Christmas meant Silence and Speech: Luke 1:18-25
Zechariah yearned for the day when God would step in and redeem Israel from its problems. But, when that day was announced, Zechariah, like Abraham (Gen 15:8), asked this question: “How can I be sure of this?” I am reminded also of Sara laughing. Acceptance of what God is doing has never been easy, especially when that work is surprising.
Zechariah asks for a “sign” – how can I be sure? – and he gets it: the sign by which he will know that God’s good news is being announced is his silence. That sign is both proof and rebuke – it is dramatically visible to him but at the same time it prevents Zechariah from getting to participate in what he most wants now to do: tell everyone the good news that the kingdom is arriving.
His witness to the people in the Temple is by way of silence and gesture: they know something has happened, but he is silenced. He can only make hand motions to express to them what has happened. They know, from his silence, that something big has happened but the content is unclear to them. RE Brown suggests that Zechariah is not capable of “blessing” the people with the priestly blessing (Sir 50:19-23) but that that priestly blessing is eventually given by Jesus in Luke 24:50-52. (This is pretty clever, and worth thinking about.)
Most think the “sign” of Zechariah is his silence, but that sign might be taken to be Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When she becomes pregnant, Zechariah knows the words of Gabriel are from God and that he is in for a great happening in Israel. Sign or not, the conception ends their long yearning for a baby.
What Zechariah experiences as a time of silence, Elizabeth experiences as a time to announce the good news: not only for herself (he has taken away my disgrace) but also for others – her son will be a prophet. The contrast here is notable: Zechariah the priest is silenced for his lack of faith while his wife, who cannot enter into those most holy places, declares the good news. She is so grateful; she knows that her stain of barrenness is now removed; she will be known now as a mother.