grew up in a culture of sacrifice and spoke the language of sacrifice. Without the shedding of blood there was no forgiveness of sins, they would say.  So the priesthood carried over from one generation to the next, along with their bloody work, all the way to the time of an old cleric named Zechariah.

One day, while Zechariah was working in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to tell him God was going to give him a son. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and had been barren their entire marriage.  So Zechariah wanted proof.

Gabriel replied with some indignation, “I AM GABRIEL, who stands in the presence of God.”  Wasn’t Gabriel’s presence sign enough?  If not, another could be arranged.  Zechariah’s proof was that he was struck mute (and probably deaf too, since others had to communicate with him using signs) until the birth of this promised child.  No speaking to the baby in Elizabeth’s growing belly.  No telling his neighbors about this son he has waited his entire life for.  Only silence—nine months of it.

Though bittersweet, this silence was a gift.  Zechariah was given time to think, time to remember the words and the frame of the Guardian of Heaven whose apparition, for some reason, was easier to accept than the words he spoke.

To worship God is to dwell on who He is; to consider His handiwork. (Job 37:14) How can this occur without stillness?  Stillness is a discipline God gives to cultivate minds that can hold and turn over complicated thoughts without losing them.  Silence is a gift God gives to Zechariah, and the old man puts it to use.

He had more than enough time to rebuke himself for his doubt and plenty left over to really contemplate what God was doing.  He thought of his need for salvation and God’s promise of it.  He thought of the priesthood and of God’s displeasure with His people’s rebellion against Him.  He thought of the ocean of blood his own hands had spilled, and how if he were to spill all the blood of all the priests of every generation, it still wouldn’t come close to being enough to atone for the sins of Israel or, for that matter, the sins of Zechariah.  He thought of Scripture and of history.  He thought of the angel’s words and his own role in God’s redemption.

And he thought of his son’s role.

From Elizabeth’s first bout with nausea to that day nine months later when they, along with their astonished kinsfolk, laid their tired eyes on this brand new baby boy, Zechariah held his peace. God used this silence to persuade the old minister that God was sending His salvation to His people and that this miracle baby, his son, was brought into this world to herald the Messiah’s coming.

A son was his father’s honor.  It was tradition to give a boy his father’s name. When the boy turned eight days old, they’d circumcise him and announce that name—the name he would go by all his days as a member of the covenant family of God.  When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was circumcised on the eighth day, his aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews waited for his parents to announce little Zechariah’s name.

Elizabeth gave her mute husband a penetrating look.  His eyes told her what she needed to say on his behalf. “We are going to call him John.”

“John?  Why?  There is no one in your family who goes by this name.”

For a moment there it was Elizabeth against the world.  Her kin looked to Zechariah, as if his wife might have somehow been taking advantage of his silence.  “Are you going to allow this?” His eyes were deep pools of unsearchable gravity.  He moved between his wife and her detractors, and pinching his forefinger to his thumb, he motioned for something he could write on.  The note he scribbled was short and resolute.  On the tablet were four words in Zechariah’s own hand: “His name is John.”

And that was that.  This baby was John.

“John.”  The kinsfolk tried it out, speaking the name to the child as if to see if he might respond.  As they cooed and sang the name over him, an old  familiar voice rose from the corner of the room from a murmur to a crescendo.

“His name is John.  His name is John!”  The old man wept as the words flowed from his lips like a symphony of awe and joy.

Within minutes, everything that had been on his heart those past nine months came flowing out. To the amazement of everyone, he had little to say about his encounter with the angel or his doubts concerning Elizabeth’s ability to conceive.

Instead, Zechariah wanted to talk about the salvation of the Lord.  All God’s promises to Abraham and David were going to be fulfilled in the coming God’s Messiah.  History was converging on this moment, and Zechariah understood that he and Elizabeth had been given a son because the world was being given her Savior.  And their son John was born to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming.

Then Zechariah got down nose to nose with his little boy, “You, son, will proclaim the salvation of the people of God and the forgiveness of their sins.  You live to proclaim His mercy, just as your very life is God’s mercy to us.  A new light is dawning, and this message is the reason God gave you to us.”

These were the words of a man who had time to think.

Zechariah understood that though his life’s work as a priest was insufficient and thus unending, if God were to preside as the priest over His people, and if He were to select the atoning sacrifice His people needed, it would be perfect.  And the river of blood would cease to flow from the heart of the Holy Place where God’s presence dwells.

The old priest began to sense that he would be among the last of his kind.

When the Lord loosed Zechariah’s tongue, everyone sensed the weight of John’s divine purpose, saying, “What then will this child be?”

If the Messiah is coming and we are called to bear witness to Him, what then will our lives be?  What will our sons’ lives be?  What will our daughters’ lives be?  Zechariah’s benediction over John gives an answer.  They will be God’s.

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