First Mennonite Church
December 7, 2014
Zechariah and Elizabeth: Models of Sturdy Faith
Text: Luke 1: 5-25
In the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel we find the reasons and the process Luke considered to gather his material to write the book. Luke knew that others have attempted to write the story of Jesus. Luke, therefore, embarked on a quest to investigate and to put in order his findings about the life and ministry of Jesus. Based from the quality of Luke’s Gospel, biblical scholars say Luke did a marvelous work.
Luke writes like a great historian. He set the birth of John the Baptist within a historical marker: In the time of Herod. We do not know much about Herod, except that he was an evil ruler. From the biblical text, Matthew tells that Herod killed all babies under the age of two, only to get rid of Jesus whom he saw a challenger to his throne. But extra-biblical sources tell us that Herod loved power and was so paranoid in keeping it that he had three of his sons murdered. He killed one of his ten wives. And as one historian put it, “It is better to be a pig in Herod’s barn than to be one of his sons.”
Along with Herod, Luke introduces a priestly couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth. This couple comes from priestly lineages.
Some estimate that there might have been about 20,000 priests in Israel at the time, but there was only one temple. To divide up the work, the priests were organized into twenty-four ancestral divisions that served in Jerusalem twice a year for a week at a time. Zechariah and his relatives would travel to Jerusalem, consecrating themselves for their duties. You would recall Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan.” Of those who saw the beaten up man on the road were a priest and a Levite. Those probably were leaving Jerusalem after fulfilling their sacred duties.
The high priest was in charge to oversee all the daily activities in the temple. There were some jobs that were quite lowly and mundane, but one, however, had with it a certain amount of prestige. A single priest was selected daily by lot to offer the incense at the hour of prayer. Incense was offered at 9:00 A.M., when the gates of the temple were opened. But again, incense offered at the prayer time at 3:00 P.M. The faithful would gather at the time of prayer in the temple courts. The chosen priest, representing all the people, would enter the Holy Place and burn the fragrant blend of spices prescribed in the Law of Moses. The smoke of the incense rose to heaven, as did the prayers of the people.
Zechariah was chosen that day to offer the incense. As he was by the altar, an angel of the Lord appeared to him. And like many others in the past, who were visited by angels, Zechariah was filled with fear at the appearance of Gabriel. Thus the angel’s quick reassuring words, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah;” and the angel continued, “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a child and you are to give him the name John.”
John means: “The Lord has shown his kindness” or “Yahweh is gracious.” The angel went on to describe the joy and delight the child would bring to both his parents and to “many [who] will rejoice at the news of his birth.” To Zechariah’s amazement, the predictions of the birth of his son signaled something much more special than just the miracle of an older couple becoming parents for the first time. The birth of John signaled the resumption of the prophetic tradition long since ended with Malachi, some 400 years before. As the angel described the identity and future work of the baby to be born, it only made clear that John would not be a common man. John will not only revive and renew the revered tradition of the prophets of old, but will also introduce the long-awaited Messiah of God to his people. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” the angel said.
There are various aspects about the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth that are worthy of considering. Both of them came from a priestly lineages; therefore, both were familiar with the rituals held in the temple.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were a God-fearing couple. They had worshipped together in their local synagogue. Marriage counselors say couples who share a common faith experience and commitment are blessed to find strength and support in each other even in the most difficult of circumstances. However, having said that, let me say here that I admire Christian women who regardless of not having the spiritual support of their husbands, find strength in the Lord to continue in their faith journeys. To such women Paul reminds that their husband and children are sanctified because of their faith (1Corinthians 7:14).
In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, we can only imagine how many times Zechariah had to comfort Elizabeth because of her being childless. As Elizabeth openly admits in verse 25 that being childless had led her to suffer “disgrace among [her] people.” Let me pause here for a second. Childlessness or infertility is an extremely painful experience for couples. I am aware that passages like this can stir or arouse deep and painful feelings of frustration and disappointment in couple struggling with infertility.
