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.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
The punishment for Zechariah’s unbelief seems disproportionately harsh: no voice for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy? Really? This punishment comes from a God who says it’s enough to have faith as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). Zechariah doesn’t outright reject the angel’s message, after all. He doesn’t laugh the way Sarah does when she overhears that she will bear a son in her old age (Genesis 18:12). He just asks how he can be sure the angel is telling the truth, a fair question to put to any stranger who promises to fulfill the deepest desires of your heart. So why is Zechariah prevented from speaking for the better part of a year?
Perhaps we can see Zechariah’s silence not as a punishment but as a gift. As the child grows in Elizabeth’s belly, he is given space to reflect quietly. He won’t run off at the mouth, crowding out the Spirit inside him with his own blathering. He’s saved from saying stupid things, from bragging about his encounter with the angel, from broadcasting his skepticism.
Rather than questioning the silence God imposes on Zechariah, we might consider adopting a habit of quietude ourselves this Advent. In a season of stimulation—lights! music! sugar!—we need to carve out space to reflect and prepare. In these final days before Christmas, find a quiet corner. Turn off the Christmas station. Set aside your phone. Open your Bible and listen. What is the Spirit saying to you?
Prayer: Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening. Help me to quiet my buzzing thoughts. What do you want me to hear? What invitation are you extending to me today? Amen.