Everything Falls Silent

“Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass.” St. Luke 1:20

Allison and I were having lunch out the other day, and a man sitting at the table across from us was wearing a t-shirt that said, “My Son Hit a Grand Slam in Cooperstown.” I hope it was true, because wouldn’t that really be something? You’ve spent quite a few summers in practices and games. You’ve logged your time in the batting cages, learned how to read a pitcher, just when to release your swing. You drove halfway across the country to get to this little town a long way off the interstate, this town where anybody who’s anybody in the world of baseball has been, probably on one of the finest days of his life. And then, with the bases loaded, when the pressure is on, you knock that white ball over the centerfield fence. “My Son Hit a Grand Slam in Cooperstown”— you know, that’s about as good as it gets for a twelve-year-old boy, the greatest day of his life.

But what about the kid who’s been to all the practices, and learned all the skills, who drives the whole way to Cooperstown, and steps up to the plate with the bases loaded, and then he strikes out, three called strikes? What if it’s the bottom of the ninth, and there are two outs and your team’s behind by three runs, and it’s the championship game, and it feels like every eye in the whole world just saw that third strike hit the catcher’s glove? Well, at least I know they don’t make T-shirts for that. A failure, that’s what you feel like, your one moment in the sun ruined. You want to crawl up in a corner and wish the whole world would just go away.

This doesn’t just happen in baseball of course. Sometimes for a lawyer, there’s this one case, the one that makes or breaks your whole career. Politicians can have one speech, or at one election, that makes all the difference. If you sing, or play an instrument, there will be this one performance that it all comes down to. And for Zechariah, there was this one moment. For years he had prepared for it, he had travelled many miles for it, and in that vital instant, when all eyes were on him, he had struck out. Or so everyone thought.

You see, Zechariah, a descendant of Aaron, part of a long line of priests that went back to the very beginnings of Israel’s religion.  Ancient Judaism had only one temple, in Jerusalem, but there were thousands of priests, living all over the land of Israel. The priests were divided into 24 groups, the courses, and each course would come up to Jerusalem, en masse, two weeks in the year, to take its turn in staffing the temple.

In the temple’s worship, each day, there were five important tasks, and the greatest of these was offering incense in the holy place, in the morning and the evening. The priests were assigned to these tasks by lot, and if you were chosen once, you moved to the end of the line. So over the course of a lifetime, a priest would only be chosen to offer incense once[1]. It was his crowning moment, the consummation of a lifetime of prayer and study. He would take the incense, pour it out on the fire with a special prayer, and then return to the people and bless them with Aaron’s ancient words. Crowds filled the courts of the temple for this moment—the morning sacrifice and the evening one. Pious Jews all over the world timed their prayers to coincide with that exact moment, when incense was offered in the temple.

And Zechariah was ready. He was, as Luke tells, “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” He and his wife, Elizabeth, had no child, and they were old, when that hope had already passed. This was his one great moment, and he was sure he would remember it with fondness for the rest of his life. He knew just what to do. He took the bowl of incense, he walked behind the heavy curtain at the entrance to the holy place, and he began to chant the prayer.

But then, there’s something he had never expected. An angel is standing just beside the altar. He is startled, Saint Luke tells, us — well wouldn’t you be? The angel has amazing news: his wife, even in her old age, will bear a child: as Sarah had borne Isaac, and Hannah had borne Samuel, a precious child. And this child would be the great and final prophet — the Spirit with him from even before his birth. He would be the one chosen by God to prepare His people to receive their great and final redeemer. Zechariah is baffled by all of this — remember, he’s been pouring all his mental energy into trying to get this sacrifice right, and he’s no spring chicken — and for his questions, the angel strikes him dumb. He cannot say a word.

All of this is completely hidden from the crowds on the other side of the curtain. They wonder: what’s taking the old man so long? About a century before, a famous priest had died while making the incense offering, and it proved to be an omen that pointed to the fall of a king, so they’re pretty sensitive about taking too long behind the curtain. Finally, Zechariah walks back out, completely stunned, and at the climax of the whole ceremony, when the crowds all look to him, he is completely silent, unable to say a word.

It was supposed to be his greatest moment, but next to what he knows will now happen, offering that incense seems rather beside the point. He is silent, yes, as a kind of punishment, Luke tells us, but there’s more to this. He is silent because even the best kind of priest, making the best kind of offering, in the best possible place — for all that is good and right about that — it’s hardly means anything next to the good news of what God is about to do.

For when he next speaks, Zechariah will confirm the angel’s word—he will name his son John, the gift of God, but then he will go on right away to talk about the one who is still to come. His song, the Benedictus, the church sings it every day at Morning Prayer. It’s not so much about Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, as it is about God’s Son, Jesus, the long-expected Messiah. And John too, well he would be a talker. He called himself simply “the voice.” That’s a striking name for the son of a silent father. John the voice, he would say plenty, but almost everything he said pointed away from himself to this One who was coming, the one he would baptize one day on the banks of the Jordan, and proclaim as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

“In the tender mercy of our God,” Zechariah said, “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The Messiah comes like the dawn, but not like the sun that rises over the Eastern hills. He is “the dawn from on high,” God Himself descending, not just to bless the promised people, but to give light to the whole world, and teach all people to walk in God’s ways.

The sun rises every morning, Zechariah is saying, but “the dawn from on high,” that comes only once. To greet that rising, a very special prophet must be raised, the barren womb of an old woman made fruitful, a good man interrupted at his greatest moment, for the sake of something incomparably greater.

Perhaps the most important thing this story says to us is how amazing a thing it is to know Jesus Christ. We are those who have sat in darkness, and the light has shone on us. We have been forgiven by him, made new through him. He is our teacher, our shepherd, our friend, our king. Today he receives our praises and offers them to his Father in the courts of heaven, and he comes to this Altar to feed us with his own body and blood.

There is nothing in this world more wonderful than to know Jesus Christ. There is no achievement of athletic prowess or political victory or artistic inspiration that can compare with what we do this day, and every Lord’s Day until he returns in glory.

“Whatever gain I had,” Saint Paul would recall, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord[2].” Saint Paul recounted his lineage, his religious credentials, all the things that gave him standing, and confidence and pride, and he said that next to the surpassing worth of Jesus, they meant nothing at all.

But do we live like people who believe that knowing Jesus Christ is the most wonderful thing we have found in life? When we gather to worship, do we bring our whole hearts to God in the words we say and the songs we sing? Do we think of Jesus Christ through the week, thank him for what he has done for us, speak with him tenderly of our love? Do we share him with those we know and love best, and ask them to join us at this, his great feast, to listen at his feet and share the delights of His table?

Before Christ, everything else in this life falls silent. That’s what Zechariah found that day in the temple, and God is waiting to reveal this to you today.

The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word.

[1] Brown, Raymond E.  The Birth of the Messiah.  Anchor Bible Reference Library.  New York: Doubleday, 1993., 258-259

[2] Philippians 3:7-8

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