THE STORY OF ZECHARIAH – Matthew 13:13–17 – [And Jesus said,] “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
I t is fair to assume that Zechariah, like his wife Elizabeth, also struggled against shame, guilt, and bitterness in the long years of childlessness. But Zechariah was a priest! So, certainly, he knew enough of God to accept his good news when it arrived. Surely the priest in the family would be one of the first ones to recognize what God was up to.
When the angel Gabriel told Zechariah about Elizabeth’s upcoming pregnancy, Zechariah balked. “I am an old man,” he said, “and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Gabriel, who was already well acquainted with Zechariah’s age and Elizabeth’s conception troubles, decided to help Zechariah listen a little better the next time around. He imposed nine months of muteness on Zechariah (Luke 1:19–20).
Zechariah exemplifies the difference between hearing and listening, a difference that would characterize not only Jesus’ birth but Jesus’ entire life. As Jesus often said in his teaching, “Those who have ears to hear, let him hear.” My translation: Everyone nearby can hear my words, but not everyone will really listen.
Just think of Zechariah. As a priest, he had heard the biblical stories of God giving children to previously barren women. God had done it with every one of the patriarchs, for crying out loud! Abraham’s wife Sarah, Isaac’s wife Rebekah, and Jacob’s wife Rachel all experienced the very miracle Gabriel promised to Zechariah. Zechariah had heard all of those stories. It’s likely he had memorized all of those stories.
But when the hour came, hearing those stories wasn’t enough to help Zechariah listen to God.
It reminds me of the popular Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Written in the 1960s, the song was as much (or more so) a protest against war than it was a reflection on the birth of Jesus. But the questions that drive the song rightly capture some of the mystery of Christmas: Do you see what I see—a star, dancing in the night? Do you hear what I hear— a song, high above the trees? Do you know what I know—a Child shivers in the cold?1 The implication is that many people could have seen or heard these things. But somehow, they missed it.
When Jesus was born, the signs of God were remarkable. But even so, only a few people recognized them. Hearing, many people did not listen. Looking, many people did not see.
Zechariah learned to listen to God. When his son, John, was born, God opened Zechariah’s mouth, and the first words to usher forth weren’t words of frustration for his nine months of silence. They were words of praise for God’s saving work in the world:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old …” – Luke 1:68–70
Don’t skip that last line: as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. God had spoken. And now, at last, Zechariah was listening.
Don’t let God’s promises pass you by. Listen to his Word. He is speaking.
How well would you say you listen to other people? (Try to think of how other people would answer this for you!) Do you find it easier or harder to listen to God? Why?