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.
This was no ordinary worship service. This was a huge deal- the only time a priest could enter the Holy of Holies was on the Day of Atonement, possibly the holiest day of the Jewish Calendar. On this day one priest would get to enter into the presence of God and he would offer the blood of a sacrifice for the sins of all the people, delaying the payment for that sin another year. You see in the Old Testament sin was not removed it was postponed until a later date. (check out Leviticus 16 for more info.)
So Zechariah should’ve been on the lookout for something amazing to happen, right?
Below the Cut: His reaction and a chart!
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.
As we talked about Tuesday Zechariah and Elizabeth were “well advanced in years” (polite bible way to say “old”) and childless (a great disgrace of the time period.) They had waited a long time and had undoubtedly prayed for children for a long time. Despite their wait they were still very devout.
Zechariah goes into the temple on the holiest day of the year to sprinkle blood and offer incense for the people of Israel and to commune with God. While this is an annual practice it would likely be the only time Zechariah would get to enter the Holy of Holies and into the Presence of God. This would’ve been a huge thing for him and I would imagine for a devout man such as him it would have been the most important day of his life.
And then- an Angel appears! We know from other passages* that angels are in the presence of God when they are not delivering His messages or doing His will elsewhere. We know from Moses (Ex. 34:29 ff.) that anyone who has been in the presence of God and seen His face picks up a glow or a shine that is very bright. So this would have been an extremely impressive and awe-inspiring sight in this place where one would already expect an encounter with something powerful.
The Angel proceeds to tell Zechariah that exactly what he and his wife had no doubt hoped for years is about to come true- they will have a son.
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.”
What a birth announcement! How many people know this much about their children before they even known they are expecting? This is fantastic news- especially for such a devout couple as Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their son will do great things for the Lord and his kingdom!
How do you react to such news? Joy, thankfulness, songs of praise perhaps? You are in the very presence of God and He sends his angel to give you awesome news…. it definitely requires celebration! Zechariah, however, has a different reaction:
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, who stands 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.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 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. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
Well…. that was less than inspiring. Just goes to show, however, that these were not people of myth and legend but real & complicated people. Perhaps it was that he was so shocked by the news that he responds this way. Perhaps it was genuine doubt…. perhaps it was bitterness or resentment for the wait. I don’t know why, but instead of reacting with joy or celebration he basically says: “Um, really? Aren’t we kind of old for this?”
Needless to say: he doesn’t exactly get a gold star and instead gets to take an involuntary vow of silence for a good 9ish months. There could be a lot of reasons for this, but silence is an effective means of forcing reflection on a person. Everyone else is pretty shocked when he comes out- silent and miming to them. They would be in no doubt that something happened in there- but it would be a little while until he could effectively tell anyone about it.
After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Elizabeth gets it, though. At long last she understands that the Lord has blessed her. If she has doubts they are not recorded for us- only her praise both now and later in the chapter when her cousin Mary comes to visit her.
*(quite a lot, actually. Either look up Angels in a Bible Dictionary for a list or wait around until I do a post on them.)
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