by James Lincoln on December 25, 2005
There aren't many episodes surrounding the birth of Jesus that are as humorous to me as this one. The minister in this story -- who is really a godly and noble servant - doesn't believe it even when the angel Gabriel tells him he's going to have a son. And in order to teach him a lesson God strikes him mute for nine months to give him time to think about it. I can only imagine smiles all around. Talk about a velvet hammer. Losing your capacity to speak for nine months sounds glorious to me. Think of all the trouble I could stay out of if I couldn't speak for nine months. Now don't get too excited; I could still write. So Thom could read my sermons.
Zachariah's a priest and a descendent of Aaron. As was Elizabeth, he's old. He's a good man - as men go - righteous and consistently obeying the commandments of the Lord. He's a man of faith (at least in the big things). And along with his wife, he's childless.
Two weeks each year his division of Levites came up to Jerusalem and served the temple services overseeing daily offerings, sacrifices and prayers.
Zachariah's Christmas began when he was chosen by lot to burn incense before the Lord in the Holy Place. Inside Herod's Temple the ministers huddled up and cast lots to see which one of them would be chosen. This time the lot fell on Zachariah. Later in the day would enter the Holy Place, burn the incense and spend an hour in prayer. The rest would go about their other duties. It was an honor to be chosen. Everyone knew that the lot was determined by God's choosing.
Elizabeth would have been thrilled to hear the news. But that was before cell phones. She would have to wait. Elizabeth was faithful, consistent, unwavering in her faith and barren. Hope for a child was gone. She was past the time for having children. Like Sarah she was advanced in years. Barrenness was a burden. In ancient societies, the prospects of family and nation were determined by the number of new children added to the family. As a rule, your income and your status were all determined by how many children you had. Today it's beauty and success. Then, it was bearing children. The more children you had the more hands you had to work the field, or run the store. Also, if you didn't want to starve to death in old age, you had to have adult children to take care of you. There was no social security. Not only that, if you wanted three or four children to live to adulthood you had to have ten because infant mortality rates were so high. Bearing children was literally a life and death issue for a family and a nation. So, women who bore lots and lots of children were considered heroes. And those who didn't felt completely useless to their family and to their nation and rejected by God. Walter Brugamen puts it like this:
"Barrenness in any ancient text or narrative is the effective metaphor for hopelessness. For without children there was no foreseeable future for yourself, you family or your people. Barrenness meant that there was no human power to invent a future at all."
That's why Rachel said to Jacob, "Give me children or I'll die."
Even so, Zachariah and Elizabeth had not let their disappointment with God change their priorities in life. They honored God and walked with God. But this was hard and confusing. Proverbs says that "Children are a blessing of the Lord and the fruit of the womb as a reward." But hadn't they been faithful all these years and yet there was no reward for them. In addition, others would judge them harshly. Certainly there must be some hidden sin that has brought this about? How does the heart carry the heavy burden of a fruitless hope? But in one way or another we all do. Anyone who has a hope that is dashed year after year knows what they felt.
Zachariah thought, "Yes, I have been chosen to burn incense and pray to the Lord and remember His mercies but I still don't have a son. Elizabeth is a good woman. Lord, how could you withhold such a blessing from us? How do I reconcile your compassion with such indifference to our needs over all these years?"
Not only is Elizabeth barren but her barrenness symbolizes a nation that was also barren and fruitless before God. Ministry has become professionalized and good theater. The ox knows its master and the ass its owner, Israel didn't know her Lord.
Zachariah was a good minister but his heart had become somewhat numb and jaded with serious questions about God. He's been praying and waiting for a long time without any tangible evidence that God really cares. Day in and day out he's without any hard evidence that God is listening to him. God hasn't spoken through a prophet in 400 years. However, on this day he's the chosen one of God to burn incense and pray.
For an hour he prayed mixing his own prayers with those for the nation as a whole. He prayed again for Elizabeth and that the Lord would comfort her for having no child. Surely by now it was a vain hope, like so many of the Lord's promises, set somewhere in the future beyond our reach. He sighed and opened his eyes. Lo and behold...v. 11ff
"Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
In the light of the lamp through the drifting haze of the smoke, Zachariah stood there gazing at the angel. At first he was afraid. As we saw last night the Christmas Light is not always soothing. In fact, it was terrifying. But his heart is also jaded. He stopped counting the years he had spent praying for his wife to have a child. There were all those years of empty waiting, all the heart ache of disappointed hopes, all the careful mastering of one's feelings and the discipline of pushing down the doubts. "Am I kidding myself into believing that all of this means anything? I don't see any evidence that it does?" God, I will serve you faithfully, but your ways...your ways seem like a bad joke.
All the resolve to go on believing, reading the Law, all the patient endurance of rude and arrogant foreigners who ruled the land, all the heart sickness for the uncleanness of men like Herod --- who had made the Temple a monument to his own pride and certainly not to God's glory. Zachariah felt compromised just being there. The temple was built with dirty/tainted money. It wasn't God's doing. The High Priests and their families mocked the holiness of God whose temple gave them their wealth.
Zachariah stood there, his heart pounding. But Gabriel remained. He knew he had to respond. He had to give an answer to the angel's amazing words. And out of his mouth came the question closest to his heart...the one most filled with the pain, sorrow and the bitterness of his long disappointed hope. Literally in v. 18 Zachariah said, "How can I know this (blessing)? For I am an old man, and my wife I advanced in years." Translators have added the phrase (for certain) to soften his cynicism. But it's not there. His is not a real question at all. It's a mocking paralleling Sarah's laughter at the same news.
