Advent Week 2: The Thrill of Hope

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.  Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.  But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him:  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.  He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.  Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.  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.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel answered, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple.  When he came out, he could not speak to them.  They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.  “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.  “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”  (Luke 1:5-25)

I am having serious difficulty in my relationship with God because of a situation that I have been in for two years now.  And many of us have difficulty when we must wait four days for an answer to prayer.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are far better people than us, because their people had not heard from God in over seven hundred years, and yet they still continued to serve God faithfully.

Zechariah and Elizabeth and their fellow countrymen were all descended from Abraham, who had lived two thousand years previous to this.  God made Abraham a promise:

I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.  Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.  (Genesis 22:17-18)

Those of you who are familiar with the history of Old Testament Israel know that two parts of this promise were fulfilled in short order.  Abraham had a son, Isaac; Isaac had Jacob; Jacob had a bunch of children and from there they became a numerous people.  They lived in Egypt as slaves for a while, then God delivered them and brought them to the Promised Land where they drove out the Canaanites and took over their cities.

Eventually Israel grew to be a kingdom; David and Solomon were their greatest kings.  From there, it was easy to project that Israel would become a hugely influential player in the world, and that all the world would learn the ways of God and be blessed.

Didn’t happen.

After Solomon, Rehoboam became king and the kingdom split.  Everything went downhill from there.  The Israelites were carted off by Assyria and Babylon; eventually a remnant returned to resettle their land.  But they never again became relevant on the world stage; they remained a vassal state to the powerful empires of Persia, then Greece, then Rome.

The low point came about sixty years prior to the events depicted in the above passage.  According to Jewish tradition, the innermost part of the temple, called the Holy of Holies, was where the presence of God dwelt.  No man could enter it and live, except the high priest, and he could only go in there once a year.  But a Roman general named Pompey came to Jerusalem and went right into the Holy of Holies, despite the insistence of the Jewish priests that he do no such thing.  The final indignity came when Pompey came out shortly after, alive, unharmed, and unimpressed.

This was a very sad day for devout Jews.  The meaning of the day’s events could not have been any clearer:  God had allowed this pagan general to enter into the holiest part of His temple, the place where His Name dwelt, and leave with no adverse consequence whatsoever.  Clearly this general, and the pagan gods he represented, were superior to Yahweh.  Clearly God had rejected His people and would have nothing more to do with them.

After this, lots of the Jewish people turned away from God in their hearts (understandably).  But a remnant of the people still remembered God’s promise and continued to wait faithfully for its fulfillment.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were part of this remnant.

There is good reason to believe that Zechariah’s father was present on the day that Pompey desecrated the Jewish temple.  Zechariah may have been alive then; even if he had not yet been born it is quite certain that he heard the stories about this dreadful day told after the fact as he was growing up.

Yet he and Elizabeth remained righteous, and he continued to serve God faithfully at the temple.

And how had God repaid them for this?

Elizabeth was barren.  In first century Israel, women were regarded as little more than ovens for the production of children.  Women could not vote, they could not own property, they could not own businesses, they could not do any of the things that we take for granted in our present age.  A woman’s entire worth was wrapped up in her ability to bear children–male children, specifically.  Furthermore, people in first-century Israel lacked our present-day understanding of biology that both the male and the female play an equal part in successfully bearing children.  So if there were no children, it was considered to be entirely the fault of the woman.  Thus, the worst possible thing for a woman in that culture to be was barren.

And Elizabeth was barren.

To make matters worse, people in first-century Israel understood God in such a way that barrenness was a curse from God, a sign that God had looked upon your life and judged you to be unworthy of the privilege of bearing children.  Elizabeth had suffered the fate of being under this negative judgment of God.

On top of all of this, Zechariah and Elizabeth had passed beyond childbearing age.  In other words, it just wasn’t gonna happen for them.

And yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth remained righteous and continued to serve God faithfully.

And then things began to happen.  Zechariah and his division were up for temple duty, and Zechariah had drawn the short straw to burn incense before the Holy of Holies that night.  Just him alone in the temple, with all the other worshipers outside, for what should have been a short, routine assignment.  But this took a whole lot longer than anyone was expecting, and when Zechariah came out he couldn’t speak.  Clearly he had seen something in there.

What Zechariah had seen was an angel.  The very first thing this angel said to Zechariah was “Fear not”.  Because Zechariah was afraid.  Every person who was ever recorded in the Bible as having seen an angel was afraid.  Next, the angel let Zechariah know that his prayers have been heard and that Elizabeth will have a child.

Of course Zechariah did not believe it.  Zechariah took the liberty to “remind” him that he and his wife were “getting up there”, so to speak, and were well past childbearing years.  And can we blame him?  For Zechariah, a whole lifetime of righteousness had been met with nothing but apparent inactivity and disinterest from God.  Can we blame him for taking the opportunity to let off some steam?

There were consequences.  Zechariah was mute from that point until the child was born.  But God was gracious and did not rescind his promise.  The child was born.  The child would go on to become John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus, the long-promised Messiah through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed.  God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled after all.