“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet
into the way of peace.”
I live with the fear that I’m going to get it wrong.
Not even necessarily “I am going to be very sinful,” but the nagging fear that I am going to take the wrong path – or take the right path, and mess up halfway there. I’ll pick the wrong flower or speak to the wrong Wolf (the spiritual life is a lot like a fairy tale some days). I’m afraid that I’m going to eat a poisonous mushroom or read the map upside down. There’ll be a left-turn and I’ll miss it!
Advent is when we practice waiting, silence, being still, and I am already worried that I’ve messed it up. I broke it! I broke Advent! I’ve already done 1000 wrong things this Advent, and, well, I guess Advent is ruined now.
It’s hard to stop hoarding our mistakes, and learn how to come back from wrong steps.
It’s even harder to believe that even our “wrong moves” are being used by God to draw us into joy. It’s really hard to believe that.
Thank God for our faithful brother Zechariah and all of his screw-ups.
Zechariah and His Screw-Ups
Zechariah’s story is a rough one. I feel for this precious, solid dude.
Zechariah is a priest, and Scripture says that he’s righteous, a descendent of Aaron and he “observed all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Lk 1:6). One day, while he’s burning incense in the temple and faithfully fulfilling his religious duties, an angel shows up and promises him astounding, miraculous things:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:13-17
This promise is a little bizarre. It doesn’t fit into his daily faithfulness schedule. So Zechariah would like to know –
How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” – Luke 1:14
Zechariah has been very faithful for a long, long time. He has showed up to worship, to pray, to serve the community, for years and years. He has chosen the right path and stayed on it, faithfully, for decades.
But this is a left-turn. Zechariah is nothing if not sturdy, and sturdy people aren’t great at left-turns.
He just wants to know for sure. Is this really God? Is this a vision? Am I hallucinating? How can I be careful and make sure that this is the right next move? How can I be sure? How can I be sure?
Well, Gabriel will have none of that.
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” – Luke 1:19-20
Zechariah missed the left-turn. He didn’t see it when it came, and now he’s in trouble. After all those years of being faithful, one wrong move, and Zechariah is up to his neck in shame. After choosing the right path years ago, Zechariah still makes an error and suffers the consequences.
I’m not kidding, this is my version of the “naked on stage” dream. Making a mistake in public?! Everyone watching while you suffer the consequences?!
Oh, blessed Zechariah, he just wanted to be sure!
God lays out a ridiculous promise, and Zechariah wants to know that he’s not making this up or accidently joining a cult. This is a crazy idea, and how do you build your daily life on something that crazy? Without a sign? Without being sure?
The sturdiness that had been Zechariah’s companion for so long came back and bit him in the butt. The studiness that had made him so faithful was the thing that failed him.
You can choose the right path, and still mess up, halfway down the road.
And what then?
Well, God uses it. God uses everything.
Redemption After Shame
I first read this passage and I thought of the shame that Zechariah must have felt, and I hurt for him.
But look at what happens on the other side of Zechariah’s long silence!
Zechariah bursts out with joy! After all the silence, joy. After all the shame, joy. After all the waiting, joy.
Zechariah sings about salvation, mercy, and the covenant of the Lord that chases us down and catches us with delight even when we aren’t looking for it. Zechariah sings about the God who longs for us to “serve Him without fear.” Zechariah’s song is about hope, tenderness, light pouring into the darkness. (It’s worth reading). Our official Advent candle won’t be “joy” for another few weeks, but how do you read this song and not feel the joy rippling off the page?
How did Zechariah come to this kind of bubbly, bouncy music-making after the failure, the punishment, and the silence?
I don’t think Zechariah’s silence was punishment, loves. Not as we understand it.
I thought that Zechariah was being shamed and punished. I thought that Zechariah fell off the path, and then God smote him until Zechariah was properly embarrassed, and properly back in line.
But this silence was a gift. It shook Zechariah out of his neatly tended ideas of what “faithfulness” meant – so that Zechariah would be available for joy.
I think God wanted Zechariah to be the kind of human who could be this joyful. When we tend sturdiness at the expense of mystery and expectation, we can’t touch joy. Our rule-oriented, disenchanted way of following God can serve us well for years and years, but God is always trying to draw us to the new thing. God is always trying to draw us into joy.
Something new was growing in Zechariah in the silence, in the months where he was only allowed to observe and not to do, not to act, not to speak. In those months, when Zechariah simply was – next to his wife as her belly grew, being still and listening closely – something new was growing.
Serve Him Without Fear
The line that gets me most in Zechariah’s song is “so that we can serve Him without fear” (Lk 1:74).
I wonder what kind of fear had been lurking in Zechariah’s heart in all those years of faithful service. Scripture says that he was righteous and I don’t doubt that.
I also wonder, though, how much of his faithfulness was built on fear.
This final song that Zechariah sings over his new baby is not a fearful song. It bursts out of him, the first words he speaks after a long silence of waiting and watching and listening. It is a song of joy, surprise, and almost giddy worship.
This isn’t the kind of song that sturdy Zechariah could have sung before, Mr. “How Can I Be Sure.” This is a brand new song that can only be sung by people who have been surprised by joy. This is a song of people who have been released from their fear of getting it wrong.
God says, well, no, you can’t ever be sure, My loves.
My Beloved, you can never really know.
But joy is on the other side of certainty. Joy is on the other side of rigidity. Drop all the certainty and come and see what happens when you release expectations for expectation.
Come and see, blessed study, faithful children of the covenant! Come and see what happens when you aren’t sure, but you say yes to God anyway. Come and see what happens when you let go of what has served you in the past to see what new thing God is doing in the present. Come and see what it’s like to serve God without fear.
It’s all joy over here, on the other side.
you “enable us to serve You without fear,”
but we confess that we’ve befriended our fear
and are not even sure how to release it.
Take our hand,
and lead us to fearless joy that thrives without certainty,
that trusts that the left-turns will lead to You.