20 Nov Waiting in Silence
In the time of Herod king of Judah 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. Luke 1:5-7
Infertility has been hard. It still is. Elizabeth and I have long longed for a child, even before we were married.
I try not to dwell on this absence from my life, from our life together. And we certainly try not to fixate on it in conversation. But it’s always there: this longing, this absence, and the hope and pain that attend them. Like a guest at the dinner table, only seen and heard by the hosts and not the other guests, this longing and this absence is with us—heightened especially when we’re with families.
At one level, it’s strange even to speak of this as an absence and a grief. It’s not like we had a child who was then taken from us. A child whose absence we then felt and, therefore, grieved for when our earthly connection was severed. But there is an absence for us. The absence of an imagined future that has not come to pass, and is unlikely to, now that we are getting on—a child to love, raise, teach, and guide into adulthood, and the life built around that child. This is the absence we feel; and so we grieve.
Infertility has brought me closer to the LORD and the LORD’s people. That’s been a grace as a priest, especially as I minister in the Temple. In those times, when I am near the LORD, the longings and hopes I carry are a reminder of those we carry as the LORD’s people. For we, too, have long imagined a future that has not come to pass. And even if a good part is our own fault, we keenly feel its absence and dare to hope for its realisation.
I was pleased when our priestly division was chosen to go into the Temple and burn incense. Ministering at the altar of incense in the Holy Place, with the veil of the Holy of Holies in sight, I am always filled with joy as I reverently perform the duties entrusted to me.
It is always an awe-filled experience! But more so on that particular day! As I burned the incense at the appointed time, I saw an angel standing at the right of the altar. I was terrified! The angel said to me:
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 a 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. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back 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.
At first, all I could focus on were the words, Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. After all those years in the crucible of longing and absence, of hope and grief, I wanted a token. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have put the LORD to the test. In our longing, Elizabeth and I have often turned to the person of Hannah and her petition to the LORD for a child, and the LORD’s gracious gift to her of Samuel. We have made her prayer of thanks our own:
My heart rejoices in the LORD;
in the LORD my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies
For I delight in your deliverance.
There is no-one holy like the LORD;
there is no-one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Do not keep talking so proudly
or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
My heart should have rejoiced, and my mouth should have boasted in the LORD and his deliverance. Instead, I talked proudly and asked how I could be sure of what the angel said. My name means Yahweh has remembered again, but, to my chagrin, I failed to remember the ways of Yahweh. Nonetheless, the LORD had mercy on me. The angel (who I discovered to be Gabriel) said to me:
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.
And I have been since: silent and unable to speak. At first, I felt the indignity of being mute. I felt humiliation. But I have since come to see the LORD’s mercy in his judgement. In the silence, I now wait for the fulfilment of the LORD’s promise of a son. I savour the waiting in silence. And I contemplate what else the angel said to me: that through my son, John, many of the people of Israel will come back to the LORD their God and that he will go on before the LORD, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready a people prepared for the LORD. I must also wait for these promises to be fulfilled.
John has arrived! And I can now talk again!
The naming of the child at his circumcision and the return of my speech was marked by humour. The family wanted to name him after me, but Elizabeth insisted that he was to be called John. The family was distressed about it because John is not a family name, so they tried to communicate with me about it using hand signals. It was quite the sight! In the end, I got a writing tablet and wrote on it: His name is John. And no sooner had I written those words, I was able to speak again. Filled with the Spirit, I praised the LORD as I should have when the angel first spoke to me at the altar (like Hannah did all those years ago):
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.
I sit here now with John in my arms. I sit with him in the silence. I think about what the angel said to me about what the LORD will accomplish through this boy. I wait again for the fulfilment of the LORD’s promises. And, as I wait in the silence, I praise him with all my heart.
For further reading:
1 Samuel 1-2:11
(Image: “The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zechariah”, by Alexander Ivanov)