In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.
Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Well connected to the religious establishment – a large and exclusive body – Zechariah ‘God remembers’, and Elizabeth, lived good blameless lives, devoted to the maintenance of their faith. Now in their latter years, they had managed to live through one deep regret – no child of their own had ever graced their home – one who would have completed their joy. I suspect they did not understand this lack of blessing, but in time reconciled themselves to it. The issue was settled. Or rather, the lack of issue was settled.
Unknown to them, but known to God (‘God remembers’): the issue is about to arrive. While offering incense to God in the Temple’s sanctuary Zechariah receives a wholly unbidden and terrifying visit. Gabriel ‘man of God’ wants to have words with him. The angel’s announcement of Elizabeth’s forthcoming pregnancy, together with the character and name of their son John is stated – Gabriel seems pretty directive, naming the child to be, gender, character, and his influence in his people’s life. Zechariah had much cause to be disturbed – even dumbstruck!
When maintenance of the faith becomes the overriding concern of the faithful people of God we do not anticipate that God will do anything new. It is then that our concern for mission atrophies or is contained by the boundaries of our tradition, or ones of our own our choosing. Openness to receive the grace of God is a gift we should pray for regularly.
Gracious God, let your Spirit so work in me that I remain open to your Word, patient enough to wait for it, sensitive enough to receive it, and courageous enough to believe and act on it. Amen
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister living in Glasgow in the Synod of Scotland.