I think in pictures, so when I try to speak new thoughts, I function in translation brain. If you are functional but not fluent in another language, you know what I mean. A concept has to be conveyed as simply as possible, so that known vocabulary and grammar can convey the idea. When I am explaining new thoughts, or at least previously unarticulated thoughts, the words that wrap the thoughts may be simple and not precise. Sometimes when I’m “translating” from my mental images to words, I use stories. It’s hard. It feels the same as language translation. English has over a million words, and I can’t find the right ones.
I need grace from those who listen to my heart because words come out illogical and messy before I can think, reorganize, edit my thoughts, decide if that’s what I really mean. Once we had a lawyer housemate, and I drove him crazy when I said, “You have better training in how to prove your point than I, but I’m right.” This childish but true statement illustrates my struggle to convey all that is within me, so this morning as I was reading in Watch for the Light, a book of Advent readings, and I was so moved by Karl Barth’s teaching on Zechariah’s response to God’s good news. I was so moved to know others, great scholars and teachers, struggle to give words to what is known inside:
New International Version (NIV)
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
“There are so many gates and doors that must finally be lifted high and opened wide, and there are still many prisoners who must finally be set free. For truly we are among the prisoners, and among the gates that should be opened, I include our closed ears and lips. Our lips! Because we are actually quite similar to poor Zechariah, of whom we have just read. After all, something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out. Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people – a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing a stark truth – something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there.
It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us. It also saddens us to see other people coming and going, all in their own way, all in so much error and dullness when we have something to tell them that would help them. For we sense that their concern is at root our own concern. Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds – you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine. This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead. but with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other.
And then we experience the fact that we are mute. Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of our loneliness into community. Our talk is always such an imperfect, wooden, dead talk. Fire will not break out in it, but can only smolder in our words.
Hearing the story of Zechariah, I immediately have to think of myself. I have so often climbed up into the pulpit, and experienced just what is said here, ‘And when Zechariah came out, he could not speak with them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple. And he made signs to them and remained dumb.’ I once thought it so easy to preach, but now it strikes me as harder and harder to say what needs to be said. All the better do I understand the men of the Bible, Moses and Jeremiah and others who beseeched God not to make them speak of him, because they simply could not. All our lips are bound. And my plight is also your plight. I am not able to speak, because you too are not able. You do not speak with me either. What you say to me is at most only and incomprehensible gesture; I hear only words. O, our close up lips! Who can finally open them for us!
Zechariah was mute because he did not believe the angel. We all are just like Zechariah in the sanctuary. Every one of us has a hidden side of our being that is, as it were, in touch with God. We are secretly in a close connection with the eternal truth and love, even if we ourselves are not aware of it. And from this other hidden side of our being resounds a voice that is actually speaking to us constantly. ‘Gabriel, who stand before God,’ spoke to Zechariah. We could think of the words of Jesus, that even the least have an angel who always beholds the face of the Father in heaven (Mt. 18:10). This angel stands before God, but sometimes, in the sanctuary, he also stands right before us. He speaks with God, but he also speaks with us.
However else we think about it, the living word of God is available to us. It is a word that, in contrast to all human words, is clear, intelligible and unambiguous. Yes, this inward word of God, which God speaks to us by means of his angels, contains precisely that which so moves and unsettles us. It is this words that so delights and grieves us, and which we would so gladly tell one another.
Without this word we would not suffer so deeply from the need that presses in upon us, and from the injustice that we must stand by and watch. We would not be able to resist so powerfully and become so indignant against the lies and violence that we see dominating life apart from this word. We would not have the urge to exercise love and to become loving if it were not for the fact that within us is God’s voice, placed into our heart. In this way God spoke to Zechariah of something quite grand – a coming great decision and turning of all things, of the approaching better age at hand, of the Savior meant to become a helper for the people, and of his herald, whose father he himself would become.
Even if we have never seen angels standing ‘on the right of the incense altar,’ the fire of God can actually burn us, the earthquake of God can still shake us, the flood of God awaits to rush around us, the storm of God actually wants to seize us. O, if we could actually hear, if we could but hear this voice that resounds so clearly within us as actually God’s voice. If we could only believe. Then we could also speak. As Psalm 116;10 says: I believe, therefore I also speak. . .”
My friends, I want to stand in God’s presence, so I can speak good news.
Fire breaking out in speech. I want listen to that speech; I want the courage to speak that way, but I’m a bit like Zechariah mute with disbelief, fear to hope.
How could this holiday season look if I stand in God’s presence until my tongue and soul are freed to speak good news?