In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. 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.” 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. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “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.”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
—Luke 1: 5-27
During Advent we hear a lot about the coming of the baby Jesus, and that coming is the cause for our celebration at Christmas. On this second Monday of Advent, however, Jesus is not yet here. But there is another Advent baby who is already here. It is John the Baptist whom we often hear of in Advent. John the Baptist who as a grown man will cry from the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord!”
But who is the John the Baptist? Where did he come from? The first chapter of Luke tells us that John is the son of Zechariah, a temple service priest, and Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary. We often come across the text, during Advent, in which the pregnant Elizabeth and the pregnant Mary meet and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is said to leap at the approach in the womb of Mary. It is a scripture from later in Luke that points not only to the divinity of Jesus but that divinity being present and recognized before Jesus’ birth.
We seem to know Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, bearer of the prophet who proclaims the divinity of the human Jesus. But who is this Zechariah? Well, he is a priest—so what do the clergy know? And are they not the ones who will later bring Jesus to Pilate? Well, yes this is true. But, Zechariah is not just a priest; he also has a profound spiritual experience in meeting the Angel Gabriel not just in the temple, but behind the veil of the temple in the Holy of Holies—where only a priest could approach. It is here that Gabriel approaches Zechariah, as opposed to beside the kitchen table where Gabriel approaches Mary. And Zechariah, being the priest he is, argues with the angel, wanting to know how this can be so, wanting to know how the impossible can come to be true. We have no way of knowing how the angel emotionally reacts, if he is angry or annoyed with Zechariah; likely for an angel it is none of these emotions, as we understand them. What we do know is that Gabriel admonishes Zechariah for questioning rather than believing, and then proclaims that Zechariah will be silent until this child is born.
The story of Zechariah can be read as a harsh critique on the clergy and perhaps it should be. We clergy need to remember we do not know it all, just as those we minister to sometimes need to be reminded that we are not perfect. Perhaps this is so, but in the season maybe there is a more seasonal meaning to draw from the text. Perhaps it is a reminder to all of us to listen and prepare for the most unexpected impossible event of all time.
Perhaps this text is an invitation to listen to God. To ponder not just the words in our own hearts, but to ponder the words of God, and to ponder those individual spiritual experiences we are blessed to have. Perhaps we even need a harsh a reminder to be silent and to watch and listen for what God is doing. For only then can we be prepared to welcome, and respond to and with God in the world.