The Posterial Spasms of Zechariah the Priest
Zechariah was not only a priest, but a priest described as righteous and blameless. That’s quite a description. And for a priest in Israel, if they were extremely fortunate, would on one occasion during their life time have opportunity to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and to offer incense. This event would be the pinnacle moment of Zechariah’s career – as he stood at the central point of the universe, where the heavens meets the earth, to represent his people.
The cosmic hierarchy of the priestly worldview was written into the architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem. Crowning a prominent hill top, it was made up of ascending precincts, each higher, smaller, and more exclusive than the last:
The outer walls housed the Court of Gentiles – anyone could walk in there. It was the noisy and smelly precinct where domesticated animals waited to be sold for slaughter. Access to the next level, however, was restricted to Jews only – it was called the Court of Women, where Jewish women were allowed to tread, as well as men, just so long as you were ritually unclean and without defect. However, men only were permitted to go up the steps and through the Nicanor Gate, and into the Court of Israelites. This was as near to the central sanctuary as most Israelites could go. It was here that the whole assembly of people were praying. As all Israel prayed and watched, Zechariah went into the Court of Priests. Obviously this was for priests only, and all those priests prayed and looked on as Zechariah ascended the stair case, and – for the only time in his life – entered the Sanctuary.
He approaches a golden altar, and burns incense – and at the end, speaking and acting on his behalf of an entire nation, with the entire nation looking on, he is alone. Only he is not after all, alone. The Archangel Gabriel is stood in front of Zechariah, and has an important announcement.
Now, at this point it is fair to say that Zechariah is likely to be a little nervous. It is likely that he experienced what in polite English terms we might describe as extreme anxiety, but that doesn’t really capture the moment. The more bodily, Hebrew description of this experience would be to say that – at a moment like this – the priest experienced his innards turning over like a washing machine, a case of quivering bowels and posterial spasms. And so, as angels often do, Gabriel prefaces his message of good news with the words, ‘Do not be afraid’.
Not only is the childless old priest going to have a son, for which he has been praying for years. Not only is he going to find his place within the genetic lineage of God’s people. But this Son is going to play a key role in the restoration of the beleaguered, occupied territories of Israel.
You can almost hear the music building up: He is in the geographical high point of his country, the zenith of his priestly career, the climax of his personal life. And how does he respond? Stood before the Angel Gabriel himself, Zechariah, the beneficiary of the most glorious personal and political tidings, says to the angel what is best translated into English as, “wait – what?” or perhaps, “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen!” You can almost hear the needle scratch across the record. It is an anti-climax of cosmic proportions.
And so the priest, who speaks for a living, is struck dumb. Unable to speak until the moment his son is born. And that son would become the dangerous political agitator infamously known as … The Baptist. But that’s another story.
Today’s reading focusses upon the fact that the very best that Israel has to offer, a morally upright, blameless priest, still is unable to hear the voice of God when it is delivered to him by no less than the angel Gabriel. And it begs the question – if God speaks, and the human being on planet earth most likely to hear that voice, still cannot hear it, what hope is there for the rest of us?
[As an interesting aside here, it's worth noting that in Hebrew, Gabriel means 'strong one'. It's the same root as an Arabic word you may remember from school: Algebra. That is, a logic of irresistable force whose outworking is inexorable, inevitable.]
We glibly speak about hearing the voice of God, listening for the Word of God, waiting of God to speak. But, let’s be honest, a lot of the time – when people claim to have heard God speak, what you hear is their own projected self, the same old tedious, predictable, half-baked opinions you always would have expected that person to say anyway. Daily Mail readers hear a God who could be the divine editor of their newspaper. Facebook addicts hear a God whose voice echoes their Facebook feed. Devotees of the BBC hear a God who reads the news for the World Service. In fact, I have heard intercessions in an Anglican church which I won’t name, that began with, “O Lord, you will have read in the papers, the sad news in Ethiopia…” How easily we domesticate God, hearing only what we already assume to be right.
That is often how we regard listening – simply as the capacity to keep your trap shut for long enough for the other person to finish speaking before you wade in with what you already know you were going to say anyway.
Zechariah, and his bowel-quivering capacity to hear, serves here as a fine model of encountering the voice of God. He is confronted by the nearest thing anyone could experience to divine presence, and his liturgical response is – in the first instance – the full blown physicality of fear – which like any good Hebrew believer, you feel in the cavernous depths of your bowels.
It is a terrible and terrifying thing to encounter the voice of God. And we don’t have to climb Mount Zion and enter the sanctuary to experience that voice. God can speak whenever and wherever, and through whomever he likes. As one Theologian put it,
“God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.”
And when you really do experience this voice of God, perhaps the first thing to do is not to engage in verbose, evangelistic bleating – but simply to be struck dumb, like Zechariah.
And perhaps then, when we can no longer speak, we will find ourselves with something worth saying.
And perhaps anything of value that we do have to say, is the final product of quivering bowels,
And perhaps, whatever the effect, of whatever Good news we might proclaim, is best understood as the collateral damage of listening to God.
In worship, we dare to believe that we stand alongside Zechariah, to encounter all that he encountered, and to brace ourselves for the consequences.