Today we are given a baby announcement for John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are a quiet couple who have endured much shame and disappointment. But through it all, they have been faithful to the Lord.
Elizabeth is a wonderful wife. She serves Zechariah with gladness. She helped out whenever called upon by her family, friends and neighbors. She can always be counted on in times of need. She is always ready with a smile and a kind word. Despite her outward appearance of joy, she has an inner pain that wouldn’t be soothed. This pain is compounded at times by comments or looks from others. In her youth these comments and looks came quite frequently. You see, she is childless. Try as she and Zechariah might, they can’t conceive. They’ve tried every trick in the book and saw every doctor they could afford. Nothing worked. Zechariah doesn’t blame or condemned Elizabeth. She refuses to blame him either. They simply lived their lives as best they can with the shame of being childless hanging on them like a blanket. They are past the years of having children now, so they simply accept their status in their community and their community accepts them.
Before Zechariah leaves on his week of service in the temple, Elizabeth makes sure his clothes are clean and fresh. She wants him to look his best. The priestly robes are kept at the temple to be used by all those who serve. Throughout the years she has made the journey to the temple while Zechariah serves on occasion. Her heart would swell with love as she watched him serving their Lord, clad in his priestly garments.
Zechariah looks forward to the semiannual service. He loves God with all his heart and is happy to offer himself in service, in any capacity God chooses. He hopes to someday be chosen by God for one of the more personal duties. As morning approaches on the day he is to set out for the temple, he goes to his quiet place to pray. Elizabeth prepares his breakfast and packs food for his journey. After his prayer time he returns to the center of their home for his meal and his parting time with Elizabeth.
In years past, Elizabeth would ask him to make a special request of God while he served. Her constant request was for God to open her womb and favor them with a child. She need not have reminded Zechariah each time as it was already on his heart to do this for her and himself. He knew the hurt she carried and would do anything he could to lift her burden. As of late, Elizabeth has stopped making this request of Zechariah. Elizabeth’s loss of hope hurts him almost as much as his empty arms. He says nothing of his pain though as it would most likely rekindle hers. This year they simply share their meal and a tender goodbye before Zechariah sets out for Jerusalem.
The third morning of Zechariah’s service week is beginning to dawn. The priests assemble for the morning casting of lots and assigning of duties. Everyone is gathered in a circle as the age old tradition of casting lots begins. The sticks representing those serving are given to the eldest priest who throws them to the ground in the center of the group. Duties are assigned, beginning with the most honored ones falling to the priest whose stick is on top. Assignment of duties continues on down the list with the next highest stick, and so on, until all duties for the morning have been handed out. To Zechariah’s surprise, his stick is topmost this morning. He is overjoyed to receive this once in a lifetime opportunity. He is to burn the incense in the temple. He briefly wishes Elizabeth was here to share this moment with him, before he clears his mind of such selfish things. This is a time to focus completely on God.
Zechariah takes the silver censer filled with incense and prepares his heart. He is honored by this opportunity but a little nervous too. He is going to be standing as physically close to the presence of God as he can get in his lifetime. The Alter of Incense is directly before the veil that separates the inner temple court from the Holy of Holies.
The gates of the temple have opened and the people gather in prayer for themselves and Zechariah as he steps into the temple. Zechariah steps into the inner court and makes his way across the room. As he approaches the Alter of Incense he is offering prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord. While he is pouring the incense from his censer Zechariah catches movement out of the corner of his eye. His head jerks up and swivels to the right. Standing there is a man clothed in white. Zechariah has two simultaneous thought cross his mind. First is, “I’m dead. This is not how I’m supposed to do this task. God’s is going to strike me dead for my sins!” The second is, “This must be a messenger from God! I’m dead!”
Immediately the one standing beside the alter knows Zechariah’s fear and addresses it first. “Don’t be afraid. I’ve come to tell you that God has heard yours and Elizabeth’s prayers. He is answering them for you. Elizabeth will have a son and you are to name him John. This is going to be a special baby. He is going to fill your hearts with joy and gladness. Not only yours though, but many others too. He is going to be a great man of God. He is never to drink wine or any strong drink. He will be filled the God’s Holy Spirit even before birth. He is coming in the spirit of Elijah. His job will be to turn the hearts of the children of Israel back to their God. This will include turning the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. But more than that, he will prepare the people for the Lord.”
This is a LOT for Zechariah to take in. He and Elizabeth are simple people. Why would the Lord choose to place such an important child with them? Besides all that, they are both too old to have children. He swallows his fear and asks the question the questions running through his mind. “How do I know this is the truth? Elizabeth and I are already too old.”
The man stands a little straighter and looks Zechariah deep in his eyes. “I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God at all times. I was sent directly by Him to bring you this good news. Yet you doubt. As a sign to you, you will be unable to utter a single word until the day when all of this is accomplished.” At that moment the angel Gabriel vanished before Zechariah’s eyes.
