by Chris Ritter
I have some friends who once made the evening news. This young married couple was at home one evening when Lexi started to have abdominal pain. Mike was laying the couch and unable to help because he was recovering from back surgery. The pain kept getting worse, so Lexi called her mom for advice. They decided that maybe she should visit the Emergency Room to get checked out. When her mom arrived she saw that Lexi was wearing sweatpants. As only a mother can, she announced she wasn’t going to take her looking like that. Lexi changed clothes and they headed out.
When they got to the ER the pain was pretty severe and they wheeled Lexi right back to be examined while her mom went through the process of answering all the registration questions. A nurse came out and the conversation went something like this:
- “The head is crowning.”
- “Whose head?”
- “The baby’s head.”
- “What baby?”
- “You daughter’s baby.”
- “My daughter is not pregnant.”
- “Yes, she is. But she won’t be much longer because she is delivering right now.”
A beautiful baby girl came into the world without the mom being aware she was expecting. Doctors examined the baby and surmised that she was likely born a couple weeks past her due date.
Meanwhile, Mike is back on the couch! Little did he know that he was about to get the phone call of a lifetime. It was a good thing he was already laying down.
Whenever this story is told, the women hearing it say, “Oh, for Pete’s sake! How could any woman not know she was pregnant?” But I knew this couple when they had their second baby. For the entire nine months, she didn’t look pregnant. She didn’t feel any different until labor began. (Your results may vary.)
I open this message with a story of a surprise birth because that is also the way Luke opens his Gospel. Let’s take a look.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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 call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”Luke 1:5-25
Last week we started a journey through the Gospel of Luke that will take us through Easter of next year. If you missed Week One, I encourage you to go back and take a look. There is a lot of information in that message that will guide us in the weeks to come. Among other things, we said that Luke is sometimes called The Gospel of Prayer because it mentions prayer more than all the other three Gospels combined. In fact, Luke begins his Gospel with a story about answered prayer.
Chapter One of Luke is all about context. I love history and listen to podcasts on a variety of topics under that heading. One podcast I visit is “Hardcore History” by Dan Carlin. He drops a new episode only once every six months or so, but each one is three to five hours long. He is masterful at taking a well-known event and going back… back… back to explore the context. By the time you get to event you thought you already understood, you see it in a whole new light. Before we get the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2, we get a full eighty verses in Luke 1 as context and backstory.
Luke sets the beginning of his narrative in the reign of King Herod of Judea, known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was not great ethically or morally, for sure. But his many grand building programs put Israel on the map in the minds of the ancient Roman world.
Disappointed, Yet Faithful
We meet a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. They are righteous, “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” They are “well advanced in years” and child-less. I speak with people on a regular basis who struggle with infertility. It is an open-ended heartache punctuated by a thousand unseen disappointments. As the years waned on, hope for this couple slowly extinguished like a candle deprived of oxygen.
Add to this disappointment another layer in Elizabeth’s day: Disgrace. Being barren was almost always blamed on the woman and was legitimate grounds for divorce. Popular religious thought went something like this: God blesses the righteous. God’s greatest blessing is children. If you are childless, there must be something wrong with you on levels God alone can see.
Never mind that the holy matriarchs like Sarah, Rebekah, and Hannah all dealt with infertility. This was likely small consolation to Elizabeth. How many private tears had she shed? How many public sneers had she endured? She now found herself at the age of a grandparent without the family for which she had dreamed.
[By the way, Luke is known for the strong female characters throughout his Gospel. Today’s story centers on Zechariah, but the action quickly shifts to Elizabeth who is a more striking example of faith. Women in Luke’s Gospel are fully affirmed as bearers of the Gospel, leaders in ministry, and examples of faith. Whole books have been written about Jesus’ positive view of women as seen in Luke.]
Zechariah is a priest. Our thoughts about being in the ministry are shaped around the idea of an individual response to a call. I am a pastor because I felt God call me to the ministry when I was a teenager. I counted the cost and responded. It is a different life. I don’t live in a house I own, but the one provided for me. I serve where the bishop tells me to serve. In many ways, it is an alternative lifestyle that carries with it unique privileges and sacrifices.
