Harrowing Of Hell
December 20, 2015

Zechariah: the Silent Guy in the Room

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At first hearing, today’s gospel reading is about an encounter between Mary and Elizabeth—pregnant cousins excitedly and joyfully meeting. You can easily see how there are actually four people in this scene as we count John and Jesus in utero, but there is also a silent person present in the house. And it is the silent person who has captured my attention.

We hear his name only once at the very beginning and can only assume he is present when Mary shows up unannounced and is greeted with Elizabeth’s bold and prophetic cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

It is Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah.

He never says a word, but I just know he is there, perhaps hovering in the background, maybe making a cup of tea. He is there as his child leaps with joy in his wife’s womb and he is there as Mary first utters the words so very familiar to us now, what we call, “The Magnificat:”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…

So, why was he silent?

He was silent—or mute—for a much more complicated reason. To put it simply, he argued with an angel, the angel Gabriel to be precise—the same angel who would consequently visit Mary. And this is how it happened.

Zechariah is a priest, a holy man of God, married to Elizabeth—a descendant of Aaron. They are both holy and righteous people, living according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord, and yet they are barren, completely unable to have children.

One day, when Zechariah was serving as priest before God, he was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Even for a priest, this was probably only something he was chosen to do a couple of times a year. It was an honor and a sacred act. Only the priests could enter the sanctuary and even then only infrequently.

Zechariah, a holy man, would have taken this sacred duty very seriously. So he enters the sanctuary and he’s in there for a long time. So long in fact, that the congregation begins to worry about him. And when he finally comes out, they ask if he is okay and he cannot speak. He is mute.

Scripture tells us the story of what happened inside that sanctuary though and here it is.

Zechariah was in there offering incense and praying when an angel of the Lord appeared to him. Zechariah was terrified. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” The angel went on to tell him that Elizabeth would bear him a son, to be named John. The angel went on at length about the joy and gladness they would feel about this child’s birth and the details surrounding this unique child and his role in preparing for the Lord.

Zechariah could not believe it and questioned the angel Gabriel. In response to Zechariah’s unbelief, Gabriel struck him mute saying he would not be able to speak again until the prophecy was fulfilled.

From that moment on, Zechariah was silenced. For nearly a year he was mute.

And that is why Zechariah is a silent presence at the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary.

Have you ever had an experience so powerful, so emotional or spiritual, a moment that shook you to your core and brought you to your knees?

That’s what happened to Zechariah in the sanctuary with the angel Gabriel. Even if the angel hadn’t stricken him mute, it might have happened anyway from the sheer overwhelming power of the experience.

I had a great aunt who I never met. Her name was Linnie Lee and something similar happened to her—at least according to the family stories that I’ve heard and remember. She was the first of many children born to my great-grandfather with my grandfather being the youngest. Linnie Lee was born around the time of World War I when the family lived in Coalgate, Oklahoma. The way I recall my grandfather telling the story, something happened to Linnie Lee as a young girl. He didn’t tell me what exactly and maybe he didn’t even know, but he made it sound as if it was something terrible and consequently Linnie Lee lost her sight.

I don’t think it was a childhood illness so common in that time, my grandpa made it sound as if it was some kind of traumatic event. And so, her two young parents, with other children to care for, found a School for the Blind in Sulphur, Oklahoma about 60 miles away and that’s where Linnie Lee stayed throughout her childhood and well into her teenage years. Now, as I remember the story, Linnie Lee was a young adult, at least ten years or more had passed with her living at the School for the Blind away from her family when one day, she regained her sight.

Here’s another one for you about a woman named Molly Cooper. Molly’s father was a World War I veteran who came home from the war and went to bed where he stayed for nineteen years. Mr. Cooper didn’t get out of bed or walk for nineteen years. Until one day, he got up—and walked.

These are spiritual and emotional stories that shook Linnie Lee and Mr. Cooper to their core. And I imagine that whatever it was that happened to them—that not in a million years did they see it coming. It took time for their souls to catch up with their bodies. It took time for them to heal. These stories are from a long time ago, at least one hundred years, but I have one more to share with you from recent memory.

Eleven years ago, I was a seminary student when my priest, friend, and mentor, Michael died young, tragically, and by his own hand. It was shocking. It was earth shattering. I had just spent quite a bit of time with him over my fall break only days before and never in a million years did I see it coming. It shook me to my core and brought me to my knees. It sent me into a tailspin of grief—of anger at God—anger at him—then, desperate sadness and all-encompassing grief.

I walked through the motions of normal life; attending chapel and classes at seminary—the same seminary from which Michael had graduated only eight years prior. I drove home for the funeral. I spoke at the funeral. Returning to seminary, I wrote papers without thinking and kind professors returned them saying, take your time, try again when you are ready.

But all through this time, something very strange was happening. I’m not sure if I even realized it right away. You see, I lost my sense of taste completely. I wasn’t eating much to begin with—just enough to get by and somewhere along the way I noticed that food had no taste at all. It didn’t matter what I ate, I couldn’t taste it. It was an extension of the numbness I was feeling from the inside out.

My soul was aching. My heart hurt and my body was numb. My taste buds were frozen. As days turned into a week and then two weeks, it became annoying. I was thawing from the inside out with the help of community and prayer.

I was cycling through the initial stages of grief and my appetite was returning, but not my sense of taste. Then, one Monday, a few weeks after Michael’s death, things changed.

It was a Monday because we were eating soup, which we did every Monday and I was sitting around the table with my usual group of friends when it happened. I had a spoonful of soup and I tasted it. It was like the lights came back on, a switch was flipped. It was drastic and immediate and overwhelmingly vibrant. I was thawed out and the numbness gone.

Now, I’m pretty reserved usually. I didn’t shout, “Eureka!” or stand on my chair and shout, “I can taste the soup!” I think I simply finished my lunch in quiet amazement.

What loosened Zechariah’s tongue after spending nearly a year in silence?
What was it that inspired Aunt Linnie Lee to see again after all of those years?
What compelled Mr. Cooper to get out of bed 19 years later?
Why did I taste that spoonful of soup after weeks of tasting nothing?

It’s the “never in a million years moments” that we can’t see coming. They stun us; numb us into a place of sensory deprivation and thawing, and yet, it is there that find ourselves in the long slog of transformation.

For me, tasting that soup was the beginning of real change in the healing of my soul. It was the spark of transformation necessary for my heart to heal. It woke me up to the present and shook me out of my complacency—out of my numbness and my pain.

It awakened me to the world around me. It re-awakened me to my community. It woke me up to God. And I imagine something similar happened for Linnie Lee when she opened her eyes one day and could see again—when Mr. Cooper got out of bed and walked out his front door and down the street.

I just know Zechariah was home listening to Mary’s Magnificat. Witnessing that powerful scene between his wife and Mary, seeing their joy and Spirit-filled witness must have done something to thaw his disbelief, to wake him up from his numbness, because when his tongue was loosened, the first thing he said was to name their child, “John,” just like the Angel Gabriel had commanded. He had become a true believer through the long slog of silent transformation.

But then, then, he prayed the Benedictus, words we still pray today. After one year in forced silence, the first words he uttered were a prayer.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

And he ended his prayer with words that I imagine had given him comfort through those long months when his world had been turned upside down by his solitude and quiet. These same words give us all comfort, when we are stunned or numb and never saw it coming—and if you haven’t been there yet, you might someday in the future.

Imagine and remember these words from Zechariah. His final words in the Bible. He prays:

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 into the way of peace.