On this second Sunday in Advent we turn to Luke 1 for some more simple Sunday reflections on the story of the birth of the herald, John the Baptist. This week a closer look at Zechariah.
Getting chosen by lot to go into the temple to burn incense was a very big deal – a once in a lifetime experience for the priest. He entered through the big outer curtain out of sight from those outside, into the inner room beyond which lay the Holy of Holies.
In Ireland it’s very popular to believe that everyone has a guardian angel to help them through life. I suspect the angel that Zechariah met was not a cute cuddly personal encourager. Totally alone, he is scared out of his wits to see a a figure standing beside him. [I can imagine angels sighing every time they start a conversation with a human, thinking ‘Here we go again’ as they say ‘Do not be afraid ….’]
The angel’s prophecy is redolent with themes of fulfillment. The Spirit is once again acting in power; the focus is on God’s promises of salvation to his people Israel. The outcome is righteousness, repentance and spiritual renewal.
Zechariah’s song is a celebration of this momentous good news of the coming Messiah and the pivotal and blessed role of his future son. But is also very likely that many of the things that Zechariah celebrates did not later pan out as he imagined.
Yes, Abraham’s promise will be kept. Yes, salvation from enemies will come to Israel. Yes, her Messiah will bring deliverance and forgiveness and liberation. Yes, peace will flow from his coming.
But this won’t be through political or economic freedom from the stranglehold of a pagan Empire as Zechariah probably thought. I somehow doubt Zechariah had any idea that these future events would involve the death of his son, not yet born. That they would revolve around the the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah of whom John is to witness.
In Advent, as with all that follows, God does things his (surprising) way.
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 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 call him 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
67His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a hornof salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.