Focus on Christ Meditations: 11. A Poor Choice?
Lk 1:5-7 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
I have been a Christian and part of the Christian community for fifty years, and in that time I have lost count of the times I have heard various aspects of the Nativity story, and I must have written about it more than a few times. Yet, I find myself approaching these thing with new eyes, eyes that wonder afresh as I have been seeking to go beyond the familiar and see something more of the reality of the words we find in our Bibles. The focus is to be Jesus Christ but in so doing this, there are people and prophecies surrounding him who shed light on him and who, therefore, we need to examine because they are truly part of his story.
John the Baptist is going to be one such person who acts as a magnifying glass as we gaze upon the One who is Christ but before we get to John we need to look at his parents and see that his coming into the world also had a divine dimension to it. However, as I put the above verses on the screen I am suddenly struck with a new train of thought to anything I have pondered in the past in respect of Zechariah, and this train of thought flows on as a tributary of this main river we have been following – the mystery and questions surrounding the coming of Jesus.
Now so far in this second Part we have considered three people or groups of people who were up front in being told about the One who is coming – Simeon, the shepherds and the wise men (we’ll come to Mary & Joseph later) – two of whom have been wondering for some time about the Coming One and one (the shepherds) who just had the news dropped on them in the middle of the night. Now Zechariah may or may not fall into the category of the ‘expecting ones’ but, even as we have commented before, there is a difference between knowing the theory of the Coming One and coping with the reality. I’m not sure how I would react in similar circumstances so I would like to try to NOT be too hard on Zechariah.
It starts, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Lk 1:11,12) Surprise or being ‘startled’ indicates a reaction to something not expected. Now scholars suggest that your name coming up to burn incense in the temple was a once in a lifetime event, but he would have known many of his colleagues in his division of the priesthood and so far, although they might have said how wonderful it was to be performing that rite, none had even reported an encounter with an angel, so scary, quite possibly, simply because of the surprise element.
But the angel seeks to put him at ease (v.13a) and goes on to tell him that, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (v.13b) Now because of the fact that he is now old, I would suggest that he probably stopped asking for his wife to be able to conceive long back, but the Lord knows he did pray. Now he’s a good man, this Zechariah, for the record says that both he and his wife “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (v.6) Nevertheless, and this is his stumbling block, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v.7) so a) he no doubt prayed a long time and b) nothing had happened so now c) they are both old people, way beyond child-bearing years.
Now I want to be honest, because those of us in this sort of situation need to be, because I suggest that you need a lot of grace if this is you, not to feel at least slightly gritty about being childless – especially when you have prayed your socks off! So why did the Lord choose this particular priest who He must have known would be a bit on the gritty side when it comes to mentioning children?
The angel goes on to explain to him that this son, John, is going to have a great and significant ministry (v.14-17) but unfortunately Zechariah isn’t listening to the “this is how great your son will be” side of the news, he is just stuck with the reality of being childless in old age: “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) Oooops! By the angel’s response, this is Zechariah basically saying, “You’ve got to be joking! Go away” Not a wise thing to say to an angel of God who gently reminds him just who he is: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (v.19) Reading between the lines, a translation: “You idiot, I’m one of God’s top angels and this is a top-flight task I’ve been given, so don’t mess with me!!!! Don’t you realise this is wonderful news?”
Zechariah is clearly still not jumping up and down with joy and so the angel continues, “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 proper time.” (v.20) Now however you look at that, it is a word of chastisement. OK smart religious guy, you want a bit of reassurance to help you when you go back to your wife? Very well, with your mouth you uttered folly, so to make sure you don’t get into any more trouble, until the child is born, you’ll be dumb. End of this part of the story. The end of this bit is that John is born and Zechariah’s mouth is opened to prophesy (see v.57-).
So look, here is my problem and I say again, I think familiarity has blinded us to the realities of what was going on here. So let’s think wider. First, God knows all things and God knows that this childless old man is likely to be bit gritty and so might not come up with the perfect response to the good news. God knows all this before it happens. Second, God could have enabled Elizabeth to conceive years before but didn’t. Third, God could have chosen a less ‘complicated’ couple to have John, but didn’t. Fourth, when Zechariah gives his less than perfect response the angel could have gone off to find someone else, but he didn’t. Fifth after that response the angel could have said, “OK, it’s going to happen anyway so go home and just get on with it,” and left Zechariah wondering and then sharing with Elizabeth and then trying for a baby, but he didn’t, he made him dumb.
So what is the answer to this apparently poor choice of a father to John the Baptist. Mere speculations, simple suggestions. First, these are good people and will provide a good family upbringing for this prophet-to-be. Second, Elizabeth is related to Mary so there is going to be a family link between the two boys. Third, God isn’t averse to a little ‘supernatural activity’ (temporary dumbness and an amazing conception) to encourage His people on. Fourth, this is simply the start of a whole stream of supernatural activities culminating in the arrival of His Son. Fifth, the Lord knows that in the end Zechariah is going to be a true believer – see him prophesying! Poor choice? No, right choice!
There is an application here that we would do well to observe. At first sight Zechariah doesn’t come out of this encounter very well. By the end, he does. What applies to Zechariah can apply to us. We may get it wrong, we may not respond well to God’s words to us and faith may be slow to blossom, but the Lord does not give up on us. He knows what the end can be, with us as well as with Zechariah. Don’t let temporary failure or setback mean you don’t go on to get God’s grace to come out good.
To reflect: are we open to the Lord still, when the years have passed with His silence? Are we open to His supernatural activity or have we accepted the lie that He stopped being God when the canon of Scripture was complete? Where does it leave us today?