Hey I'm Josh Hawkins and this is episode 12 of Opening Up the Gospels. In Episode 11 we looked briefly at Luke 1 verses 5 through 12 and the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. We saw that they were both of priestly lineage and were righteous before God, but were of old age and Elizabeth was barren. This would have been a tremendous reproach for them to bear. Just imagine how they felt, countless times asking God at thirty, weeping still more together at 40, and groaning and losing hope at 50, unable to bear a child and assuming God did not hear them. They watched close friends become pregnant and have children that had grown into young men and women, as the pain of her barrenness went deeper. But as we'll see, the Lord had some other plans - major plans - for this couple from the hill country of Judea.
Let's pick up in Luke chapter 1 starting at verse 11:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 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. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 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. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 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.”
So remember the setting here - Zechariah's priestly division is on duty in the temple this week, and he was the one chosen by lot to burn incense in the temple and bring Israel's prayers before God. All of a sudden, as he's in the Holy Place, the angel Gabriel shows up to give him a message. This is all reminiscent of Gabriel's visit to Daniel over 600 years before. Now verse 12 just says "he was troubled and fear fell upon him". Of course there would have already been a measure of dread associated with entering the Holy Place and looking at that thick curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies where God used to dwell, but undoubtedly Zechariah is now scared silly. I have no idea what an angel looks like, but verse 11 says that he's there, just standing to the right of the altar that now has burning coals and incense rising from it. Just imagine how Zechariah felt - was he even able to compose himself and actually look at Gabriel as he was speaking?
Now Gabriel's entire message is significant, but he speaks an important phrase in verse 13. He says "Your prayer has been heard." But the all important question I want you to see here is "which prayer?" As I already said, surely Zechariah and Elizabeth would have prayed an endless number of times asking God to be able to bear a child. But Zechariah wasn't having his quiet time when Gabriel showed up. We can't forget what he's doing in the temple. He is standing on behalf of the nation of Israel who's looking for God to answer their corporate prayers for a deliverer, a king, permanent possession of the land, and all of the things He had promised them through the covenants. And this is where it gets awesome - it's so clear that the answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth's prayers as a couple is intimately connected with the answer to Israel's corporate prayers for God to do all that He had promised. Gabriel says that Elizabeth will bear a son and that they should call his name John, which means "God is gracious". Surely He was being gracious to both the aged couple and to Israel, because Gabriel said that John would bring them joy, thus removing Elizabeth's reproach among the people, and also would turn many in Israel back to the Lord their God as he prepared the people for the Lord's coming. In a couple of future episodes we're going to look much much more at the importance of John and his ministry to Israel and how it really sets the tone for so much of the things that are going on in the Gospels.
But here, just think about it - when it seemed like there was no hope for Zechariah and Elizabeth to bear children, and when it seemed like there was no hope for Israel as they lay under the oppression of Rome without a Davidic king, with no Yahweh dwelling in the temple, God was making it clear that He had not forgotten about all of the things He had spoken through the law and the prophets. An angel shows up, and the whole story is back in motion again.
Let's go back to Luke 1 and briefly check out Zechariah's response to Gabriel:
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 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. 20 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.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
The most striking thing we see here is Zechariah's unbelief. This message came from Gabriel, the one who stands before God and hears the what He decrees. Because of his doubt, Gabriel says he would be mute until John was born. Just imagine if you were Zechariah here. You get chosen by lot, you see an angel in the temple, and you come out mute. Now that's one crazy day at work. And it's not something that affected him just for the rest of the day, but for at least another nine months. He still had to finish his time in the temple with his priestly division. But now, he couldn't talk. What was it like being around him for the rest of the time? And then what was the day like when Elizabeth was going about her daily rounds and Zechariah was coming down the road back home and he returns and can’t talk? I mean, she never heard the story of what happened in the temple, and he’s trying to communicate to her. It's not like he texted her from Jerusalem saying "hey Lizzy, I can't talk and I saw Gabriel." Right? She possibly never heard the full story until John was born. Or perhaps just parts of it, as much as he could communicate without speech. Obviously she knew the main point, because she did get pregnant. But nobody else had heard what happened there… And for all that time, it was just a memory. And then when he could finally speak again, he told the story. What was home life like for the two of them for those months? Remember, this isn't a fairy tale and it really happened with two real humans just like us.
So looking back at the last couple of verses from this section in Luke:
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
So not only is Zechariah mute, but Elizabeth goes into hiding for five months, surely thanking and praising God for what He had done. What did their neighbors and those in the surrounding villages in the hill country of Judea think of them? Surely the rumors spread about a possible vision in the temple. But on top of that, what did Elizabeth's friends think when they didn't see her for five months? And then how great but how odd at the same time was the celebration when John was born and they see their friend who they hadn't seen for the past five months holding a newborn baby? In such a dramatic way yet in such ordinary fashion, John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way of Yahweh Himself, was born. Just when it seemed like there was barrenness and no hope, Elizabeth actually gives birth to a son. This is just like what's happened several times in Israel's history - think of Isaac in Genesis 18(:11) or Samson in Judges 13(:2,5) or Samuel in 1 Samuel 1-2. God opened the womb of the barren. Now It isn't an accident that this is right at the beginning of the story in the Gospels. It's supposed to tell us that God is again acting in ways that recall the days of old. Something significant was about to happen to the people of Israel.
Alright, well how about a few suggestions for meditation on this passage:
- First, ask the Lord about why He chose to do it the way that He did. He didn't have to send Gabriel, and he could have picked a completely different way to announce His coming.
- Second, ponder what it would be like to not be able to talk for 9 months. Then try to figure out how to explain what you saw when you and your buddies were away at work one week. This certainly would not have been easy for either Zechariah or Elizabeth.
- Third, for you women and especially mothers, think about what it would have been like to have your first child at an old age after you had been trying for decades. What would you be feeling?
Well next week we'll start looking at the birth of Jesus. I'm completely overwhelmed - there's just so much to say, so much to meditate on, and and so much to stand in awe of when it comes to His birth. I hope you'll join me next time. In the meantime, share these videos with your friends on social media, and tag your posts on the Gospels with the hashtag #gospels. I'm loving seeing some of the things you've been pondering and meditating on, so keep it up... Well, that's it for this week. Bless you, see you next time.