December 8, 2019
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.”
Learning to be comfortable in silence was hard for me to learn. I grew up learning the power of good storytelling from both sides of my family, and no one was particularly surprised that I met my husband through a storytelling show, called the Moth, that he hosts to this day. In Seminary and Therapy school though, I learned how the healing arts are deeply rooted in what we don’t say, in what not speaking invites others to speak out loud. Silence can evoke incredible stories and questions that have been covered over with years of talking, discoveries of what God is up to in our midst.
And yet we often think of silence as a punishment. The cold shoulder, the uncomfortable silence, the loss of the ability to communicate. Silence and darkness scare us, and yet at Advent, as we await the second coming of the Light of Christ into the world, as we remember the Word of God becoming flesh and wait for Jesus to speak a new creation into existence, we are reminded of different kinds of darkness and silence that can lead to wholeness.
There is a kind of silence that can heal, and I think that is what Zachariah is gifted with by Gabriel in our story this morning. Zachariah’s job is to be a keeper of words, to speak prayers on behalf of the people, in the service of the Worship of the Living God. Words make things happen for him, through God, and he has an understanding of what is possible, while also knowing that his words have failed him and his wife. He just can’t help himself when Gabriel says “Your prayer has been heard.” How is this possible, he asks? I love Gabriel’s sassy response. “Priest, please. I stand in the presence of God! This miracle is nothing. We’re talking about the power and Holy Spirit that was in Elijah. That power is coming back, the event foretold to announce the coming of the Messiah, the restorer of the People of Israel. We’re talking about the world being recreated, we’re talking about the apocalypse, the resurrection of the dead, and you’re worried about getting on in years?
Elijah, the one whose spirit and power comes to the Baby John growing inside Elizabeth, and Silence, have a rich history together in scripture. When Elijah is on the run, he is told to wait for God to come to him. And God’s voice does not come in the earthquake or the rushing wind. Instead God arrives in silence. It’s a silence that’s not a void, not marked by what it lacks, but what it is made up of. It’s heavy, like a weighted blanket of God’s presence. It is a silence that heals, comforts, and gives courage to this terrified prophet, inviting him to hear the still small voice that will journey with him.
I found myself in uncomfortable silences though in my twenties. Growing up as a child, while family gatherings were full of stories and life, home was often depressingly quiet. It wasn’t a comforting quiet, but a fearful one. My Father worked from home most of my childhood, and he was on the phone as an advertising consultant all day long. I used to wake up to the sound of him clearing his voice, the exact same way, every morning as he made his first phone call, a sound that not only was him preparing his voice, but a warning to my Mother and I to be quiet; It meant there were to be no loud toys, no unloading the dishwasher, no practicing the piano when Dad was on a call. I learned to walk quietly, and I’ve learned as an adult that I have to alert folks when I enter a room now that I’m there, or else risk scaring the living daylights out of them. I’m not sneaking up, I just instinctively try not to make noise and disturb others. When I went away to seminary. I was thrilled to be around people, and be able to talk and make noise, to listen to my music without headphones. I felt a freedom not having to be quiet, but the stories and the laughter was missing. I was lonely, incredibly so. I found myself in a silence that felt like banishment. Sure, I could blast Jimmy Eat World from my stereo, or stomp down the hallway of the dorms, but there was this silence of loneliness that haunted me.
I’ve shared before that I went to that particular Seminary in New Jersey because I wanted to study with one particular professor beyond all others, Robert Dykstra in the Pastoral Care department. Dykstra knew both the pain of quiet loneliness, and the power of that healing silence that is heavy with the presence of another person, heavy with the presence of God when everything in life feels like crushing pain and sorrow. His classes for me were like water in the desert. He was someone I could talk to about feeling lonely. You see, instead of being surrounded by folks with stories to tell, and full of laughter, I found myself among students who had strict ideas about God, and lots of thoughts about other people should live, how folks should love, about how the world worked, ideas that told me to be quiet about who God created me to be. Most of my classmates had just graduated from College, but the egos! Life wasn’t full of mystery to them; it was all so clear and simple. For me though, Seminary was a time of trying to make sense of my questions and a deep sense of not knowing. The ideas of twenty-two year old evangelical theology bros from southern California, or private school educated young women of privilege from the south who had never worked, but seemed to have a lot of ideas about why I should never be allowed to pastor, made me start to think that silence wasn’t always the worst idea. One day, during our intro to Pastoral Care class, Dr. Dykstra let us in on his experiences creating a healing silence that was full of hope. He told us about how his friendship with Dr. Sang Lee, of the systematic theology department, began. When Dr. Lee’s family first moved to Princeton, there were torrential storms and rains that swelled the canals and rivers that surround the town. Dr. Lee’s young daughter, like many children, was mesmerized by these powerful waters, and one day, walking around, she somehow ventured too close. She fell in, and she drowned. My mentor, Ken Evers-Hood, writes about what happened next. He says that “Countless people sent notes and flowers and stopped by [Dr. Lee’s] office with an encouraging word. It was a seminary after all. These people were, supposedly, experts in ministry. But the only person who helped, the only one who moved below the superficialities, [Dr. Lee would recount years later], was a young professor…Dykstra. [Robert] came to his office one morning and asked him whether he could just sit with him. Lee, dead inside, didn’t have the strength to tell him to go away so [he] just sat there. At first Lee waited for him to offer prayer or to say so called “helpful” things, but [he] just sat there with him in that painful silence. [He would sit on the floor of his office and grade papers, or read the newspaper, or just drink coffee.] He did this day after day until it seemed as if it was time to stop.”
