There is so much interesting background information on this text that I could preach for twenty minutes before getting to a point. So I will try to limit my background information to three areas.
First, our passage begins “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah.” The days of King Herod were pretty bad. Prior to King Herod’s reign, “there had been 580 years of Jewish humiliation and servitude under [a variety of regimes]. Now, at this time, Israel was controlled by the might of Rome.” Rome allowed the Jews to have a king—in name only. In truth, he was a puppet of a foreign power. And I quote:
“He was a man of degeneracy, not a man of God….The land was rife with immorality….[Foreign] money flooded the country, causing great economic instability and imbalance….Even the priesthood was corrupt….These were desperate times—times of darkness, weariness, injustice, disease, and economic desperation.”
It was in those days—in the days of a weak, immoral leader controlled by a foreign power—that our story takes place.
The second piece of background information that is important to keep in mind is that Israel at the time was an honor-shame society. One expert describes it like this:
“Unlike our Western, guilt-oriented society, in the Mediterranean society of the first century (as in the traditional societies of that region today) the pivotal social value was honor. Concern for honor permeates every aspect of public life in the Mediterranean world….Simply stated, honor is public reputation. It is one’s status or standing in the community together with the public recognition of it. Public recognition is all-important. To grasp more honor than the public will allow is to be a greedy thief. To hang on to what honor one has is essential to life itself….Honor determines . . . [among many other things] who can eat with whom, who sits at what place at a meal, who can open a conversation, who has the right to speak, and who is accorded an audience.”
And finally, the last piece of background is about Zechariah’s exact position in his world. Every male descendent of Aaron was part of the priestly lineage, which meant there were lots of priests. Aaron’s division included 800 priests, and they served just two weeks per year. Each time, it was basically a lottery to find out who would serve, with the results being seen as the will of God. So priests might wait their entire life to perform the duties to which they were called, and some might never get the opportunity. Zechariah was an old man, which means his name had been in the hat for many, many years and he had yet to be chosen to serve.
Now let’s put these last two together, considering Zechariah’s place of honor. He was a priest, which was an honorable status, but he was not part of the elite in Jerusalem. As a village priest, he had less honor than a priest in the holy city. He had not yet been chosen to preside in the temple, so a little lower yet. Then there’s the matter of his wife’s inability to conceive. In that culture, the woman’s shame was greater than the husband’s, but there was shame on the whole family if a child—particularly a male child—wasn’t born. So Zechariah might have been “righteous before God,” but he was not a man who would have been considered to be greatly honored. He was a priest, but that was about all he had going for him.
So finally his name was called, and he got to serve, and that was an honor before God but it also elevated his status among his people because others would recognize it. Until he got in trouble with the angel.
Imagine it with me. He enters the temple filled with joy, ready to serve God, ready to make the incense offerings and pray the prayers of the people, the duties he has been waiting a lifetime to fulfill. And then—surprise—he sees an angel standing by the altar. The angel Gabriel has good news:
“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. . . .He will be great in the sight of the Lord. . . . He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God . . .to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” It seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? How will he know? Well, he’ll know when his wife gets pregnant! But I think what Zechariah is really asking is, “When I leave this place, when I no longer have an angel standing in front of me, when it doesn’t happen right away, how will I continue to believe?” You see, Zechariah knows Torah. He knows the story of Abraham and Sarah. He knows how long they had to wait before the promise came true. So he does not assume this will happen immediately. Just because an angel says “Your wife will bear you a son,” does not cause Zechariah to run home and order the baby crib!
Now, I want to thank Garvey for not sugar-coating Gabriel’s response. Whether Gabriel was a real angel that visited Zechariah, or whether this was a vision Zechariah had, or whether this was part of the birth story created to elevate Jesus’ status—the story tells us that Gabriel punished Zechariah for questioning.
Frankly, I’m on Zechariah’s side here. This is not a good surprise. This is like a bad twist at the end of a good movie, just when you thought everything was going to be OK. Zechariah’s calling had finally been validated by his being chosen to offer the prayers—and the one thing he needed to speak those prayers was, of course, a VOICE! Why would he be silenced when his calling had finally been fulfilled? And that’s not even the worst of it. “In honor-shame societies, public speaking is the male role. Eloquence is a male virtue. Being struck dumb would render a male passive and therefore dishonored.” So in other words, Zechariah’s inability to speak turned him into a woman, and it was hard to get any lower. For Zechariah, losing his ability to speak meant losing his honor.
So again, I’m on Zechariah’s side because I am all about voices. I am all about empowering people to speak for themselves, to find their voice. Although I weep at the countless stories of harassment and abuse that have filled the news cycle for the past month, I am glad that those who have been victims are finding their voices. I celebrate telling our stories and speaking our truth. I celebrate freedom of speech. So I’m on Zechariah’s side.
Like Zechariah, I don’t understand why. Why would a messenger of God cause dishonor to come upon a man who, 14 verses earlier, was called “righteous before God?” Why would his voice be taken away when he finally got a chance to use it?
I’m guessing some of you know what it’s like to be silenced. You had your voice taken away, or it took you forever to find it in the first place. Or you traded it away for something you thought was more valuable, like a relationship that required you to hold your tongue. Others silenced you, or maybe you silenced yourself for fear of rocking the boat or fear of failing.
Why do these things happen? Why did it happen for Zechariah? Why was he unable to fulfill his calling on the very day that he finally got a chance to fulfill his calling? Well, I don’t know—I have no way of knowing for sure—but I think maybe it’s because his calling wasn’t what he thought it was.
Sure, he was called to be a priest by birth. But he had a higher calling, too—a calling that superseded his calling to lead the prayers. His calling was something else he thought had been denied him. His calling was to father a child, to bring life into “those days of king Herod” when life was hard and injustice was rampant. When he lost his ability to speak, the true priority became clear. His primary responsibility was to father the child who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
I think sometimes we get confused by this in our own lives. We think we’re supposed to be doing this – this job, this career, this ministry, this relationship, this whatever-it-is-that-we-think-is-most-important. Then something happens to take that away, and we’re confused and frightened and sometimes downright furious. Why am I not allowed to serve? Why am I being silenced? Why didn’t I get that job? Why am I still alone?
What we don’t realize is that sometimes there’s another calling. There’s another purpose we are to fulfill. We probably won’t get an angel to tell us what it is, to tell us we’re going to bring new life into the world. We have to wait those metaphorical nine months before we give birth to what’s new, and metaphorical months can be way longer than real ones. And we won’t get it if we don’t stop to listen. Sometimes when we stop pushing so hard, stop demanding that we want/need/deserve “X,” we are instead led to “Y,” to what was greater and more important and more meaningful all along, we just hadn’t thought of it yet. We didn’t know it was possible. We never imagined …
But God did. God imagined, and made it possible, and laid it out for us – the clear path that led off in a direction we weren’t looking. And God says “Surprise!”
Zechariah didn’t speak for nine months, but when he did, he sure found his voice. He spoke some of the most beautiful words in the New Testament:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.
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.”
In these days, when injustice and economic desperation are rampant, maybe we need to be quiet, to spend some time listening, so that we can find our voice, find our calling, find our surprise.
 Goins, Doug. “The Preparation of Zechariah and Elizabeth.” pbc.org
 Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, pp 369-70.