..."and a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the way of holiness; evil minded people shall not travel on it, but it shall be for those wayfarers who are traveling toward God. (Isaiah 35:8, adapted)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Characters in the Christmas Story: Zacharias--On Believing God

I was just reading over the Christmas story recorded in Matthew and Luke's Gospels
and have been reflecting on each character. I am going to write something on
each of the characters and today, to start, I am choosing Zacharias, the father of  John
the Baptist, because it's really here that the whole thing begins. Here is the story:

5There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, 9According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. 14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. 16And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. 19And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. 20And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

21And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple. 22And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless. 23And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.

Zacharias was not a bad man. Let's keep in mind from the beginning that he is introduced here,
along with his wife Elizabeth, as righteous and walking blamelessly before God. He was a priest
and was faithful in his administrations. He knew God--to a degree. He didn't know when the
Messiah would come--he didn't even know, and probably had long since stopped
hoping, when, or dear God, if,  his own child would come along.  He had prayed
for a son to come, prayed long and hard, and now he was old and it looked like God
had ignored him. He still performed his duties, because you don't serve God for what
He can give you, but I wonder what he was thinking inside and where his heart had gotten to.

When Elizabeth passed menopause, you had to wonder what happened to
their hopes for a child, and with that, their ability to trust God wholeheartedly.
They both had served God as well as they knew how, and yet, what got lost?
What hadn't they understood? What they DID understand is that they had
received no child. You can imagine what the equivalent of Job's comforter's
in the community must have said to Elizabeth and him: cold things, harsh things,
well-meaning advice, subtle judgments, silent things never spoken but easily read
on the faces of those looking on. "You know, if you had really been holy
you would have a child." Awful. Just awful. But they kept praying. Or at
this point, perhaps simply crying in a heavenly direction.

So it had finally fallen by lot for Zacharias to offer the incense in the Holy
Place, and believe me, you do have to be careful there,  so on top of
being nervous about doing it right, an unexpected angel appears to him
with an incredible announcement: You are going to have a son!

Now all Zacharias had to do, really, was just nod his head, and get safely
out of there. But his doubts, and all that had troubled him formed themselves
into words that rushed out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
He asked the angel, "But how can I know for sure? You surely know
that we are too old and all our hopes have drained out over the passing years?" 

Gabriel does not coddle him with sympathy but rebukes him and strikes
him speechless until the prophecy is fulfilled and the promised son is born
and brought to the Temple. If this seems harsh, perhaps we have something
to learn, for God always acts to help bring us to a better place.

Zacharias is the priest,  he needs to speak for God, not to engender doubt.
If he comes out of their speaking doubtfully, it will not help the community,
or Elizabeth, his wife. If he lets his broken heart, and the up- to- this- hour
wrestling with the apparent silence of God speak, then his testimony may
fall into infamy.  Like Jacob, he wrestles with an angel and loses
his natural function.

In the ensuing silence of nine months he has time to think about it. Think
about whether he believes God. Think about his calling to the
community, and his place as priest in it. God holds the leaders to
higher standards and  Gabriel announces that the Word of the Lord
is going to be fulfilled whether he understands, believes or
accepts it. Sovereign acts of God are like that.

What we still need to see is how much God is honoring Zacharias. He is answering
his prayer because he IS a righteous man, and because God thinks he is the best
choice for the daunting task of raising John the Baptist! Now think about it,
youth would have been on their side as far as sitting up caring for a crying baby,
but wisdom gained over a lifetime might be better attributes for raising
the young prophet--as long as that lifetime hadn't hardened his heart..

God was giving him some silence to think about it all and to get ready.
The strain of life can, for a season,  take its toll, but if God sends a
wake up call, we still have a chance  get back on the path. Zacharias'
life was a long obedience, he had layed the groundwork by being faithful,
but he was dangerously close to becoming hard-hearted and unbelieving.

We walk by faith and not sight.  Zacharias had to walk according
to the pattern God provided and being in God's presence carried
a certain danger with it. The text hints that the people praying outside
where getting worried about Zacharias. Old Zach just got a "yellow card":
he is not out of the game, He just needs to sit on the sidelines and think
about his behaviour. 

Zacharias' job as priest was to burn incense--which speaks of an
unreserved offering of our will to God and of the spirit of trusting prayer
in God .  Zacharias as he functioned  in the priestly  roll of incense bringer
represents Christ as our intercessor: ever sure of the Father's love and concern
for His Own. God heard Zacharias' prayers just as He would hear Christ's.
So there was no room for signs or doubts. Zacharias just needed the
nine months to get on page with that. Here is spirit of a "just man being
made perfect."  Thank God that He comes to us, see our hearts,
and gives us exactly what we need. May we learn that sitting in
silence before Him is a great gift that gets us ready.

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