5-7 During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.
8-12 It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
15-17 “He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”
18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”
21-22 Meanwhile, the congregation waiting for Zachariah was getting restless, wondering what was keeping him so long in the sanctuary. When he came out and couldn’t speak, they knew he had seen a vision. He continued speechless and had to use sign language with the people.
Before the birth of Jesus there was another miracle child. Different sort of miracle. Fewer consequences over time, space, man’s place with God etc. but amazing nontheless. Zachariah was a priest – a man from a long line of priests. His wife Elizabeth had the same sort of lineage. They were people of God. They served, they took their place, they were well thought of. It wasn’t an act. It was who they were. Yet there was a prayer – a request perhaps long forgotten – but maybe not. There was no child. In the time of Elizabeth and Zechariah, this was a sadness beyond explanation. Initially, I suppose prayers for a child were pursued enthusiastially, with great faith – naming, claiming, calling down promises, waking each morning believing that this was the day. But, despite everything, no baby. Hope fades. There is a sadness, something missing but blessings were counted and life went on. Then Zechariah is performing his priestly duties, alone in the temple and the Angel Gabriel appears, at the right side of the altar. Now, with hindsight, if we were watching this in a film we would say all the clues were there. It is Zechariah’s one time in his whole life doing this. He is alone in the very epicentre of God’s place on earth and the Angel Gabriel appears with such splendour and force that Zechariah is paralyzed with fear. We would say that when the Angel gave notice that the promise was at hand and everything, every prayer, every petition had been fulfilled and the time was here – now, we would say of course we would believe the angel straight away. But, despite the evidence of his own eyes and his wobbly legs, Zechariah ignores all the signs and states that he doesn’t believe it. I like him.
At this point Gabriel is possibly a bit naffed off. (I have no idea if angels get naffed off) He has come bringing great and joyful news. He has also conveyed detailed instructions about the child’s diet and lifestyle. This son will be an amazing son. He tells Zecharaiah that he will be literally jumping for joy. Zechariah is not jumping for joy. I sometimes imagine Gabriel now curling his top lip onto his teeth the way that Eric Morecambe did when he was losing patience with Ernie. And patience is truly lost along with Zechariah’s power of speech. Gabriel is probably not used to being contradicted and he takes away the trembling but incredulous Zachariah’s ability to argue with him.
Everyone outside is now restless. How come he is gone so long? As soon as Zechariah appears, they are in no doubt. He has seen some kind of a vision but he cannot tell them what it was.
Although, Zechariah does not win any Brownie points for his unbelief, it doesn’t change God’s mind. The time is still now and Elizabeth is soon pregnant with John the Baptist who would distinguish himself in many ways – including managing to recognise the Son of God when both of them were in different wombs. Elizabeth, it seemed dealt with the faith issues a lot better than her husband. (Maybe that’s the morning sickness – it can focus the mind wonderfully)
When we wait for something, when we know something has been promised and it doesn’t happen, then not so much doubt but a dull acceptance creeps in. We pretend that everything is alright really. But God doesn’t really do dull acceptance and the time for the miracle came in God’s time. After such a long time it was maybe to be expected that Zechariah’s receptors to the true nature of God had become a little fuzzed over, yet a promise is a promise. I don’t for a minute think that giving birth to John the Baptist had been what this couple had in mind but the wait came to an end. I think we all get a bit fuzzy about God’s plan for us, especially as time goes on and not much seems to be happening but Gabriel is very firm on this – the time does come and when it comes God will show up as promised. And I think the last thing any of us want to do is upset Gabriel so probably best to believe what he tells us.
This has been part of a Blog thing called A Pause in Advent. Please go to http://angalmond.blogspot.com/ to read to some top notch Advent thinking pieces. We will be having a go at this all through Advent. You have been warned.