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Nov. 30, 2016: Zechariah: When the Internal Fire Has Gone Out
Quite often I have read or heard Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, described as a proud man, a foolish man who needed to be brought down a peg or two. This episode within the Advent story can sometimes be presented as even a little comic relief in the account of Jesus’ birth. But on a closer reading of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, I can’t see where Luke gives us permission for such a caricature.
Luke goes out of his way to commend Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, to us. Luke 1, verse 6: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” Luke is not suggesting they were without sin. In Psalms the "righteous" were certainly not without sin (Psalm 32). Rather, they were those who did not rest in their sin but repented and trusted God. In the Old Testament, the “righteous” were those who chose to make following God a way of life. Luke also tells us that Zechariah was a prayerful man (verse 13). So what we find here in Zechariah and Elizabeth are two people who, at heart, want to be right with God, practicing their faith as best they can and yet, for Zechariah especially, somewhere along the line hope has been lost.
Zechariah has not given up on his priestly duties – we find him in the Temple, obediently serving God, lighting the incense – but internally it would seem that the fire has gone out. Then Zechariah has a visitor. We're told, “…the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’” (verse 13). Gabriel’s words are an extraordinary thread of prophetic promises that Zechariah would have recognized from the Scriptures. Zechariah would have known that when God names a child, that child is especially significant in God's plan. God has named Zechariah’s son “John” – meaning “The Lord is gracious.” This gift of hope was not only an answer to his personal prayer for a long-awaited son, but also to the coming of a much longer awaited Messiah. These are the promises that Zechariah has banked his whole life upon. But rather than take the angel at his word, what we see are these words bouncing right off him. He says, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (verse 18).
Maybe it was not until that moment that he realized how little hope was within him. Perhaps that hope was drained out of him over a long period; slowly and inexorably the window of hope has closed on him. Maybe in his twenties he was full of hope. But when the angel comes to Zechariah and gives him this extraordinary gift of hope his response to the angel amounts to: Please don’t give me a false hope. I have spent my whole life hoping and praying that I would have a child. Please don’t drag me out again only to be disappointed. Don’t stand there and tell me what I already know to be humanly impossible.
Feeling hopeless in not unreasonable. But hopelessness can take over so that we can’t see our way out. Like Zechariah, do we find ourselves in a place where the Scriptures, the promises of God, just bounce off us? Is there a place in our lives where hope is running thin? Could God speak into that place of hopelessness this Advent?
The encouragement here is not to run from The Word but to run toward it. How do we do that? Come back to prayer. Come back to reading the Bible. Come back to fellowship with God’s people. Ask for prayer from others. But what happens when we just don’t have that in us? What happens when words fail us? Does the Lord wash His hands of us?
This is where we encounter the mercy of silence. Gabriel silenced Zechariah – but it was a merciful silence. To begin with, it prevented Zechariah from making the situation any worse! But perhaps more importantly, it also gave him an enforced silent retreat of at least nine months in which the Lord brought Zechariah out the other side of his hopelessness. The mercy of this silence created the space for Zechariah to listen to and observe what the Lord is saying and doing. In this period, his wife conceives a child and as Zechariah, still in silence, watches the child grow within her the Lord helps him thread together the prophetic words. The Lord’s plan does not go on hold and neither is Zechariah disbarred from the Lord’s plan.
This really encourages me. When we are overwhelmed and in that hopeless, despairing place where we have nothing to say to God (and for Zechariah, he was literally prevented from saying anything), in those periods of hopeless silence, we are not disbarred from God’s presence, we do not lose our place in the Lord’s affections. In His mercy and in the silence, God is still ministering to us.
In what proved to be the last moments of his silent retreat, Zechariah names his infant son “John.” This is a dramatic change of heart. He has literally moved from hopelessness to silence and now into not just a restored hope but hope that is expressed in praise and is exponentially bigger than anything he had before. And this increase has come about because in the silence his hope has been reattached to the miracle of the sovereignty of God.
We can find ourselves locked into our own problem of the moment, but the Lord’s invitation is always to re-anchor our hope in the miracle of His sovereignty. And the miracle of God’s sovereignty is that He works within and beyond what we can imagine.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20)