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Loosened Tongues.

Advent 2 Common Lectionary Year C

©2015 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Some of you are aware that I am currently enrolled in a doctoral programme in preaching at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis. There’s this unwritten book burning a hole in me about how Scripture,when handled with care, curiosity and even playfulness, can be this invaluable, inspirational, oftentimes challenging companion in our living of a progressive, open, compassionate faith in the world.

In the Jewish tradition, this open, inquisitive approach is known as Midrash. The Rabbis are fascinated with the ‘gaps’ in the biblical texts, and ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, suggesting all sorts of possible answers, believing that we encounter the Dream of God in the exploration of those divinely pregnant pauses in the text. Finding God in the gaps if you will.[1]

We do it often here, often enough that two weeks ago, when Joelle, Martha and I were exploring these Advent texts in order to plan worship, Martha noticed a gap in this Gospel story, and posed the question;
“Why did the angel shut Zechariah up?
What was the point of muting the man for 9 months?”
Surely his hesitation was justifiable?
Was that angel overreacting?
What does that say about God?
Isn’t that mean?

That’s Midrash, Martha! Niggling at the gap in the text, wrestling it, shaking it down, getting playful with it! Being prepared at times
to challenge God, to argue even, as you would, not with an enemy but a friend. The rabbis were never satisfied with one possible answer, but with many, so here goes….

Perhaps the Angel was on a tight timeline.
Perhaps they didn’t have instructions on what to do with a reluctant prophet. But that can’t be right! If you look at the sum total of prophets in our Bible, we’ll see an interesting recurring pattern: pretty much all of them had trouble with God calling their number, giving them a ‘holy’ word to speak, or a holy act to do.
Sarah, overhearing God’s strangers at her tent promising a child to her old age, flat out laughed her head off!
Moses, the greatest prophet of the Israelite people, hardly your model of vocational eagerness, comes up with not one objection, but five, including a speech impediment, a ‘trapped tongue,’
before ‘giving in’ to God’s call to become a messenger of God’s liberating news.
Jeremiah seemed to make a recurrent habit of saying “no,” to God, first claiming to be too young, and later, bridling his own tongue, refusing to deliver one more message of woe, until the words burned up inside him like a plugged volcano.
Ezekiel: Reading his encounter with God’s prophetic call is quite funny. It’s like watching God leave about 17 voice mails on Ezekiel’s phone, while Eke looks at the phone stupefied, for seven whole days….”That’s God calling me?”
And Isaiah, the prophet whose words fill our Advent ears with the most beautiful poems of promise and hope in all literature, even he tried to duck the call, saying
“Woe is me, I’m a man of unclean lips!”
It took a six winged seraph searing Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal to change his tune of woe into this, “Behold, to a people walking in darkness, a great light has come!”

I could go on, but we’ve enough to see the marvel and the Good News for us of this prophetic pattern of silenced, trapped, then loosened tongues. Three things I notice in this pattern:

a) When God calls our number to be one of God’s messengers of grace, or doers of the Word, there’s a recurrent tendency to look both ways, and under the seat, and presume God must have picked the wrong Moses, the wrong Zechariah, the wrong Elsa, the wrong Bob, the wrong Rod. Most of the time it’s we who silence ourselves, not believing that we are adequate to the task of sharing God’s grace, reluctant to utter a syllable, take a step.

In good Rabbinic fashion, on the other hand(!)
b) God it seems, tends to ignore the donkeys who jump up and down saying “Pick me! Pick me! I’m the best prophet, the best leader…. I have the skills, I can run the country, the church, better than anyone!” Here, the silence of God is deafening. God has little use for self-proclaimed, self-reliant prophets; they are too noisy with their own words, and deaf to the silence in which God speaks.

Scripture is clear on this: no true prophet, no servant of God sought the job. They were ordinary, sometimes quite odd, broken, of no account people, each found by God, called to a particular need of the world, and each knew themselves to be fundamentally reliant upon God to fulfil the demands of their particular call.

c) So, back to Martha’s question. I don’t know. But reading all the other prophet calls, whether the silence is angelically, or self-imposed, there’s also a gift to it. Ezekiel, Elijah, Jeremiah, Gideon, Moses, Elizabeth, Mary, John, Jesus, all entered into a time of silence, muteness, wrestling, contrariness, gestation, contemplation, a holy hush, time for the Word of God to whisper itself into the heart and soul, for it to quietly shape human word and action.
40 days, 9 months, whatever it took for
the prophet, the messenger, you, me, to be
refined like gold,
purified like silver,
cleansed, like white cloth,
until we become a vessel — still broken, chipped, human, ordinary, –but worthy of the truth of God.

So, if you are feeling muted, don’t know what to say, or do,
in response to some need of another that God has laid upon your heart and life, you are in good company, among the company of God’s prophets. God is refining, cleansing, preparing your voice, and your life for some declaration of grace that the world most needs to hearand it sounds something like the song that burst forth from Zechariah’s loosened tongue.

Let’s sing it, shall we? (VU901)


[1] “Midrash is commonly defined as the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah. It is a literature that seeks to ask the questions that lie on the tips of our tongues, and to answer them even before we have posed them” accessed Dec 4, 2015

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