begin in terror

(This is yesterday’s sermon, a tiny cheat in my daily Advent writing practice.)

Zechariah’s story is the opening scene in Luke’s gospel:

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.

That’s how Luke begins the story of Jesus, the Gospel, the Good News: with an old, faithful priest named Zech and his wife, Liz, who couldn’t have a baby.

Zechariah had spent his life in service at the temple and to his God. He was a descendant of the priestly order, so he’d likely known all his life that working in the temple would be his vocation. He’d spent decades training and learning all the law and prophets, and his days were filled with liturgy and sacrifice.

On this particular day, Zechariah’s priestly section was on duty and it was his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. There was a big crowd of people praying outside the sanctuary as he entered, alone. When his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside, Zechariah froze: an otherworldly creature was there, just to the right of the altar. Well, maybe Zech froze. Luke tells us that this creature TERRIFIED and OVERWHELMED him, so maybe he froze, but maybe he SCREAMED, or cowered, or fainted. Whatever he did, Zechariah was horrified.

We know, from our vantage point as readers of the whole story, that this creature was an angel. But if it was an angel like the ones we see in craft stores and on the tops of Christmas trees during this season, then why was Zech so scared? A float-y, shimmering cherubic kid with wings, right? That’s what an angel is?

It turns out that angels in scripture are nothing like what we imagine. The prophet Ezekiel has some particularly evocative descriptions: wheels with many eyes; four-headed beings with multiple wings; a creature that looks like a demented moth, with eyes on every one of its eight wings. In scripture, angels are not softly lit and gently smiling. In scripture, angels are terrifying creatures. 

Now, to be fair, the angel that shows up here in Zech’s sanctuary is probably more human-like than a wheel with eyes. Gabriel is known to be the archangel of the cherubim, which, according to people who call themselves “angelologists” are angels who appear sort of super-human: gigantic, with majestic wings and overpowering presence.

And still, Zechariah was TERRIFIED.

That’s how the gospel begins: in terror.

I think that’s worth paying attention to, right now: that Luke chooses to start the story of the good news with an aging priest encountering something terrifying in the sanctuary. Just like the way angels are far more complicated and unsettling than our popular imagination tell us, the gospel is also not something that begins in a clean, safe, pastel stable. The gospel begins with things getting turned upside down.

Once Zechariah recovers from his faint, the weird angel says “Don’t be afraid!” Which, you know, feels sort of like too little too late when the being has startled him there in the sanctuary. But the angel continues: “Your wife, Elizabeth, is pregnant and is going to have a son. And you’re going to name him John, and everyone is going to rejoice! He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and bring many people back to God, and prepare the way for the Messiah, who is on the way.”

And Zechariah, sort of dumb-founded and still finding his footing in the wake of such a scare and such impossible promises, blurts out his first thought: “But I’m so OLD! That can’t be true!”

And the angel, sort of annoyed that Zech isn’t getting immediately on board with God’s plan, says “Look, I’m Gabriel, the angel. I work for God. God’s the one who sent me here, in case you hadn’t figured that out, yet, to bring you GOOD NEWS, man. But it doesn’t seem like you can handle this quite yet, so – and I really hate to do this, you know, but we can’t have you messing up the plan with your own fear and short-sightedness – I’m gonna have to take away your voice until your son is actually born.”

And then Gabriel disappears, and Zech stumbles back out into the light, and all the people are curious and concerned about what’s been happening in there, but Zech can’t tell them. All he can do is gesticulate wildly with his hands, and crouch down and start to cry.

But Zech goes home. And soon, he and Elizabeth realize that it’s true – she’s pregnant. Elizabeth is much more joyful than Zechariah had been, and raises her voice in praise. 

You know what happens next: Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary also gets a visit from Gabriel, and is also told that she’s going to experience this unexpected pregnancy. Mary visits Elizabeth, stays for three months, and they marvel, together, at this new thing that is happening to them.

And then, Elizabeth gives birth. In this family, a priestly family who has waited so very long for a child, the firstborn son would automatically be named after his father. This baby should be named Zechariah. But when he’s born, Elizabeth says, “nope. This kid’s name is JOHN.”

And everyone sort of furrows their brow and clucks at her, surely delusional in her post-birth state, and looks to Zechariah. Remember, Zech has been mute for the last nine months, unable to utter a single word. By now, he’s gotten used to this state of things and always has a tablet nearby. He grabs the tablet and writes, clearly, “his name is John.”

