Imagine praying for the same thing for years, hoping against hope, waiting and waiting for God to answer. Then suddenly one day, as you are going about your routine, an angel appears before you, announcing that your prayer has been heard, and that your wishes will be fulfilled to your utter joy and delight. How would you respond? Would you praise God?
Probably. But maybe not right that moment.
Luke’s gospel tells of an aging priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, who had never been able to have children. Not surprisingly, the couple had prayed for God to bless them with a child. But one imagines that their hopes faded with each passing year, until the prayer itself became a mere routine.
And yet, haven’t we heard this story before, of a righteous but childless elderly couple? Remembering Abraham and Sarah as we read Luke’s story, we might expect a miracle.
Sure enough, as the old priest attends to his duties, the angel Gabriel appears. In the Bible, the typical human response to such visitations is sheer terror, and Zechariah is no exception. Gabriel graciously comforts him:
Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. (Luke 1:13-15, CEB)
That’s not just good news, that’s great news: Your prayers have been answered; you’re going to have a bouncing baby boy; and best of all, he will be a joy both to you and to many others, because he’s going to grow up to be a great and godly man! The prophesied child, of course, will become John the Baptist, the prophet with the spirit of Elijah who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah.
Zechariah’s response? “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old” (vs. 18).
Who knows what he was thinking. The good news may have helped him overcome his fear, but unfortunately, not his doubt. And as punishment for his unbelief, he is rendered mute until the day of John’s birth.
Fast forward to that joyous day. When his tongue is finally loosed, these are his first words:
Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago. He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us. He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham. He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live. (Luke 1:68-75, CEB)
It’s been months since that encounter with Gabriel, and Zechariah has had plenty of time to put together the pieces. He knows all about Mary and the child she carries. After all, Mary was with them until only recently; she came to visit her cousin Elizabeth when the latter was about six months pregnant and stayed for about three months (1:36,56). And he knows, of course, about Mary’s outburst of praise (1:46-55), sung in response to Elizabeth’s joyous prophecy (1:41-45).
Zechariah’s praise, much like cousin Mary’s, echoes sacred scripture; his words recall both the Psalms and the story of the Exodus. It’s not only his voice but his vision that’s been restored: he sees himself and his newborn son as part of the ongoing story of a merciful God who remembers his covenant promises and acts on behalf of his people to rescue them.
And remembering the Exodus, he knows that he has been rescued for a purpose, namely, a lifetime of service. I imagine that when he returned to his priestly responsibilities, he did so with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
In whatever way we have been called to serve, may our own sense of vision and purpose also be renewed this Advent season.