No one likes to be ignored. No one likes to be
without the things which he or she believes will make life better, more
fulfilling, or happier, either. Yet that’s the way Elizabeth and Zechariah
might’ve viewed their lives as our Bible text for today opens. According to
St. Luke, this aging couple was the sort of folks that others would look up
to. They were “upright in the sight of God,” Luke writes.
They weren’t sinless, of course. Christ alone was
sinless, and the rest of humanity sinful, as we’re frequently reminded by St. Paul and other biblical writers. But Elizabeth and Zechariah were what the world outside
the Church (and maybe even a few inside) might call “good people”. Solid
After all, Zechariah was a priest, a member of the
tribe of Levi, and served in the temple. Some might think that puts people on
a different sort of plane with God.
What a shame that Zechariah and Elizabeth hadn’t had
any children, though. By the way of reasoning that dominated Jewish thought in
those days, there must have been some hidden reason God was punishing them in
this way. Perhaps they’d committed some significant, secret sin that hadn’t
come to light yet. Children were a blessing from God, and the barrenness that Elizabeth experienced wasn’t viewed as being merely a biological problem, but an
indication of some deeper spiritual shortcoming.
Outwardly, this couple didn’t let on that anything
bothered them about this situation. The Scriptures don’t give any indication
that as they grew in years, Elizabeth and Zechariah expressed frustration with
God, or showed that they had abandoned hope in His goodness.
So far, they hadn’t yet attempted to take matters into
their own hands, like Abraham and Sarah did, and hatched their own plan on how
to address the situation and beget offspring apart from the Lord’s own design
and promises. Instead, Zechariah and Elizabeth continued to observe all the
Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. Not perfectly, mind you, but
You can’t help wondering, though, whether inside their
own hearts and minds, Zechariah and Elizabeth felt somewhat ignored and
abandoned by God. They had prayed for a child and yet no child had been given
to them. They didn’t have what they wanted most, and they didn’t have any way
of knowing if God had heard them.
Did Elizabeth lay awake at night, wondering why God
didn’t seem to be interested in her desire to have a child? Did she cry
herself to sleep, aching for the joy and fulfillment that comes to a mother as
she brings forth new life, and cares for the fruit of her womb? Did Zechariah
often lament the absence of an heir, and feel less of a man for not having
fathered a child? Or were there recriminations and accusations thrown back and
forth between husband and wife, each blaming the other for Elizabeth’s
barrenness, even silently blaming the silence of the God they otherwise trusted
and followed? Given that the Scriptures tell us that Zechariah and Elizabeth
were blameless in God’s sight, we can be sure that, even if these things
occasionally took place, they repented of them and remained faithful.
One day, though, God’s silence was broken. An angel
appeared to Zechariah as he served in the temple. This angel brought not only
God’s assurance that the couple’s prayers had been heard, but also the joyous news
that it was God’s will that they would have a child in the coming months. What
a great thrill this angelic vision should have given Zechariah! It was not
only the end of years of frustration and silence, but at long last, one of
their deepest desires would be fulfilled by God! Unto them a son would be
The angel goes into quite some detail about the person
and the life of this coming child: His name, the angel said, was to be John.
His lifestyle was described. So was his work, and the service he would render
to God. The positive influence he would have on God’s people. His reputation
among the people.
And does Zechariah respond full of joy and thanks at
the news that God had heard their prayers and answered them?
No, not at all. Instead, he responds with doubt and
skepticism: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is
well along in years.”
Well, Zechariah, let’s review this situation for just
a minute, shall we? A messenger of God speaks to you in His temple. You’re
given a promise that fulfills one of your deepest desires. You’re a believer
who should know the word and power of God. You’re nowhere near as old as
Abraham and Sarah were when God broke through her barrenness and gave them
their own child in Isaac. Do you think just maybe that you’re selling God a
little bit short? Are you thinking that He’s only capable of accomplishing little
stuff in your life, but nothing as big or as wonderful as what His messenger
has just told you? Repent of your unbelief, O Zechariah. In silence, chew on
what God has done for you, until such time as all is fulfilled.
In a similar way, for hundreds of years, it seemed,
Israel had been ignored by God, and denied what it sought and desired most—a
Messiah; a specially-chosen one who would rescue the nation from a series of
oppressions and disappointments. Since the time of the prophet Malachi, God
had been silent toward His people, leading many of them to wonder if they had
been abandoned by the Lord altogether.
