“The Courage to be Silent”
Luke 1:5-25; 57-80
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 30, 2014
University Baptist Church
The Bible is a patriarchal book. The stories in the Bible are mostly about men. It was mostly written by men, revised by men, implemented by men, preached mostly by men and it is too often used by men to keep women in their places. Many of the women in the stories, if they are mentioned at all, don’t have names of their own. They are Noah’s wife, Jephtha’s daughter, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the woman at the well.
We all know that in the drama of God’s wondrous creation—in the drama of God’s continuing revelation in this world—that women play a very important role in the story. It was not that women did not do anything important that they didn’t get mentioned in the Bible. The issue is that the men did not mention the stories. They did not deem them important enough. That is why I cannot see the Bible as the end-point of our theological reflection. We need to listen to the stories of the men and ask ourselves why the women are not more represented. We need to listen to the few stories containing women and see if we can find a glimpse of God’s message of liberation for all people. And if we ask those questions, we may indeed come up with a very different view of the big picture.
The stories of Jesus’ life and death are surrounded by women, especially in Luke’s Gospel. It is only women who stick around at Jesus’ crucifixion. They are the first to see his resurrection, too. And the whole first chapter of Luke talks about the excitement of two women, Elizabeth and Mary who hold in their wombs the most important leaders of God’s revolution in First Century Palestine.
I think it’s great that Luke’s Gospel opens with the shuttin’ up of old Zechariah, the priest. Back before Mary, the mother of Jesus, received word from God that she was to bare the savior of the world, something similar happened to her cousin Elizabeth. An angel visited, shut up the priest and pregnant Elizabeth prepared to bare John the Baptist.
I think it’s important on this first Sunday in Advent to look not at the pregnancy of Mary and Elizabeth. I don’t want to look at the birth of John the Baptist or Jesus. I don’t even want to look at Joseph or the shepherds. I want to look at the silencing of Zechariah. I want us to look at what can happen when a leader either decides to be silent or, as in the case of Zechariah, is forced to be quiet.
There are times when it is important for people to be quiet, especially when they are making judgments about things about which they have no experience.
In domestic violence situations, it’s important to listen to the children and the women more than the men.
In reproductive discussions, it’s important to hear from women facing unplanned and unwanted pregnancies more than it is to listen to moralistic preachers talking about promiscuity.
We look at this story during the week when the Ferguson Grand Jury refused to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed black man, forever silencing him. People responded by protesting, and a few were led to riots and looting. As the pundits try to make sense of it, I am drawn to the words of Martin Luther King in March of 1968:
"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard."
The work we need to do is to hear the voices of the unheard. But we can’t hear from them until the ones who are in power are silent. It’s no accident that the Gospel opens with the silencing of the priest. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. And there are people whose voices need to be heard. Luke is saying look to God from somewhere else than the seats of power. Do not only look for God in the temple. God can be found in a stable. God calls us to repent of our collusion with structures of domination. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. So let’s hear the story of the silencing of the priest.
Zechariah, we know from scripture, was a priest, a leader in the community. He and his wife Elizabeth had no children, no matter how hard they tried. I imagine this troubled them. In a culture where you were measured by your offspring, did they feel that perhaps God had something against them?
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth, the scripture says, were righteous before God. I imagine that they continually asked God for children but like Abram and Sarai, they were left with no answer. They were an old crone and a priest, whom many admired but secretly felt sorry for.
Back then, it was common for priests to draw lots to offer burnt offerings at the temple in Jerusalem. It came to pass that Zechariah drew the lot and went to the temple as was his vocation. When the priest went to into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the temple visited once a year, it was customary for all of the people to wait outside the temple and pray. But this day, Zechariah took a little bit longer than usual.
He went into the temple to burn incense and repeat his prayers to God. His own prayers, but most important, the prayers of the entire community. He probably stopped praying the prayer which he and Elizabeth had prayed for years that they have a child. Now, they were both much too old to even think about it. Their lives were resigned to bareness. And then a miracle happened. A miracle or a challenge depending on your perspective.
An angel appeared. As you can imagine, this terrified Zechariah. I think I would probably be pretty scared, too. But just as the angel would say to the shepherd a few months later, Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid…your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you shall call his name John…And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
Zechariah was awestruck. At first, he didn’t believe it. “A child? Senior citizens me and Elizabeth? We’ll be the laughingstocks of all Jerusalem.” Zechariah was shocked, perhaps too shocked to remember all of the words that the angel said to him. But the angel told him what this child would become, and Luke recorded the words:
“He will be great before YHWH, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to YHWH their God. With the Spirit and the power of Elijah,” as was prophesied in the fourth chapter of the book of Malachi, “he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for YHWH”.
These are pretty lofty words for a child who is not even born yet. It was probably a very different life for their child than that which Zechariah had prayed for.
What parents would want their child grow up to eat bugs and wear camel’s hair and a leather girdle like John the Baptist did? Well, I know some parents wouldn’t mind the leather part. Zechariah, in the Holy of Holies, praying for his community, hedged at the prospect of having his child do so much and like Sarai of old, he laughed at the prospect of his child becoming the one who would prepare the world for the Messiah.
