J. Mark Barnes
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2018
“Singing Praise, Keeping Silence”
Luke 5. 5-80
This Fourth Sunday in Advent is Mary’s Sunday. Every year Mary, the mother of Jesus, is featured on this day, as well she should be. Her faith has been a model for the Church through the generations.
Mary has such trust in God. She’s only 16 when the angel Gabriel appears to her with the shocking news of a pregnancy that will have nothing to do with her fiancee, Joseph. Her family will be scandalized. She doesn’t know at this point whether Joseph will go ahead and marry her. He may abandon her, as many would have, leaving her shunned and alone with the child, destitute. The angel’s announcement means that any semblance of normal life is over for Mary. So, you’d think she’d yell at this angel, or at the very least, throw something at him. But Mary is not afraid or outraged. Perplexed, she asks the obvious question: “How can this be since I’m still a virgin!” And when Gabriel explains that it will be the Holy Spirit’s doing she responds immediately, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” She believes the promise of God and goes forward depending on the Holy Spirit, not knowing how it will turn out.
Along with Mary’s trust we’re also inspired by her joyful praise. Barbara spoke last week about joy being like an underground spring that flows within us. Joy is always there deep within ready to bubble up. When Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, who is also, miraculously expecting, in spite of her old age, it’s a praise party! Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is carrying the Savior and bursts into praise! Even the child in Elisabeth’s womb, John the Baptist to be, leaps for joy! And Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” She sings for the honor God has given her and also sings ahead of time for the justice and joy God will bring to all people through her child, Jesus.
Mary has such courageous trust and exuberant praise. No wonder she gets this 4th Sunday in Advent as her own special day. Mary’s faith is a model for us.
But this year, I’d like us to include Zechariah. Remember him? Maybe not. He doesn’t ever make it into the lectionary readings. He’s married to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. Luke has woven Zechariah’s story together with Mary’s in this first chapter of his Gospel assuming that we would consider them together.
What about Zechariah? Well, he was old where Mary was young. Both Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are “getting on in years”. This is hard for them because one of the wounds that life has dealt them is their grief over having no children. They’ve hoped and prayed and now it’s too late.
Zechariah is much older than Mary. He’s also more established. Mary, as far as we know, was unknown outside the circle of her friends and family but Zechariah and Elizabeth were descended from Israel’s respected priestly families. Luke says they are “righteous before God and blameless before the Law.” What’s more, Zechariah is at the pinnacle of his career as a priest. He’s been tapped to give the annual blessing at the Temple in Jerusalem, a once-in-a-lifetime honor. As the story continues, Zechariah has taken his place in the Temple just outside the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. He’ll burn incense there at the altar and then come out to the waiting crowd to bless them. It’s a big deal! Zechariah’s big moment!
But suddenly, “Heeeeeeeeer’s Gabriel! Zechariah also gets a visit from the angel who is there suddenly there at the altar, dazzling white, with shimmering wings. Now, of course, Zechariah has read all the books about angels and has even written a paper in Seminary about these “heavenly messengers of God”. But I’m afraid that Zechariah loses it! “He was terrified,” Luke reports, “and fear overwhelmed him.” And when the angel announces God’s promise that Zechariah and Elisabeth in their old age will have a child who will prepare the way for the Messiah, Zechariah doesn’t believe it. (ha, ha) “Are you kidding?! We’re too old! A bassinet in the retirement home! Ha, ha. That’s a good one!” He’s not buying it! His response us a little different than Mary’s, yes?! And angel Gabriel doesn’t respond well to this. I imagine he’s tired after all the years of having to announce God’s intentions to these featherless, flightless, fickle human creatures and Zechariah is the last straw! I don’t know but Gabriel swells up to fill the room and speaks with a voice like a clap of thunder, “I am Gabriel. I bring God’s word and you don’t believe it? Well, then you will speak no words until what I have spoken comes to pass!” And suddenly then in a blinding flash the angel is gone and so is Zechariah’s ability to speak. He’s mute. Can’t say a word! As you can imagine, this puts a major crimp in Zechariah’s big day! I mean how is he supposed to go out and bless the people now? Charades?! And if this lasts for nine months like the angel said how is he going to do his job as a priest which depends so much on words? Yikes!
Besides being a clergy person’s worst nightmare, what is this all about?! Commentators have often said that Zechariah’s enforced silence is a punishment for his sin of unbelief. And that’s one way to read it. But according to Luke, Zechariah and Elizabeth are righteous and blameless and it’s not Luke’s way to just dismiss their kind of faithfulness. And really, if this silence does come from God, as we are meant to understand, our gracious and merciful God, who has promised to give this couple one of the deepest desires of their hearts we have to ask if, in addition to the humiliating and inconvenient consequences of this silence, there might not also be a gift in it. A gift. Could it be?
