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Advent Devotional: Zechariah's Tale

Devotional Reading - Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Thoughts for Meditation

This passage at the beginning of Luke’s gospel has often intrigued me. And, the more I learn about it, the more fascinated I become.  Here we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  Yet, like Abraham and Sarah, though they longed for children all of their life, they were barren, and they suffered the reproach of other people in their community because of it (v25). We aren’t told what that reproach was, but we can well imagine.  Even now many of us try to understand suffering, our own and that of others, as a judgment by God for sin.  It was no different then. And it is true, many sins have destructive consequences.  Yet Luke also makes a point to say that they were both righteous before God; they weren’t sinless, of course, but they were people of faith. No, though they were suffering, they were not being judged.  Then why were they suffering?  It was all so the power and glory of God might be revealed through them (John 9:1-3). This is a comfort to the Christian.  God doesn’t waste suffering.  He uses it to bring about amazing things. 

The time had come for Zechariah to serve in the Temple. Now, serving in the Temple was not incredibly out of the ordinary for him.  It was a special time, though; serving in the Temple was an honor his division would have only two weeks every year.  During that time, the priests would cast lots to determine who would go into the Holy Place to burn incense on the alter.  Only two priests were chosen each day, and each priest could only serve once in their life. So for Zechariah, that day was the pinnacle of his career as a priest.  And as he lights the incense, an angel appears to him.  The old man is stunned (terrified, actually).  He probably thought he was about to be struck dead.  But what does the angel say?  Gabriel reassures him. The priest and his wife would soon be filled with joy, for God heard their prayers.  The Lord is giving them a son, who they will name John.  The Messiah was almost here, and John was to prepare the way for Him. 

Zechariah’s question is understandable and seems innocent enough. How will he know this?  It is very similar to Mary’s question to the angel just a few paragraphs later.  Why then, does Gabriel take it as an indication that the old man didn’t him?  I think the answer lies in the question itself.  When Mary questioned Gabriel she simply asked “how will this happen?”  Zechariah’s question, though, is altogether different; he is essentially asking “how will I know this to be true?” Just like Sarah so many years ago, the priest hears the good news and scoffs a bit inwardly.  It’s a defense mechanism, I think.  He doesn’t want to get his hopes up.  Understandable. We go to God, again and again asking for healing, for Him to take away our suffering, for Him to make us whole, waiting for Him to answer…and it seems like He won’t.  And like Zechariah, after a while we throw up barriers; maybe we even stop asking.  We just don’t want to be disappointed again.  Unfortunately, we often become rather cynical in the process, and that cynicism can keep us from believing that God is working for our good and His Glory.  And our suffering?  It just becomes our cross to bear.

God deals with Zechariah’s cynicism gently, just as He deals gently with ours.  Zechariah will be unable to speak until his son is born.  That must have been frustrating.  But we can see something happen to Zechariah through this muted period.  He watches his son grow in Elizabeth.  He feels John kick for the first time, and hope and trust in God well up in his heart, up and up and up, until he must have thought he would burst not being able to let it out.  Like a dam about to burst.  And when it lets loose, he sings out with joy!  Just as Gabriel told him nine months previous. 

We can experience that too.  Zechariah experienced renewal because he saw God’s power and goodness in fulfilling the promises He made.  So we need to open our eyes to see it as well.  There are many ways to do this.  Many Christians make prayer cards, and they pray through them daily.  When God answers a prayer they write it down.  Reviewing the answered prayers is a good way to see God working.  Another way is to read history, particularly Christian biographies, so that you can get a view of how God has worked in history.  Yet another is reading or hearing the testimony of fellow believers – our brothers and sisters have stories to tell of God’s goodness to them; we just need to ask.  Perhaps the best way, though, is to look at the Cross.  Jesus came, not eschewing suffering, but suffering with us and for us.  And through the greatest suffering ever felt, He brought the greatest good the world has ever known.

For Prayer

Tell God of your disappointment and cynicism.  If you can’t think of any, ask Him to reveal them to you.   Repent of not trusting in Him as you should.  Ask Him to restore your joy of salvation, and renew your trust in Him. 

Devotional Songs

Zechariah by Rain for Roots - listen to Zechariah’s joy in seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises.

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This Is the Christ by Sandra McCracken

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Further Reading - Luke 1:57-80

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
    and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
    whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.