So, because of his protests, Gabriel removed the ability of Zechariah to speak. For the next nine months, Zechariah was unable to get a word in edgewise. He could only communicate through signs and writing. And perhaps for the first time, he had to listen. Sometimes it’s important for people in authority to be quiet and to listen.
When I went to Union Theological Seminary, it became strikingly clear that as a white straight male, at least among the student body, one did not have the kind of power or influence one had in other parts of the world. There was a caucus for every group. There was a black caucus, a women’s caucus, a gay and lesbian caucus, an Asian caucus, even a commuters caucus. As a white straight man, I was a man without a caucus. Poor me. I was in a minority, probably for one of the first times in my life. My classmates were quick to point out, “Now you know just a little of what it’s like to have your agenda or your culture dominated by another.”
I think every straight white male church leader should have the experience of getting his mouth shut for a while, and listening to the voices of another culture. Imagine what changes that would make in the life of the church.
The old ways of looking at the world changed for old Zechariah, they had to. He must have changed his view of the world when he was shut up for nine months. As much as Zechariah wanted a child, he did not want a John the Baptist. He probably wanted a Zechariah Junior: someone to carry on the family name, someone to live the life he never had, someone to be popular and well-liked by his peers, someone who was perfect—which means who would do everything his parents wanted, someone who would eventually settle down and have grandchildren for he and Elizabeth. You see, he had had his whole life to put together a perfect picture of his child. And he knew just how that child would be and just what that child would become.
But in comes the angel Gabriel among the smoke and incense. Gabriel told him, it’s not going to happen that way. First of all, it was God who would not let him have a child all these years. This must have infuriated Zechariah. And then when a child finally came along God stepped in and shattered Zechariah’s hopes and dreams. I mean who dreams that their child would grow up to be a Baptist preacher?
“I have a plan for your child which you may not like,” says God, “but it’s his plan. The plan for your son, John. Believe it, and leave behind your preconceived notions of what your child will become. It is in my hands,” says God. And your child is going to do great things.
I know when we were expecting both of our children, we imagined what they would be like. We did our level best to prepare for them. We tried to be stable ourselves, knowing that that was the greatest gift we could give them. And of course we are happy and proud of them both. But ultimately they will need to make their way in the world regardless of what we want them to do or be. It’s their lives. What’s the old saying? We’ll give them roots and wings? I hope all children will be rooted in courage and sustained by grace.
Zechariah needed to shut his mouth in order to hear what God had to say. In order for it to sink in. In order to really believe it.
Luke begins his gospel by silencing Zechariah the priest. It is imperative, sometimes, for those in positions of privilege because of their biology or inheritance to be silent so that another voice can emerge.
Maybe white folks need to be silent instead of rushing toward answers or a solution to what is happening in Ferguson. Maybe we need to hear the voices of the unheard. Listen without judgment. Hear the rage. Hear the anger. Realize that the community is broken, but it was never really community in the first place when a race of people is considered a threat because of their skin color, or the way they wear their pants or do their hair.
It’s incumbent on those of us who do not share Mr. Brown’s race or life experience to let the others speak. We don’t have to stay silent forever, but we must have the courage to remain silent for a time. We need to make room for another reality to be exposed.
Gabriel said that the Holy Spirit would be with the child even before he was born, and he would turn the hearts of parents toward their children. With great fear and after nine months of struggling with Zechariah’s own demons, he finally accepted God’s prophecy. John the Baptist, even from the womb, by the power of the Holy Spirit, really did turn the heart of his parents, at least of his father away from himself and what he was selfishly going to get out of the birth of his son. Zechariah’s heart was now with his child and with God. And when he did speak, Zechariah spoke with wisdom gained from listening to the other voices, and especially God’s voice.
So we need to keep silent, at least for a while. Enough time for another’s voice to be heard. And when we break our silence, which we will inevitably do, make sure we have something worthwhile to say. Several people have found their voices this past week as the St. Louis Grand Jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown several months ago. MLK said in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Use your voices to say the things that matter. To speak the truth with love, to imagine a world where Elizabeth, Mary, John, Jesus and Michael will really be heard. For as MLK also reminded us, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
And that is the challenge for all of us. Our hearts and our minds and our priorities must not be so much upon our own selfish gains, our own selfish needs, our own selfish desires. We need to have our minds and hearts upon the needs of our children. If we look at what our children need—our children, who are dependant on us, then we might be able to see, perhaps the clearest about God’s priorities in this world.
Zechariah finally left behind the preconceived notions of what his son would become and wrote that his name was not going to be Zechariah Junior, but John. Immediately, Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and he was once again able to speak. The people marveled and asked themselves what the child was to become. But Zechariah knew. Elizabeth knew. And you and I know, too.
In this season of waiting for the fulfillment of the Christmas miracle of God taking human form, perhaps we can step back and listen to the voices of those in a position of diminished power. If we truly listen to the voices of those most often excluded from power, we might not only find a way to help bring about this world’s liberation, but we might be able to hear the words of God’s inspiration in the John the Baptist, telling us to repent and thereby making the way for Christ. And if we are quiet enough, if we have the courage to be silent, perhaps we can hear and see the way God will break into our world this Advent season.