Imagine how many times this God-fearing couple had prayed with tears to be granted the miracle and joy of parenthood, only to see themselves arrive at the stage in life where it begins to be physically impossible. For those of us who are biological parents, we can so easily take for granted the gift of procreation we have been blessed with.
Parenthood and particularly, motherhood is indeed cherished gift from God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us of Hannah, the mother of Samuel and of Sara and Abram, who were past the age of having children when God gave them Isaac. Based on the dialogue between Zechariah and the angel, it seems that Zechariah was not prepared for God to answer his prayer. It could be that his heartfelt petition to God for a son eventually became a routine script, a cliché, in his daily prayer. After praying for a long time for the same request, could it be that Zechariah got used to going through the motions of his prayers without truly hoping to get an answer?
What have you been praying for to God for many years and have not been answered yet? Do you still pray for it believing God is going to answer your prayer? Or are you losing hope it will ever be answered and it is becoming like a petrified spiritual artefact in your prayer life? Let us learn from Zechariah’s experience. Let us see how timing is important in God’s sight. Let us not lose hope. Let us keep bring our petitions before God, as if they were the first time we are praying for them. Zechariah was and still is a reminder that “God delays, but does not forget.”
The dialogue between the angel and Zechariah seems funny. When the angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear him a son, Zechariah did not hesitate to bring forth what he perceived as the main obstacle for it to happen. Zechariah said, “I am an old man,” but the angel replied, “I am Gabriel, who stands before the throne of God.” And this is very important for us to take note of. It does not matter who we are or what circumstances we are in. It is God’s promises to be with us in the valley or the mountaintop. God promises to be our strength and companion. He is the one who fills our heart with peace when our heart is troubled. He is our light when we face darkness. God comforts us through his Spirit and revives our heart when we are down.
Because Zechariah doubted the word of the Lord through the angel, he was struck mute. As the worshippers waited for all the priests to come out of the sanctuary, Zechariah delayed. And when he finally came out, he could not join the other priests in blessing the people. Zechariah was making motions with his hands and maybe trying hard to say something. But only had muffled noises came out his mouth. For at least nine month, if not more, Zechariah could not speak.
Just imagine how much Zechariah suffered during Elizabeth’s pregnancy. His heart was bursting with joy, yet his mouth had no voice to express it verbally. He might have wanted to speak to the baby inside Elizabeth’s tummy, but he could not. It all started the day he was met by the angel beside the altar. In Luke one, verse 68 tells us when Zechariah got to speak again. And the first words that came from his mouth are: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel ….”
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is the waiting period before Christmas—the birth of Jesus to come. Christ came as God’s fulfillment of his promise. But there is also a part human participation for God’s promise to be effected. In a time of deep hopelessness in Israel, there were still some faithful men and women waiting and hoping for the coming of God’s Messiah. In Zechariah and Elizabeth we see the sturdy faith of an elderly couple. When they were confronted with a triple whammy, so to speak, of being old, of having no children, and stricken with barrenness, God sends his angel to tell them that their prayers have been heard.
This story tells us that when we are faced with dead ends, when human possibilities are out of the picture, we have a God of possibilities. After all, maybe Zechariah and Elizabeth continued praying for a child despite their age. Maybe, this Godly couple trusted that God could do exactly what he did with Sarah and Abraham; thus, they continued praying.
Therefore, if you find yourself praying for something and have not yet seen an answer to it, Zechariah and Elizabeth might want tell you, “Keep praying.” We cannot go wrong with prayer. If anything has made God to operate, it is the prayers of his people. As James would say, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (5:16).
Keep bringing to the Lord that request you have been asking God this many years. As a congregation, let’s continue praying for the salvation of friends and relatives. Let’s keep praying for peace and harmony even when humanly speaking these look like impossible realities in today’s world. Let us keep praying for our children to abide in the Lord’s way. Let’s keep praying because our God is the God of all possibilities. Amen!