Zechariah’s Refinement: An Old Man Learns Something New

Zechariah's Refinement: An Old Man Learns Something New - For the Birds - By Leanna Coyle-Carr

From the lectionary today:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:78-79

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” Malachi 3:2-3

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6

Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist, was a priest.

He was kind of a big deal, really. Only descendants of Levi could be priests and he was one of them.

We do not know very much about his economic status or learning, but we do know that he had responsibilities in the Temple—a turn to touch the holy.

That is always a big deal.

The lectionary this week tells the story of John the Baptist. Starting with Malachi we learn that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way; “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:1b).

But this will not necessarily be an easy coming. It will be something to be endured like a “refiner’s fire” and “fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2). The messenger’s coming will require transformation of us all, but especially, Malachi says, of the descendants of Levi.

How interesting that John the Baptist’s own father was one such person.

Malachi believed that the all-male religious leadership he knew would especially feel the effects of the messenger’s coming—and that the well-being of the entire people would depend upon their heeding that transformation.

Fast forward a few hundred years and we see Zechariah tending his duties in the Temple. Along comes the angel Gabriel with good, good news. The messenger is coming, he says, and through your partnership with your wife!

Zechariah’s response, Say what? How will I know that this is so?

And the angel promptly strikes him mute.

(Public Domain)

(Public Domain)

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (Luke 1:19-20).

When Gabriel came to Mary, she too raised a question about the angel’s message—but her query was not one of skepticism like Zechariah’s, but one of process (see Luke 1:26-38). Instead of “How will I know?” she says, “How can this be? Help me understand what will happen to me.”

One response came from a man used to some measure of authority and certainty of will. The second from a young woman systematically disempowered by her community.

One response came from a man asked to do very little, only let in on the beautiful thing God was about to do through his marriage. The second from a young woman asked to do something that could not only jeopardize her familial security, but her very life, too.

And suddenly the silence makes since.

God gave Zechariah what he desperately needed in order to truly handle the holy. Instead of Temple duties, however, the holy was about to come in a new way—through women’s bodies and wild wilderness voices. Not through him.

(Public Domain)

(Public Domain)

God gave Zechariah the gift of silence so that his understanding of the holy could be blown wide open by the usually unheard and ignored voices in his world.


Gabriel’s seemingly harsh response to Zechariah was not Zechariah’s punitive consequence for sassing God, it was his refinement—it was his liberation that foreshadowed the liberation of all people.

Society so puffs up certain persons that they forget who and what they really are.

In my society these persons are usually white men of means and influence. Patriarchy, racism, and Western supremacy heap privilege upon privilege on these human beings, but absolutely strip them of what is really true:

That they are human. That they are merely human. That they belong as inter-dependent members of community.

It was some mix of like corruption that made Gabriel’s amazing announcement fall hollow in Zechariah’s ears.

Lying about who people really are, puffing them up or tearing them down, is violence that leads to violence. Malachi knew the refinement would be the most extreme and most necessary for the leaders of his day, for their puffed-up sense of self-importance meant others were not important, worthy, or really a big deal at all. The coming of the Lord’s messenger would shake all that up, though.

And indeed it did.

At the coming of his child, booming forth from the silence of his liberation, Zechariah the priest learned to “present offerings to the LORD in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3).

This looked like celebrating the gospel born by his wife, proclaimed by his son, carried by his cousin, and embodied by her child—all holiness that did not revolve around or require his blessing or will.

It looked like learning his place as a member in his family and in God’s gracious movement in the world, rather than the patriarchal pinnacle his society allowed.

His first words were in affirmation of Elizabeth’s voice when people questioned the name she gave their son. His next were a song of hope and justice that celebrated the dawning Light that we all so desperately need (Luke 1:67-79).

That he finally understood he so desperately needed, too.

How are we being refined?

When and in what settings do we need the angel to shut our mouths so that others may proclaim and be heard?

May God so bless us with the silence we need to hear her liberating voice and to celebrate the movement of the Coming One in those beyond ourselves, in those we least expect.

Bring this work unto completion, O Spirit.

Heal us, we pray.


Refinement can be a tough topic, beloveds.

Thanks for bearing it with me.