The song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were well known and had been asked to produce a Christmas album, but hesitated because they did not feel comfortable with the consumerism of Christmas. However, when the nation found itself on the brink of a nuclear holocaust--people fearful of enemies among them, digging backyard bomb shelters and praying to avert another world war--Regney was inspired by babies being pushed in strollers along the streets of New York City. He returned home and penned the words to this song of peace, since sung by countless high school choirs, recorded by hundreds of artists, and played endlessly on Christmas radio.
The imagery captures something of our longing as we prepare for Christmas in another era hovering on the brink of war, with fear of our neighbors and worry for our children. The night wind speaking to a little lamb, the shepherd boy and the king singing about a star, a song and a child, such humble, earth-bound creatures, somehow give us a sense of hope amid the fear and violence of the world—a promise that peace is out there, asleep in the ordinary, whispering and waiting for us, if we only awaken our senses to hear it, see it, feel it. Though I took some liberties with the words for our season, the original words evoke the Advent spirit on their own. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you know what I know?
That’s what Advent is all about. These weeks before Christmas are supposed to awaken our senses to the presence of God in quiet, ordinary places, because when God-With-Us arrives on Christmas Eve, it is in the humblest of stables. So we prepare by remembering that God is seen in the glow of a midnight angel, felt in the leap of a child in the womb, known in the song of a mother-to-be, and today’s story—heard in the silence of the priest.
Yep, you heard that right—heard in the silence of the priest.
(The irony of writing a blogpost/sermon about the silence of a preacher is not lost on me, I assure you.)
Zechariah’s story is the tale of a man of words, the man to whom the community had assigned the task of speaking about God, even speaking FOR God, being struck mute when God actually spoke to him.
It was Zechariah’s big day. There were thousands among the priestly clans, each rotating through the temple, taking their turn to care for the Holy of Holies. When his family, the sons of Abijah, came to take their turn, they lit the fires, tended the sacrifices, oversaw the prayers for the whole temple, the whole people of Israel. But only one man could step inside the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual there. Only one man each time, and no man could enter twice—it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and most, even among the priestly families, were never chosen.
This was no popularity contest or piety award—Zechariah and the members of his family stood around and drew lots, and Zechariah’s hand happened upon the lucky straw. He would step into the holiest sanctuary, the sacred room in the Temple inhabited by God’s own presence, representing the whole of his people before the Holy. When he emerged, the people would gather around and await a blessing, a word from God himself, delivered by Zechariah.
The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that even though he got this honor by sheer luck, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were people of exemplary faith. They prayed, they followed the law, they were righteous and blameless, good and faithful in every way. Zechariah must have trembled in holy awe that he was chosen.
And yet, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful all their lives, but God had not rewarded them. They were barren, childless. They had prayed, they had obeyed, but God had been silent. Month after month, cycle after cycle, nothing but silence. Silence in Elizabeth’s womb, silence in their home, silence from God. By the time Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, it was too late. Too many moons had come and gone, and they grew old. God had remained silent for years.
When Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day, I imagine he believed that God still had a word for the people he represented. Certainly God had a blessing for everyone else, a message of hope and encouragement for the masses—even if God had only silence for he and Elizabeth.
But the angel had not come with vague promises or generic words of comfort. This was no anonymous platitude or nameless blessing. It wasn't for everyone else. The angel of God came with a very specific word to them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a silence-shattering, new-world-opening, mind-blowing, unthinkable, impossible word. “Your prayers have been heard,” the angel said. “Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and you must name him John. This child of yours will not only bring you joy and delight, he will be the one who brings many people back to God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah, terrified and stunned, responds to this breath-taking announcement in the most awkward, graceless, bumbling way possible. “How can I be sure? We’re old,” he says. If there were a soundtrack, you'd hear one of those record-screeching-to-a-halt sounds right here.
I can almost hear the angel Gabriel sigh. “Because I am the angel Gabriel, and you’re standing in the Holy of Holies, and I’m telling you so.” Shaking his head, Gabriel continues, “Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Some would like to see this silence as punishment for Zechariah’s sin of disbelief, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’m with Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls it “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit of hopelessness.” (Bread with Angels, 93)
Zechariah had grown so accustomed to God’s silence that he was unable to receive the word of God when it came. While he never stopped praying, never stopped obeying, he had long ago abandoned any sense that God was listening. Zechariah, whose very name means “God remembers” had become convinced God had forgotten.
Who could blame him? How many of us, likewise, have prayed and obeyed, but long ago given up hope for an answer? How many of us have ceased to imagine God hears our prayers? We pray that our family could grow, our illness be healed, our relationships mended, our job meaningful, our finances successful—but how strong is our hope in God’s response? We pray for peace and justice and love to win, but it is murmuring into a void. The news of more shootings, more hatred, more violence, more abuse have given us likewise “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit if hopelessness.” Imagining the promises of Isaiah about a light in the darkness, a Prince of Peace, reigning with justice and righteousness forevermore are impossible dreams. The best we have come to hope for is some nameless blessing, generic word of comfort, or vague platitude.
Instead, what Zechariah discovers is that God has a hope just for them. He and Elizabeth, their deepest and most intimate prayers, have been heard, and God is about to fulfill their hopes and dreams, even when they themselves have given up on them. Zechariah’s name and his story instead proclaim that God remembers. God’s silence will not be forever, and when it arrives, God’s voice will not come to us as a vague, generic, nameless message. When God speaks, it will be so stunning, so personal and convicting and convincing and life-changing and mind-blowing and new-world-opening that it will render us speechless.
The 19th century mystic Baron Von Hügel said, "Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith."
When Zechariah emerged from the Holy of Holies, the greatness of God had swallowed him whole. The people stood around him awaiting his message, the blessing he would give directly from God. There were no words. Sound caught in his throat, his hands flapped helplessly. This man assigned to speak for God found himself mute when God actually spoke to him. The look of holy awe must have lingered on his face, the reflection of the angel still in his eyes, because the people could tell he had seen a vision, and they fell silent too. Because they know God remembered, God heard, and they had hope.
This opening Sunday of Advent, hear the story of Zechariah and know that God remembers. Even when there is only silence, God is still there—and when God does speak again, it will be a word so surprising and life-changing, so for you, that it will swallow you whole and leave you speechless.
So maybe then Zechariah’s story is also an invitation to fall silent, a reminder to just shut up, because the greatness of God is all around us. Just shut up and listen, in wonder and hope-filled imagination, to the night wind and the little lamb, to the child and the shepherd boy, to the presence in the Holy of Holies.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
Do you hear what I hear?