Some thought that perhaps if they were just more spiritually
earnest—praying harder, following the Law more fervently, denying certain
earthly comforts, and so on—they and their nation might be brought closer to
God. If they worked at it, maybe they might win His favor and receive His
promises. “If God is ignoring us,” they thought, “if He won’t come to us or
answer our prayers, perhaps we should work toward Him. If we do things just
right, perhaps He will do as we ask.”
The trouble with that approach, of course, is that it
promotes a sense of self-generated righteousness. It leaves people either in
smug arrogance that they have done a fine job of demonstrating devotion toward
God, or in remorseful despair that whatever they have accomplished in this
regard can never be enough to fully satisfy God.
Others took a different approach. Rather than wait
for the hand of the Lord to deliver Israel and fulfill His promises, they wanted
to take on the task of ushering in God’s rescue of Israel themselves. They
sought to accomplish this through active measures against the worldly powers
that had dominated them for many of the years since the remnants of the nation
had returned from their captivity in Babylon. Persians, Greeks, Syrians,
Egyptians, and now Romans had all taken their turns as the ones who seemingly
prevented the people of God from being heard by Him and from receiving His
Doubts about God’s ability to fulfill what He had
promised to the Israelites, or at the very least impatience about the time of
God’s choosing, had led many to engage in violent uprisings against the nations
who had controlled the Promised Land. In this doubt and impatience, these
Zealots were little different in the spiritual sense from Abraham and Sarah,
who thought it necessary to find a shortcut to accomplish God’s promises.
Adherent to both of these views felt that God was
silent toward His people. He had ignored them, not heard them, or forgotten
His promises, they thought. Doubts about God’s willingness or ability to
achieve all that He had promised them were widespread, and these doubts were
lived out in both the spiritual and political activities of that day.
What Zechariah spoke aloud and ill-advisedly—doubts
about the reality of God’s promises in spite of what had been declared to them—had
been the failing of many others as well.
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed much in the time
since Zechariah. There constantly remains a risk that we, too, will doubt God’s
promises and not trust the message of hope and joy His messengers bring us. We
question God’s methods, and sometimes want to substitute our own ideas or our
own efforts to try to achieve what He has told us will be accomplished without
any contribution on our part.
For this, we ought to continually repent. We might
pray that, rather than let us wag our tongues with doubts and arguments against
His wisdom and His ways, may God strike us as silent as He did Zechariah.
Yet over the course of the several months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, waiting for the birth of his child, Zechariah no doubt had plenty
of opportunity to contemplate his affliction in silence.
In this Advent time, as we await the observance of the
birth of the child of Bethlehem, it would be suitable for us, too, to quietly contemplate
the afflictions under which we suffer. We are plagued not with muteness, but we
are saddled with sin. Our problem is not that we cannot speak, but that so
often we do not listen. We ignore the clear message which our Lord sends us,
or want to question it or change it to suit ourselves.
Eventually, by the time of the birth of his son John,
Zechariah was led by the Holy Spirit to abandon his own ideas about God’s plan,
and to embrace the message the angel had given him those many months before.
Zechariah’s beautiful prophecy of the Benedictus, which we sometimes
hear sung liturgically as we did tonight, eloquently reveals to us the reality
of God’s plan of love, mercy, and grace.
His words express with joy and praise the promises
made time and time again to God’s people through His prophets: Promises of
God’s presence, redemption, and salvation. Promises of protection and rescue.
Promises of holiness and righteousness.
Through Elizabeth and Zechariah, in spite of their
doubts and their failings, God did indeed raise up a prophet for His people.
Just as John the Baptist went on before the Christ to prepare His way and
proclaim that salvation comes from the forgiveness of sins, so also God’s
prophetic and apostolic scriptures go before Christ to prepare our hearts. His
Word shines the light of His truth into the darkness of our sinful hearts and
May His Word reach each of us this Advent, to dispel
our doubts and to guide us onto the path of peace. Rest with the blessed
assurance that we are never abandoned or ignored by our God.
Rather, we remember the holy covenant He has made with
us, giving us His very own Son as our only means of righteousness and rescue.
More importantly, He remembers His holy covenant, and fulfills it in you and
for you, through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
For He has come to His people and redeemed them.