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 favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Who here has ever composed a Christmas list? It’s an active thing to do while waiting for the big day to arrive. It’s what we do while we’re waiting on Santa, waiting for those eight magical reindeer to appear and bring presents galore. I used to compose a Christmas list every year—the lego catalog was my particular guiding text in this activity, and it probably would have been easier for me to simply photocopy its pages and stick them in an envelope, but instead I dutifully copied down the list of desired items and stuck them in my stocking on Christmas Eve. I never considered giving Santa some preparation time, and perhaps that has much to do with the fact that I never received any of the items on my list. I read recently that those who give their time to answer letters to Santa Claus for the postal service have recently had to undergo extra training for privacy matters. The Postal Service had wanted to cut off the service due to privacy concerns, but vehement protests helped them see the light. As to what these privacy concerns are, I have no idea. Perhaps it is now a national security matter to divulge what legos I want.
Regardless, composing a Christmas list is an active way of preparing. When you think about it, the art of prayer often resembles a Christmas list. Our prayers usually do, and should, include a list of things that we are desperately hoping for. They are of far greater importance than the things on most Christmas lists, but they are desired things. Now there are many different ways to pray. The one that I follow is the ACTS formula—adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. My life tends to weigh far more heavily on the confession side of things, but I get around to supplication. We all have things we are praying for; for healing for some, guidance for others, peace, justice and a whole host of other worldly issues, as well as prayer requests for myself. We lay all these things down at the foot of the cross, before our Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that He will hear our prayers, hoping that He will answer some.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had a Christmas list. Well, they didn’t actually have a Christmas list, since they were on the early side of Christmas, but they had a prayer request, one from the depths of their aged souls. I don’t know how long they had been praying for this, but I suspect it had been for many years.
So one day Zechariah, a priest before God, was chosen to go into the temple to pray. He enters the sanctuary of the Lord, where God is supposed to be dwelling, and begins to pray. We’re told the whole assembly of the people was praying just outside the sanctuary, so we have this mass of people gathered to pray to God. I imagine each of them had different desires in the depths of their hearts, each different longings, different hopes and dreams. That day something extraordinary happened.
An angel showed up. Not to the entire crowd, but just to Zechariah. Zechariah is inside the sanctuary when an angel of the Lord shows up, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah, who has been praying to the Lord for years and years with no answer, reacts with…
He’s overjoyed, right? He’s been praying and praying for this day all his life. This is the biggest thing he and Elizabeth have wanted, and finally an angel of the Lord is standing before him. What could be better? Surely he has prepared himself for the coming of the Lord, right?
Not in this story. In this story, Zechariah reacts with terror and overwhelming fear. I can understand this initial reaction, I am certain I would be afraid if an angel was suddenly standing before me, even I was in a place where that sort of thing was supposed to happen. We get caught in our routines, and anything out of the ordinary is a surprise.
But what surprises is what happens next. The angel of the Lord issues great news to Zechariah: his prayer has been heard, and it will be answered. They will bear a son, and they are to name him John. He goes on to tell Zechariah the details, but in all of this, Zechariah reacts the same way another man did when he heard similar news: Abraham struggled to believe the news the angels brought him. “How will I know that this is so?” is Zechariah’s question. Had I been the angel, my response would have gone something like, “Well, when your wife is nine months pregnant and can barely move, perhaps then you’ll suspect something.”
The angel senses what is going on beneath the surface. The angel hears Zechariah’s doubt. He realizes that Zechariah does not expect this prayer to be answered, even in the presence of Gabriel, an angel of the Lord.
As a response, as punishment for his doubt, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be unable to speak until the baby is born.
Zechariah then emerges from the sanctuary, trying to take all this in while suddenly standing before the entire assembly of the people. Perhaps that is the first time he tries to open his mouth and speak, but nothing comes out. Somehow he gestures, and what a mime he must have been, and each one of them realized he had seen a vision. For some unknown reason, he continues motioning to them, his pantomime apparently making up the remainder of the service. He then leaves to go home to his wife.
Zechariah’s tale is an odd one. I doubt that many of us know people who can share a similar story. An old priest goes into the sanctuary of the Lord to pray, encounters Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, learns he’s going to have a baby, then is punished for not believing, convinces the whole assembly of the Lord what has just happened, then goes home to a grateful wife.
The great news of this story is that Zechariah and Elizabeth have the child in spite of Zechariah’s doubts, in spite of his lack of preparation, in spite of his faith in his prayers being answered. John the Baptist still shows up, nine months later, beginning a journey that changes the face of the world. Perhaps Zechariah didn’t expect the angel’s words to be true, but his prayers are still answered.
Thanks be to God that the same holds true for us. In spite of our sin, in spite of our inability to prepare, in spite of our entire society focusing more on the commercial side of Christmas, God still shows up and gives us the greatest gift of all. Perhaps we’re in the sanctuary praying but not sure when, or if, God is going to answer our prayers. Perhaps we haven’t even made it this far because we’re too distracted by life and the thousands of things that seem to be crammed inside. Perhaps by the time we get to Christmas we’re simply ready for it to be over.
But God still shows up, and God still shows us lover greater than we have ever known.
So how do we prepare for this? Advent is a season of preparation, a time in which we are to cleanse our hearts and prepare our minds for the mind-blowing event of Christ’s arrival.
Let’s look at the punishment. Why? Not out of fear that the same might happen to us, but rather out of the realization that when we are not actively preparing ourselves with our hearts and minds focused on Christ, we are not able to live as a full people. We are not fully using our gifts because we are not living as the people Christ has called us to be.
What gifts do you have that you’re not using? How has God blessed you, and how is God calling you to be a blessing to others? Zechariah lost his gift to speak. May we not lose our voices, but may we as the people of New Hope Presbyterian Church speak through our actions and through our love this Christmas season. May we be in prayer and in study so that we draw nearer to the God who comes to us on Christmas day. May we be in service, looking outward this Christmas season, looking for the chance to love and to serve those in need among us. There are thousands in Chattanooga who are hungry and in need; there are children who need someone to read to them at the Newton Center just as there are families working through Habitat who need help building a home. But those in need may not be that far away. The one sitting next to you in the pew may be in need of someone to ask, truly and sincerely, how they are doing. May we not forget that Christ calls us to love one another, and may we seek to mirror the love God shows in Christ by loving our neighbors, by loving the stranger, by loving our families and by continually giving our hearts and our minds to show our love and gratitude to God our Father in heaven this Advent.
Let us pray.