A few days ago I was preaching about Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. The story is well-known: Zechariah goes up to the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem to offer incense, and has a vision. He is told that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son (John the Baptist) who will prepare God’s people for the coming saviour. When Zechariah expresses his disbelief, he is struck dumb, and doesn’t speak another word until the prophecy is fulfilled.
As I was doing some background reading about this passage I came across a wonderful explanation of the significance of Zechariah’s inability to speak (in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 680). This is how I went on to express it:
At the end of his vision, Zechariah is struck dumb — he can’t speak a word. And the silence has a curious effect. It means that when, in his priestly role, he leaves the sanctuary and goes out to meet the people, he is unable to give the final blessing. As he steps outside to bring the service to a close — he remains speechless. So this service, this Temple liturgy, remains unfinished. Put another way: It remains open-ended, continuing.
It’s as if Zechariah steps out into the temple precincts, into the streets of Jerusalem, and into his own home still presiding at the liturgy. It’s as if the doors of the temple had been left open wide, and the worship of God spills out into the streets behind Zechariah – who continues his priestly work, unable to bring it to a close. It’s as if the whole people are holding their breath, a divine hiatus, wondering how they are meant to live this liturgy in these unfamiliar places. Wondering when the final blessing would come.
I like this idea of the sacred spilling out into the secular, and almost embracing it. It’s the deepest meaning of Christianity: that the whole world is redeemed; that God steps into his creation through the Incarnation, through the birth of Jesus; and that Jesus steps outside the boundaries of Judaism in order to draw all people into his embrace. It doesn’t mean that the distinction between the secular and the sacred is lost – as if there were no longer any possibility of identifying the divine or taking hold of what is holy. It means, instead, that God’s presence can be discovered in every situation, because the whole of creation has been gathered together in the humanity of Christ.
This interpretation of Zechariah’s silence fits with another scriptural idea: that Jesus was crucified ‘outside the city gate’ (Heb 13), outside the world of the sacred, so that he could offer up and sanctify the secular.
[If you want to read the whole sermon I have pasted it below as the first comment.]