During this advent season I’d like to use some traditional but underused themes for the Sunday’s of the season. Traditionally the Days (and their corresponding candles) have been named for Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy. But there is also an additional traditional name for each day and candle — Prophecy, Bethlehem, Shepherds, and Angels. It is this other usage I intend to be following this year. We will also be linking our discussion to specific people from scripture. And our first discussion is Prophecy and its role in our lives as taught by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.
Expectations are funny things aren’t they? They totally shape how we respond to what happens in our lives. An event can be either good or bad, life changing or ho hum depending on our expectations. Prophecy, biblical prophecy, is all about God setting our expectations. A baby born to peasants in a cattle stall in the middle of nowhere is not an earth changing event. Unless you’re expecting it to be the Son of God in which case it is an earth changing event in every sense.
Lets consider Zechariah, his story is told in Luke 1:5 – 25 and Luke 1:57-80. Zechariah is one of my favorite characters in scripture because he reminds me of how often I fool myself. Have you ever said,”If an angel ever showed up and told me something I would for sure believe it.” Or maybe you’ve said,”If God would give me a clear sign so I’d know what His will is I would follow that with all my heart.” Lets look at Zechariah and consider how much we might be like him.
Zechariah was married to Elizabeth who was a kinswoman of Mary. The word syngenis which is used in the Greek to describe the relationship is translated in the KJV as cousin and is not really correct especially to those of us who consider cousin means first cousin. We do not know how they were related just that they were distantly related.
Zechariah was also a priest of the division of Abijah. There were 24 divisions (1 Chronicles 24:7-18) and they lived both in Jerusalem and nearby. When division’s time to serve came, they all went to Jerusalem for a week and then back to their homes. There were a great many priests (estimated by some to be as many as 18,000 at the time of the second temple), more than could possibly serve in the temple, so they were chosen to serve by lot. This service consisted of burning incense before the altar and could only be done once in a lifetime. In short, this should have been the high point of Zechariah’s religious and professional life.
When his time to burn incense came Zechariah went into the Temple before the Altar and saw an angel standing at the right side of the altar. He was startled and afraid. Here is the question that occurs to me: why should one be startled and afraid to see a messenger of God in exactly the place we ought to expect to him? Why had Zechariah gone before the altar if not to be in the presence of God? Why would he be startled and afraid if he got exactly what he came looking for? Do we do the same thing? Do we really expect to find God’s will for our lives when we open scripture or pray or worship together, or are we surprised and afraid when He shows up? Zechariah had every reason to expect God to have a message for him at the altar, but he did not.
Not only was he afraid because God showed up where he should have been, he didn’t believe what the messenger told him. The angel said Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son and Zechariah wasn’t sure he could believe the angel. Wow. Wouldn’t you expect a priest said in scripture to be “righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” would be someone who would be anxiously awaiting a word from God and would believe with all his heart once he heard that word?
And what of us? Most of us like to think we’re at least trying to follow God and His will for our lives. We go to church, pray, and read scripture, but when if God speaks to us throughout those things are we willing to listen, believe and obey or are we like Zechariah wanting to know “How can I be sure of this?” What expectations have we allowed God to set? He has promised He would be with us and never leave us, but we’re always surprised when he shows up. He talked to His people throughout time, and we’re surprised when he talks to us through scripture, prayer or other christians.
Well, the story of Zechariah has a happy and somewhat humorous ending. The priest who is to speak to the people on behalf of God and to God on behalf of the people, is struck dumb because he did not believe. The man who at the peak of his religious and professional life spoke with an angel cannot tell anyone what he saw. And he remained that way until he named the baby who was born to Elizabeth and him, John, as the angel had said.
And then the scripture says, “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied”. God allowed him to be the one who helped set the expectations for John. Are we permitting God to set our expectations for what he will do in our lives? What prophets are we listening to?