Advent: Day 1

December 1, 2023 | Zechariah – The Story Before The Story

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 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.” Luke 1:13-17 NRSV

Zechariah is the first person mentioned in the Christmas story but often the last to be remembered. He was a priest in the division of Abijah, one of the 24 priestly details. Once a year, Zechariah and four other priests in his division would be chosen to travel to Jerusalem to serve in the temple for one week before returning to their families. Their work included burning incense, offering sacrifices, and casting lots to determine which of the five priests would be chosen by God to perform the most important duty—to enter the temple, light the incense at the high altar, and emerge with a blessing for the people who had gathered for the holy occasion.

One particular year, the lots are cast, and Zechariah’s name is drawn; he can hardly believe it. It is the honor of his life, and most priests never get chosen to serve at the temple, let alone enter the Holy place. His hands tremble as he offers sacrifices to make himself clean in the presence of God. Then, taking a breath, he steps into God’s home on earth. He is alone, lighting incense and chanting prayers under his breath, when he suddenly realizes that he is no longer by himself, and terror sweeps over him. (This is the curse of the comfortably religious; we are often terrified when God interrupts our routine.)

But it isn’t another priest who has suddenly joined him, instead, it is a holy messenger, the angel Gabriel who says what all angels say when humans discover their presence, “Do not fear.” Then, this messenger of God goes on to relay the news that Zechariah has been hoping to hear for decades but which has become all but impossible at his age. He will have a son, but not just a son, a son who will announce the long-awaited Messiah.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are holy and honorable people who have prayed since their youth for a child, only to be met with disappointment month after month and year after year. She has been labeled barren, a title that is grounds for Zechariah to divorce her, but he refuses. Instead, he lives with low-grade disappointment tinged with doubtful prayers that God might intervene, if not for him, for his wife, who bears the brunt of hurtful comments and pity from neighbors who wonder what she has done to be cursed with being childless.

But here in the temple of God, Zechariah hears the news he has been longing to hear. He and Elizabeth are going to be parents, and they are to name their son John, a name which no one in their family has, which is very out of the ordinary in that day.

Zechariah can’t believe it, and he says so. This is the last thing he says because the angel strikes him mute after that. He can’t talk—which may be the greatest gift he has ever experienced. Because while Elizabeth was the one with the title of barren, it has been suggested that the person who really holds that title in this story is Zechariah. The commentaries say it was his sin of disbelief that caused the angel to clam him up, but I am more inclined to label it a habit of hopelessness—a barren soul, void of faith and far too comfortable with disappointment.

Zechariah emerges from the temple where people have gathered to receive the customary blessing of the priest leaving the temple. But there are no words, only a one-sided game of charades because no one can guess what happened inside. So Zechariah goes home, and although he can’t talk, he can do other things, and his wife Elizabeth conceives a child in her old age.

A similar story of an unlikely and unexpected pregnancy is happening simultaneously to a beloved niece of Elizabeth’s named Mary. Mary visits Elizabeth during her pregnancy, and the story of Christmas bubbles up in both their wombs, although neither has any clue that the hope of the world is growing under their ribs. Mary stays with Elizabeth for six months and is welcome company since Elizabeth’s husband can’t say a word. He is undergoing a mandatory sabbatical, a gestation period of his own, where hope is preparing to be birthed.

Because sometimes silence is the best thing that could ever happen to us. Words bombard us. Very few of them come at us without an agenda, promising things they cannot deliver, arguing a point, or stealing our attention, which is precisely why silence is so hard to deal with, but often the very thing that can restore our hopelessness.

It is in silence that we make room for reverence. We leave things unsaid in order to refocus our attention on the hope-filled mystery of God, who hears our prayers and fulfills his promises.

Nine months after Zechariah’s encounter in the temple, Elizabeth gives birth to a son. At his circumcision, the family gathers, wondering what family name Zechariah will speak over him, but instead, he writes “the child’s name will be John”. With that declaration, Zechariah’s mouth is opened, and he begins praising God for his faithfulness. It is in silence that hope is restored and prayers are fulfilled. 

Zechariah is the patron saint of Advent, the season of practicing patience and waiting. Perhaps one way to quiet our doubt and fear in this season of anticipation is to make peace with involuntary silence. May Zechariah remind us that silence and waiting are not a curse; they are an essential part of a story that has an outcome that might seem impossible at the moment, but just ahead is a long-awaited surprise where God does something remarkably unexpected in our lives and the world. Which is a perfect message to start the season of Christmas with. Zechariah wanted a son; God linked him through that son to the story of Jesus the Messiah forever. We have a God who outdoes himself in remembering our longings and being faithful to his promises.

Is there something you have been longing for? Have you gotten too comfortable with disappointment? Is there a situation that seems impossible? You are not hoping in vain. In this season, may you trust the process. 

Daily Reading: Luke 1


December 2, 2023 | You’ve Been Bought With A Price
December 3, 2023 | The Significance of Bethlehem
December 4, 2023 | O Come, O Come Emanuel