Advent on the Blog: Zechariah
We love stories that are so good they never get old…especially when they are true!
This month we’re going to celebrate advent on the blog by sharing some of those stories from Christmas Hearts, a book written by Fit & Flourish president and co-founder, Dr. Tim Roehl. The stories in Christmas Heartsare based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke and tells the story of the coming of Jesus through the eyes of those who saw Him first.
The Christmas story told through the prophets and Gospel writers in the Bible are amazing when you stop and pay attention. For example, God wrote His Christmas Story in ways that turned conventional wisdom on its head. Little places were the sites of supernatural happenings. “Little” people on earth were the superstars of heaven. The outcasts got front row seats.
With God, there are no little places or people!
Consider these heroes of the Christmas story…
An old couple pastoring a little church way out in the country…Zechariah and Elisabeth
That same couple…well past child-bearing years yet still barren…had to build a nursery addition to their home!
An old man who thought God had forgotten him…saw God remember Him in a way that people will never forget him!
A barren woman has a miraculous pregnancy…yet gives her attention to love and help a young woman who was to give birth to the Savior of the World.
If you’ve ever felt small, forgotten, left out, barren…God sees you! Knows you! Has plans for you beyond what you can imagine!
Here’s the story of Zechariah from our book “Christmas Hearts”. May you find the wonder that Zechariah did…his name means “God Remembers”. In that regard, we can all be a Zechariah!
"It’s Never Too Late”
He stood in the door way of his home, looking out across the hills of Judea as the sun was setting. It was his favorite time of the day. As the sun settled behind those hills, the sky transitioned from blue into a beautiful mixture of vibrant orange streaks and scarlet reds, blending and descending into deeper shades of crimson, gold, purple and gray. It never ceased to amaze him the way the shadows could reshape those hills a thousand different ways.
"It's getting to be sundown for me, too," he thought. The wrinkles around his eyes and the gray in his beard were indications of Zechariah’s accumulating years. In spite of the marks of age, there was still a sparkle in his eyes of a man whose heart was much younger.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see the face of his beloved wife, Elizabeth. Her eyes, too, had a youthful twinkle that made the wrinkles on her face a mark of gentle grace rather than advancing age.
"Thinking again, my husband?" she asked softly. "You've been doing a lot of that lately."
For a moment he was silent with a far away look in his eyes that focused beyond the hills to some unrealized dreams. Then he spoke quietly, but in the way she had come to know meant the words were coming from deep in his heart.
"I've been thinking about our lives, Elizabeth. I’ve been thinking about our people. Here in the later years of our ministry, we serve out in the hills. I know we could be serving in a bigger city with more people, but they need us out here. All these years all I've wanted to do was serve God the very best way I knew how. All I’ve wanted was to teach His people from His Word and pass on our
heritage of faith to our children. God knows my heart... He knows we've tried to serve Him honestly. We've been faithful to Him..."
Turning to his wife of many years, putting his hands on the shoulders of the one who had so faithfully ministered at his side. Looking deep into her eyes, his face mirrored sadness mixed with pain of his heart.
"...and yet we have no children, no son to carry on our name, no son to pass on our love for the Lord. What have we done that we bear this reproach of barrenness?"
Without waiting for an answer, he looked out over the hills again and said, "And I've been thinking about our people. For over 400 years now God has been silent. No word from a prophet or an angel. No miraculous sign of His presence. We live under the tyranny of the Romans. Slaves to them...and even worse, slaves to sin. When will God send us the Messiah? When will He set his people free in their hearts and free in their land?"
His eyes glowed with a passion that ran deep, and for a moment it seemed as though he carried the weight of his whole nation as well as his own private pain.
"My name is Zechariah--“the Lord remembers.” But will He remember me? It seems to be too late for our dreams to ever come true."
His tense muscles relaxed, and he smiled. "Dear wife, how can you put up with the words of an old man like me?"
She gazed up at him with a look of admiration, this husband of hers, this faithful priest of God. Her quiet smile was a better answer than any words she could say.
He looked at her with love in return, and taking her hand, said, "Tomorrow our division of priests goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to serve before the Lord. Perhaps this time He will show me He has heard our prayers and give us cause to rejoice yet in our old age."
There were twenty-four divisions of priests in Israel. Twice each year a division was required to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. There they would perform the sacred duties of offering up sacrifices before the Lord for the sins of the people. Twice each day, a priest, chosen by lot, would have the special privilege of going into the Holy Place and burning incense, signifying the prayers of God's people. Because there were so many priests, a priest could only make the incense offering once in his entire lifetime, and some never got the honored privilege. Standing before God for an entire nation is no small responsibility.
During this week of ministry Zechariah's name was chosen to go into the Holy Place to offer incense. Every priest dreamed of this opportunity. Zechariah breathed a prayer of gratitude to the Lord for his long-hoped for privilege to minister before the altar of incense.
The morning sun was warming Jerusalem and on this Sabbath, the courts of the Temple were filling with worshippers. People coming to worship entered through the gate of the Temple called Beautiful and into the courtyards. Each area allowed people to come closer to God, although each court represented a kind of spiritual segregation. The outer court of the Gentiles allowed people of non-Jewish descent to approach God...to a point. The women's court, one step “closer” to God, allowed them to worship there. Next came the court of men. It was for Jewish men who were living according to the Law, allowing them to come nearer than the Gentiles and women. The next court, the Inner Court, reserved especially for priests who ministered to God on behalf of the people. Finally, the
innermost place...the most sacred of all. The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant....and, they believed, the Presence of their Holy God. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year. He would enter the Holiest Place and pour blood on the Mercy Seat of the Ark. It was there that forgiveness was purchased by blood for the nation, allowing a Holy God to be reconciled with a very unholy people. For every faithful priest of God, the greatest possible joy came from seeing God bring His peace to a pardoned heart. Zechariah’s passion had always been to know God and as God’s man help people return to a right relationship with Him. That was what made this opportunity to offer prayer for his people such a privilege.
