Zechariah in the Christmas Story

This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing The King’s Speech, a movie about King George the 6th of England and the relationship he had with his speech therapist. The movie is incredible, and if Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush don’t win Oscars for their respective performances I am no judge of good acting (which I am not, I am a missionary not an actor). Anyway, the movie tells the story of King George’s battle with a lifelong stutter and how he eventually finds his voice at the time when his country needs a pillar of strength and courage to look to as they plunged headlong into war with Hitler’s Germany.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Well the story of Bertie, as King George is called in the film, reminded me somewhat of Zechariah’s story in the Gospel of Luke and it got me thinking of that often lost portion of the Advent.

The story of Zechariah is a story of helplessness. To be helpless is a fault in our world, a characteristic reserved for children. In fact, the entirety of our modern education system is really devoted to unmaking our helplessness and furthering our independence as individuals. To experience true, humbling helplessness can be somewhat of a shock. And yet the Bible is very clear in its insistence that we are indeed in desperate need of help from our God who loves us.

Nowhere is this more poignantly realized than in Luke’s Christmas story. From Mary to Joseph to Zechariah to Elizabeth to the infant Jesus himself, each character in one form or another displays a wonderful lack of control and a desperate dependence on the Lord and his faithfulness. For Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the story begins with a visit from Gabriel, the arch-angel. Zechariah is a priest who loved God and obeyed his commandments blamelessly, and yet his life has already been marked by the helplessness of being unable to become a father. How humbling and heartbreaking an experience it must be for a husband and wife who want to make the transition to loving father and mother but are unable to. As Zechariah and Elizabeth’s age increased so did the murmurs of their family, neighbors, town and society. Zechariah was a man with no heir, no child to carry on his legacy and family. How hard it must have been on his faith that the God who the Psalms promise “will give you the desires of your heart” had not and had left him and his wife barren. It is a testament to Zechariah’s faith that he continued to dutifully love and obey God in spite of this.
So imagine his audacity when he is visited by Gabriel who, speaking on behalf of God, promises a child. Imagine the pain that reestablished itself in Zechariah’s heart, the wounds which were reopened as he heard this promise and simultaneously recalled moment after moment of bitter disappointment, of dashed hopes and of angry pleas to God seemingly unheard. You can almost hear the defeat in his voice as he remembers time after time when he felt deep in his soul Elizabeth was pregnant, only to have those feelings give way to the crushing reality that she was not. “How shall I know this,” he whispers, barely audible, “I am an old man and my wife is past child bearing age.”

And Gabriel responds, “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of the perfect, holy and good God.” Its interesting that Gabriel, in the midst of Zechariah’s pain and doubt affirms the greatness of God, something Zechariah, a priest no less, needed to be reminded of in that moment. And then Zechariah’s mouth is shut and Gabriel tells him, you will see the goodness of God, the wonderful plan he has laid out for you all along. Watch only and do not protest as the Lord takes one of the darkest, most painful corners of your existence and turns it into joy and gladness. “Many will rejoice,” Gabriel says, “your community will look at Elizabeth, see your son, and be themselves reminded of the wonder and glory of God.” And Zechariah is left silent, helplessly awaiting the fulfillment of a promised hope again. How constantly he must have wondered in his silence, if God would really come through this time. His helplessness before the Lord would have increased each day as his hope and fear grew. As Elizabeth began to show, his heart would have leapt, ‘could this really be?’

But in all the days leading up to the birth of his son, never did he experience the depth and completeness of his utter dependence on God like the day his son was born. As he saw his son for the first time, as he held him close how Zechariah’s heart must have pounded and how helpless he must have felt before the glory of God, his awe complete, his dependence pure, his faith void of doubt, his pride destroyed, his fears vanquished, his hopes fully realized, he stood before his God completely and utterly helpless and did the only thing one could do in the moment; he found his voice again and praised the King of Kings.