Entering the Temple’s sanctuary to light incense for prayer would have been a once in a lifetime experience for Zechariah.  The cohort of priests he was part of would have served at the temple two weeks of every year, but there were enough men in the group to make entering the sanctuary a rare opportunity.  All sorts of emotions must have been running through him as he lit the incense: anticipation, thanks, nervousness, anxiety, honor, reverence.  As he lit the incense the rising smoke represented the prayers of those outside the chamber praying.

Zechariah had entered a liminal space, a place between two dimensions or realities or locations, a spot where usually distinct places intersect.  In ecosystems, for example, tidal zones are liminal spaces between ocean and land.  When we wake up groggy and still disoriented, we are in a liminal space between sleeping and waking.  In today’s scripture Zechariah has entered a sacred sanctuary, a space where day-to-day reality and divine presence intersect; he is in space where the mundane and the ineffable meet.

And in Zechariah’s case, much more occurred there than he could have anticipated.  The messenger angel Gabriel appears, “terrifies” Zechariah, then tells him of the impossible.  Prayers have been heard.  Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, despite being aged, will have a son.  He’ll grow up to become a mighty and spirit-filled prophet, the one we know as John the Baptist.  Zechariah finds this news difficult to believe so he’s rendered speechless “until the day these things occur.”

…we’ll run into John the Baptist at the beginning of Lent.  And we’ll hear a bit about Elizabeth next week. For today I just want to consider Zechariah.  He is aged. He holds a position esteemed by others.  He is surrounded by a community.  It seems likely that his life held many rewards.  But he and Elizabeth had no children.  Apparently, even in his old age Zechariah continued praying for a child.  Praying for a miracle.

Zechariah has lived a prayerful and faithful life.  Sort of like many of us.  But he doesn’t seem to have expected to really encounter God breaking into his life in new ways.  And he doesn’t expect his prayers to be heard and responded to.

Perhaps some of us experience the same sensations.  We wonder how, or if, God shows up.  We wonder about the point of prayer.  We live with some continuous background sadness about the world as it is.

Zechariah’s story offers points worth considering.  Things like:

  • The importance of liminal space, space set aside physically and psychically for entering a zone where God is invited to show up, where our lives and the Divine Life intersect
  • The unknown impact of the communities that accompany us in our lives
  • The possible fruits of vital and continuous prayer
  • The awareness that God might surprise us any time in our lives

Now you know the list of subjects I thought about preaching on today. J

There’s also, though, Zechariah’s speechlessness after he questioned the word that Gabriel brought.  Zechariah must have relied a lot on talking: debating and interpreting scripture with friends and colleagues, telling his wife and servants what to do and when, offering prayer, dealing with merchants, offering advice to those who sought it.  Talking was pivotal in his life.  Losing speech would have been a burden and frustration.

Without the capacity to talk, Zechariah couldn’t just carry on with daily life.  That was reprimand; it could also have been an invitation to learn, to grow in prayer, to listen, to be vulnerable and humble.  I like to imagine that Zechariah found some gifts in being rendered speechless.  Maybe silence changed him.  He had to listen.  He couldn’t mask emotions behind verbal bluster.  He couldn’t quickly defend himself or assert himself in discussion, so maybe he learned something about what it feels like to be marginalized.  Maybe he had to rely on touch and nonverbal expression for communication.  Maybe in his silence he learned that words have limited use, especially when it comes to Divine Mystery.

Zechariah’s day-to-day practices had to change.

So…here’s a thing.  Maybe Gabriel won’t show up in my life or yours or ours together and announce a fantastical fulfillment of prayer and the news that new life is coming despite all practical odds.  Maybe we don’t even put ourselves in physical and psychic space that can help a newly revealed holy word get to us.

But I’m not convinced that any of us truly hear the words already delivered in the sacred story we mark in this season.  Do not fear.  God is with you.  Prophets and liberators and lovers come among us and bring the Spirit of renewal and transformation with them.

In this aching, violent, heartbroken world it’s easy to say, like Zechariah, “how can we know that? Look at the reality here.”

We may be skeptical at the word of hope and peace.  The word of liberation and love.  The word given to us.  Like Zechariah.  So I wonder if, like Zechariah, we need to be silent for a while. I wonder if we need to stop carrying on life as usual and listen more.  Suspend the debates and discussions we occupy ourselves with.  Discover what it feels like to be silenced, like the marginalized.  Learn what life feels like without the verbal defenses and tactics we depend upon.  Rely upon touch and physical expression.  Pray and meditate silently.

Many spiritual traditions and practices teach, after all, that deep silence is one place where we encounter the Holy, the Divine, the One we call God.

Zechariah faced nine months of silence, nine months without one of his life’s major props and tools.  Nine months to contemplate the word he had been given.  Nine months to watch and wait.  It changed him.  Transformed him.  And after beginning in skepticism, after his long silence, after John was named, Zechariah could proclaim: “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 in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Luke 1: 78-79)

In these days, may we open ourselves to a new Word.  May we dwell in some silence and stillness, pondering the words already given to us.  May we suspend some of our everyday, and learn new ways of operating in the world.  May we be still, and know God.  And out of that may we grow to become people whose feet will be guided in the way of peace.

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

-Rev. Ruth Moerdyk