Zechariah, heart beating fast and eyes bright, walked slowly into the Inner Court. The Holy Place. Here no sunlight ever reached. Inside was the Table of the Shewbread to the left, the sacred candlestand on the right, and the altar of incense right in front of the veil which hid the Holy of Holies. The entire room was overlaid with gold, and as Zechariah entered, now the lone representative of Israel before God, he stood awed by the golden luster cast by the light of the candles. It was indeed a sacred place.
He approached the altar, casting the incense on the burning coals. Fragrant perfume filled the air, wafting out to the outer courts. Zechariah breathed deeply the wonderful fragrance, savoring the moment. Then he stepped back and offered his prayer, both for himself and for his people. Quietly he poured his heart out to God, his whole being hungering for God to move among His people again.
Suddenly, to the right of the altar there appeared an angel. Zechariah had never seen an angel. He did not even know what one looked like, but the air was charged with divine electricity, throbbing with the power of holiness. There was no mistake--this was a messenger from God!
Involuntarily, Zechariah took a step back, his eyes huge with startled fear. For four hundred years there had been no supernatural revelation from God, and now, here standing before him was an angel from heaven itself. What had he done? Had he offered an unacceptable prayer? Was God here to tell him of His judgment coming to the nation? Was he going to die? It had been often said that no mortal could be in the presence of a divine being and stay alive.
The angel spoke, his voice deep but gentle.
"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, for 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 and attitude of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
"A son..." The words seemed too good to be true. For a moment Zechariah's heart sought to grasp and hold on to the promise of the Lord, spoken through the angel…but he lost his grip as he realized he and his wife were both barren and old. If only…if only he could have a sign, then he could believe. Slowly, his voice barely above a whisper, he said, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years. Perhaps a sign...?"
The angel spoke again, his deep voice now taking a harder tone.
"I am Gabriel, God's Mighty One. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. And now, because you could not take God at His Word, you shall have your sign. You will be silent and unable to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
With that, the angel vanished, and as Zechariah tried to ask him to wait, he found that he was unable to speak.
When he stumbled out of the Holy Place back among the people, they looked at him in amazement as he tried to signal with his hands what had happened. Even with words, how do you tell people that for the first time in four hundred years, God had spoken to His people again? How do you help people understand that their religion was about to take on the element of the supernatural instead of just form and ritual?
Faithful man that he was, Zechariah completed his week of service in silence and returned home with his wife. It wasn't but several weeks later that she met him at the door as he returned home one day with the incredible news. She was going to have a baby! They had danced with joy around their small home at the incredible prospect of two senior citizens needing to add a nursery to their home! The miracle had begun!
For nine months Zechariah and Elizabeth waited, he in silence, she humming happy songs as she made baby clothes and chatted cheerfully with the neighbor ladies about the joys of motherhood. For several months their young relative Mary from Nazareth lived with them. The news she brought was even more miraculous than theirs. Watching his Elizabeth spontaneously prophesy as their son leapt in her womb when Mary arrived was an awe inspiring event. Listening to His Elizabeth tenderly minister
to Mary, the mother of the Messiah, was a joy. Here under his roof were the two women who carried in their wombs the one who would prepare the way for the One Who would pardon humanity. Often he found himself silently watching and listening in wonder. His silence was not passive, however. In his enforced quietness, he listened to the Spirit of God as never before in his life, and God revealed His great plan of redeeming a world of fallen people. His son would prepare the way for the long awaited Messiah! He would have the kind of ministry that had not been seen since Elijah, one of fiery preaching and fearless confrontation with sin. His ministry would be to call people to repent and turn to God. He would prepare the way for people to meet the Lord, to guide their feet into the path of peace. God’s heart was for all people everywhere--men, women, Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor--to know Him with no barriers or segregation. It stretched Zechariah’s perspective, but as He pondered God’s Word, he knew it to be true. Salvation would come through the nation of Israel, but available to everyone no matter what their background. His son...clearing the way for people to see Almighty God, the Redeemer Himself! The Messiah...the One Who would be like a Light in the darkness, the sunrise in the night of humanity’s depravity. He would illuminate the way to God so all could come in simple faith. He would set people free to truly know God! He would take down all the barriers between God and humanity, between races, between genders, between classes, between nations. In Him all people would find their identity, their security and their eternity. The months of waiting with Elizabeth gave birth to revelations full of wonder in Zechariah’s own heart. He longed to verbalize the incredible truths God was revealing to him, but first would have to come the birth of his own son. Then the overflow of his heart could be verbalized.
Finally the wonderful day came. His Elizabeth had never looked so beautiful, even in the midst of the pains of childbirth...and then their son arrived! Laughter rang in Zechariah's house as the relatives and friends passed around their baby boy for all to see. When they placed him in Zechariah's arms, tears of joy ran unashamedly down the creases of his cheeks. Eight days later when the day of naming the child came he confirmed in writing the baby's name was John, God's gracious gift. His tongue was released at last. The time of silence was over. The sign God had reluctantly given him had been fulfilled.
This time the first words out of his mouth were an overflow of praise to God known ever since as the Benedictus. It was the last prophecy of the old covenant and the first of the new covenant.
The old man who thought he had been forgotten by God saw his prayers answered beyond his greatest expectations. He learned God’s clock did indeed keep perfect time.
As he rocked his son in his arms, his heart was overwhelmed with the realization of all the Lord would do through John. Truly God had remembered him! Yes, his name was indeed Zechariah!