What a noisy party! Women running around, cooing and fussing over the baby, laying the plates out, baking the bread for the feast to celebrate the circumcision of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby. The men gathered in groups, jabbering loudly about this and that: the latest news from Jerusalem or the prospects for a good harvest, every once and a while casting a sidelong glance at old Zechariah sitting there by himself, seemingly lost in his own world, looking at something that they couldn’t see, deaf to the noise around him. They whispered to each other that he had been like that ever since that day in the Temple nine months ago, when he walked out of the Holy Place speechless and in shock. From that day on he acted like a different man, withdrawn and scared, not like the proud man they knew before. Only Elizabeth seemed to know what was troubling him. She walked over to him, smiled a gentle smile, stroked his grey hair and bent down to kiss his bowed head.
As she kissed him, Elizabeth said a silent prayer for her husband, thinking back to all the times they had prayed together in the four decades they were married. Year after year they had sung together their prayers for a son. In the early years of their marriage the prayers were calm and hopeful, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” But as time went by, as Elizabeth approached the end of her childbearing years, the prayers took on a sense of urgency, “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love.” Finally, after forty years, their songs of prayer turned to resignation to God’s will. “Our soul waits for the Lord.”
They kept themselves busy during all those years. Elizabeth kept house and stayed in touch with all the relatives throughout Judah and Galilee. Zechariah proudly carried out his duties as priest, teaching and preaching and serving in the Temple in Jerusalem when his division’s time to serve came up. That was always a special time. And that’s where he was nine months before, tending the incense in the Holy Place when it happened.
As he was placing a scoop of incense on the burner grate, watching the cloud of cinnamon and cassia and frankincense rise and fill the room with its glorious scent he began to sing, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense…” He closed his eyes and listened to his rich voice reverberate in the high-ceilinged room. When he opened his eyes, he was not alone. There stood a man like no other Zechariah had ever seen. Zechariah knew somehow that this was no ordinary man but a messenger, an angel from God. He was scared to death at first until the angel began to speak, telling him of so many wonderful things, so many that it was hard to remember them all. The angel told him that his wife’s and his prayers for a son had been answered. They would have a son and Zechariah would name him John. The angel said that this son would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord. He would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Zechariah said to the angel. “This is unbelievable! I’m an old man and Elizabeth is old, too. How is this going to happen?” The angel replied, “I am the angel Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I brought you wonderful news but since you didn’t believe me, you will be silent, unable to talk, until the day that these things I spoke of happen.” Then the angel left.
Zechariah tried to call to the angel to stay but the words stuck in his throat. Zechariah just stood there in the Holy Place for an hour, shocked, shaking—silent. Finally, he stumbled outside to the crowd that had been waiting and worrying about his delay. He walked through them, unable to answer their many questions. He headed to the gate that led out to the court of the women, where Elizabeth was waiting for him. Elizabeth saw him first and came running to him. When she looked in his face she knew that something had happened, for his mouth was open, his eyes filled with tears of joy and sadness, and fear. He grabbed her shoulders and nodded and then tears came to Elizabeth’s eyes too. She knew. Their prayers had been answered.
So many things the angel had said! How could he remember them all? What if he forgot? In the months to come this angelic meeting would float in and out of his memory as he replayed the scene over and over again in his mind, rewinding the video and playing it one more time. One scene he remembered especially clearly—the scene of his sinful response to the angel’s words– his lack of trust and the angel’s judgment on it.
Over the next few months Zechariah withdrew from society and his duties as priest. He stayed at home with Elizabeth in their home. Zechariah learned a new way to communicate with her by writing on a wax-covered slate with a stylus. He shared with Elizabeth all that he could remember of the angel’s visit. Then one day Elizabeth told him of the news that she felt signs of life growing within her. He knew he should have been ecstatic, but he felt oddly more depressed, for you see, it was just another confirmation of his unfaithfulness. How could he, God’s priest, a descendant of Aaron, not have trusted God’s messenger? He had spent his whole life teaching others about God’s promises and His power to perform miracles, and yet when he came face to face with God’s messenger sent to him with news of great joy, he doubted. He was not worthy to teach anyone about God, to sing songs to Him, to expect forgiveness. God had rightfully taken away his voice, he reasoned. He lived in fear of further judgment.
It seemed that nothing could cheer him up, not even his wife’s cousin Mary from Nazareth who came to visit Elizabeth in Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy. Mary, too, had a miraculous story. Gabriel visited her, too, and promised her a child born of the Holy Spirit. But Mary’s story was different. Mary had believed God’s messenger. She didn’t know how this could be, but she believed. Not like doubting Zechariah. And God blessed her. She couldn’t help but sing of this blessing, singing a song like no other he had ever heard, an old but new song, a song of God’s lifting the humble and bringing down the proud. “Yes, God has brought me, Zechariah the proud priest down, where I belong.” he thought as he listened.
She sang and spoke many things during that visit, things which come to mind to Zechariah at random times. Like now, sitting here waiting for the circumcision of his son. As he watched the women cooking and putting out food for the feast he remembered the words of Mary’s song, that God would fill the hungry with good things. He was hungry, not for food, but for God’s forgiveness. She said God has done great things. Of course he has. Hadn’t he promised and given to Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age? Hadn’t he promised and given to Israel a land to live in? Hadn’t he promised to send a Savior from the house of David to deliver His people and the nations? Hadn’t he promised to send Elijah as a messenger to prepare the way of this Anointed One, this Messiah? What else was it she sang? Oh, yes. She sang that God has helped His servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy. In remembrance of His mercy. Remember, Zechariah! What were those words the angel spoke to me about my son in the Temple? “He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place” He thought that he would regain his voice when his son was born, but that hadn’t happened. “These things” were something else.
Zechariah lifted his head and looked at the baby wrapped up in the blanket a few spoke to him silently across the room, “Let God’s promise be fulfilled in you. Turn my heart to you, my baby son. Turn it to you and to the One you were sent to go before, to the One that Mary sang of, the One she carries in her womb, the Promised One, the Messiah, my Lord and yours.”
Suddenly the sounds of the room came rushing into his ears in a joyous cacophony. People were waving their arms crazily and making all kinds of bizarre signals with their hands, asking, “What’s the baby’s name? What’s the baby’s name? It’s Zechariah, right?” He motioned to Elizabeth to quickly bring his slate and a stylus to write with. He took them and scratched these words in the wax, “His name is John!” and held it up for all to see. At that same moment the paralyzing fear that had weighed him down for last nine months left his body, the fear that tied his guts in knots and stifled his voice, the fear of God’s eternal anger with him. He could feel the knots of the muscles in his chest and arms and in his throat loosening.
As he stood up and started across the room to where his son John lay wrapped in a cloth he saw Mary again in his mind. Now he understood the joy and peace in her face, and he shared it, too, as do you and I when we remember God’s faithfulness to His promises, especially the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe in Him.
Zechariah picked up and cradled little John in his arms, looked up smiling at Elizabeth and started to sing.
Benedictus, LSB 238
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Lutheran Service Book,CPH)
God keeps His promises. Our redemption is drawing near. Amen.
Preached at Calvary Lutheran Church, Wellington, Kansas on Dec. 10, 2014