Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The birth of a baby is generally regarded as an astonishing experience. The simple reality of the coming of a new being into this world with all its potential is a source of wonder. The birth of this baby to Elizabeth and Zechariah is of course greeted with a particular joy (if possibly also some natural misgivings on the part of ‘older’ parents). Yet all is not wholly well. Zechariah is, literally, speechless, from the time of encounter with the angel, Gabriel. There is puzzlement that, apparently out of the blue, the mother has chosen for the child a name without any previous family connection. Zechariah has confirmed this choice by writing it on a tablet. At this, we are told, “all of them (presumably still the relatives and neighbours) were amazed”. Zechariah is no longer mute and praises God.
These two “miracles” of birth and restoration of speech might be thought to be glad news, yet the tone becomes less one of rejoicing and more one of awe and even fearfulness. This anticipates a later event when “Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today’” (Luke 5:26). Their understanding of what was going on had been challenged. Something more than a conventional birth, albeit in itself wondrous, had happened in their midst.
This amazement, awe, wonder, puzzlement, even anxiety fuels conversation and discussion: “all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’”. It would appear that these rather private, domestic events had burst out into the public sphere. Perhaps the conversations were no more than what we in Glasgow call, ‘the talk o’ the steamie’, the idle gossip of the everyday. Yet, there is also the possibility that a good number of folk were somehow touched by the events in which God had seemed to move.
The writer of Ecclesiastes suggests that ‘there is a time to be silent and a time to speak’ (3:7). We see this truth mirrored in the enforced experience of Zechariah. It may be guidance to us too. We are unfortunately prone to speak, sometimes rather definitively with too great assurance, on mysteries that are truly known only to God. At other times, we are strangely silent and our voice is muted, when we ought to be stimulating, and speaking into, the conversations that matter in our society.
Lord, grant us the gifts
of silent adoration before the deepest mysteries of your divine love;
of quiet humility as we engage with others in seeking to know your will;
and of a humble passion as we speak your transforming message into
the hardest issues of human living.
The Rev’d Dr Jack Dyce is the Principal of the Scottish United Reformed & Congregational College and Training Officer for the Synod of Scotland.