It has been said that many cynics were once great optimists. They were once full of hope and optimism, but after too many disappointments, or perhaps one large disappointment, all that hope and optimism was drained and was replaced by pessimism and cynicism. I think Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, may have been such a person.
This is, of course, my own interpretation of these events.
First, let’s get the technical stuff out of the way.
Luke’s gospel begins with the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1.11-17) to Zechariah while he was ministering in the temple. In response (Luke 1.18) Zechariah asks what seems to be a legitimate and justifiable question about how what Gabriel just promised him would happen. Even more so when you consider that both Zechariah and his Elizabeth are “advanced” in years and likely unable to naturally have children at this point. Yet in the verses immediately following (Lk 1.19-20) Zechariah is rebuked by Gabriel for not believing what was announced.
Many English translations fail to capture the tone behind Zechariah’s question, which is a limitation of using text to communicate something. Usually it is translated something like: “How will I know this?” In English writing when “how” is used as an interrogative (to ask a question) it is usually interpreted as a request for information, so Zechariah’s question comes off as a simple request for more information about how the promise will be fulfilled. However, that is not really what is going on here. Zechariah’s exact question is: κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο; The word of interest here is the first one, κατὰ (kata). It is a preposition and it is being used here (in my opinion) to indicate a norm or standard. Sometimes that norm or standard is known (e.g. Luke 2.39, John 19.7), but here it is not. Instead, Zechariah uses an interrogative pronoun (τί) as the standard. Zechariah is not providing a norm, or standard, or law, or rule or whatever; he is asking for one because he does not believe one exists that allows an old couple to have children.
So, once we put this all together what we end up with is really not a question, but a challenge. Zechariah is more or less saying to Gabriel: “I know how the human reproductive cycle works and I know that for me and my wife it has ceased working. Show me how you will make this cycle work for us.” Or in other words, he is asking “How will this be?” while having already concluded that it is impossible. I think The Message also captures the idea quite well with: “Do you expect me to believe this?” This is why Zechariah is punished. His “question” is coming from a place of doubt, unbelief, and cynicism instead of belief. He was not curious as to how the impossible would happen; he had already concluded that it would not.
Now, with the technical stuff out of the way let’s turn to personal concerns.
Zechariah (and Elizabeth) are said to be righteous people (Luke 1.6), but yet Zechariah is filled with cynicism. These might seem like odd bedfellows, cynicism and righteousness, but it is a combination we can see in Zechariah and a combination that exists among many Christians.
How this plays out on a practical level, I think, is that we have a tendency to confine our cynicism to one particular matter. We go about our lives following Jesus and pursuing holiness. We continue to persevere through trials. We find reasons to rejoice and celebrate. We find reasons to mourn and weep. All of it. Zechariah continued serving, but also continued to hold to his cynicism in the matter of having a child.
We also, I think, continue to hold to our cynicism in that one matter and we try to distract ourselves from thinking about it or dwelling on it because it hurts too much. We might even succeed in keeping it away for long periods of time. No matter what we do or how well we do it though that cynicism remains and waits to reappear.
Christmas is one of those times where, I think, that buried, hidden cynicism comes out from the cave that we shoved it into and starts causing issues. It might be that the usual slowdown of business (for many) around Christmas removes the usual things we use to distract ourselves from whatever the issue is. No longer able to lose ourselves in our jobs we are forced to once again face the cause of our cynicism. It could be that there is one less seat at the dinner table than there used to be. Or perhaps there has always been one less seat than we desire. Maybe we are childless like Zechariah and seeing all the children excited about Christmas and presents and whatnot just thrusts that dagger a little deeper and turns it a few degrees more.
Our desire might not even be unreasonable. It might even perhaps be justified. Having children is part of God’s design for humanity (Gen 1.28). Children were part of the blessings for obedience:
Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. - Deuteronomy 28:4 (ESV)
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. - Psalm 127:3 (ESV)
Not having children was a source of shame (Luke 1.25; Gen 30.23; 1Sam 1.6).
For Zechariah, being a righteous person, to expect the fulfillment of this promise is not unreasonable. And yet he has lived (presumably) to an old age, lived righteously, and does not have any children. Whatever he was feeling as a result of this was not enough to cause him to denounce his faith in God, but it was enough to make him bitter.
So, what do we do about this? Is there a cure for this cynicism? Or once we get it are we just doomed to feel miserable for the rest of our lives?
You would think an angel appearing to you and announcing a future miracle giving you what you had longed after for so long would be enough to remedy even the coldest cynic, but apparently even this was not enough for Zechariah. Instead, what apparently cured him was his forced nine months or so of being unable to speak. While I have not personally experienced sudden onset temporary muteness I suspect that it feels like being an exile in your own body. You want to talk. You know you can talk. You have talked in the past. But now all of a sudden your body is not cooperating and is preventing you from talking.
In my personal exile-in-my-own-body experience it was my energy that was taken. There were plenty of things that I wanted to do, but my body simply would not give me the energy to do them no matter what I tried. And although the circumstances surrounding my experience and the circumstances surrounding Zechariah’s experience are different I think the experience itself produced a similar change in each case. Exilic experiences have a way of breaking your will and crushing your hopes and dreams.
Crushing hopes and dreams might sound harsh. It for sure feels harsh to have them crushed. However, the reality for the follower of Christ is that often such incidents ultimately end up being therapeutic. Sometimes, I think, these hopes and dreams obstruct the path that God is leading us down. They might not be bad desires in themselves; they could be reasonable or even good desires. They are however incompatible with where God is leading us and that is why they must be crushed.
Sometimes our desires are held so deeply and so embedded and justified in us that it takes an exilic experience to break us of those desires so that we can go where God is leading us to go. At some point during his nine months of muteness Zechariah got the message that his son would be forerunner of the Messiah. Yes, this fact was communicated to him by Gabriel (Luke 1.13-17), but it did not seem to take root in Zechariah’s heart. There was no room for it amidst all the cynicism. Once his own desires were finally out of the way Zechariah could see clearly what God wanted him to do: raise John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.
May Christ remove from our hearts the cynical, stony, and unresponsive areas so that we can be responsive to the calling of God on our lives.