A Caller from Cyberspace

Paul Helm Articles
Among the morning's tide of emails, the usual flotsam and jetsam.  But one item caught my eye, the one headed 'Of Interest?' It should really have gone straight into junk. But I opened it. (I did not notice the name of the sender, in case you're curious).That was all. Which I did.

There was a lot of stuff in an unfamiliar language, and then the beginning of a text that I can best describe as 'interlinear', in unusual fonts.  At first I thought it was gobbledegook. Then I made out 'correct' and 'conveyed'  and suddenly realized that one of the series of lines was in English, though I cannot account  for its slangy style. That put me off a bit. Naturally I tried to download the pages. After all, I thought, there is junk and 'junk'.  But no success.  Nothing would cooperate.

So I did my best to read the lines, and scrolled down the text in an effort to copy them manually. I discovered that the English was punctuated, but in what follows I'm responsible for the paragraphs. As will become clear later, I had no opportunity to check my transcribing, and I apologise in advance for any inaccuracies there may be.

Here's the result:

My name is Zachariah. Earlier I wrote down how I thought and felt about what happened in the Temple and after.  Eventually the tablets were given to a young friend and he as told to do with them whatever he thought best. I've realized that there's more to be said, to correct some impressions about what my earlier account may have conveyed. This has been preying on my mind, and making me anxious. You may have come across some version of what I has written. If not, all this is not likely to make much sense to you.

First, at the time I was not 'old'. Or at least not that old.  For sure, Elizabeth was older than me. She'd pretty well given up the idea of having children, and so had I. But we were not old, remember. We were not Father Abram and Sarai all over again. Proof? Here I am, still around after Jesus' rising and being taken from us, and now I am most certainly old.  A lonely old man, looked after by my relation, Jesus' brother Joses. My wife Elizabeth, her cousin Mary, Joseph, my son John - gone.  And Simeon and Anna -  long gone.  Jesus himself - also departed, of course.

When I'm well enough Joses takes me to the disciples' meetings, though I don't care to be in crowds of people for very long.  My head spins. Besides, I still cannot work out how what was said to me in the Temple, and my 'song', connect up with what is going on now. Thinking about this also makes my head spin. Even though I was a bit of an odd man out I loved  those old days in the Temple, the Law, the routine, the solemnity, waiting for the kingdom. Things were never the same after the vision.

This is why I want to correct any false impressions about what you may already have read, before it's too late. My fingers are very stiff, and so Joses will be my scribe.

So that's the first thing. At the time of John's birth I was not old! When I was 'arrested' by the heavenly vision in the Temple, and it told me that Elizabeth was going to have a baby, I thought that my mind was playing up. Then, when this vision kept on and on,elling me all about the child that was to be born, my reaction was to mutter under my breath 'Don't get involved in any of this'. To say that both Elizabeth and I were too old to have children seemed to be a perfect way out. We'd been praying for a child, of course. But we all know that praying is one thing, believing that you'll get what you pray for is something else. So I blurted out about my age, and Elizabeth's. That would do the trick, for sure.  It would be clear to the vision that it had come to the wrong man. But of course I quickly found out that it made no difference.

This connects with another matter. In the earlier account I put down that I was in the Temple at that time because I had drawn the lot.  Now that bit was strictly true. But what also went through my mind (my brain was a bit more agile in those days) was: if I'm here by lot, then I'm here by chance, and at the time it seemed easy to see how the vision could have got hold of the wrong man. I reckoned that he was probably looking for someone else on my division, Benjamin or Obadiah, perhaps. (Though I must say that personally I'd not have gone very far to look for either of them. A couple of oddballs.  Snooty and pompous. Almost impossible to work with. ) Later, of course, when the vision's predictions about 'due times' came true, I had to think again about chance. That verse in Proverbs came into my mind.

The point is, when the vision occurred I was not the slightly sceptical, cool cucumber that my earlier account implied. I was completely panicked.

One very odd thing about the vision - Gabriel, as it called itself, but only when I pressed it - was that it appeared to be completely emotionless. When it said that what it told me was 'good news' it did not smile, and when it said that I was to be dumb as a result of not believing,  it took no pleasure in telling me. He was on the outside of all this.

