5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah,[a] of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “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. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 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. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 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.”
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “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. 20 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.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Skeptical about Joy
The ancient peoples of the earth did not want children as a stop on the road to personal fulfillment. The desires and rights of the individual were subsumed in the rights and desires of the larger community. To have children was part of nation-building. It was a person’s duty to populate the world. When Don Pedro, in Much Ado About Nothing, finally gives up his life of bachelorhood, he proclaims, “The world must be peopled.” In more ancient times nations understood the bearing of children as a mandate from God and a gift bestowed by the gods. Our modern idea that at about 30 a woman must decide if she wants to be a mother or a career woman, or some admixture of the two, is quite alien to the ancient mind. Elizabeth and Zachariah are not able to retreat into excuses about personal choices or career plans. A woman’s role was to create a home for children and raise the next generation of Israel for the glory of God and Israel. As a priest, the absence of a child would be humiliating. Zachariah serves God faultlessly as a priest, he and his wife are from a tribe set apart for God’s service, but they have no children. They are not serving God in line with one of God’s first commandments, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth.” I have met childless women who become bitter and twisted. Either they try and suppress their desire for a child and lie to themselves about the havoc it is wreaking on their souls. Or they allow the guilt and shame they feel to overwhelm them and sometimes this metamorphosizes into bitterness and cruelty. A woman like Elizabeth has learned to be at peace with a sinful world, even when her body is not allowed to carry the child she longs for. In an entitled world, it is a rare person today who truly lays aside their own plans to let the plans of God work through her.
Zachariah is told that he will be joyful. He replies like a depressed skeptic, resigned to a barren future. As a sign to himself and others he is silenced. I think that I, like Zachariah, have learned to expect little from God. He is beginning to lead me beyond myself, but I am skeptical about the academic ability he has given me, I scoff at my social opportunities, I am insecure about my preaching. Still Jesus leads me to know him, to be secure in him and with him I study, socialize, and I preach. I am not depressed like I was, but what is this life of joy? What is this life lived with God where we rejoice at what God does each moment of the day? Firstly we need to see God. However, God does not reveal himself so much to the busy and distracted. We need to be still and know that he is God. We need to cherish the lack of distractions on a long commute, we need to pause as we la our heads on our pillows, we need to set aside a time to cherish with a saviour we learn to love. Then the joy he has promised will seep from him through us and out to others. In this gray world, the colour of true joy would draw some attention.
It is easy to see how we can be faithful in our practices like Zachariah, but skeptical about your desire to work powerfully in us. Nothing is impossible for you. May it be to me as you desire it to be.
- How are Elizabeth and Zachariah described?
- How do they respond to God’s blessing?
- What does this story teach about God?
- How is it possible to be righteous and skeptical at the same time?
- What does God want to do through you? How are you responding?