Have you ever been in a position when you had some amazing news to share? Something had happened. Perhaps you got engaged or you were expecting a baby or you just got your dream job. When you have big news, who do you tell first? That’s a big decision. For some people, they just explode with sharing and they will tell the nearest person, even if they are a total stranger. For others, they are very strategic. They create a hierarchy within their minds of who must be told before who and all of the timing set out.
Now imagine that you are God. I know that’s dangerous. Not only are you God, it is now time to take that largest step of all eternity. In the past, you have spoken through the prophets and that was fine, but now communication is about to take a whole new level. It is time for the incarnation. Instead of a prophet, God the Son was about to appear as a human being, born as a baby on that little speck called planet Earth.
Who would you tell first? Kings and emperors? Scholars and religious leaders? Who gets the news first? And what does that say about what you value?
Thankfully we are not God and we don’t need to use our imagination because the story is told for us. The first person that God tells is a man named Zechariah. Now to be completely accurate, Zechariah is told about the birth of John the Baptist and not Jesus. But in the biblical story, the coming of John the Baptist is intimately connected with the coming of Jesus Christ. You can’t really separate them. The only reason John appeared was to prepare the way for Jesus. John was the necessary first step.
But what does this revelation to Zechariah say about how God interacts with us?
One question we should ask is whether or not Zechariah was an expected choice. The answer is yes and no.
On one hand, Zechariah makes all the sense in the world. Not only did he have a great Old Testament name, he also was of the tribe of Levi, the one tribe allowed to work in the temple. Not only was he a Levite, he was from a priestly family, one of the descendants of Aaron, able to perform temple duties that other Levites could not. We should not necessarily see Zechariah as a religious scholar, not in the way the Pharisees were. But as a priest, he probably had much more knowledge of the Bible than the average Jew. He held a respected position in society.
I said that he had an Old Testament name, the same name as one of the prophets. There is another Old Testament connection. Zechariah was old and his wife Elizabeth was barren. This is a motif found throughout the Old Testament, with Abraham and Sarah just being the most famous examples. Time after time in the Old Testament, God worked miracles through people just like Zechariah. In many ways, Zechariah almost seems to be an Old Testament figure plucked out and placed in the New Testament.
It was to Zechariah, as he was performing his temple duties, that the angel Gabriel appeared. Now the Jerusalem temple was a special place and the Jews understood God to be dwelling within the temple, but we should not get the idea that angelic visitations were a regular occurrence. In fact, it was generally believed that communication with God had stopped after the last prophet, who was Malachi. No one expected to hear from God, through an angel or any other way. The only way you could hear from God was through the study of the Bible.
So Zechariah was appropriately surprised when Gabriel appeared to him. Especially when he heard the content of the message. This was not just God saying ‘hi’ or offering some positive work evaluation for his temple duties. Gabriel came to let Zechariah know that he and Elizabeth would be having a baby. Before getting into his reaction, remember what I said about communication with God ending with Malachi? Malachi ends with a prophecy of the coming of Elijah. Although the baby that would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth would not physically be Elijah, his ministry would be the continuing of Elijah’s ministry. So the birth of this miracle baby would pick up where Malachi stopped, resuming God’s interaction with his people.
So how did Zechariah take it? Remember that he probably had above average knowledge of the Bible and would have been familiar with the many times that God did something similar in the Old Testament. But instead of just receiving this good news, he responded with, “How can I be sure of this?” That was the wrong thing to say. The angel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the baby was born. We might think that seems rather harsh. But Zechariah wanted some sort of evidence that this would happen and he got what he asked for. Taking away his voice was his sign. And he did receive his voice back when the baby was born and he named his son John as the angel commanded.
I said that Zechariah was both expected and unexpected as a first contact with heaven. Expected because on paper, he seemed more than qualified. Unexpected because Zechariah didn’t embrace the message with a rush of faith. He seems to be a bit of a skeptic and to have some doubts about the whole thing. That is something for us to think about.
What about us? Does God’s choice of Zechariah have any encouragement for us? We might not be able to identify with Zechariah’s good qualifications, but we might be able to identify with his questions.
Moving from specifics to generalities, Zechariah struggled with how he could hope in the midst of a hopeless situation. Even with the head knowledge of how God acted in the past didn’t stop him from questioning how God would act now. Can we identify with this?
We live in an interesting time. We have seen technological advances that leave our heads spinning. There is much good that has been taken place in terms of communication and medical treatments.
But I don’t see people feeling much more hope. I suspect that many people would say that we live in a dark world. If anything, technological advances simply allow us to witness quicker and with more details the tragedies of our world. There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world. Not just natural disasters, but violence that could be avoided, through terrorism, crime and war. In addition, the media is reporting on how once respected actors, newscasters and politicians, are being accused of sexual abuse and harassment. Despite how far we have come, people still see other people as things to be used.
It is possible that none of those things are what is weighing on your mind. Perhaps there is a different kind of darkness. Something from your past or something happening right now. It is difficult to hold onto hope.
You have read the Bible stories. You have heard how God has acted in the past. Perhaps you even remember God answering prayers in your life in amazing ways. Despite all of this head knowledge, you struggle to hold onto hope. Just like Zechariah.
Remember Zechariah. God chose him as the first person to tell the big news of what was about to happen. God specifically chose him. I want to ask you, was God surprised by Zechariah’s reaction? Or did God already know Zechariah would respond with doubt and he chose him anyway? And knowing Zechariah would doubt, did God still answer his prayer? Yes, God did.
Hope in a hopeless situation. I want you to know two things. That hope doesn’t depend on the type of circumstances you are in, nor does it depend on how brave or courageous or optimistic we might be. It only depends on God. For me, as one who is skeptical by nature, Zechariah is an encouragement.
The story of Zechariah is an appropriate reflection for the first Sunday of Advent. Today we light the first candle and each week we will light another candle, until this room is filled with candles on Christmas Eve. We believe that the light is coming into the darkness but it begins with one candle.
I’m encouraged by Zechariah because not all of us are heroes of the faith. When God offers us hope, we might wonder how that could possibly be. Zechariah wondered and his prayer was still answered. We can have hope beyond what we feel inside. God is a God of hope and Advent is about building that hope one light at a time, getting us to Jesus.