Advent Reflection: Sign Language

Advent Reflection: Sign Language

I find myself sympathetic with Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25). He has heard an awful lot in his brief encounter with Gabriel, the designated angel of Advent.

With our kids, the news unfolds slowly. First, “Honey, I’m pregnant.” Weeks pass and we discover the sex of the baby. Months pass and we begin to discuss a name. Years pass before the child’s life begins to reveal what he will do. Decades pass before the impact of his life is measured.

Zechariah gets it all in one brief six-sentence encounter. Your aging wife, well beyond child-bearing years (like Hannah was in the Old Testament), is pregnant.  It’s a boy. Name him John. The people of God will rejoice at his birth. Like the ancient Nazarites, he will not drink; instead, the Spirit of God will fill him. Repentance will follow in the wake of his words. He will make people ready for the coming of the Lord.

That’s a lot to take in quickly. Apparently Zechariah wasn’t ready to digest it all in one sitting. Besides, he is focused on his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer incense in the holiest of places. The people are outside praying and he is inside representing them to God, as a good priest is charged to do. The angel of Advent is interrupting his religious duty. I’m not at all surprised that Zechariah would respond, “Do you expect me to believe this?” And he asks for a sign.

Seems fair to me. Knowing your own reproductive capacity and that your wife, long past menopause, is pregnant—this is a stretch. The biology doesn’t make sense. Not to speak of all the other prophetic announcements. Thus his question, “How will I know that this is so?”

We live in a world where we would like God to make sense to us. Given the propensity of educated people to believe that all things can be examined, explored, and explained, we’d like proof when it comes to activity of God that is beyond reasonable.  We want a God who speaks sign language.

An Advent Sign

Zechariah gets his sign. He is struck dumb. Lest junior high kids hear this and find a new excuse for failing a test, this is not an act of God that renders Zechariah unintelligent. It is a frozen tongue, stopped speech, utter silence. The priest is emptied of words and filled with silence. This is the sign that God is at work.  Silence. Of all the ways the world prepares for the coming of God, this may be the most profound. We are struck dumb. We stop talking and behold the work of God before us.

The people are waiting outside for Zechariah to emerge and offer a word from God. They can only imagine the mystery of what happens behind a curtain in a place thick with the holiness of God. They have no idea because they have never been in there. To dare trespass on untouchable holiness is certain death. When he emerges, I’m guessing his face says something. I wouldn’t be surprised if it looked like the face of Moses coming down from Sinai after his encounter with the divine. Zechariah is supposed to pronounce blessing, sins forgiven, offering accepted—but he cannot speak. Apparently he and Elizabeth have spent many a cold night playing charades because he follows the pattern of God and uses sign language to communicate. They understand that he has seen a vision. They all go home without a word but with a sign from God through God’s priest that God is up to something in their world. Zechariah goes home and makes God’s prophetic baby.

Life unfolds in their home as Elizabeth relishes being pregnant. She talks with Mary—an old woman and a young woman both experiencing mysterious God-prompted pregnancy. Zechariah sits on the sidelines as the womb grows, knowing in his silence that God is turning the world toward God. It all happens just as Gabriel said it would. A boy is born. Zechariah gets his tongue back and announces that he is to be named John.

The lifestyle of a prophet emerges in the young man. He becomes the mouthpiece of God, a sign to the world that God is coming. His message fulfills all that the angel said. John declares that it is high time for hearts to turn toward God, for generational faithfulness to be restored, for skepticism to end, for business dealings to straighten up, for sin to be forsaken.

We were on the way home from our annual trek to cut our Christmas tree. In good Griswold family form, it was tied to the top of our van. We had stopped for the ritual hot chocolate and were singing Christmas carols. I noticed a new billboard. It said, “Welcome Home for Christmas.” And in the center of it was the risen Jesus, arms opened wide, a welcoming smile, grace exuding from a billboard. I suppose God still speaks in sign language.


  1. Thank you Dan I like the idea of God doing sign language!, I’m inspired by Zechariah and Elizabeth’ faithfulness and I feel sure her counsell would have helped Mary during her stay. So much so I wrote a book for Advent reflection available for Kindle. I’d be honoured to hear your feedback.

    The Wise Cousin

Speak Your Mind