Luke 1 begins with the story of Zechariah, a priest who ‘just happens’ to be in the right place at the right time, serving in the Temple at the altar of incense. An angel appears to him, declaring that his prayers have been answered and that he is to become a father. What seems like a simple account of prayer, answer and response is actually a little more ambiguous, and sets up themes that will be explored throughout the gospel.
‘When the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah], standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”’(Luke 1:10-13)
The first ambiguity comes with the angel’s mention of answered prayer. To which prayer is he referring? On the face of it, it would appear that he is speaking about Zechariah’s prayer for a child, a prayer that no doubt he and Elizabeth have prayed over many years. But that was presumably not the prayer Zechariah had been praying at that moment. He was in the Temple performing his priestly duty, praying for the nation. At the same time, all the assembled worshippers were praying for the same thing outside. Among them were two people we will meet in chapter 2 – Anna and Simeon – who had been praying for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of God’s people (Luke 2:22-38).
From the angel’s response, I think we are meant to see the two prayers – the national and the personal – as being interwoven. Gabriel tells Zechariah:
“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth… He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”(Luke 1:14, 16-17)
The child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth will bring joy to both them and the nation, because he will fulfill not only their longings for a child, but also Israel’s longings for restoration.
From what we go on to learn about John the Baptist, I’m not sure ‘joy’ is the best way of describing how he would be received by the nation. His teetotalism had people calling him demonised, and his preaching led to his imprisonment and beheading. He was a fiery individual, with an unusual diet and dress sense, who regularly used language of judgment, refining, roots and branches being cut down or torn up and thrown into fire. But all of this echoes the language used by Malachi to speak of the one who was to come as a prophet preparing the way of the Lord (Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6 etc). So the way John brought joy to the nation was by getting them ready for the true bringer of joy.
‘Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”’(Luke 1:18-20)
Zechariah’s response to Gabriel is puzzling. I’d like to think that if an angel appeared to me and made a declaration like this, I might respond with a little more faith. But then again, don’t we always think that when we read of faithlessness in Scripture? And isn’t that part of the point of these stories, to reveal how much more highly we think of ourselves than we ought to?
His response is puzzling, because on the face of it, it’s not dissimilar from Mary’s response when Gabriel visits her later in the chapter. Both question the mechanics of how God will bring about His word. You could argue that there is a difference in that Mary trusted the word, but questioned the process, whilst Zechariah seemed uncertain whether he should even believe the promise. But commentators seem divided on whether that is actually the reason for the difference.
I think the fact that we can’t easily identify from the text what makes the two responses so different highlights the point that two people can utter the same question from entirely different places of faith. The ‘how’ that emerges from a heart of faith is different from the ‘how’ that emerges from a heart of scepticism, and the angel is able to discern the difference.
Luke doesn’t tell us Elizabeth’s initial reaction to the news, but I think from her later reaction, we are meant to assume that she responded with more faith than her husband did:
‘After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”’(Luke 1:24-25)
In a sense, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an inverted Abraham/Sarah. Whereas Abraham received the promise in faith and his wife laughed, here it is the wife who exhibits faith and the husband who responds with unbelief (cf. Genesis 18:10-15). Still, God does not revoke the promise, or say ‘well, I guess I chose the wrong people – you’re less righteous than I’d thought!’ In His grace, He still gives Zechariah the miracle child, albeit accompanied with a deafness and dumbness that lasted until day eight of John’s life.
This inversion of the Abraham and Sarah story sets up a theme that is important to Luke, emphasizing the righteous obedience of women who often show more faith and faithfulness than their male counterparts.
But it also raises a key implicit question at the start of Luke’s gospel account. How will Israel respond to the challenge of John the Baptist, and the arrival of the Messiah? Will they respond in faith like Elizabeth/Abraham, or in doubt like Zechariah/Sarah?
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