Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then 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. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
So, Zechariah is at his priestly duties. This one isn’t that common – chosen by lot. I wonder how many times he’d done this before? And an astonishing thing happens. An angel appears. I suppose the setting seems apt, by the altar, for a messenger from God to appear. Even so, it wasn’t what Zechariah expected. He was…startled and gripped with fear. But. As so often with angelic appearances, the angel says ‘don’t be afraid…’ Fear, I think, would make me not listen so well. Just as well to have a bit of reassurance before the message is given.
‘Your prayer has been heard.’ This echoes in my mind from other moments where some desperate individual encounters someone telling him/her: ‘your prayer HAS BEEN HEARD.’ What a relief. Sometimes we are unsure, deep down inside of us, that God hears our prayers. Apparently (and my Greek is too rusty to come to this conclusion myself) this is in the aorist tense – which gives the meaning that it is a one off prayer that has been heard, not continued prayers. And it makes sense that, old as they were, Zechariah and Elizabeth may not be still praying for a child. They had, in a sense, accepted this fate, this disgrace. It was the norm, now. Even if there were, deep down in history, precedents for this sort of thing (think of Abraham and Sarah).
Suggestions have been made that it was Zechariah’s prayer at the altar to which the angel was referring . Likely to be – the redemption of Israel. Which puts a rather exciting light on things. I don’t know. I don’t know if this is true or not. It doesn’t specify which prayer.
Whatever, the outcome is something totally unexpected. ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son’. At last, a taking away of the disgrace!
But not just ANY son, this ‘John’ (meaning ‘YHWH (the LORD) is gracious’). Not only will he be a delight to them, but to many others he will be a reason to rejoice. And he will be great in God’s sight… And filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. From birth! Not just anointed for one specific purpose at one specific time, like many in the Old Testament, but a continual filling and spilling over of God’s Holy Spirit. Although, it would be true to say that John’s whole life was for one purpose – to ‘go before the Lord, in the Spirit and power of Elijah…’ Elijah! In Malachi we hear of one Elijah figure who will come and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and of the children to their fathers, just as Luke recounts here. (see Malachi 4:5-6).
I find this unmistakable Malachi reference interesting because, reading through Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, I learn that it is hugely preoccupied with the behaviour of the priests of Israel.”For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 2:7-8)And this elderly couple are of priestly descent; Zechariah is a priest. It is through their SON that Malachi’s prophecy will be fulfilled – Malachi, to whom God spoke about the corruption of the priesthood.
Just a thought there.
One thing remains clear. This person, this John, is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. The story is picking up pace. Anticipation arises. For if he has come to prepare the people – does that mean the long silence is broken? Does that mean the Lord is coming?