At least, that's how it seemed. But I may have been affected by the incense.

The next thing I want to make clear is that being struck dumb is not a big deal.  Particularly as the vision told me that this was not to be a life sentence. (By he way, when I found it impossible to speak, the vision immediately went up in my estimation, I can tell you). Elizabeth soon learned to lip-read, and as I'd always been a bit of a writer, and prided myself on it, I made good use of our tablets to write down what had happened in the Temple, and then memorised it as best I could. Surprising how good your memory gets when you can't speak. In fact, (strictly between ourselves) this is was why I was so long in the Temple after the vision had left. I was scribbling down all that the angel had said as soon as I realized that it was impossible for me to speak.  By then I knew that this was serious stuff.  So Elizabeth lip-read, and I scribbled, and we got along fine. Though I have to say that dealing, or rather not being able to deal, with some of my neighbours was a bit of a pain.

But of course the surprising bit was about what this child of ours would be like, a preacher such as Elijah. This really made me sit up and take notice, but I was in two minds about what I heard.  As I say, I did my best to write down all the words of the vision as soon as I could.  But you must not think that the words made much sense to me. I'll try to explain how it was.

Normally, when someone speaks to you, you believe (or disbelieve) what they say because you understand  it.  If Elizabeth said, the meal is ready, I believed that the meal was ready. If the priest in charge of the rota said, you have drawn the short straw again, then I believed that I had drawn the short straw.  And so on. But when the vision spoke, things were back to front. I knew what he said was true even though I could not fully grasp it! I can best explain this - though it is not really an explanation, I know - by comparing it to a kind of feeling in the gut; though in fact not in the gut, but deep in my spirit.  

Later on, I used to be on the fringe of the crowds when our John was preaching, and I had the same feeling. And of course it was the same with Jesus - a deep-down recognition of his authority, even though, despite his grace and goodness and his biting wit and sense of outrage, much of his teaching was beyond me.

This reaction was really strange, and of course - looking back, though not at the time - it made my attempts not to have anything to do with the vision seem really foolish.

I knew about Isaiah's vision in the Temple, naturally, but I was not inclined to compare myself to that great prophet, and in any case the vision was hardly high and lifted up.  It was on my level, an angel of human size - but shining brilliantly - so dazzling that I could not tell what it was wearing, or indeed whether or not it was wearing anything at all. It spoke clearly and compellingly to me from the side of the altar, preventing me from seeing to the incense. I still remember how much that irritated me.

The instructions about how this child-to-be, for whom the name 'Zechariah' was apparently not good enough, was to be brought up, reminded me of other scriptural figures - like  Samuel and Jeremiah.  I found the idea of John being full of the Holy Spirit really weird. But not later, I can tell you. What a boy!  I still smile when I hear some disciple at the meeting being dogmatic on the point that 'the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost'. Really? Where was he before then, I ask myself? Are there two Holy Spirits, I wondered, my John's, and he who came to the disciples in the upper room?

Anyhow, I did not doubt for a moment that all this puzzling stuff was true, the truth of God, and therefore of great importance, though I could scarcely take it in. By the time the vision said who he was, it had almost become unnecessary for him to bother. I still wonder how he knew that I was sceptical about what he told me. After all, I was only asking him a perfectly reasonable question. What upset him, I thought -  though he did not show that he was upset, as I have said - and made him strike me dumb, was that all that I seemed to be interested in was the fact that a son for Elizabeth and me would shortly be on the way. In these circumstances, wouldn't you have asked him a question or two?

That's all that I have to say about the vision.  The last thing that I wish to comment on is my 'song'. I never could sing a note, by the way: so you mustn't thing that singing my song was a work of art.

Actually, before I come to that, there was the business about the naming of the child. It was no surprise to Elizabeth that I acted as I did, because we had discussed the name quite a bit, as you can imagine, through her lip-reading and my stylus. And all our close friends and relatives knew what was going to happen; or at least they did if they believed her. ('Tell Elizabeth, tell the world', we used to say. Not a bit like her cousin.) Their astonishment over the name was not the result of surprise over the name itself, but over our determination to stick to it.

