Articles, Essays & Sermons

Same question, different outcomes

A meditation on Zechariah

by Ken Sehested

Zechariah’s question 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.”
—Luke 1:18

Mary’s question to the angel:
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
—Luke 1:34

        Some years ago I wrote a long poem reflecting on Zechariah (“Boundary to Benedictus,” a meditation on Zechariah in Luke 1), whose song of praise is our text for today’s service. The desire to do so came after I became aware of two odd things.

        First, the story of Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptizer, play a very minor role in most of the church’s stories and songs about Christmas. Think about it: we know a lot about Mary and Joseph, obviously; but also about the shepherds and the Magi. We hear a lot about “no room in the inn” and the bright, shining star and the angels singing. But rarely do we hear much about Zechariah and Elizabeth, despite the fact that their story is as lengthy and dramatic as that about Mary and baby Jesus.

        The second odd thing: Zechariah’s question to the angel is pretty much the same as Mary’s question. After hearing the astounding news that post-menopausal Elizabeth would bear a son, Zechariah asks: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

        And when the virginal Mary hears her equally astounding news, she asks: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

        Both are skeptical. Both raise the question of biological impossibility. Yet Mary immediately launches into her song of praise, while Zechariah goes dumb, unable to speak.

        I can’t explain this discrepancy. I’m sure some in the room would say, “Oh, when it comes to matters of the heart, men are generally clueless!”

        And that may be true.

        It might also be true that Zechariah, precisely because of his priestly formation, had a harder time grasping the power of God to reverse the irreversible. Near the end of the narrative, it is Elizabeth’s own body which bears the news which Zechariah isn’t yet able to speak. No angel appears to Elizabeth; yet when she conceives her very womb knows the truth: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured” (Luke 1:25).

        Talk about body wisdom!

        Creatures of the Temple, the status quo; guardians of the way things work, including the “way God works”—such folk have a harder time comprehending the God who crosses boundaries, who sheds expectations, who appears in unexpected places and reverses the irreversible and brings possibility out of impossibility.

        All the biblical stories surrounding the birth of Jesus are characterized by things being turned upside-down and inside-out. It’s thrilling to read about, of course. But it will scare you witless when it happens to you. The refining fire of transformation is liable to leave you speechless. The angel’s song is less a sweet melody than a hymn of insurrection. And it’s sung not just to THOSE people out there, but also to US in here.

        We simply cannot ignore the fact that spiritual transformation can be frightening, can be disorienting, can be confounding. And it almost always breaks out on the margins, among those our culture thinks least likely to be visited by messengers of God. Which is why the core of our spiritual disciplines must be structures that push us close to where life is falling apart.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org