Priesthood for Zechariah was a matter of heredity. He was a priest because his father and grandfather were priests. His wife’s relatives were priests, too. When they had a family reunion, every male was a priest. No one asked him if he wanted to be one. He was born into it.
There were maybe 20,000 priests in Israel at the time… and only one temple. To divide up the work, the priests were organized into twenty-four ancestral divisions that served in Jerusalem twice a year for a week at a time. Like military reservists, they would be called up to active duty on big feast days and their regular rotation of service. Zechariah and his relatives would travel to Jerusalem, consecrating themselves for their duties. (When Luke tells the story of the man left bloody by the road, he notes that a priest and a Levite pass by on the other side of the road. He is probably thinking of priests travelling to Jerusalem for sacred duty who did not want to make themselves ceremonially unclean.)
Once in Jerusalem, there were many jobs to be done… all overseen by the high priest and his political machine. Some jobs were quite lowly and mundane. One, however, carried with it a certain amount of prestige. A single priest was selected daily by lot to offer the incense at the hour of prayer. Incense was offered at 9 am when the gates of the temple were opened, but it was also offered at the prayer time of 3 pm. The faithful would gather at the time of prayer in the temple courts. The chosen priest, representing all the people, would enter the Holy Place and burn the fragrant blend of spices prescribed in the law of Moses. As the smoke of the incense rose to heaven, so did the prayers of the people. Once you had the opportunity to do this duty, your name was never included in the selection process again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some priests went their whole lives without being selected.
The temple itself was designed to inspire awe. The “second temple” built after the exile had been standing for 500 years, but Herod the Great radically expanded and improved it. At the time, it was the largest man-made structure on earth. When Jesus’ disciples visited Jerusalem they oohed and aahed at the magnificent stones. Zechariah probably felt very small alone in this vast edifice. Jewish sources note how important it was that not a grain of incense be spilled. Zechariah, careful to do his job well, would have recited the appointed prayers for Israel… and maybe offered a few of his own.
As Zechariah prayed, Zechariah suddenly realized he was not along. An angel appeared at the right side of the altar of incense. The old man was scared out of his wits. Angels must be a fearsome sight because the first words they always say is, “Do not be afraid.” The angel, later identified as Gabriel, announces to Zechariah that his prayer as been heard and goes on to provides Zechariah with quite a bit of information regarding the events that will follow:
- Elizabeth will bear a son
- He is to be named John
- He will cause them joy and gladness
- Many will rejoice at his birth
- He will be great before the Lord
- He is not to drink any wine or strong drink his whole life because he is to be consecrated to God
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb
- He will turn many in Israel back to God
- He will go before the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah
- He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children
- He will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just
- He will make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
This is a lot of information. It is the pregnancy news, the gender reveal, the birth announcement, the naming, the upbringing, the career, and the results all rolled into one. This is exactly the type of run-down of future events that I wish God would give me, but never does. He more often just says “Trust me.” Zechariah, however, gets more information about John the Baptist than Mary will get about Jesus.
Do you remember Mary’s response? I think she probably had a ton of very legitimate questions about the whole Virgin Birth/Holy Spirit conception thing. But she simply says: “I am the Lord’s servant. Be it unto me as you have said.”
Zechariah’s Response: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Zechariah asks for a sign. He wants a sign from a sign (the angelic visitor).
Gabriel is not amused.
Did you ever have one of those moments when you know your parent or teacher was getting ready to yell at you, but they just smiled a very dangerous smile instead? In that moment, they thought of something better to do to you. The angel takes a deep breath and says, “I am Gabriel. (Maybe you have heard of me? I appear is such books at Daniel and Ezekiel. I am an archangel and the guardian spirit of Israel. In fact, I just came from the very presence of God. That shine you see on me is the residual shekinah glory from standing before God where I received instructions to visit you today.) Because you have not believed me, you shall be unable to speak until this word is fulfilled.”