And suddenly, while I was writing and at the same time moving my lips to Elizabeth in the way I had got used to, as my lips moved I began to hear sounds. At first it seemed as if I was hearing someone else.  But it was me speaking again, exactly as the vision had said! I remember that my mouth was parched and that I had a bit of a sore throat.  I was badly shaken, I can tell you.  Someone in the crowd passed down a flask of water. Was I glad of that! Afterwards some said that I shouted out with great joy.

It was after the birth of John, after all the gossiping had stopped, when I was once more doing my turn in the Temple, and had come out to the people, that I suddenly felt an urge to sing out, or least to call out. I should say that while the urge was sudden, my mind had become filled with the scriptures as I had urgently studied them in the months since the vision's visit. So - if I may say so - this was no empty-headed tavern song. All the same, the urge to sing was strange, particularly strange for me, for the most I ever did of this kind of thing was publicly to read the scriptures.  

Of course most of the 'prophecy' was a stringing together of scriptural statements and phrases/ This occurred  in a way that was  personal, and yet at the time what happened seemed perfectly natural. The words came into my mind one after the other. (A close friend reminded me afterwards that some of these verses had been memorized by our group who were waiting for the kingdom.) They seemed to fit together. First, statements about Messiah, which filled me full of deep wonder, but also with a sense of impending change. For by now Elizabeth and I knew of the strange pregnancy of cousin Mary (the Holy Spirit again!) and all that surrounded it; the appearance of Gabriel to her, Mary's devout song, and so on.  It began to dawn on me that what our small remnant - Simeon, and Anna, Mary, Joseph and our various families - had prayed for was going to have a fulfilment so immediate that it took my breath away. (I should perhaps add here that the remnant was not all that small - quite a few were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, though they generally kept quiet about it. Like in the time of Elijah).

I knew what the words meant, and yet I did not know what they meant. Does that make any sense? I was aware of what I was saying and in one sense I understood it. God was going to fulfil his covenant to Abraham through the house of David.  But what events did these words refer to? When would these events happen? In stages, or all at once?! It was all very well for Gabriel to say that his words would come true at their appointed time. (I've often smiled to myself at that!) I knew that the true meaning must be deeper than that given to such words by the zealots, those hot-heads, always sharpening their swords. For our need of Messiah was much greater than the mere overthrow of the Roman occupation, grievous and shameful though that was, and still is.

As I look back, the whole business seems even more puzzling. Nowadays the disciples clash with their own people and are hunted down and imprisoned, and worse. So where's the kingdom, and where are 'holiness and righteousness'?  I fear the return of the same sort of unbelief that I showed in the Temple, and I have to cling to this strange idea that the words of my prophecy are true and good words, even though I am still not confident that I know what they mean.

The same was true about what came at the end of my song, about our baby John. At the time they seemed so wonderful and you'll forgive me if I say that I feltpride in the fact that Elizabeth and me had been singled out.  But I'm absolutely sure that I could not have sung 'to shine on those living in darkness, to guide our feet into the way of peace' if I had known that our good and strangely outspoken and brave John would suffer so terribly at the hands of that monster Herod. (Even now I can hardly bring myself to repeat the words, though I still know them all by heart.)  The vision had never even hinted that this would be John's fate. Otherwise I don't know what would have happened. I'm glad, so glad, that his mother did not live to see that day, and wonder.......

The words on the screen began to grey out, and then they disappeared altogether. Believe me, I did all that I could to bring them back. There seemed to be a vague cloud in the room, and a funny smell of burning, rather sickly, but it quickly vanished.  I tried in junk, and in other accounts, but no joy. It seems that the text has gone forever, and with it the one who I referred to as 'The caller from cyberspace'.  

I expect that some who read this will find the whole thing as strange - unfamiliar, yet all too familiar - as I do.

Paul Helm is Professor Emeritus at the University of London.

Paul Helm, "A Caller from Cyberspace," Reformation21 (December 2009)

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