November 30, 2007

It was one of my most embarrassing moments in front of an audience. On a Sunday morning during church a few years back I was providing the special music during worship, playing my guitar and singing. There was nothing new here; I had done the same many times. But suddenly this moment in the spotlight turned into my worse nightmare. I had forgotten the words to the song. Regrettably, this just happened to be the one and only time my wife, Babs, and I have endeavored to sing together. And to make this faux pas even more inexcusable the song we were attempting to perform was an old-time favorite, “The Old Rugged Cross,” one which everyone in the audience would recognize and probably be silently mouthing the words along with us.
It was one of the few times in my life I have been struck with a devastating case of stage fright. I wasn’t concerned about my own performance but I was terrified that Babs might mess up her part. I had tried to talk her out of performing along with me but she insisted on being a part of the hapless duet. My fear of her possible failure caused me to draw a blank when it came time to croon the familiar words I had grown up singing, words that I had long before committed to memory, words that could be recalled at a moment’s notice almost anywhere, almost anytime, but not with my wife by my side in front of that audience.
For a while I faked a guitar interlude playing the same chord progression over and over again hoping the words would suddenly pop into my mind. After the monotonous guitar strumming had droned on for over a minute, however, most everyone began to suspect that something had gone terribly wrong. Fortunately Babs, with a look of utter amazement and disgust in her eyes, eventually caught on to my plight and began singing the words alone. With her leading the way I was able to join in and finish the sorry performance. It was a moment I will likely never live down, and one I certainly will never forget. Adding to my misery, I have been blessed with a group of wonderful friends who were in attendance that day who thoroughly enjoy reminding me of the time I was struck dumb by stage fright.
Have you ever been tongue-tied or suffered a case of stage fright and become unable to speak? Perhaps you have been stricken with a case of laryngitis. If so, you understand how terribly frustrating it is being unable to communicate. It is also frustrating to the would-be listener who may want or need to hear what we’re trying to say. My own communication nightmare came to my mind again the other day, not by a friend meaning to have some fun at my expense, but by God’s Word. While reading through the Christmas story I came across a kindred spirit, another servant of God performing in the Lord’s house who was suddenly, unexpectedly silenced.
I am referring to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Scripture tells us he had a communication problem, not due to illness or stage fright, but due to unbelief. While he was performing his priestly duty in the temple, the angel Gabriel announced to him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear him a son. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:17. But far from being overjoyed at the news, Zechariah had serious doubts. After all, they were both very old, well past the years for being new parents. Perhaps he was concerned for his wife and uncertain if she could fulfill her part of this “duet.”
Most likely, however, he just didn’t believe the angelic messenger. How could God make a dead womb live again? And why would God choose a relatively unknown, unexceptional, elderly couple like he and Elizabeth to bear such responsibility? When Zechariah expressed his doubts, Gabriel pronounced judgment. He would be silent, unable to speak until the time the angel’s word was fulfilled. He was struck dumb by unbelief. My memory lapse lasted only a minute or two. Zechariah had to endure his shame for nine long months. I can only imagine how embarrassing that must have been.
The silence of Zechariah was shouting to me from the pages of my Bible. In the deafening roar of his dumbness I believe there is a message ringing loud and clear for the church today. Like the father of John the Baptist, we have an incredible story to tell, the story of a miraculous birth. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6. Yet many of us never repeat this miraculous message, not to our work mates, not to our neighbors, not to those who service our cars or wait on our tables or ring up our groceries, not even to our families. Why the silence? I’m afraid most of us can’t legitimately use illness as an excuse. I suppose stage fright is a factor. But I wonder how we can be so vocal about advertising the virtues of our favorite political candidate, or arguing about the needs of our favorite sports team, yet be struck so dumb when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.
I think the real reason we don’t communicate the “greatest story ever told” is, like Zechariah, we suffer from unbelief. We can’t imagine that God would choose such relatively unknown, unexceptional, unqualified individuals as ourselves to shoulder the responsibility of sharing such a remarkably important message. We don’t believe we can tell the story adequately or convincingly. We don’t believe others really want to hear us. We don’t believe what we say could make any difference. We don’t believe it’s our job to do it. We don’t believe God can empower us to speak His message, or that His power indwells the message itself, or that the message has the power to open hearts and change lives.
So, like Zechariah, we remain silent, struck dumb by unbelief. But unlike Zechariah, our silence is self-imposed; our deafness, self-inflicted; our shame, self-made. Like the father of John the Baptist we have failed to fully accept and pass along the message of the miracle birth, the story of the arrival of grace and peace. But unlike this first century doubter, we are not being punished for our unbelief. Or are we? Perhaps the waning power and influence of the body of Christ in this society is a type of judgment the Lord has placed upon us. Are we the victims of our own silence?
Contrary to popular belief, the world is filled with ears eager to hear the sweet melody of peace on earth. The Holy Spirit is already playing the appropriate accompaniment, over and over again, waiting for us to break our silence and sing the words of the good news. They are familiar lyrics; we have sung them regularly since we were babes in Christ. The Lord Himself, our duet partner, is longing for us to join Him in the beloved refrain.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let earth receive her King:
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room. And heav’n and nature sing.
I’m afraid ignorance of the words is a poor excuse and a momentary lapse of memory is, well, momentary. How can stage fright be a problem when the Lord is standing beside us singing along? “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:19-20.
As long as there are people on this planet who haven’t heard the message, we (each one of us, no matter how seemingly insignificant, unqualified, unknown, unexceptional, or tone-deaf) have been called to sing out the good news. Every believer in Christ has been commissioned by God to sing the same song given to John the Baptist, to go before the Lord in the power of His Spirit, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” How frustrating it must be for those who desperately need to hear the song, who are longing for a message of peace. This time of year they certainly can hear very well the sounds of cash registers, frantic shoppers, and dime-store Santa’s. But when it comes to the needed lyrics of hope, will they hear only the sounds of silence?
By the way, when Zechariah did speak, nine months of frustrated silence burst forth in a wondrous song of praise. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” – Luke 1:68. Wouldn’t it be great if our voices, after years of silence, suddenly burst forth in praise! Would not the world take notice? Would not multitudes be moved to join the chorus? Christmas is a beautiful season filled with great opportunities to communicate the message. I pray for boldness in our witness. And I pray we won’t be too dumb to speak!

Bill, a child of God, no longer too dumb to speak

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