Zechariah is literally dumbstruck.
From the perspective of those praying in the temple courts, the incense offering was taking longer than it was supposed to take. His relatives were thinking, “I hope he didn’t drop the incense. He is not as young as he used to be.” Zechariah eventually emerges, unable to speak and white as a sheet. They realize he had seen a vision. The couple go home and Elizabeth conceives.
I am not sure why Elizabeth hides herself for five months. She had experienced so much private pain over the years, perhaps she wanted to treasure up the private joy that God had given her before she shared the news with the world.
Why does Luke start his Gospel with this story?
It happened. It was note-worthy. Recording this story helps explain the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. John was hugely famous in his day. In many ways, he was more well-known than Jesus because his calling was do ministry on this national scale. Multitudes came out in the wilderness and responded to his message by being baptized. The common people accepted him and the religious elite rejected him. This was grassroots revival.
Second, this story shows beautifully that the New Testament is birthed from the faithful soil of the Old Testament. The birth of Jesus was promised, planned and prepared by God out of his faithfulness to Israel. The faithful of Israel were made ready for the coming of their Messiah. It was people like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and the people who came out to hear John the Baptist that were the ones to receive the Good News of Jesus.
This speaks to God’s character. He is a promise keeper. God is not abandoning his covenant with Israel. He is fulfilling his promises and using that nation to scatter his grace to all nations through them.
Third, Luke is showing us the power of prayer. God hears the prayers of the faithful:
“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”1 Peter 3:12
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.James 5:16
In Luke, Jesus will teach us to be like a persistent widow that kept coming before a judge to get justice. Luke prefaces that story with these words:
“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”Luke 18:1
God is a good God. This is demonstrated in the way God goes out of his way to bless Zechariah and Elizabeth. God could have brought John the Baptist into the world any way he wanted. But it pleased God to bless this faithful couple who had prayed for so long. He tells them, “You will have joy and gladness.” Them having joy and gladness was not essential to John’s mission. This is just an individual version of the goodwill that will be pronounced at the birth of Jesus: “Peace on earth… goodwill to man.” God is for us, not against us.
Prayer is most powerful when we marry our needs to God’s divine purpose. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So weave your needs in with God’s kingdom as you pray. Always keep the Kingdom of God in mind. If you need finances, frame that in the context of the Kingdom. “God, I want to take care of my needs and also be a blessing to your Kingdom and to others.” Get a Kingdom vision.
If you are praying for health, weave that to God’s Kingdom. God, I am asking for new health and strength so that I can use that strength to glorify your name, to serve your people, and praise your name.
Jesus said when you put God’s kingdom first, God will take care of your needs. Just look at how God is meeting the needs of Zechariah and Elizabeth, even has he is preparing to bring salvation into the world.
Fourth, faithfulness matters. God sees Zechariah and Elizabeth’s faithfulness. Zechariah may not have had the greatest faith (even in the face of an angelic visitation), but he was faithful. God meets us on the road to faithfulness. This vision came to Zechariah as he was doing what he was asked to do. It would have been easy for this couple to give up along the way through all the disappointments. But they kept being faithful.
Keep praying. Keep serving. Keep witnessing. Keep giving. I am not telling you that the Angel Gabriel is going to appear to you, but I am saying the road of faithfulness is where your answers are going to come.
There is so much in this story today of God’s perfect timing. It reminds me of what Paul says to us in Galatians:
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.Galatians 6:9
If we do the ordinary stuff with an eye to God’s Kingdom and glory, God will do the extraordinary. Sometimes we feel like we need to produce the “wow factor.” That is God’s department. Our part is faithfulness.
Keep connecting with worship online. Keeping coming for Holy Communion, even when we have to do it a different way. Keep praying the Lord’s Prayer with us at noon each day. Keep giving, Keep serving. Keep forgiving.
God’s fire falls on the faithful. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth shows us that, when we consistently do the ordinary, God does the extraordinary… in his perfect timing.