Fear, Doubt, and Silence in Zechariah’s Faith Journey

[Here is the audio for this sermon that was preached on Sunday, November 30, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church.]

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25; 67-79

One of the most commonly-stressed themes during the season of advent, is that we are entering into a time of waiting, hoping, longing — with expectation — that God is going to come and do something new, something remarkable in our lives and in the world. Which might seem strange, given that we already know the outcome of this story. Are we just pretending to be waiting to find out what’s going to happen?

Well one reason we wait is to practice waiting, because so much of life is waiting — being patient, preparing, trusting, having faith, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen. This takes courage. It’s scary, and many times, we doubt. The character of Zechariah in the first Christmas story illustrates this as well as any.

We’re told in the text that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were righteous in the eyes of God, and that they came from the order of the Jewish priesthood, so he had some special responsibilities as a religious leader. And so he knew as well as anybody what the Jewish hope was for a Messiah. The way that the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, further suggests that he had been praying for years to have a child.

And yet, his hope for this had all but run out, given his age and his wife Elizabeth’s barren state. He could never have guessed that he would be the father to John the Baptist, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known! The most he could hope for was that someone else would have such an honor.

For those of us familiar with the Old Testament, when we hear this story, we probably immediately think of, among other stories, the most famous: God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18) – we also think of their reaction, their disbelief in response to the announcement. Actually, they laugh, when God tells them they‘re to have a son. And eventually they end up taking matters into their own hands.  Abraham sleeps with Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael, who was not the son that God had promised. So the scene with Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah follows a similar pattern, and this is intentional on the Gospel writer’s part.

One of the questions we’re asking each week in the e-devotionals that will be going out starting tomorrow, is a question we’ve been asking as a church throughout this fall when we read the Bible together: What is this story telling us about God, and about ourselves? And obviously one of the things it’s saying is that God is faithful. That God’s commitment to accomplish his purposes is not going to be hindered by human weakness: age, infertility, insignificance, poverty, whatever! In fact, God consistently chooses to work through these weaknesses. But we forget this: that God is steadfast, that God is on the side of the weak. Zechariah doubts too, and as a result he carries the mark of his doubt by losing his speech. But ultimately, because of God’s mercy, Zechariah’s story doesn’t end with doubt. As we read, it ends with song and praise.

So we’re going to look more at how that happens. What are the causes of Zechariah’s doubt? And how does God take Zechariah — and us! — on a journey from doubt to faith?

I know not everyone here as seen the movies or read the books, but I can’t help but mention the Hunger Games Trilogy as an illustration of what it might have been like to be a Jew in First Century Israel-Palestine. Because the last movie just came out, and because I know some of you have seen it, and all of you have probably heard of it. Whitney has read the books, so she kind of got me into it. But it’s really this compelling picture of the experience of living in a colony that’s occupied by a foreign Empire. Some people want to revolt. Others think it’s better to wait, but everyone knows there’s an enemy, and everyone is waiting to see if a true anointed leader is going to rise up and bring them liberation. So maybe this helps us imagine with a more contemporary example, what people like Zechariah might have been feeling. Otherwise, I think it’s very difficult for us to relate to this, given when and where we live.

Before this moment in Israel’s history, and many of you know this, there had been foreign occupation, after occupation – hundreds of years. Yes, many of you have known pain and loss, and what it is to face incredible difficulty and even tragedy in your lives. But few if any of us have lived through something like what the Jews as a whole people had endured under the Romans and in previous generations under the Greeks– was almost unimaginable. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that around the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a revolt when Herod the Great died. After the Romans repressed the rebellion, they crucified 2000 Jews to make a statement about what happens to insurrectionists. This is why in one of the reasons why in Zechariah’s song, there’s such a strong theme of God taking the side of those who have been cast down, and of delivering Israel from their enemies. This is the political climate that Jesus comes into. And this is the historical situation in which Zechariah is trying to have faith.

Another element in the story is that, culturally and religiously at this time, having children was essential for carrying on the family name, perpetuating God’s covenant with Israel, and providing oneself with care in one’s old age. So barrenness, or infertility, was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment. Zechariah and Elizabeth were stigmatized and already likely somewhat estranged from their community because of this.

Historically, they’re discouraged, and culturally and religiously, they’re discouraged. So it’s hard to blame the guy for a doubting a little when he hears this news! So naturally, what does Zechariah says when he hears the good news that Elizabeth is going to have a son, and not just any son, but John the Baptist?

v. 18: Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” “How can I know that this is so?” Some translations say. Zechariah wants to know: how can he be certain about what the angel has told him? It was a way to ask for proof.

