A once in a lifetime event; a tremendous privilege and honor – that is what Zechariah had in store as he prepared to enter the temple and burn incense at the hour of prayer. As we learn in our text, the priesthood had been divided up among the families of the priestly line into divisions that each served at the temple in Jerusalem for a period of time.
There were a number of different jobs that needed to be done each day. There was the burnt animal offering; the meal offering; the maintenance of the candlestick; and the burning of incense at the hours of prayer. How was one to divide up tasks among the priests of the division assigned for that time? A very straightforward system had been devised in which priests were chosen by lot for the different assignments.
There was, however, one interesting wrinkle in the system. The offering of incense was considered a privilege and honor. And so after a priest was selected by lot to do this, he was not eligible again to do it until all the other priests in the division had also done it. For this reason, it was an opportunity that was most likely only going to happen once in priest’s life.
Zechariah’s chance had finally arrived! We know that it was a very meaningful moment for him, because of what Luke tells us about Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. He says that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” This was a pious and faithful couple – the kind of people you would love to have at your synagogue.
They were the kind of people who would be great parents. After all they would certainly raise them in the faith of the God of Israel – in the way of the Torah. Yet alas, Luke also tells us, “But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth had not been able to have any children. And they were now well beyond the age when it possible to do so. The description in our text, “because Elizabeth was barren” captures how the matter was viewed in that culture. For a woman to be childless in a world that wanted many children was to know not just heartache, but shame. It invited the question that maybe she had done something to bring this upon herself – that God would treat her this way. Yet of course, for a woman like Elizabeth, such speculation could not be further off the mark.
While the people were praying outside during the hour of prayer, Zechariah entered into the temple to burn the incense at the incense altar. As he did so, an angel appeared standing on the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel he was fearful. Yet the first thing the angel said was, “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.”
The divine messenger had incredible news! Zechariahs’ prayer had been heard! Elizabeth was going to give birth to a son. This itself was reason for joy and thanksgiving. But the angel went on to describe something far bigger than just the blessing received by an elderly couple. Instead this child was going to be an instrument of God in his end time work.
The angel said, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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.” The angel described not just a child, but a prophetic figure filled with the Spirit before birth.
Then he added, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.” The angel described the child as a kind of second Elijah, just as Malachi had prophesied in the fifth century B.C. when he wrote: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”
This was amazing and joyful news. Yet Zechariah’s response was not one of joy. Instead, it was one of reservation – even skepticism. He said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Essentially, Zechariah asked the angel for some kind of sign that would confirm the authenticity of his announcement. He asked, because he didn’t really believe the word he was hearing. It seemed too incredible, too grand.
We hear about Zechariah’s reaction, and we shake our head. How could he not believe this great news when an angel announced it to him? But are you really all that different? Do you trust God’s continuing love and care for you, or do you doubt him when things don’t go as you want? When the world makes it uncomfortable to keep God’s word, do you continue to walk in faith in the ways of the Lord, or do you take the easy way and put God second?
You could say that in your case, you have never had an angel appear and deliver that word to you. But remember what Jesus taught us in parable of the rich man and Lazarus. From hell, the rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers to turn away from their sin. Abraham responded, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The patriarch pointed out that they had God’s Word. When the rich man replied that if someone went to them from the dead, they would repent, Abraham answered: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The means of delivery is not the issue. Even the word of God delivered by an angel can be doubted and received with unbelief.
Zechariah demanded a sign – something more if he was to believe the angel’s word. And so the angel answered, “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. 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.”
The angel declared that he had been sent to bring good news. The verb used here is the same one that is used elsewhere in Luke to indicate the proclamation of the Gospel. This good news was not just the fact that an aged couple was finally going to have a child. Instead, it included what God was going to do through this child. He would be the Spirit filled instrument to turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
As we will see on the Third Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist was the final prophet God used to call Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. He would make ready for the Lord a people prepared, because God was sending his Son into the world in order to fulfill all of his promises to Israel. The saving reign of God was coming into the world, and God’s people needed to be prepared in repentance and faith.
During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the Savior. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, he was born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem. True God and true man, he was the saving reign of God in the world. Through his death on the cross God judged your sin in order to give you forgiveness. By his resurrection from the dead he defeated death. In death and in resurrection his was the end time action that Gabriel’s words recall.
We continue to hear the word of the Lord in the inspired Scriptures. We hear the assurance of God’s forgiveness, love and care. But unlike Zechariah we don’t need to ask, “How will I know this?” We don’t need to ask for a sign as proof, because God has already given it to us in Jesus Christ. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of the incarnate Son of God. By his life and ministry; by his death on the cross; by his resurrection from the dead God has given all that we will ever need to believe and trust in his continuing love and care. We have all that we will ever need to believe and trust in his forgiveness and gift of eternal life.