I’ve often wondered why Luke devotes so much precious space of his gospel to the parents of John the Baptist. While I’ve seen a few theories, most aren’t satisfactory. The best (and most likely) ones play off the parallel with a barren Hannah and her son Samuel, the last of the judges before the kings and eventual kingmaker to David. Whatever the reason, I’m convinced that there must be a purpose beyond incidental detail. If nothing else, there ought to be something we can take/learn from the brief biographies that are included.
I think Zacharias often gets a bad rap for finding Gabriel’s announcement to be a bit much to swallow (1:13-18). First, both he and his wife, Elizabeth, are very old(1:7,18). The likely inference being that age had made conception a biological impossibility (menopause is past, and the little blue pill hasn’t been invented yet). Secondly, after years (perhaps decades) of trying to conceive – only to be disappointed month after month – to risk hope once again was more than Zacharias could bear (let alone subject his wife to). The reality is, faced with the same situation, there’s not a man I know who would have retained his voice – well maybe one or two, but my opinion of them is not very high (pig-headed fool(s) is the term that comes to mind). Rather, I think this passage describes a couple of extaordinary faithfulness.
How do I come to this conclussion and what can we take away from the first part of Zacharias & Elizabeth’s story?
- Zacharias and Elizabeth were faithful servants of God (1:6). The fact that Zacharias was a priest did not guarantee his faithfulness. Israel’s history was filled with more than a couple priests who rejected the ordinances of God. Inferred here, I think, is not only a couple who faithfully served God and lived out His commands (despite years of personal disappointment – no children), but a couple who still believed that God was still going to fulfill His promise to provide a Deliverer, an heir to the throne of David. After centuries of foreign occupation and waiting, many had given up hope in even the idea of Messiah – even among the priesthood.
- Although he was a priest, offering worship (incense) to the Lord, Zacharias didn’t do anything special to incite the visitation that would soon occur. There was no prolonged time of prayer, fasting, and sacrifice. Rather, God shows up while his faithful servant is simply doing his job (he’s a priest), fulfilling his obligations to God despite personal disappointment.
- God did not forget about His faithful servants or the cry of their heart. When Gabriel begins his pronouncement, he doesn’t begin with “the big plan (1:15-17).” Rather, he begins by declaring that God has heard his prayer and is about to answer it (1:13,14). It seems that God did not consider the heart cry of his faithful servants to be just an incidental detail. God could easily have jumped right into His plan and added an “Oh, by the way.” Instead He begins by saying “My friend, I haven’t forgotten about you.” This is more than a simple pronouncement, its a very personal reply. Even when Gabriel announces God’s intent to fulfill His promise to Israel, he does so in a way that connects the fulfillment of a very personal desire with the fulfillment of a life’s passion (the priest’s son will also be involved with fulfilling the priest’s life work and passion). It seems God not only remembers the cry of a faithful servant, but also the promise He made to a less than faithful people.
- While Zacharias may have considered Gabriel’s announcement (1:18) too good to be true, the old priest and his wife take a tremendous step of faith in response to the word they received. The natural thing for this couple to do would be to say that they’re too old to have children. The safest thing for them to do emotionally would have been to guard their heart and not rekindle hope after decades of disappointment. Instead, despite years of failed attempts, a moment of personal humiliation (poor Zacharias couldn’t even set the mood by whispering sweet nothings in Elizabeth’s ear), and a promise that seemed ridiculous on the surface this faithful couple takes the practical step they needed to take in order to see God’s promise to them realized.
This advent season, as we remember God’s faithfulness in the past, may we stand and act faithfully and diligently as we await both our Lord’s return as well as His call to us – even in the face of great personal disappointment and impossible acts of faith.
Pastor Jim Kushner