November 28, 2010

Saying Yes to God with Zechariah

Welcome to my Advent blog. For the next few weeks I’ll be looking at how those involved in the Nativity narrative responded to God’s call. Please join me on this last journey of 2010 to see what God can say to us through the actions of Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and even Herod and the Magi.

We enter these 4 weeks of preparation for Christmas, called Advent, with a look at Zechariah. His story is found in the Gospel of Luke (1:5-25). Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple. He and his wife, Elizabeth, “were both righteous before God.” Like another righteous couple from generations earlier (Sarah and Abraham), they were childless and “getting on in years.”

One day Zechariah “was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” This must have been a proud moment for the old man. We don’t know if he ever had this honor before. It is unlikely, because by this time in history there were many, many descendents of Aaron who could claim the right to serving in the Temple. In fact, even by the time of David and Solomon, the priesthood had already been divided into ‘divisions’ (see I Chronicles, chapter 24).

So Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies, the nearest any human could come to the Living God, to burn incense. This was a time of holy fear and trepidation for priest and people. A rope was tied to the ankle of the priest serving, just in case he was overwhelmed by the Holy One, so he could be pulled out. The people were separate from God and only the appointed priest could go into the Holy of Holies.

Michael Card’s song, A New and Living Way, gives an image of how it was for the priest.
“Year after year, there the priest would stand.
An offering of blood held out in his hand
Before the curtain there He would stand in fright.
It hung there to hold in the Holy to keep in the Light.”

Zechariah had no way of knowing that this time something amazing, life-changing, and indeed world changing would happen. “There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was "terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” The angel addresses Zechariah with comforting, if seemingly impossible, words, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

I suspect I would be just as skeptical as Zechariah who asks, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” It would seem that priests of the Lord are no more open to the interruptions of God than the rest of us! Even though he was knowledgeable in the writings ABOUT God, Zechariah was not used to being impacted BY God.

It is difficult to wrap our mind around things when God acts in ways that we don’t anticipate or that seem impossible. We have our little corner of the world all mapped out and we are quite content with life the way it is. True, it’s not paradise, but it could be worse. Then God comes in and turns everything topsy-turvy. A job change or new opportunity makes us pack up and move. An accident or illness interrupts our carefully laid plans. Change happens to our carefully laid plans, no matter what.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had long ago come to terms with the fact that they would not be parents. Now, in the twilight of life, God announces, ‘you are going to have a child’. Not just any child, either, but the prophet announced by Malachi who prophecies, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

The angel tells Zechariah, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Being struck dumb seems a bit extreme, but perhaps it was God’s way of giving Zechariah time to come to terms with this event that would start to turn his life upside down and then transform the rest of the world. He finally came out of the Holy of Holies, unable to speak, “and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary….When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

Somehow he explained to his wife what happened. Ultimately, “Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’” Elizabeth, in her own body, had confirmation of the words of Gabriel. As she grew great with child, she and Zechariah likely paused often to praise the amazing acts of God. They came to understand that their child would usher in the “New and Living Way” Michael Card sings about:

“When the time was full, another Priest came to save
He would offer forgiveness, for He was the offering he gave
From His sacrifice, from that dark disgrace
Came the power to make anywhere a most holy place
A new and living Way…”

When Zechariah was asked to ‘Say Yes to God’, he found that all his years of learning had not prepared him for meeting the Living God. I find I can relate. It can be easy to be busy studying (and writing) books and articles about God. The danger is that sometimes we think we’ve got God figured out and try to put God in a convenient ‘box’.
This week, I’m going to try an activity. In a box I’ll put images and words that are reminders of God. I know a photo of a sunset will be one thing I will add. There are Bible verses, too, that I like. I hope this exercise will make me a bit more aware of how I limit God’s action by the way I think.

Next week we’ll meet Mary, a young girl whose response to God was very different from Zechariah’s.

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