Beloved, there is a kind of silence we can be gifted with, that we can offer to others, that is not lonely exile, or walking on eggshells, but that is healing. There is a silence that can knit us back together, hold us and remind us we are not alone; a kind of silence that gives silent testimony to God’s healing presence in our midst. There is a silence that is a gift of the Holy Spirit, that gives space for us hearing people, and those of us who are deaf to see the signing of, people long silenced and ignored.
When we sit with children, the elderly, the ill, those our culture often passes by, we can hold space for their experiences to be shared, and be known. I found that after professor Dykstra shared this story, I was drawn to be with students who had known this kind of healing silence, and made space for me to be held. It was mostly from classmates who experiences were not that of the majority of theology bros and southern bells. There was my friend Andy, fresh from rebuilding homes in the wake of hurricane Katrina and the floods caused by the levee failures in New Orleans. There was Sarah Brown from Scotland, who spent most of her time with the poor of Glasgow. And there was Chase, an Army Chaplain who could see when people were hurting, and always had time to sit with folks and listen. They gave me space to be heard, so that I could listen to others, and not feel so desperately alone. When we have experienced this kind of silence, it’s amazing what we can hear.
That’s what happens with Zachariah. After his encounter with the Angel Gabriel, he is sent home, and now that this expert of how God works, who can’t argue what is possible and what’s not, is sent home to be with Elizabeth. And his silence makes space for the stories she has to tell about what is going on inside of her. He has months of hearing how Elizabeth’s footsteps change, to watch her body changing, He has a new awareness of the miracle, that he thought was impossible, growing in their midst. They stay together in seclusion, enjoying one another, in the intimacy of being together, hers the only voice in the home. And from her mouth and her heart emerges an awe-filled song, “This is what the Lord has done for me when God looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” All Zachariah can do is listen, give witness, and be transformed along with her, along with our world.
Maybe you’re someone who has far too much silence in your life these days. For some of us there is a deep sense of exile, a desire to be heard, a hope to be seen, a longing to feel understood. For others of us, we carry around the silence of grief and the memories of a loved one who has died, or the pain of seeing our beloved suffer. Or maybe you’re someone who is overwhelmed by the frenetic energy of this season, with Christmas Music invading your mind, and a to-do list that seems insurmountable. Other’s of us long for a break from the news of abuses of power and the harm befalling the vulnerable in our nation, a respite from the dire warnings of what our changing climate means, the almost daily reports of gun violence. The Good News of Advent for all of us is that there is a healing silence that is possible, that can come upon us like a weighted blanket of God’s presence, when we allow for it. It’s not a silence that leads to inaction, but a quiet that can center and give us courage to be a part of the miracle of God’s reign breaking into our world.
This week, I wonder, what invitations for silence, what experiences of soaking in the presence of another are open to you? Maybe you’re like me and there are people in your life you’d like to be in the presence of, to hear what is on their hearts and minds. I have loved seeing new friendships develop in our community, hearing of folks sharing lunches together, visiting with one another. Maybe there’s someone you’d like to be with, someone who knows loneliness, or maybe you’re someone who would like to invite someone into your life so you can be heard. I know that I can seem busy, but I have to tell you, I love it when folks reach out, and I am always able to make time; that’s one of the gifts of this calling. Know I am always here for you, and there is nothing so important in my week as being with you. Or maybe in the bustle, you’re invited to have some time to sit and pray, at the start of your day over a cup of coffee or tea, watching the world come to life. Again, if you’re looking for help with sitting in silence in God’s presence, always feel free to reach out. Or maybe, like me, you’re someone who lives best in silence with something to do. For me it’s tending to plants, or puttering around working on simple tasks that help me be in awe of God’s wonder at work. It’s a not so hidden secret that sometimes we just need some time in quiet, and this place, this church, our home away from home, is always available if you need a little retreat. Whatever it is for you, I invite you this week to take some time for quiet, for calm, to feel and witness what God is doing in our midst, the healing presence of one who loves us, and is bringing about the wholeness of us all.
Friends, let us take a moment, together in this place, to be in silence. I invite you to consider God’s call to rest in silence this week. Take some time to think of who you might want to be with, or what you might like to do to calm your spirit, or where you’d like to retreat to, just for a while, to know wholeness. Let us take a few moments in quiet to think of when we can offer or experience some silence filled with awe.
 Evers-Hood, Ken. The Irrational David: The Power of Poetic Leadership (p. 245-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.