5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty,9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Luke 1: 5-25
“It’s my turn!” How many times did we say those words to Mom and Dad as their five children were growing up? Whether by entitlement or rotation, the time came and we wanted our chance to enjoy a privilege or opportunity. Haven’t we all had that in our lives? We wait our turn, patiently or not.
When I was ordained in 1982, it was the final year of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. With reunion in 1983, the opportunity for a teaching elder to serve as a commissioner to a PC(USA) General Assembly would come “once in a lifetime.” I waited patiently. My time came. Where might assembly be my year? Hawaii? Alaska? California? It was 2004. The GA met in Richmond, VA! Oh, well. But it was wonderful!
Zach waited his turn. His priestly division is managing the temple and his “once in a lifetime” moment happens. Zachariah (which means “The Lord Remembers”) enters to burn incense symbolic of the prayers of the people being lifted up to God. No one else is with him. The crowd is praying and waiting outside.
Then it happens! The angel Gabe appears, right beside the altar of incense, right beside Zach. Fear strikes the priest. But Gabe delivers good news about a pregnancy. Elizabeth (which means “My God Is an Absolutely Faithful One”), who with Zach is old, who has never had a child, is going to become pregnant with John (which means “Gift of God”). Here are these two righteous, God-fearing people, both with priestly ancestry, whose turn it is to birth and raise a son. This son “will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God” (vss. 16-17 from The Message translation).
And in a fashion well-practiced by many of us, Zach says, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I spoke with an Episcopal priest recently who said he was completing his 18th year of ministry. His beautiful gray hair led me to ask, “Second career?” He nodded. I continued, “What did you do before becoming a priest?” “I was a family practice physician. I felt the call into ministry when I was fourteen but, while holding the cross over a casket as an acolyte, I thought, ‘There is a lot more to being a priest than I thought. I don’t think I can handle this much death.’ Then with God’s unique sense of humor, I moved towards medicine where I was around death all the time. I loved being a doctor but the time came when the call to enter ministry became irresistible.”
We can say, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” but God’s call catches up with us.
It catches up with Zach and Liz. Zach can’t speak about it. He becomes mute after questioning Gabe, God’s messenger. Sign language is Zach’s only way to communicate. Liz becomes pregnant and, with the flips that John did in utero, particularly when she saw her cousin, Mary, it is clear that, like Jeremiah, he is “called from the womb” (Jer. 1:5) and filled with the Holy Spirit from birth (vs. 15).
What a story! What a vital step in preparation for the Advent of the Messiah! What beautiful people Zach and Liz were! What beautiful, God-fearing people you and I are. May we find God saying, “It’s your turn. I’m going to lay a blessing upon you. I am going to surprise you in ways beyond your imagining.” May God help us to be ready when that happens.
A prayer for this day:
God of Zach and Liz and each of us, allow us to seek and find you this Advent season as you have so faithfully sought and found each one of us. Like John the Baptist, use us to “voice” your good news to a world that needs desperately to know of your arrival, to have the hearts of parents softened towards children, to have the minds of skeptics reach devout understanding. In essence, help us to be ready when you appear, in whatever manner you choose. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Fred Holbrook (D. Min., 1982)
First Presbyterian Church, Lynchburg