Monday, December 7, 2020

To Not Remain the Same

When Zechariah was chosen to enter the temple and light the incense, it was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was weight to his task. It was not a daily routine for him. That day, he was the ambassador for the people, selected to lift up the nation’s prayers before the Almighty.

Nothing is happenstance for God. That day, that task, that man, were all appointed with a purpose and a plan.

Zechariah begins to light the incense, a prayer might have already been on his lips, when an angel appears out of nowhere. He is terrified. He was probably already quivering with nervousness as he sought to do the task correctly and reverently. But now an angel! Like angels are wont to do, he says, “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:13) Did it help?

And then the angel goes on: “Your prayer has been heard.” Which prayer? The prayer that was on the tip of Zechariah’s tongue? His petition for all the people of Israel? Or the prayer he and his wife had been praying for years and years without answer. The prayer for a child.


The angel says, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 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. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 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.” (v.13-17)

In that moment, God swung open the doors for his eternal plan. Israel had been waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been waiting. Now a baby was going to be born. Not the messiah—but His precursor. The one who would prepare the way. For nothing is happenstance with God.

The scene is perfect. Zechariah seems to be having the most amazing day. But then his sinful humanity encounters the awesomeness of God and he skids to a halt. “Are you sure?” he asks. To wait so long for something so big. This angel must be kidding.

This was Zechariah’s fatal mistake. Now we learn the name of the angel Zechariah has questioned: “I am Gabriel,” he says, “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 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.” (v.19-20)

As soon as I reread this portion of the story, a comparison between Zechariah’s silence and this year’s pandemic sprung to mind. Being without speech must have been incredibly isolating for Zechariah. He couldn’t perform his job as a priest. He had to write down anything he wanted to say. He couldn’t even praise God when he first saw it was all true. Elizabeth is the one who speaks praise instead: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (v.25).

What did Zechariah’s silence do? What purpose did it serve? What have these months of isolation done for us? I don’t quite know. But I wonder if we will we emerge from a year of loneliness, fear, anxiety, and loss with praise on our lips like Zechariah did.

The events of the Christmas story were not happenstance. Why would the events of our lives, today, be any different?

I can’t speak for Zechariah, but I’m sure he learned to cherish his days and trust God’s providence more wholly after this. In his isolation, I imagine he spent quite a lot of time in silent lament before his Creator. At his own stupidity, at the nation’s hopes and needs. Those prayers in the temple he could not pray out loud, perhaps they ran through his mind in quiet meditation.  

Whether we believe it or not, we have been given a gift. Time has slowed. Seemingly important tasks, occasions, and ventures have paled. Priorities have shifted. Our perspective has been altered. Time will tell how much these events have changed us.

It’s been said that God loves us too much to let us remain the same. I doubt Zechariah felt loved by God when the angel proclaimed silence upon him. But when he finally had the chance to speak again, his heart knew. Uttering joy at the birth of his son, he burst into prophecy:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
    and to remember his holy covenant,
    the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
    and to enable us to serve him without fear
    in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
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,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

(Luke 1:67-79)

Because of the tender mercy of our God.

(Inspired by Hannah Brencher's Advent essay, "No Random Days").

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