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. — Luke 1:20, NRSV
Traditionally, we look at this passage in Scripture and proceed to contrast the story of Zechariah with that of Mary. Zechariah disbelieves Gabriel’s message while Mary embraces it. In standard teachings, Zechariah is merely the negative foil to Mary’s exquisite faith, apart from being the faithful father of John the Baptist.
When I stumbled across this passage recently, though, something different caught my attention. When Zechariah asks, “How will I know this is so?”, he is looking for security, assurance. Sure, he is doing it in the face of a divine messenger who literally appears out of nowhere, but it is something we all do. We crave security, and we want to have as much control as we can in life.
In ancient near eastern culture, childbearing was the greatest sign of blessing. For Israel in particular, bearing a child was a physical reminder of God’s promise to prosper the nation, making them as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). This is why the Bible has such strong opinions on marriage and procreative sexuality. It is also why Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered to be in disgrace, because, despite their righteousness, they were a barren couple.
When we understand that, Zechariah’s skepticism (which mirrors Abraham and Sarah’s), makes sense. He wants to be assured that when he tells his wife (and others) that they’re going to have a baby, it freakin’ happens! Otherwise, their disgrace would be amplified.
The first problem with this, though, is Zechariah’s source. Gabriel, the messenger of God, is probably not one to come play a cruel prank. This is a divine message, not some cosmic episode of Punk’d.
Second, and more importantly, there are no guarantees in life. It’s a cliche, but it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn, just like Zechariah. You see, Zechariah is being told what’s going to happen (“until the day these things occur,” 1:20). Outside of sex with his wife, there is nothing Zechariah is expected to do to bring things to fruition. The results do not depend on him, and we all know how scary it is when important aspects of our lives rest outside of our ability to control them.
In response to Zechariah’s questions, Gabriel does something that seems punitive. I mean, he takes away the guy’s speech, which also probably made seducing Elizabeth hilarious. I imagine lots of eyebrow waggling and gestures… Anyway.
When we look a little closer, though, Gabriel’s action is more of a “blessing in disguise.” All Zechariah can do is sit back, go (quietly) about his regular life, and wait to see what God does. This is also all we can do.
I know this isn’t what some of us want to hear, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Whether it’s a job interview, pregnancy, asking for a date, or awaiting diagnosis, there is a broad spectrum of life events with outcomes we cannot determine. We normally view this as a horrible aspect of living, and many of us refuse to accept or admit it, but what if it is actually a blessing?
When we obsess over the details and outcomes of life various issues, are we being healthy? When last I looked, continuous stress contributes to declines in physical and emotional health (it’s science). Our enjoyment of life is made less and less possible as we try to guide (force?) life to go the way we would prefer.
But what if I told you all you were in charge of is living your life? What if, instead of fighting or fearing the truth of our limited power, we embraced it? Life would consist of actual living, where we take care of business, but also make space for the Spirit of God to do its work. Uncertainty would serve as a reminder to take time to enjoy our short time on this earth as opposed to obsessing over it.
I believe this was Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, and it is God’s message to us. If Gabriel (and God) wanted to punish him, the birth of John could have been given to someone else. Instead, Zechariah gets to learn a powerful lesson about his own powerlessness as he also experiences the birth of his son. In the end, both of these things prove to be sources of joy.
So for us, that which normally worries us can actually provide us happiness. We cannot control everything in life, nor are there any guarantees. When all we can do is wait and see, perhaps it is best we employ a bit of faith and spend our time doing what we can by loving those around us, honoring the gift of life and the One who gives it to us.
I’m not suggesting some “pie in the sky” view of life. I suffer from depression, and I know many of you may suffer from anxiety. It’s important that you realize, dear reader, that I am not advocating the view that anxiety, stress, and worry are sinful. Rather, I am affirming the need for us to engage in self-care and seek treatment so that we may live life fully. It is true, however, that we must be willing to admit when we are being unhealthy, accept our dependence, and find a way to move forward.
So no matter what you have going on in your life, I hope you will accept this teaching from Zechariah. Yes, there are things you and I cannot control, and worry is an inevitable response, but we can also learn to respond with faith. When we understand our own limited power and that each day is ultimately a gift, we are free to guide our efforts away from what we cannot affect and toward those people and causes in our lives that mean the most to us. This is God’s gift to us, and I pray you’ll join me in accepting it.
Peace be with you!