The story of Jesus' advent begins with hope, expressed through the sacred writings and held deep within the hearts of all God's people. Hope was not defined as simply a means to get whatever it is we want as individuals, as it so often is misconstrued in our modern world. Rather, this type of hope was rooted in the covenant tradition of Israel which spoke of a coming Messiah who would establish God's throne over all of the rebellious nations and powers at work in the world. It was a hope which sprang from the community expectation of God's coming action; it was grounded upon his unfailing activity throughout many generations in the past.
The hope of Israel was shared by prophet and peasant alike, for all were considered as God's people, chosen and called to the work of redemption in this world. Worship of God centered not only on the past and present, but also on the guaranteed future that was coming to those who held fast to this covenant. And so it is unsurprisingly shocking that Zechariah, the old priest standing alone before the heavenly messenger, would dare doubt the words which had just been given to him.
It is shocking because of the absurdity of the situation: an aged (and supposedly wise) priest was leading the people of Israel in a simultaneous expression of thanksgiving and hope, now questioning whether or not this could possibly happen. All of the prayers, recitations, sacrifices, readings, pondering, teaching have been forgotten in this single moment of human stuttering. Yet, it is unsurprising in that this is what we always do; humans typically find ways to doubt the reality of things we were so certain of in theory. Quite shocking that anyone within Second Temple Judaism would raise such a doubt, quite unsurprising in that most of us wouldn't have done any better.
Zechariah is met with a consequence for his flinching faith - he is made silent until the fulfillment of the promise given to him. We would do well to notice here that this is no coercion of his faith; nobody is going to force Zechariah to believe. He simply asked for a way to be sure of all of this, and he was given one. The faith that he will later show us must come from his own desire to accept the grace of God working in his life, and his covenant community.
Sometimes even the leaders, teachers and preachers forget that faith is certain. Too often we get caught up in the wide definitions and expectations of hope that we overlook the fulfillment of our heart's truest desire. Maybe we're struck silent, or for a while we lose our opportunity to influence others with our faith. Maybe its the voice of the church which fades away from the public square because we didn't keep our message clear and gospel, to which we wait for our ability to accept it returns to us.
In our preparatory silence before the advent of our Lord, whether we reflect upon his first coming, greatly anticipate his second coming, or meditate upon the continual coming of his kingdom through is church, let us learn from those who still hold to hope and certainty: ". . . In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."