Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there; story invites our participation. A good storyteller gathers us into the story. We feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked, realize there is more to this business of being human than we had yet explored. If the storyteller is good, doors and windows open. Our biblical storytellers were good, in both the moral and aesthetic sense of them.Eugene Peterson
After Luke introduces his book, he begins with an intriguing story. The story has drama, emotion, a bit of mystery, and definitely, hope! It’s a story of fulfilled prophecy, of forgotten prayers answered, the promise of a bundle of joy. The story is familiar; we feel like we have heard it before – an angel, an announcement, disbelief, a miracle!
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.Luke 1:5-7 NLT
Luke emphasizes that this story is real, historical by placing it on a timeline in the Roman government. He introduces our characters with these keywords: righteous, blameless, childless, and old.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. This doesn’t mean they were perfect or sinless, but that they were faithful in their worship.
Elizabeth was barren and past the normal child-bearing years. In the Jewish culture, barrenness was often viewed as punishment from God, but because Luke clearly states she was righteous, that wasn’t her issue. In the Old Testament, God intervened several times, opening the womb of women who had been infertile. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, but he had not yet had a son, even at an old age. God miraculously gave Abraham and Sarah their son, Isaac. The readers of Luke’s gospel would certainly recognize the similarities in the stories and connect to others. Isaac had prayed for Rebekah because she was childless, and God gave them the twins Esau and Jacob. Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, engaged in a “baby war,” even using their servants to one-up the other in children. Rachel could not conceive until the scripture says, “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and enabled her to conceive.” She bore Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. These men were all significant in the development of the Hebrew nation. And God intervened in each of their births!
So in Luke’s first story of his gospel, he introduces us to this sweet older couple in the church. They are devout, practicing their faith visibly in their community. No doubt, as a young couple, they had prayed often for a child, but in these later years, not so much.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.Luke 1:8-10
After introducing the characters, Luke places the main event of the story in the Temple. There were many priests arranged in divisions. Each division served the Temple two weeks out of each year. And in those two weeks, there were more priests than jobs to do, so they drew straws – cast lots! And of course, for these Jewish men, it was not “just the luck of the draw,” but God oversaw casting lots. God ordained that on this day, a special day of service in the temple, quite possibly Zechariah’s only time to burn incense in his life, that this would be the day God would announce His answer to Zechariah’s prayer for a child. It was an extraordinary day!
Let’s use our holy imagination for a minute. You’ve been serving in the church for years. But on this day, you’ve been specifically chosen for “THAT” special job! Maybe you are nervous – you’ve never attended to the incense in the Temple before. Maybe you are excited and grateful, knowing that this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Quite possibly, your heart is overflowing with fullness towards God for allowing you to serve Him in such an intimate way. Butterflies in your stomach, senses heightened, you barely notice your surroundings as you begin to pray.
As the officiating priest, it was Zechariah’s job to place incense on the heated altar and then prostrate himself in prayer. The incense represented the prayers of the people. Outside, the people were reciting this prayer during the incense offering: “May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people.”
I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke
And that is when he appears! The angel! Mysterious, like a man but not so much. Later, when Elizabeth quizzes Zechariah about this moment, he is unsure of the details. He remembers the fear! The angel’s encouragement. And his moment of failure!
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.Luke 1:11-15a NLT
There may be no sweeter words, “God has heard your prayer!” BUT, activating our imagination – what if you don’t remember what prayer!?? Imagine what must be going through Zechariah’s mind. A child? NOW? Why now, and not 30 years ago!
God’s last words to the nation of Israel are recorded by the prophet Malachi and repeated in Luke’s first chapter. While Elizabeth and Zechariah had prayed for a child for many years, maybe 30 years, the people of Israel had been praying for a word from God for some 400 years!
He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.Luke 1:17
What happens next is huge in this story – Zechariah questions the angel, Gabriel, no less! Zechariah had been serving God faithfully for years. He knew God, knew he could trust Him, knew His God to be powerful. But at this moment, Zechariah doubted and asked for proof. Doubt alone would not have been sin, but Zechariah’s unbelief was unacceptable.
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”Luke 1:18-20 NLT
The fact is we all sin – even when we know better. God still blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth with their child. He had a plan, a purpose for John, the forerunner to Jesus, the fulfillment of a promise! God’s promises are bigger than our failures. God loves us, uses us even in our momentary lapses. Zechariah was faithful before this announcement and faithful afterward. While we can expect discipline when we fail to believe, we can also trust the Spirit of God to redirect us and bring us back into fellowship!
This story ends with Elizabeth’s awesome testimony! “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”
We, too, have a testimony – God, in His kindness, takes away our disgrace when He saves us! Praise the Lord!
Luke is careful not to dress up the story by making Zechariah a great hero of faith…. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind.NT Wright, Luke for Everyone
*Follow the sermon series on Christ Church Cedar Park website.
**Follow the notes by using the category search “Luke, A Promised Kept” on this blog.