The story of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, has long fascinated me. Zachariah was a priest, described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God." Getting the opportunity actually to go into the temple and present the incense offering was a rare honor. On this day as told in the first chapter of Luke, it is finally Zachariah's turn, and in he goes. He is promptly met by the angel Gabriel, who tells Zachariah that he and his wife Elizabeth (who is, according to Luke, "very old") are going to have a baby (who will turn out to be John the Baptist). Zachariah's response is "How do I know you are telling me the truth?" Perhaps as a sign, and perhaps as a bit of reprimand, Gabriel strikes Zachariah mute on the spot, and Zachariah does not speak again until the baby John is born.
Why would this righteous priest not believe a communication from God delivered to him face to face by an angel?
Perhaps Zachariah was simply not ready for a holy message. Like many of us, he was going through his churchy motions and making his religious noises, but the last thing he may have expected was for God to show up. I think failing to expect God to be in church is a danger for all of us; the phenomenon of tending the altar of God without really seeking God is particularly an occupational hazard for professional ministers, for whom the sanctuary can become routine. For God to honor their - and our - service and actually appear may not be on the radar of those who are simply going about their business.
There may be another explanation for Zachariah's immediate disbelief, however. Maybe Zachariah was ready for a message from God but did not prepare for the message to be personal. He thought God might speak to the nation, not to him. It is one thing to expect God to give a sweeping declaration to all people. It is something else for God to deliver an individual message just to Zachariah.
My thoughts turn to our nation. Ferguson and "I Can't Breathe" have highlighted simmering - and now often boiling over - racial distrust and tension. On one hand, we can look back at the sixties and say how far we have come. We can then look to the future and be optimistic, knowing that things will continue to get better. Comedian Chris Rock has recently reflected this optimism, saying that he expects his children to grow up in a much better racial situation: “It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”
On the other hand, an optimistic look at coming decades is of little import to those fighting the fight today. Whether the issue is race, socio-economics, or faith, what will happen in the future is distant. That is a message for generations, a sweeping gesture that is doubtless correct and in its own way uplifting but still remote, still impersonal.
Sometimes, we prepare for the general message and are not ready for a personal call. What if God wants me to make a difference in my community, today? What if I am supposed to be part of the answer? What if the angel is speaking a message to me that is about what I am supposed to do, not a broad dictate for the nation over the next fifty years?
This Advent, we hear the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth." That sounds so general, so futuristic, so all-encompassing - one day, God will wipe away all tears and end all strife, and there will indeed be peace on earth.
But what if those angels are singing now to us, individually? What if we are supposed to be making that peace? What if God is calling us (not someone else) to make a change here (not somewhere else) now(not in the future)? What if Christmas ought to be making a difference where we live today and tomorrow and the next day? What if peace on earth really is supposed to begin with me, with my neighbors, with my block, with my community, with my city?
Am I ready to meet the angel, and if I am, am I ready for the angel to speak to me ... about me?