Sometimes, you know, all the talking gets in the way. Our talking, the talking of others. In our day, all the print organs pump out words. So does social media. So many words vie for our attention. Sometimes we say “I can’t hear myself think!” And even when all that outside noise that is quieted, it’s still pretty noisy inside. Thoughts and feelings swirl around and we worry about what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Our minds are wonderful gifts, amazing, but they can’t seem to ever give it a rest! They hash over the same old things even when we wish they wouldn’t. Kathleen Dowling Singh lists some of the things that loop around and around in our minds: Any of these sound familiar?: Anger in search of a target, eagerness for praise, searching for credit or approval, wishing to control, self-pity, pleasing others, sadness, bruised feelings, the sense of “not enough”, fear, blaming, shame, jealousy, attachment, self-judgement. Familiar, any of them? We each have our own favorites! Sister Elaine Prevallet says it’s like we have this little defense department in our heads. When someone challenges us or ignores us or doesn’t like us…. bam…our inner department of defense rushes in with images and stories to protect us. Martin Laird calls them “inner videos”, starring us, that we watch over and over. I call it “Me Tube”. Sometimes just before you drift off to sleep you can feel the inner chatter fading away and it feels so good to be slipping off into silence.
If there is a gift in Zechariah’s enforced period of silence surely it would have included quieting the chatter inside. Because, here’s the thing, the inner chatter can drown out the voice of Love. Our Gracious God, the Source of our lives, is always calling us to love and calling us beloved, is always promising us fullness of life, singing joy to us, but if we’re not paying attention in time the anxiety, the anger, the sadness, the restless craving…the lament… can drown out the song! I think it’s what happened to Zechariah. He’s circled around so long in disappointment that his lament has overwhelmed his song. Look, Zachariah refuses the biggest opportunity of his life, the very gift he’s most desired. “A son?!” “No I don’t think so!” he tells the angel. He’s afraid to trust that something unexpected can happen. He’s lost his song. It can happen to any of us. Sometimes it’s something big and dramatic that happens but more often it’s something more difficult to name. We are distracted from the voice of Love that calls to us so that over time trust weakens, the spring of joy dries up and with it the passion for justice, the energy for making peace. And then we’re just going through the motions and it’s hard to believe anything new can happen. We can lose our song!
But God is still with us and comes to heal. Zechariah was given a gift of silence, a nine-month period that parallels Elizabeth’s pregnancy, a gestation period of another kind if you like. For him, it’s not just about Elizabeth’s pregnancy as wonderful as that is. Something new comes to term in Zechariah, too. When Elizabeth and Zechariah take their new baby to the Temple to be dedicated and the priest asks for the child’s name, Elisabeth, says, “John” but the family says, “Wait! Nobody in the family has ever had that name. We can’t have that!” And, then there’s a bit of a commotion, until Zechariah grabs a writing tablet and writes, “His name is John!” Now, when you write the name “John” in Hebrew you are writing, “Yo-cha-nan” which in English translates “God is gracious!” Ah, words of praise! And then, says Luke, “Zechariah’s mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he began to speak praising God.” Praise is reborn in Zechariah, his song! He lets go with a song as beautiful as Mary’s Magnificat: “Blessed be God!, he sings, “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 the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Zechariah’s “Benedictus” the Church has called it.
Mary and Zechariah. Luke weaves their stories together. Singing praise and keeping silence. Perhaps, because while we may aspire to trusting faith like Mary’s that freely sings praise, we are not always there. For all of us, at least some of the time, our lament threatens to drown out our song. Our trust gets weak, our praise gets stuck. And when this happens keeping silence may be the answer. Once when a group of us out at Loretto asked Sr. Elaine Prevalet to speak to us about prayer. She passed on to us something from the Eastern Church’s tradition: When you pray, “Fold the wings of your mind, descend to your heart, and be still…” The practice of being still and letting go the thoughts and feelings that whip us around, helps open us to the mystery within, the sacred space where the spring of joy and justice flows. And then we may be refreshed in who we are at our core: God’s beloved children, called to love! “Fold the wings of your mind, descend to your heart, be still…”.
The time of silence lasted nine months for Zechariah. It’s a caution, lest we think can sit down, close our eyes, slow our breathing, and “poof” …perfect trust and praise! No, it takes time. It takes being patient with ourselves, over time, and keeping some silence daily as our noisy, talkative lives continue. It means learning to press “pause“ when the old videos begin to play, and our defense departments start to muster. Learning to smile, hit “pause”, and be still…open to something more.
Well, it’s the Fourth Sunday in Advent today. Christmas is round the corner, the gift-giving extravaganza! Make yourself a gift! Promise yourself the gift of silence in the coming year. And let the promises of God be the words you hold closest in your heart.
“God is gracious.” So, with thanks for the most precious gift of Jesus Christ, trust God, trust yourself, take a deep breath, and go ahead and sing your song! In the name of our Savior, Christ. AMEN.
 Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging, 114-115. I added “shame” to the list.
 Elaine Prevallet, “Unfolded and Enfolded by Mercy,” in Living with God in the World, edited by John S. Mogabgab, Upper Room Books, 1993, 172.
 Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, Oxford Press, 2011, 25-42.