Dr Di Rayson captures our collective weariness and longing as we begin our Advent journey in 2020.
On the seventeenth day of Advent, 2020, Oscar Delaney explores biblical and personal lessons in the story of Zechariah.
Quick to question
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah,to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
I struggle to know what to make of this passage. At first glance it is just a nice story of an older couple. Perhaps they are weary from long years of service and righteous deeds with little reward or sign of accomplishment, burdened by the nonexistence of offspring. Then finally their dreams are fulfilled through a child. As I sit with it more questions arise.
I notice the implicit sexism of the author and his culture: it must be Elizabeth who is barren (one assumes Zechariah hasn’t fathered illegitimate children elsewhere!) and that being childless is in itself such a disgraceful thing.
I also wonder at the harshness of Gabriel’s punishment of Zechariah. I wouldn’t have gotten to speak much in life if I was struck dumb for a year every time I asked for evidence or justification of some assertion. My academic training rebels against the idea of accepting statements without reasoning. And like most kids, growing up I was very fond of asking “why?” Indeed, I haven’t really grown out of it! To recontextualise the scene in my context with something I really value, I imagine someone telling me “Biden will win in a landslide and the watershed moment will galvanise progressive politics and environmental movements worldwide, saving humanity from antidemocratic demagogues and the climate crisis.” I can imagine replying “How can I be sure of this? I am a weary cynic and the world is getting on rather badly. Polls have been wrong before and the election may be illegitimate.”
So I struggle to see what Zechariah did wrong, asking a logical question when put on the spot. But neither would I like to conclude that Gabriel is being pettily vindictive and spitefully punishing Zechariah for daring to doubt. To resolve this, I draw two lessons: one biblical; one personal.
It strikes me that the gospels are an imperfect and partial account (and rightly so, we wouldn’t want to sift through all the detailed daily drudgery of Jesus’ life), so maybe there is more to this story than we know and that explains why Zechariah was seemingly unfairly punished. Perhaps his tone was derisive, scornful of the possibility that God could do such miracles. Perhaps Gabriel actually gave a far fuller and longer explanation and Zechariah was still unconvinced. So when interpreting scripture I should remember to consider what isn’t written as well as what is.
And personally, this story is a nudging to be less demanding in my questions, less forceful in my insistence on rigour and reason. Many people are weary and don’t appreciate being questioned and sometimes that’s OK. So I should, following Zechariah, be quick to listen kindly and slow to question bluntly.
Oscar Delaney is 18, grew up in India and now lives on Jagera country. He studies biology at the University of Queensland, is a climate activist, and youth group leader.