Life is full of the unexpected. There are twists and turns all along the journey. We plan and we plot, but regardless of the clarity of the vision we have for our individual lives, unforeseen events happen.
Sometimes we label the surprises as good, and sometimes we call them bad. However we choose to interpret them, the unexpected weaves its way into every life.
In the first chapter of Luke's gospel in the New Testament of the Bible, a man named Zechariah gets a surprise. A big one. He's going about his regular duties at the temple (he's a priest), and it's his turn to be in charge of incense. In the midst of his responsibilities, an angel shows up. Surprise!
"Don't be scared" the angel says.
Almost every angel who appears in the Bible starts with that same sentiment: "Do not fear." It's a kind, well-intentioned command. But how could a person not be freaked out? A metaphysical being shows up in the midst of regular life with a message from God? I'd be stunned, too.
The angel surprises Zechariah with the news that even though he's in his elderly years, he and his partner, Elizabeth (also advanced in age), are going to have a son. The angel says they must name the child John. The angel goes on to describe that John is going to be really awesome and do amazing things and prepare the way for the Lord.
Can you believe it?
Imagine Zechariah's state of mind in that moment. Ponder the shock! He's just been told the news he has probably wanted to hear for the past 60 years. What a cool surprise, right?
And yet, Zechariah's initial response isn't anything like, "This is the best news I've ever heard. I'm really glad you stopped by today, angel."
Instead, Zechariah processes the surprising, unexpected news with skepticism. His response is very relatable. Our human brains tend to immediately discredit what we don't understand. Zechariah doesn't comprehend what the angel is saying, so he resists.
"How can I know for certain that what you're saying is true?" he asks.
The angel is not impressed with Zechariah's disbelief and hesitancy. "I'm Gabriel, for crying out loud! I literally stand in God's actual presence! And God sent me here to tell you this good news! That's how you know this is true!" (that's my personal interpretation of Gabriel's words; check out Luke 1:19-20 for the actual translation).
The angel goes on to describe that since Zechariah didn't believe the news, he's not going to be able to talk until it really happens. In the past, I interpreted the angel's silencing of Zechariah as a punishment. But now I wonder if maybe it was a gift that looked like a punishment. As is often the case in life, gifts come in mysterious packages.
All those months of being unable to speak must have been challenging for Zechariah, but they were also an awareness-building opportunity. That period of time gave him a chance to save all of his verbalizing and instead pay more attention to what was going on inside. He had time to get acquainted with his emotional responses in all areas of life. Since he couldn't speak his judgments and skepticisms aloud, he had to learn to process in a different way.
The story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son, John, is interwoven with the story of Joseph, Mary, and their son, Jesus. The season of Advent is a good time to delve more deeply into both family systems and explore each of their individual perspectives. They each have much to teach us.
Within Zechariah's story is an invitation for all of us to become more aware of how we respond to the unexpected. When things don't go as we plan for them to go, what do we do? How do we act? Do we become skeptics? Do we make room for new possibilities or do we shut down and close off? Do we get mad? Sad?
There's no perfect or "right" way to deal with unexpected parts of life. We certainly don't have to be a perpetual cheerleader every second of every day, and we don't need to meet all surprises with a joyful smile.
But we can become more aware of how we choose to respond to the unexpected. We can take a big step in life by just starting to notice our own emotional responses. That awareness is empowering and grounding.
Zechariah gets his voice back after John is born and eight days old. Zechariah is apparently transformed by his silent retreat. The first thing he does is share a proclamation of gratitude that begins with a word of praise and ends with the awareness that God is guiding us to the "path of peace" (see Luke 1:67-79).
May we all find our way to that path.