Friday, 9 December 2016

Finding our voice

I've been fascinated recently by the story at the start of Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80), of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who became the parents of John the Baptist. What struck me about it is the famous part with Zechariah losing his voice, basically because he doesn't believe straight away the angel's message. But maybe what's more important is the voice Zechariah finds at the end of this narrative.
It seems to me that this story is about prophecy, about speaking up and speaking out. But the whole thing is set within and against rich tradition.
The first thing to note about the 2 characters is their names.  Zechariah means 'Yah(weh) remembered'.  Elizabeth could be a derivative of Elisheba, which means 'God of the oath'. Elisheba was Aaron's wife (Exodus 6:23), Aaron being the brother of Moses and the first high priest of Israel. So tradition, and especially the priesthood, looms large in this text. Zechariah is a priest, of the division of Abijah (the 8th division named in 1 Chronicles 24). He is on priestly duty when he loses his voice. A priest was a fairly high class citizen in those days, and an establishment figure. As a priest, Zechariah probably benefitted from the maintenance of the status quo.
Another early reference in their story takes us, and this couple, right back to the start of their people, with Abraham and Sarah. Like the patriarch and matriarch, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless (she was unable to have children, and both were too old, almost exactly what it says about Abraham and Sarah in Genesis). Barrenness is no obstacle for God in the Jewish tradition, as we see in the cases of Abraham and Sarah, Hannah (mother of Samuel), and the mother of Samson. All of their stories feature miraculous conceptions. So God had form here, in their tradition...
There is, though, an interesting juxtaposition of two details: first, both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous and blameless according to another important tradition - Torah, the Law - but despite this, they were childless. The childlessness is presented as a negative. Notice Elizabeth's reaction to her pregnancy: she says that God "took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1:25). Children were traditionally a sign of God's blessing (cf Psalm 127:3-5). Indeed, in much of the Old Testament period, children were your life after death, as there wasn't really a doctrine of the afterlife. So, in most English versions, the broad Greek conjunction kai (very often translated 'and') is here (Luke 1:7) rendered 'but'. It's like, they were really good and godly, but despite all that, God hadn't blessed them with a child...
And so, it all changes when Zechariah is on priestly duty, offering incense at the temple sanctuary. He receives a vision and commission from God. This reminds me of one particular prophet in the Jewish tradition. The prophet Isaiah also had a divine encounter and received his calling in the temple (Isaiah 6). I've read here and there that Isaiah may also have been a priest first. And another prophetic and priestly connection to this story is that Zechariah shares his name with another Old Testament prophet.  The prophet Zechariah seems to have had priestly roots, his grandfather Iddo having been a priest, and both Iddo and Zechariah are named as priests in Nehemiah 12:16.
The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will have will be every inch the prophet.  Firstly, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth - Jeremiah (1:5) and Isaiah (49:1) both speak of their pre-birth vocation, although the latter may have been speaking about Israel. His ministry may include a call to repentance, a classic prophetic task. He will go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah, perhaps the biggest hitter of all Israel's prophets, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord - again, very reminiscent of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 4:5-6. Again, John will be in the same category as Samson and Samuel, who were both consecrated as Nazirites it appears. So John the prophet, this marginal figure, is in fact in a fine tradition, a long line of prophets and reformers.
And despite the precedents, the traditions, the history, Zechariah fails to accept God's message at first, and that is why he loses his voice. And he gets his voice back only at the naming of John on the eighth day. Having been told to name his son John (which means 'Yah is gracious'), he finally gets his message out there when the relatives try to interfere, saying the boy should be called Zechariah. They don't agree with naming the child John because no one in the family has that name. In other words, they want to preserve tradition. But instead, God wants to pour out his grace and his Spirit to bring renewal, refreshing, reform, resurrection. How often do we say, or hear said, "You can't do that, because no one ever has..."?  Or, "It has to be like this, it's how it's always been..."
And so, having written it first, Zechariah is suddenly able to speak. And how. He has his voice back, except it's new, it's different. For the first time, he finds and uses his voice. It's a prophetic voice. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy. This isn't so much about the future, as about the past and the present, all in the light of God's mercy and salvation purposes. Zechariah picks up on some of the big, key parts of the rich tradition of God's people, and sees John's part in how God is going to get back to that, and bring the people back to it. Note, by the way, that Zechariah ('Yah has remembered') prophesies that God has remembered his oath (Elizabeth = 'God of the oath'). Zechariah here is a different kind of prophet to the one John will become. John will be a marginal figure, out on a limb, on the outside looking in... Zechariah is well-connected, an establishment figure. And sometimes such prophets are the most important. They can influence from within the system, effect change from inside.
I want to suggest that all prophets are interested in tradition, in their heritage, but they want to get radical about it. In fact, perhaps it is an appreciation of the tradition(s) that fires them, as well as the anointing by God's Spirit. But this is often not about the religious trappings, the veneer, nor about the establishment, the maintenance of the status quo and the dominant structures...
Zechariah has stepped out. Raised his head above the parapet. He's found his prophetic voice.
Prophets speak often with and usually to a tradition. Prophets often speak against the establishment or institution, for its own good and for God's purposes. Because a prophet will speak and act for God, not the party line. So, let's find and use - or else we might lose - our voice.

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