Sunday, December 4, 2022

Paradox and Promise

Today we light the second candle of Advent. As we move from Waiting to Anticipating, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth as told by Luke acts as a hinge between these two themes. Luke jumps right into his book with Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story. In modern Bibles, the header reads, “The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold”, but let’s pretend for a little while that we don’t know that. Let us walk with this elderly couple as they step out the door that special day, having no idea what news was going to greet them.

In a society where it was expected that righteousness resulted in blessings, Zechariah the priest, a figure head of righteousness in his community, was missing out on one of the biggest blessing of all: children. Kelley Nikondeha’s second chapter of The First Advent in Palestine helps shape the context of Zechariah’s predicament:

“This dissonance is deafening. Righteous and barren. The advent narrative of Luke begins here, with a paradox.” (p. 28)

As a priest, Zechariah could expect a certain standing within the social structure maintained by the Romans in Judea. However, Zechariah was not of the priestly elite, but an ordinary community priest. On this particular day, he was chosen to fulfill his twice-annual duty in the inner holy areas of the temple.  

“Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:8-9).

Part of Zechariah’s duty included praying for the people as the incense was lit. The very people represented by those standing outside the temple—fellow Judeans living oppressed lives under Caesar’s Pax Romana and under the puppet king, Herod.

Nikondeha observes: 

“As an ordinary priest he stood in a unique position in Judaean society, able to see the economic inequity and just feel its pressure. Perhaps these paradoxes were the heaviness he carried into the temple as he stood in front of the altar of incense. . . Zechariah entered the holy space yoked with barrenness: unfruitful land, sterile futures caused by Caesar’s so-called peace, and the absence of future generations in his own priestly line. He carried the ache with him as he went inside to the altar. The first whiff of holy smoke escaped and ascended like a prayer.” (p. 29-30)
Zechariah was there to intercede for his community and that of the holy city of Jerusalem, but we all know from experience how hard it is to compartmentalize a worry. It seeps into our thoughts, unbidden, at the least opportune times. But this was a house of prayer. . . God had been hearing Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayers for as long as they had been praying them, but this was the time and place He chose to enact the next phase of His plan to change the course of history.
“And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.’

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ 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. 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.’”
(Luke 1:11-20).
You can imagine the chaos that ensued as Zechariah exited the temple. Maybe earnest onlookers were hoping to hear a prophetic word from Zechariah’s the deep sanctums of the temple, or to receive the Aaronic Blessing from the priest as a benediction. But Zechariah could do neither. He must have had a thousand things he wanted to say, but God had taken away his voice.

I’ve never stopped to wonder about those silent days as Zechariah finished his bi-annual course of service at the temple. He must have had time remaining in his duties. Was he given special compensation due to his inability to pray out loud? And what about Zechariah’s second priestly course, six months after the first? He would have still been speechless.

Speechless. But still a learned man. I wonder how he spent his days. Did he dig deep into the Scriptures to learn more about what the angel had said? How much more attentive must he have been to Elizabeth and the growing child in her womb. And when cousin Mary arrived with a miraculous pregnancy story of her own, Zechariah could only sit in dumbfounded wonder as the women vocalized prayers and praises not regularly heard from women at that time. Had anything he’d learned about God prepared him for this?

But one thing was true: Zechariah and Elizabeth were no longer just waiting. The Lord had blessed them with a miraculous promise—a promise they would see fulfilled in a short nine month, and a larger promise that would start to take root with the help of their son. Anticipation and hope—feelings not felt in Judea for quite some time. In this first chapter of Luke’s gospel, things were already beginning to change.

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