So what is the cause of Zechariah’s doubt? The first thing is, his desire for certainty. The desire for certainty is not only one of the main causes of doubt, but it’s also one of the greatest barriers to faith. One of the theologians I’ve read over the years, John Henry Newman, says that: “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable… [then] we must be content to creep along the ground and never soar.” (Flying is risky much like faith is risky.) Faith is not the same thing as certainty. And if we wait for certainty, we’ll never “take off.”

It is true that real faith does brings with it, assurance, and confidence, and trust, a kind of security, but it’s the kind of security that brings peace even in the face of uncertainty, rather than certainty itself. Maybe we could say it this way: Faith is knowing that everything is going to be ok even if everything is not going to be ok. Which doesn’t sound very happy, I realize, but there’s a real freedom that comes with this faith, a freedom that eases the urge to want to secure everything in our lives: our children, our financial futures, our relationships, our reputation… Some of this stuff has to be done – we have responsibilities – but when our responsibilities are carried out from a place of gratitude and trust, then what is uncertain won’t unsettle us so much.

Now, this moment for Zechariah would have been a very important moment in his life. He wasn’t simply performing a weekly duty in the temple. He would have been chosen by casting lots, as the text says, and the honor of offering the incense in this particular ceremony usually only came once. And everybody else was waiting outside, praying! So there’s some pressure, and he’s already pretty nervous! When Gabriel shows up, it says Zechariah is gripped with fear!

And the first thing the angel says to him, v. 13, is “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” – Do not be afraid. Did y’all know that the commandment not to be afraid, to fear not, occurs more times in the Bible than any other? If one of the greatest barriers to having faith is our desire for certainty, then at the heart of our desire for certainty is fear. It’s one of our strongest emotions and instincts, maybe the most difficult to overcome.

Now, sometimes it’s true that, we doubt because there’s a lack of evidence, because something isn’t reasonable — because an argument doesn’t hold up. And I’m not dismissing good questions, or intellectual objections. And too many Christians settle for weak answers to good questions. Nonetheless, more often than not, when it comes to having genuine faith, the Bible seems to suggest that fear is a bigger stumbling block than our intellect.

Because there are some things that we’re never going to be able to understand – at least not in the way that we’d like to. A Catholic priest and author by the name of Richard Rohr calls these things the big five, and he names them as birth, death, suffering, love, and God. Don’t try to make too much sense of these aspects of life, Rohr says. They’re non-rational. They’re not irrational, but neither can they be understood by reason alone. They’re mysterious. I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s words here:

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

Again, this is not an excuse to justify irrational beliefs. But neither is the absence of certainty an excuse for your lack of faith, for your doubt. Do not be afraid, the angel says, your prayer has been heard.

You see, to doubt something though, is always to trust something else more – there’s no such thing as pure doubt. We doubt because we trust something else instead. What are you trusting more than the good news? What are you afraid of that’s causing you to doubt?

The trouble with fear and doubt though is that we can’t just will them away. We’re so naturally prone to both! And familiarity with the faith or church attendance doesn’t necessary guarantee our protection from them. So what can we possibly do about this?

Well, it may be that the best direction we can take from the story is just to look at what God does to Zechariah. He shuts him up! He loses his ability to speak for like 9 months! I don’t think I’ve gone without speaking for more than about 9 hours, the majority of which was probably during sleep.

At first, it might seem like God is punishing Zechariah, and I’m sure that it felt like it. I bet those first few days and weeks, maybe even months, were miserable. But where does Zechariah end up at the end of the story?

His song in v. 74 and few verses after declares that God has come to

enable us to serve him without fear, to give his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God!

Not only does Zechariah now believe, having seen his wife give birth, but somehow, during the suffering and frustration of his mandatory silence, he’s come to believe in the good news without fear, to believe that it means salvation, rescue forgiveness and mercy.

It might be that Zechariah’s forced silence was the best thing to ever happen to him. Sometimes the only way to quiet the echo chamber of our mind, with its voices of fear and doubt, might be to just find the time to stop talking for a little while.

So maybe just as one takeaway for us this week, we can try to observe some voluntary silence. To practice our waiting. To give room for God to grow our faith in those places where fear and doubt linger. Let’s pray.