For 400 years God had been silent.
Priests still led worship, sacrifices were still offered, but no prophets spoke to the people, Messiah was nowhere to be found...
...until one day in the temple, a priest burning incense in the temple has an encounter with an angel. Zechariah doesn't believe what he is told, he and his wife are both getting on in years, but the angel says they will have a son who will be filled with the spirit of God and prepare the way for the Lord.
His disbelief is understandable. I would respond in the same way.
So the angel tells him he will be mute, speechless until the child is born, and so for 9 months he says nothing. First God is silent, now Zechariah. Until finally, his son John is born, and Zechariah's first words are ones of praise to a God who has not abandoned his people.
The canticle of Zechariah - the Benedictus, is recorded in Luke 1:68-79 and is going to be our focus this Advent season in the Contemplative Service.
In some translations it opens with the words 'Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who shepherds the people and sets them free.' As I've sat with that phrase this week it's opened up some tension within me. I'm drawn to the phrase 'Sets them free', it creates images of wide open spaces, but the phrase 'Shepherds the people' creates a contrasting image of fences.
One invites me to openness, the other creates feelings of confinement within me.
I imagine two sheep, both standing on opposite sides of a fence, arguing about who is inside and who is not. I've been those sheep, and I've wasted too much energy with discussion.
Intellectually I know there are many other images of 'Shepherd', Psalm 23 comes to mind, as do countless pictures of Jesus cradling a lamb that I have seen on many a Sunday school room wall. I also know that there are negatives about freedom - the responsibility of personal choice for example. But at this moment in my spiritual life I respond negatively to 'Shepherds' and positively to 'Set them free'.
I'm tempted to over analyze my response to the negative, to lose myself in that rather than allow God to speak to me in the part of scripture that is inviting my spirit. Advent is a time of waiting with purpose, of consciously silencing the outside noise and getting in touch with my inner longings.
Zechariah had 9 months of silence to grasp the miracle that God was doing in his life. Surely I can cope with 4 weeks?
So my intent for Advent is to notice where I am being invited by God, those things where I feel drawn. Words, phrases and images that invite me to step into a larger reality, a reality that waits in anticipation for God to speak and to move.
How do the words of Zechariah invite you today?
'Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, who shepherds the people and sets them free.'
Where in your life do you need shepherding? Where do you need freedom? What images come to mind to you today as you reflect on those words? What images call to your spirit and invite you to wait in silent anticipation with them this Advent Season?