Luke’s account of the Christmas story begins not with Mary and Joseph, but with Zacharias and Elizabeth, another unlikely couple to take part in the coming of the Messiah and the rescue of humanity from darkness and the shadow of death. Unlikely, in the world’s view, but not in the eyes of the Lord. He specializes in doing things contrary to our way of thinking.
Luke 1 tells us their story. It recounts how they longed for a child for years, but like Abraham and Sarah so long ago, it appeared their line would stop with them. How many years had they prayed for a son, only to see, year after year, their prayers go unanswered, or perhaps unheard? But one day (all it takes is one day, y’all), one day Zacharias’ turn to burn incense in the Temple came up, so he went into that holy place…alone.
He stood before the altar prepared to do his priestly service. How many times had this privilege fallen to him? How often had he stood here and offered up the sweet smelling aroma that symbolized the prayers of the people going up to the Lord…the prayers of Zacharias and Sarah, too. All those years of praying. All those dreams and hopes unfulfilled. Zechariah’s heart longed for a son, an heir, but the length of his days made any flickering hope of this being fulfilled go up like the smoke upon the altar. His heart broke not just for himself, but for his wife, too. He had seen the pain in her eyes grow as the years passed, and he had seen her hope dwindle alongside his, hope that, against all odds, against nature even, God would intervene and do a miracle.
Perhaps as he stood in the dim light of the Holy Place he offered up yet one more prayer, the tiniest spark of his faith trying to start fire, in spite of all his head told him about how hope-less and crazy it was. At his age, this could be his last chance to stand in this place, standing in for the people, and for his wife, offering up their hopes and fears. Perhaps, for Elizabeth as much as any one, he asked once more, “Lord, please…”
And suddenly, he wasn’t alone any longer. Just to the right side of the altar stood one of the angels of God Most High, in all his glory; a truly terrifying sight for a mortal to behold. And while Zacharias was filled with fear, Gabriel spoke not judgment but words that sounded too good to be true: “Do not be afraid, Zecharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” (Luke 1:13)
His mind reeled. Could this be happening? HOW could this be happening? All the years of doubting God would hear his prayer now transitioned to “how in the world could this thing take place?” He was old. Elizabeth was old! Surely this was all just the wishful imagination of an old man’s mind, clouded the years and the incense before him. Could God…would God really do such a miraculous thing as this?
Zacharias was a priest. He knew the stories. He knew all about Abraham and Sarah, how the Lord showed up in their old age and miraculously gave them a child, the child of promise, the long hoped-for son who would be the first of a people as numerous as the sand on the shore and the stars in the sky. He knew this story well, and he should have known better. But knowing something is true and having to walk that truth out in your own life are very different things.
Zacharias doubted God’s word to him, but God’s word was bigger than his doubts. God’s word was sure: Zacharaias would have a son. Not just any son; this boy would be special. His son was also a child of promise, spoken of years before by the prophets. His son would go before the Lord, the Messiah Himself, to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of the salvation that was coming. And to give ample time to prepare for this arrival, to ponder all that God had said and done, Gabriel decreed that Zacharias would be unable to speak until the child was born. He would watch in silence as God worked to bring it all to pass, just as He said.
As I read this story again, I realized I could relate to Zach a bit better this year. Where I used to scoff at his doubt, this year I find myself nodding in understanding. Where I used to shake my finger at a priest who could doubt what God had clearly and wonderfully said, I hang my head in silent shame, knowing this pastor is capable of the very same thing.
In spite of the clear Word God has given us, I have found myself doubting God’s call for us to get up and go. I often wondered how Zach dealt with being unable to speak, unable to declare the great things God had done and was doing, unable to lift his voice in song; this year, he reminds me of Psalm 42:
“When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast. “
I miss our church family that we are leaving behind. I miss serving them, lifting my voice along with their’s to proclaim the goodness of the Lord, to sing of His grace and mercy. This journey has been hard. As the time has gone on, as we’ve waited and waited, it has gotten easier to doubt what God has clearly shown us, to doubt His word to us. I’m not equating this journey we are on with the gravity of Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s, but I have definitely gotten comfort and a new understanding through considering it. God’s Word is sure and true, no matter our level of faith. Even those of us who shouldn’t doubt, do. God’s Word is bigger than our doubts and fears. God is loving and compassionate to His children when we doubt. God is bigger than circumstances that look hopeless and crazy in the world’s eyes.
I know God will bring His Word to pass…in His time. Waiting for that time has become the hardest part. Our pastor used to say that it’s not the intensity of the trial so much as the length of the trial that gets to you; I’m learning that’s true. The longer we get from the initial “going” to the “where” has taken a toll on us both.
I wait in a different sort of silence than Zacharaias. Like Abraham, I feel a stranger and a sojourner in a city that’s been home for nearly two decades. I wait in hope that God will show us the path soon. I wait in hope that He will bring us to the place He wants us to be. And I wait in hope that, along the way, He will bear with me in my doubts and fears. And one day, like Zacharias, I will open my mouth and praise Him for all He has done.
So on this Christmas Eve, here at the end of a long and trying year, if you find yourself doubting how your hurt, your problem, your hopeless situation can change, go read the first chapter of Luke. Go realize that these were real people going through real problems that seemed hopeless, too. And realize that God’s Word is true…He will bring it to pass. God has hands big enough to handle it all. Don’t doubt Him any longer…put your doubt in His hands.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Merry Christmas, y’all.