This good man had spoken mocking words - in the Temple - before the angel Gabriel during the hour of prayer before the God of promise, the Living God who answers prayer. Instead of believing Him and receiving all of this good news, what does Zachariah do? He snaps back with trash talk. He mocks the Lord. How would God judge such arrogance and disbelief? The angel spoke but was there laughter in his eyes? (v.19)
"And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. 20 "And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time." NAS
What a merciful God we serve. Does he strike Zachariah dead? Does He retract the promise? Does he strip him of his ordination papers? No! What does he get? He's gets nine months of blessed silence! That was as much a gift as a punishment. It reaffirmed the promise is still in place: the birth of a son. It gave Zachariah time to give unbroken thanks to God the Most High. It gave him time to meditate upon the ways of our merciful God who blesses even those who have their doubts. It blessed him with a quiet season to anticipate the glory and wonder of the promise made and its fulfillment. If you don't talk back to people after a while they stop talking to you.
Gabriel left. Zachariah turned and left the Holy Place. The people could tell he had seen a vision. His demeanor was clearly altered. He tried to do some amateur sign language or nodding up and down and back and forth. But it wasn't very effective. He then completed his days at the temple service and went home to Elizabeth his beloved wife. And it came to pass that she was with child.
Like most of us, Zachariah's knowledge of God's word was mixed with both faith and doubt. He believed God in general, but not necessarily in the particulars. He had gone too long with a prayer request deep in his heart that was unanswered or, should we say, delayed. He was a man with a serious faith. We know this by the way Luke describes him: Keeping the law, fulfilling his responsibilities as a priest, faithful husband - he could have divorced Elizabeth but he didn't. He was righteous and blameless as men go.
But when Gabriel came with God's answer to his prayer he didn't believe him. This is the judgment of the angel saying, "Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time you shall be silent and unable to speak until the child is born." So he both believed and didn't believe at the same time. Someone else once said to Jesus, "Lord I believe but help my unbelief." This is the way we are. Some day, beloved, that won't be the case. Someday our faith will be unmixed and without contradiction. Let me draw some of these things together and see what they say about Christmas.
1. Once again God makes it clear that His salvation is a gift from heaven to be received by faith and not earned by merit.
First, just like Sarah, Rachael, Rebekah and Hannah, when God chooses to break into our fallen world and save us it only comes to us through a miracle of His grace. He saves us from outside ourselves. Jacob told Rachael when she complained about being barren, he said, "Am I in the place of God?"
This is the pattern of God's saving ways. What is impossible with men is possible with God. And here's what is impossible: that we should be called, righteous or saints. But in Christ that is exactly what we are called. Unless it's a gift nothing could be more absurd. Outside of a miracle of grace it would be a joke to say that we are saints. And if you don't know this you are just living in denial about the light of God's holiness.
Does Zachariah deserve to have his prayer answered? Of course not! He mocks God! His response is not a sincere question. It's a rhetorical question that means there is no grounds upon which he can know such a thing. He doesn't believe God even when God sends him his number one angel! And yet what does God do? He blesses him anyway and his punishment is as much a blessing as anything else. This is our God... the God of tender mercies. Merit is thrown out the door and grace marches in high and lifted up. Barren women and barren men and barren nations stand in need of God's gift of grace. The Christmas gift is the miracle of God's Grace.
2. God is always faithful to His word.
But here's the deal...He's not at all bound by your timing or mine in the way He goes about answering our prayers. He knows what is best for us and He won't even let our prayers get in the way of that. As with all the wives of the patriarchs God closed Elizabeth's womb so that she would be an illustration of His power and grace. Just like Sarah and Hannah... after so many years of waiting and beyond the age of bearing children.. all the evidence reveals that only God could make it so.
This is the hard side of God. He makes you wait. For gold to be produced, the dross must be separated by the heat in the kiln. God is making your faith like gold. And only God knows the temperature we need for that to happen. Waiting on the surface seems cruel and heartless. But in the end it will prove otherwise. It's the stuff nobility is made of. God is calling many of you to wait through what today seems like cruel or impossible circumstances. But God is always faithful to His word. 400 years earlier he promised through the prophet Malachi that,
"Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. 6 "And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse." NAS
Gabriel told Zachariah that his son was about to fulfill that promise. He would be the forerunner of the Lord to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Beloved, you know that there's a lot of deceit and deceiving in our world. There is so much that we learn not to trust - especially what is marketed or advertised. However, as Paul said, "Let God be true and every man a liar." It's impossible for God to lie. He is absolutely trustworthy and whatever promise he has made to you He will keep. And He has proven it! Paul says, "If He did not spare His only beloved Son will He not - along with Him - give us all things?" Nothing we need will ever be withheld from us. But we need to become a noble people, enduring and forbearing people and oaks of righteousness. That will mean some disappointment. We also need to become like Christ. And that will mean some suffering. But not suffering without hope and joy. God is faithful to His word and worthy of our trust.
3. Finally Christmas shows us the gift of His gospel. (25)
Elizabeth said, "The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."
Christmas is about the gift (favor) of God that takes away our disgrace. The truth is that we have all disgraced ourselves before God and others. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But as the angel said to the shepherds, "Behold I bring you a gospel of great joy, for you and all the peoples, today in the city of David a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord."
Through faith in Jesus the Lord, the disgrace of our sin has been cast as far as the east is from the west to be remembered no more. He has cast our sins into the deepest sea. Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. And then in His kindness he gives to us the record of both as a gift to be received. All of His perfect righteous record is now transferred to us.
Today we will open many gifts or for those impatient Scandinavians who have already opened their presents last night, you have already opened many gifts. Beloved, let's be sure to open the greatest gift today. It's a gift of God's grace. It's a gift of His faithfulness to His word. It's a gift of good news. Let's rejoice and rest in the best gift today. And by God's grace today, we don't have to wait nine months to talk about it!