Candle Lighter: “The Light of the world is coming!” (As you light the fourth Advent candle.)
Reader: “My words will certainly be fulfilled . . . ”
Response: “. . .at the proper time.”
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long. When he finally did come out, he couldn’t speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures and his silence that he must have seen a vision in the sanctuary.
When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. Soon afterward, his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”
Reader: “The certain word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
Friends, there is such richness in that first paragraph. Our tendency is to read the words and move on. It pays to linger and ponder why Luke included each phrase that is there. When Herod was king of Judea (37-4 BC) put Luke’s account in historical time, E.g., this is an actual event in history. We’ll say more about Herod in a few days. Zechariah was a Jewish priest. All priests had to be Jewish and descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. In clarifying Zechariah’s lineage, Luke tells us he was of the order of Abijah. If we look in I Chronicles 24:10, we learn that Abijah was a direct descendent of Eleazar or Ithamar, two sons of Aaron. Luke also mentions that Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. When a priest married and the wife was also from the priestly line, this was viewed with even greater distinction in regard to piety. This is borne out in Luke’s next statement as he writes of their righteousness in the eyes of God. They were obedient to the Lord’s commands. The fact that they had no children was a distinct social stigma. Dr. Luke states bluntly that Elizabeth was unable to conceive. To make matters more hopeless, they were old! There is a recurring occurrence throughout Scripture. Have you noticed the various accounts of barren women? Sarah-Isaac, Rebecca-Jacob, Rachel-Joseph, the unnamed woman who was the mother of Samson, Elisha and an unnamed woman, whose son he raised from the dead, Hannah-Samuel, and Elizabeth-John the Baptist. If you think about it, each of these sons of previously barren women played a significant role in the unfolding of God’s grand plan of redemption. Back to Zechariah. There were twenty-four orders of priests with a large number of priests in each order. So the privilege of burning incense in the sanctuary of the Temple, the Holy Place, (not the worship center!) was determined by lot. Since there were hundreds of priests, this opportunity may come only once in a priest’s lifetime. This burning of incense was not in the Holy of Holies, since only the High Priest could enter that part of the Temple and Zechariah was clearly not the High Priest. You can imagine his excitement in being chosen for this task with a great crowd of people outside praying during his time in the Holy Place. Then an angel appears! Appearances of angels were rare and the usual response was one of fear and terror. Gabriel gave a rather blunt and shocking message.(This is the same Gabriel from the book of Daniel some 500 years earlier.) I cannot imagine being in that situation. He had doubts about Gabriel’s words. Ever the diplomat in his response, Zechariah described himself as old and his wife as “well along in years!” You know the rest. Zechariah was unable to speak until the child was born. Their child, John the Baptist, was of priestly lineage, proclaimed as a prophet, and hailed the coming of the King. God is in the details, then and now. There are no wasted words in Scripture.
Music: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” Josh Groban
Grant, O Lord, that thy Spirit may permeate every sphere of human thought and activity. Let those who believe in thee take with them into their daily work the value of thy kingdom, the insights of the gospel and the love of their fellow-men. Hasten the time when justice and brotherhood shall be established and when all men shall be brought into the unity of thy Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. ―The Oxford Book of Prayer, George Appleton