"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" Luke 1:78-79.
Luke's first chapter sounds like a Sunday in the upcoming season of Advent in the church where I serve. There is music everywhere!! A little different, perhaps, from the brass and organ and choirs, but still the music of holy encounters, praise and prayers, and glory to God is everywhere. Angels are visiting a favored Mary. Elizabeth exclaims a blessing upon her pregnant cousin, and Mary magnifies the Lord as she echoes the ancient praises of Hannah.
We'll hear a lot about these holy encounters in the upcoming season of Advent, and we'll find our own hymns and anthems and music enlightened by their melodies and meanings.
Among the choir of voices that Luke tells us about in his first chapter is the aged, toned and weathered voice of Zechariah. This righteous priest is not unlike the old bass singer in our chancel choirs whose presence and decades of service make him blend into a familiar weekly tableau. But lest we forget his constant presence, we can't help but realize how essential he is to the foundation of the choir's sound and the community that exists up in that choir loft every week.
Luke tells us of the priest of the temple named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are "righteous, living blamelessly, according to the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (1:6). But they join the who's who of barren parents, too old to conceive, like Isaac and Samuel's parents in the Old Testament. They're pregnant with a hope of deliverance, but the womb is empty. In a culture where fertility is expected, blessed and a connection to the future, they're muted and overlooked.
I can resonate with Zech and Liz--
They could be the couple in my office, struggling in their faith with why they can't start the family they've prepared and planned for.
They could be the gay couple in my congregation, wondering why God can't move their church to be able to unite them in marriage or bless their union.
They could be the middle-aged parents, struggling to understand the barrenness of their lives as they bury a young adult son, who was pregnant with possibility and promise for his future.
All of these faithful as the old priest and his wife. All ready to serve and minister through the life of the church in a moment's notice. All barren, in the lost promise they wanted desperately for their lives. All living in a society that speeds by their pain and dismisses the emptiness of their wombs and hearts.
But then, God breaks in.
As Zechariah is given the highest honor of his priestly ministry--to enter the temple and burn the incense. This is an experience that would only happen once in his priestly life. In this moment the Holy Spirit showed up--and revealed a son named John will be born to him.
And Zechariah does exactly what we do when we've been praying and praying for God to deliver us from our barrenness, and an answer finally comes. We, like Zechariah, don't believe it. We doubt it. And we fear the power of God.
And it will be that same power of God that will silence Zechariah until the day that the prophecy is fulfilled. And he, just like us, will have to listen for God to act. He, just like us, will have to wait and watch, just like we do in the Advent season.
Enuma Okoro, in her meditation guide, "Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent" from The Upper Room, shares that there are many ways we can become "muted" before God:
Sometimes when God offers us a word or a vision or a dream that seems too good to be true, we require a lot to believe it. (She says) It is almost as though we have conditioned ourselves to have little or no expectations of divine generosity extended toward us. We reason that if we do not get our hopes up then we will not have to worry about being disappointed. We try to safeguard ourselves from the possibility of being hurt by learning not to anticipate much. We do this not only with God but also in our relationships with one another. The problem with living this way is that such a posture becomes where we are more comfortable. SO (that) when a new, life giving word comes from God, we question it and struggle to accept it (48).
Along with the anticipated angel alleluias and choral halleluiahs of the coming season, are some stark narratives of people who have been "muted."
- Mary herself is muted by the social norms that cast judgment upon her teenage pregnancy and unwed status.
- Elizabeth is muted by her barrenness in the face of her faithfulness.
- Those lifted up in Mary's Magnificat are muted souls who have been forgotten by the powerful in their thrones.
- Zechariah is muted by his fear and his doubt and his disbelief.
But then we recall, then we remember, that Zechariah's name means "the Lord has remembered."
And then we hear the echoed words of the prophet Isaiah, "I am about to do a new thing, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert...to give drink to my chosen people...so that they might declare my praise" (Isaiah 43:19-21).
And to the muted of all creation, those in despair, poverty, pain, injustice, those being trafficked and abused and dismissed and discarded, and even those, like Zechariah, whose scars of deep doubt and unanswered prayer, mute our ability to praise, the prophet Jeremiah cries out this good word:
The days are surely coming, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Jeremiah 23:5).
The Good News to be sung and shouted is this:
Jesus comes to give voice to the muted.
Jesus gives voice to the voiceless.
Jesus is God's promise that we've been remembered and never forgotten.
And our response? Friends--
Our response is to join the choir of the heavenly host and the angel alleluias!
Our response is to open the mouths of the muted through ministries of justice and mercy.
Our response is to find our own voices of praise for the One who will come to redeem and deliver us!
Jesus comes to give voice to the muted!
And my response--and our response:
How can we keep from singing?
Let us pray:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth's lamentation.
I hear the clear, though faroff hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I'm clinging.
Since love is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?