Yr A ~ Advent 3 ~ Luke 1:5-25
Today we get the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were the parents of John the Baptizer. Next week we’ll look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, who right after she became pregnant went to visit Elizabeth, her cousin. Today’s scripture takes place 6 months or so prior to that. I’ll be focusing on Zechariah today, who doesn’t really have anything directly to do with the story of Jesus’ birth, but Zechariah does serve as the embodiment of Advent waiting.
The story begins by establishing that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful and righteous people who come from good family lines. Unfortunately, they were never blessed with children (which was a significant cultural piece for folks then), and now they are “getting on in years” – the implication being that they’re beyond the usual window for baby-making.
Zechariah was a priest who lived in the hill country. The way it worked was that there was a rotating schedule of priests who took turns going to the big city of Jerusalem to serve in the Temple there for a couple of weeks at a time, then they’d go back home. The story picks up with him taking his turn at the Temple.
As it happened, he was selected to be the priest who would go into the inner sanctuary of the Temple to offer incense. This was a big deal and a great honour – a once in a lifetime kind of thing for a priest. It even says how the people were outside praying during this, which underlines how it was seen to be a very important and holy event. You could say that Zechariah was about to have his highest “achievement” as a priest. He would likely never again be given this opportunity, and he was about to enter what was, for him, the holiest place he could ever be in. Needless to say, he is primed and pumped, ready for a great spiritual experience – and man, does he get one!
Suddenly an angel appears and he’s terrified. The angel says, Luke 1:13-17
“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.”
How would you react?
I mean, first of all you’re completely overwhelmed by the whole experience, there’s a manifestation of the Presence of God before you, and it’s telling you that even though you and your partner are old and have never been able to have children that now you’re going to have one, and not only that the kid’s gonna grow up to be a major influencer in your religion.
Standing there in that moment, how would you respond?
Luke 1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “Sh’yeah right!”
(I may be paraphrasing a bit!)
Well, I guess Gabriel the angel didn’t think that was all that funny, and he gets a little testy!
Luke 1:19-20 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.”
And the moral of the story is that if an angel appears to you it’s best not to tick them off!
Because Zechariah doubted the blessing of the angel he’s struck mute until it all comes to pass. He leaves the sanctuary after having been in there much longer than was expected, and the people outside (remember, they’re the ones who were praying all through this) can tell just by looking at him that he’s had a significant spiritual experience.
Have you ever looked at someone who had a glow about them? That was Zechariah!
He couldn’t talk, but his face was apparently speaking volumes!
Then when his time of service ended he went back home, and sure enough Elizabeth becomes pregnant. With echoes of Abraham and Sarah we have an older couple somewhat miraculously, or at least unexpectedly, producing a child.
I find it amusing to think that Zechariah had to go home and try to explain to Elizabeth everything that had happened, and to persuade her to, well, you know, without being able to speak.
So, that’s the reading with a bit of explanation.
I’d like to draw three things out of this that I hope will give us something to ponder as we draw nearer to Christmas. read on