And, Luke tells us, the entire household was amazed. Immediately, Zech’s tongue is untied, and he starts speaking as fast as he can – not the build up of opinions and questions he’s been stockpiling for months, but an immediate, joyful, passionate song of praise to the same God who made him mute in the first place.

And, we hear, “fear came over all their neighbors.”

There it is again: fear. Elizabeth knows what is happening. She’s on board. It took Zechariah nine months of humbling himself in muteness to understand that what was happening here was not about him, or his family, or his priestly line, but about something much, much larger. He finally got it. But everyone else, all the gathered neighbors, well, whatever is going on here? It is TERRIFYING.

All this fear seems worth paying attention to. Why does Luke choose to begin the gospel with so much fear? Why include these details – that Zechariah was terrified when the angel showed up in the sanctuary and that the neighbors were terrified when they witnessed Zechariah finding his voice? Why is it important for us to know that the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth was tinged with so much terror?

//

The detail of this story that captivates me is Zechariah’s nine months of being struck dumb. Gabriel recognizes that, in his terror and confusion, Zech is not going to be able to properly translate or explain what is happening. And it’s no wonder: what is happening is incredible, miraculous, out of time and place. It starts with a VERY SCARY creature appearing out of nowhere in the sanctuary. It starts with everything Zechariah thought he knew being upended. He’d spent his entire life in service to God, but he still didn’t realize that God might show up in his life like THIS.

So, instead of moving on and choosing another family to be part of this story, instead of leaving Zechariah in the dust of the gospel breaking into the world, instead of passing him and his disbelief over, Gabriel just says, well, okay, I guess you’re going to need some time to get used to this if you are really going to be the father of the Proclaimer.

There is grace in those nine months of muteness. God gives Zechariah TIME to come to terms with what he’s being invited into. God doesn’t see his fear and give up on him; he instructs Gabriel that this is the man, the father of the messenger John, and that whatever it takes for Zechariah to get on board, well, that’s what they’re doing.

Zech had nine months of watching his wife’s pregnant belly grow larger with the child the angel promised him would be a key part of God’s plan. He had nine months to sort through his own personal fear and sense of ownership over this kid. In her commentary on the passage, Hannah Garrity says “By removing his own personal and family legacy from the picture, he is truly able to give way to the greater narrative that God is calling him to participate in. This is an incredible moment of humility.”

And when Zechariah is able to speak again, when he humbles himself and consents to having a son with a God-given name and not his own, when he assents to being a part of the thread of bringing God incarnate into the world, even at the expense of his own human legacy, his first words are not explanation or question or relief; they are words of blessing and praise:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!

These are the words that begin every blessing, every “berakhat.” In Jewish practice, blessings are for every moment of every day. One ancient rabbi said that a faithful Jew would say as many as 100 blessings a day, thanking and praising God for God’s provision and joy in every moment of life.

Zechariah begins his song with words of praise, and keeps them flowing, recounting the currents of salvation that Zech now recognizes he is joining:

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.69 He has raised up a mighty savior for usin the house of his servant David,70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,71     that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,and has remembered his holy covenant,73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousnessbefore him all our days.

And then, he blesses his son, setting him up on a foundation of the history of God’s salvation among God’s people:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah and St. John the Baptist. A medieval Georgian fresco from the Monastery of the CrossJerusalem.

In those nine mute months, Zechariah has been re-oriented, from fear to faith, from grief to joy, from feeling cheated and left out to recognizing himself a part of a cosmic, generational movement of God in the world.

Zechariah took a while to move from fear to praise, and that’s okay. He had nine months to get right with God. Gabriel gave him that gift. What started in terror ends in blessing.

I wonder what it is, in our own lives, that we are terrified of, right now. I wonder what it is that just isn’t making sense, that we are not able to understand, that feels like our world is being turned upside down. I wonder if any of that – any of the situations or circumstances that are scaring us or sending us all out of sorts – might turn out to be the source of salvation, of blessing. I wonder what we need to become re-oriented and shift our own fear into canticles of praise, to recognize that we, too, are people called into the streams of salvation, invited to be, like Zechariah, people who prepare the way for the Lord.

2 comments

  1. Zeke · December 6

    Well I know what I have been trying to make sense of for 2 months and I am still sort of dumbfounded 🤷‍♂️🙏❤️

    Like

  2. William (Bill) Kinzie · December 7

    Dana,
    Thank you for this inspiring take on the Zachariah story.

    In the long narrative of the Bible “angels” appear to deliver powerful messages. The modern mind wonders what to make of these beings/apparitions. Are they real or some creation of our minds?

    Your sermon invites yet another mystic consideration. Blessings, Bill Kinzie

    Like

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