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. (Luke 1.20)
The Silent One
So much conversation happens in the Christmas narrative! Angels talk Mary and Joseph through the monumental task that befalls them. Mary makes a special trip to discuss the situation with her cousin, Elizabeth. The aged Elizabeth is also pregnant with a son who will grow up to be John the Baptist—a first-rate talker in his own right and the last in a long line of prophets who talk at length of a coming Savior. The Magi deliberate the meaning of the Star and stop by Herod’s palace on their way to Bethlehem for a quick chat with him. After they leave, the king calls a meeting with his top advisors to tell them what he’s heard. In the countryside, a celestial concert ends with an angel informing a few shepherds of Jesus’s birth, which sparks a conversation about leaving the sheep and going into town to check things out. Everybody in this story talks a lot, except for one man—Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. He’s the silent one.
It’s not that Zechariah has nothing to talk about—or he’s unsure what to say. Strangely, he’s the first to hear that Israel’s long-awaited Redeemer is soon to come when an angel reveals that he, his wife, Elizabeth, and their late-in-life son will play essential roles in this divinely ordained drama. Zechariah’s problem is that he can’t believe what he hears. He and Elizabeth have tried to get pregnant for years and they’ve pretty much accepted theirs will be a childless marriage. In many ways, their resignation reflects how the Jews feel. They’ve done everything in their power to bring forth a Messiah. Yet their union with God has remained barren for centuries. For many, the love between Israel and God is its own reward, just as it is between Zechariah and Elizabeth. The idea that God might bend time and revive their moribund dreams—enabling their participation in God’s redemptive plan—is beyond belief for them. Zechariah responds to the angel’s declaration much like the vast majority of his neighbors do when Jesus declares the Good News of God’s kingdom. “How will I know that this is so?” he asks. (Luke 1.18) Before Zechariah can talk himself out of the amazing task God has given him, the angel shuts his mouth. “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.” (v20)
The irony here is rich and rather cruel. Zechariah probably has the best handle on what’s taking place in his extended family; he alone knows how Elizabeth and Mary’s stories are intertwined and the import of the babes growing in their wombs. He can explain everything in detail. But God fixes it so that he can’t breathe a word until his son is born because Zechariah’s faith hasn’t reached a level that will allow him to express it. And his frustration teaches us a powerful lesson: when we sense God at work in our lives, it’s best to keep silent. There will be plenty to say when the work is done. Meanwhile, we should regard seasons of change and growth as quiet times.
No Talking Please
Time and again in Scripture God reveals divine knowledge to individuals and immediately demands their silence until the thing God is doing comes about. Such behavior is completely contrary to human impulse. At the earliest sign our prayers will be answered—at our faintest sense that God is intervening on our behalf—our first inclination is to tell people all about it. Some of us, ascribing to a “name it and claim it” theology, even believe that if we talk about what we want God to do, God will do it (as if God were a super-genie compelled to grant our every wish). Yet, as we see in Zechariah, times when God’s presence is manifested in our lives are when we should remain still. Transformation is taking place. The full extent of what God is saying and doing is far from clear. What’s required is total trust. And trusting time is quiet time.
As the Christmas story so brilliantly proves, never in a million years can we predict or understand God’s ways. Once we start talking, we start wrestling with impossibilities and mysteries we’re not equipped to explain. We start to sound foolish; that makes us afraid and, without realizing it, fear overtakes our faith. We’re no longer fit vessels for God’s purpose. When God’s presence and movement is made known in our lives, we are wise to heed the prophet’s call for quiet: “The LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him!” (Habakkuk 2.20) In Psalm 46, we’re invited to “behold the works of the LORD” (v8) and then told in verse 10: “Be still and know that I am God!” No talking please—God is at work!
Plenty of Time
It takes tremendous faith and self-control to wait on God in silence. We forget that God always finishes what God starts, provided we remain attentive to God’s purpose and calling. Once God’s work is complete, there will be plenty of time to talk. In fact, when God’s will is fully revealed, we won’t stop talking. This is how it goes for Zechariah. The birth of his son frees his tongue. Praise and prophecy flow out of him with ravishing conviction. What he’s experienced in silence has thoroughly transformed him. Not only is he able to witness God’s goodness in his life. What he’s learned opens his eyes to God’s vision for humanity. His soliloquy, recorded in Luke 1.68-79 ends with a promise we all must claim: “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.” (v78-79)
If we can only learn to be still, to wait on God in silence, the dawn will break. Light will overpower our darkness. Fear and death will be overcome. We will walk in peace. That’s the story we’ll be able to tell.
Transformation requires trust, and trusting times are by necessity quiet times.