by Jared Johnson
I was teaching through the Judges in a high school class last year and told the students “the Bible is a soap opera.” One student in particular was scandalized. Of course, it’s infinitely more than that, but really, is there any other description for the 4 chapters of train wreck that was Samson’s life? It holds nothing back describing our condition, nor God’s intervention. His infinitely redemptive work is constantly on display – nearly always through our infinite ineptitude.
One episode from the early New Testament makes me chuckle. I have no trouble seeing myself in the story.
A Jewish priest, Zechariah, went into the Temple to burn incense, when his routine was interrupted by the blindingly pure figure of an angel who appeared and stood next to the altar. When the shock wore off, they had a conversation. And when Zechariah didn’t comprehend the angel’s message, he got put in his place:
Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.”
When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her.
When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!”
“What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.” Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.
(Luke 1.19-20, 57-64)
Side note: I have always been perplexed that Zechariah’s question (“How can I be sure this will happen?”) warranted such a harshly corrective response while Mary’s question mere verses later (“But how can this happen?”) was met with utter tenderness. The Greek recordings of each question are quite different. Two lessons are buried in that detail: 1) original language study is very important, 2) the impact of the non-verbals of communication are evident in the Bible.
Side-trip finished, I have no trouble seeing myself as the religious worker just ho-humming through his routine and wondering, in the face of such entrenched routine, how the astounding would come about. I have no trouble seeing myself as the overly assertive neighbors who knew better than the parents what needed to happen with/to their child.
Here’s the part that makes me chuckle: Elizabeth burst their expectations, to which they responded by then asking Zechariah – natural enough. But their next step makes no sense. Zechariah went mute at least a few days before Elizabeth conceived John. Zechariah got his voice back eight days after delivery. Therefore, he had been mute about 10 months. Mute. Gabriel said he would lose his speech. Zechariah could hear every detail he always had. Zechariah probably took a writing tablet to market and synagogue and had one handy in the house from day to day. He heard just fine.
So… when his neighbors – who had seen him interacting this way for almost a year by this point – wanted to get their point across at the circumcision, why did they use gestures? He wasn’t deaf, but they were acting like he was! He heard and understood them with perfect clarity, no hand-flailing required!
Isn’t that a great illustration of just how askew we get ourselves? How often did Jesus answer questions that weren’t asked? How much course correction did Paul give throughout the New Testament? James had to admonish us to do what we hear.
That’s why we have multiple leaders of any one church – especially a plurality of elders. Let’s listen with open ears and humble hearts to our brothers and sisters … and be ready to laugh at ourselves when we find ourselves “gesturing” at someone who can hear just fine.