Wednesday of Advent I: Luke 1:5-25
There has been much talk this year in this nation about breaking silences. Victim after victim has come forward to tell her story—to speak up and say, “Me, too.” We can leave the political baggage behind, and rejoice in the justice given to the victims. We can rejoice in the silences broken which needed to be broken, and we can hope that the victimizers will be brought to justice, that their mouths would be stopped and their power broken. (cf. Psalm 25:2)
Because, as doubting Zechariah well knows, silence can be so painful. In fact, for a priest, silence makes life actually impossible. A silent priest is a contradiction in terms, because it was to the priests which God entrusted the teaching and the blessing of his people.
Our reading today gives us a glimpse of the liturgy of God’s people at the Temple. The priest brings the sacrifice, kills it and sprinkles the blood on the altar. Then he brings the coals from the altar into the Temple itself (the Holy Place), and offers incense and prayer before the presence of God (Psalm 141, as we have just prayed it, describes his moment in the liturgy). Then, bathed in the aroma of heaven, he comes back out, places the flesh of the sacrifice on the altar, along with bread, wine and more incense (Numbers 15), and he smokes it up to God. After all this, he comes to the congregation and lifts up his hands in Benediction, placing God’s name on God’s people, and sends them away blessed. That is what was supposed to happen.
Except when Zechariah comes into the Temple (the Holy Place) to offer incense and to offer prayer to God and God speaks back. Gabriel comes directly from God’s presence with an answer to prayer. The fact that this surprises Zechariah shows that he expected silence. There had not been a prophet in Israel for over 400 years. The word of the Lord was rare in those days, so rare that even righteous Zechariah can’t believe it.
He is stricken with silence, and it is a taste of God’s own silence—having been so ignored, and his covenant so abused over hundreds of years, that he simply stopped sending prophets entirely. He stopped speaking. Zechariah is now placed in God’s own shoes: unable to speak to the very people he was supposed to bless.
Zechariah wanders out of the temple, eyes wide, mouth shut, motioning helplessly to the congregation. (Imagine the celebrant coming around the altar on Sunday for the Benediction, trying in vain to get the words out—you stare at me, I stare at you, and nothing happens). The liturgy of God—the work of God—has been broken off in mid-course, the Divine Service aborted, and the people left wandering home unblessed.
This bleak picture which St. Luke paints for us is exactly the sorry state of Israel in Zechariah’s day: God’s work among his people was cut short by faithless priests, and his voice was not heard. And this is exactly what makes Gabriel’s promise to Zechariah so essential, the promise of a new prophet to be great before the Lord, to be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, to turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Finally: someone to speak.
Silence was for them, just as it is for us, a cancer. Perhaps not all at once, but over time it kills people, and even families, and even churches. It nearly killed the people of God. The only hope for Zechariah, and the only hope for his people, and the only hope for us, is a Word from the Lord, something to break the heavenly silence—which is why we are here.
In Advent we gather in hope. We gather, not like Zechariah, but expecting to hear a Word from God, and expecting that that word will not return to him void. It will accomplish something: If we confess our sins, God will forgive; if we pray, he will answer; if we cry out, God will give us justice; and even when things seem silent, and dark, he will not leave his work unfinished.
Jesus comes to us in the flesh as a word which we not only hear. As all the holy apostles proclaimed, “We have seen his glory…which we looked upon and touched with our hands concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1) This Jesus is the hope of Zechariah because he alone could finish the liturgy that Zechariah started and could not finish. He alone could come down from the heavenly places, and place his sacrificial flesh upon the altar of the cross; he alone could ascend and make a new way to God; and he alone could truly bless his people.
Luke’s gospel begins in the Temple, as we have heard. It also ends in the Temple. It begins with Zechariah’s unfinished liturgy, and after Jesus’ suffering and death, after the shedding of his holy blood, after his rest in the tomb, his resurrection and his appearing to his people, St. Luke’s gospel ends like this: “Then Jesus led them out as fare as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the Temple blessing God.”
Let that be the ending for us as well. God’s silence is broken in Jesus the Word. So, let us break our silences as well. Let us make our confessions and our prayers with more confidence than Zechariah. We should not be so shy about our sins, or let our doubts and our shame lead us away from God’s voice.
Let us instead press in this Advent. Let us expect the Christmas word from Gabriel to be intended for us, let us trust that the work of Christ in his Divine Service is intended for us, and let us be continually in his Temple, blessing God.
Silence may seem so much easier, or even safer to us. But we learn from Zechariah how God handles even the faithlessness of his people: he answers them anyway. He gives and blesses anyway. So let us lift up our voices instead. Unlike those left waiting on Zechariah, we will not leave disappointed.