Zechariah felt so ashamed of his behavior. He began to weep. He tried calling out to God in repentance but he had no voice; exactly as Gabriel had promised. There is nothing more Zechariah can do but finish attending to his assigned task. As soon as he is finished placing the incense on the alter he retreats from the room.
The people outside who have been praying during Zechariah’s absence have begun to wonder what is going on. What has happened to him? Why is he taking so long? Has God struck him dead for entering the temple with sin in his heart?
Before all hope for Zechariah’s safe return evaporates he emerges from the door. He looks excited and scared at the same time. His eyes are wide and he is making wild gestures with his hands instead of speaking to them. They try to question him but he is unable to say a word. The people assume he has seen a vision while he was in the temple. HOW EXCITING! If only he could tell them what he saw. Finally they all give up trying to figure it out and go on about their daily routine.
Zechariah too becomes frustrated trying to explain what happened to him. He decides that the best thing to do is to finish his week’s service and go home. At the end of the week Zechariah nearly runs home. Somehow he has to tell Elizabeth about the visit.
As soon as Zechariah enters the home Elizabeth knows something has happened. Zechariah embraces her and begins raining kisses down on her face. Elizabeth enjoys this display of affection but is filled with questions. She stops Zechariah by placing her hand on his chest. “Please tell me what is going on.”
Zechariah tries to speak but cant. Worry seizes Elizabeth and she asks, “What happened? Do you need me to call the doctor?” Zechariah shakes his head no. Instead a gleam enters his eyes and he takes her by the hand and leads her into their room. He closes the door behind them and begins slowly and lovingly making the angel’s announcement a reality for Elizabeth too.
A month has gone by since Zechariah’s return. He still hasn’t been able to share the fullness of the angel’s message with Elizabeth. Today Elizabeth comes to Zechariah with a pained look on her face. She knows she is approaching the years of the cessation of her cycle, but it can’t be this soon, can it? As long as she was still having cycles there was still a glimmer of hope. Now it seems all hope is gone. She tells Zechariah that she believes her cycle have stopped because the time has already passed for her usual one. Zechariah’s eyes light up! Elizabeth looks at him with anger and turns to walk away. Zechariah reaches out to her and turns her back to face him. He places a hand on her stomach and smiles the biggest smile she has ever seen. He then points to Heaven. For a moment Elizabeth just stands there. Finally she understands his meaning, or at least she thinks she does. “Do you mean to tell me that God is giving us a child?” Zechariah nods his head very slowly while maintaining eye contact the whole time. Elizabeth screams and hugs Zechariah’s neck as tight as she can. The two remain this way for several minutes, crying their joy onto one another’s shoulder.
Elizabeth tells Zechariah that she wants to keep this experience to themselves. This is such a gracious gift that God has bestowed on them and she wants to savor it. Zechariah agrees with her. Over the next few months Zechariah will take on some of Elizabeth’s duties so she can remain in their home in the presence of the Lord with their child.
Father God, I know firsthand the joy of discovering that a new babe grows within. I can’t imagine the pain Zechariah and Elizabeth endured as month after month and year after year went by without ever tasting this joy. To make matters worse, their belief system taught them that this was a punishment from You. But it wasn’t. Instead You were preparing this couple for an extraordinary purpose. You heard their prayers from the beginning and every time they prayed after that. But You held off until just the right moment to answer those prayers. They had all but given up on ever having their prayers answered. “Just a little longer”, You said. Then You brought about a miracle in their lives that NONE would ever be able to deny. Because of the years of waiting, this couple had drawn close to You for support. They had found comfort and solace in each other too. They had grown stronger as a couple and would now be able to use that strength, in both relationships, to raise this gift of a child exactly how You instructed them to. They would willingly turn to You for answers in dealing with parenting questions, as You were the one who purposefully placed this special child in their care.
You work this way in our lives too. Our prayers are not always answered quickly or even how we want them to be. Sometimes the longing of our hearts appear to fall on deaf ears. Not so though. You hear each and every one of our prayers. Often we are not really ready to receive and appreciate the answers we are seeking. You help us grow during the waiting time. You bring us closer to You through the challenge of holding onto hope. Faith is built in the process. Trust in You is honed through the seeking process. No, we didn’t get what we desperately wanted but we got what we truly needed. A God who listens to our heart’s cry. A God who gives us comfort in the hard places. A God that tenderly woos us into a deeper relationship with Him. A God who, at just the right time, answers our heart’s cry. That cry might even have changed in the waiting because of the work done during the process. But You loves us enough to recognize what we really need and when we really are ready for it. Thank You for caring for my heart so carefully. Thank You for saying “no” to the prayers that would hurt me. Thank You for directing my desires until they finally match up with Yours for me. Thank You for holding me in the meantime. Thank You also for the quickly answered prayers. Those too bring me hope and build my faith and trust. Thank You for showing me Your hand at work in my life and throughout time.