Of all the characters in the nativity story, I think Zechariah gets the most unfair treatment. In most pageants he plays the minor role of a blubbering idiot in the temple, who is painted as a “doubter” who is punished for his “lack of faith.” “Malarky!” as my Bible professor used to say. Well, half-malarky at least.
We’ve already been told that he and his wife were “both righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). He’s an upright man of sterling character who has given his life to serving God as a priest. The angel Gabriel also informs us that he was a man devoted to prayer. So, what is his hang-up, his blunder, the reason he is rendered speechless for nine months?
I suggest Zechariah didn’t doubt God’s power to give him a son in his old age, but like many religious people then and now, he struggled to believe in a God whose default posture toward human beings is one of mercy. He didn’t doubt God’s power, or holiness, or righteousness, or justice. He doubted the “good news” of God’s great mercy toward him and all Israel.
“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” (Luke 1:19-20).
In his punishment, the angel only made explicit what had already happened inwardly in this encounter: Zechariah was rendered speechless by God’s exuberant mercy shown toward him and his wife. Entering the temple to offer incense that day, perhaps Zechariah was prepared for an encounter with a severe and terrifying God of holiness. Perhaps he would have believed Gabriel instantly if he told him, “God has been making a list, and checking it twice, and He’s sent me here to inform you that you’re on the naughty list.” He wasn’t mentally prepared to encounter a God of tender mercy, and therefore he was scandalized by it.
Have you ever had your breath taken away by a fresh realization of God’s overflowing love and kindness toward you, a sinner? Do you need regular reminders that God is not just a larger version of an angry and impossible-to-please father? When was the last time you were tongue-tied by a lyric in a worship song that opened a floodgate of tears, as you realized God bleeds mercy and forgiveness, not vengeance.
I find it fascinating that Zechariah is punished not for his sins, but in a strange way, for the good news being too much to handle! Perhaps a silly modern-day illustration (and wholly inaccurate parallel) will help. Imagine my my kids were told they need to clean their rooms today and if they don’t I will take away their iPad for a day. Now imagine (and I know this is hard – wink, wink) they fail to clean it up, and when I come to inspect they find themselves shaking with terror like as if I were the Angel of Death appearing in the doorway. They expect punishment for a task undone, but I instead declare an evening of nonstop iPad games together despite the mess. Dumbfounded, my oldest son says, “This must be a joke; I’ll start cleaning now. Sorry dad.” Blessed are the speechless in the face of the Father’s scandalous mercy!
But we are only reading half the story if we focus only on the speechlessness of Zechariah. Before long the mute will become a minstrel, the silenced one will become a songbird, the castigated will become a crooner for Christ. And what will be the song forevermore on Zechariah’s lips? We get a clue in the words being spread by neighbors and relatives:
57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy…
From that day forward, Mercy and Joy would be the theme of Mr. and Mrs. Zechariah’s song. Blessed are those who have been mesmerized by God’s mercy, silenced by salvation, flabbergasted by forgiveness, and enraptured by God’s rescue.
What a shame that Christmas pageants parade a dumbstruck and zipped-lipped Zechariah onto stage, but rarely bring him back up when his tongue is set free to sing his song of God’s tender mercy! Let’s give him the stage right now, and highlight all the harmonious notes of the 5th Beatitude of Bethlehem ringing out in his song:
“Immediately [Zechariah’s] mouth was opened and his tongue set free,
and he began to speak, praising God.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
(Luke 1: 64, 67-79)
But the best songs don’t just declare; they invite. They get everybody swept up in the melody and singing along. The 5th Beatitude of Bethlehem is a call and response gospel hymn—a song about God’s Mercy not merely to be sung with our lips, but embodied in our lives.
We do well to take Jesus’ words in the order given and hear in them a kind of imperative: Be merciful to others, and then you’ll be shown mercy. Yet, I think Jesus and Zechariah would both invite us to reverse the order as well. For Zechariah had to learn the hard way the theme of his song: Blessed are those rendered speechless in the face of God’s tender mercy, for they will not be able to help extending this same mercy to others!
As this tender mercy takes root and grows in us, we will be the means by which the rising sun will come to [others] from heaven to shine God’s mercy on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. The mercy we show to others will help to guide others’ feet into the path of peace. So, what will the theme of your life-song be in the coming New Year?