Summary: Zechariah’s experience in the Temple: Religion can turn us away from God. (Preached during Advent, but not really seasonal)
In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, a man devoted to tradition, finds his thinking challenged when his oldest daughter wants to marry for love, instead of having her marriage arranged by her parents. It had never occurred to him that one would marry for love, and one night he cannot help but ask his own wife the question (in song, of course!): “Do You Love Me?”
T: Golde, do you love me?
G: Do I what?
T: Do you love me?
G: You’re a fool!
T: I know! But do you love me?
G: Do I love him? For twenty five years I’ve cooked for him, cleaned for him, starved with him. Twenty five years my bed is his. If that’s not love - what is?
There are times when going through the motions just doesn’t cut it. There are even times when a commitment to “going through the motions” can cause us to miss what’s most important. For 25 years, Tevye and Golde had been going through the motions of a loving marriage, without ever thinking about whether they loved one another or not.
I think Zechariah has found himself in a similar place.
He was a good, a faithful, and a religious man. He was a priest, and had served God all the days of his long life. He was the kind of guy who would fit in well at our church (had he been Baptist instead of Jewish!)
The Jewish priests were divided into 24 groups. Each group would serve at the Temple for a week at a time, twice a year. And they all would serve during the major festival weeks. Every day, one of them would be chosen by lot to burn incense in the Holy Place. There were so many priests, that they were only allowed to burn the incense once in their life. Many of the priests never even got the chance to do it once. For a priest, to receive the honor of burning the incense was the greatest day of his whole life. What a thrill it must have been for Zechariah! It would definitely have been the most important moment of his career – very likely, it was the most important moment of his long life.
It was probably a bit frightening, too. The Jews had such a sense of the holiness and awesomeness of God, that the idea of coming into His presence was a sobering thing. I bet he wanted to make sure he did everything just right. What a terrible thing it would be to make a mistake on such a day!
But despite his best efforts, something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. Something happened that was so outside of Zechariah’s thinking that it was just too much for him. While Zechariah was busy worshipping and serving God, God pulled a fast one and actually showed up (or at least, one of his personal messengers did)!
What was Zechariah’s reaction? Did he say, “This is wonderful! Praise the Lord!” Our version says, that when Zechariah saw [the angel], “he was alarmed and felt afraid” That is a gross understatement. He wasn’t just startled. He was terrified at the sight of the angel Gabriel.
The conversation is almost comical. We’re not told what Gabriel looked like, but if Zechariah is terrified just looking at him, it must have been pretty obvious that it wasn’t just some guy sneaking into the temple. A messenger from the throne room of Almighty God was standing in front of him. Gabriel makes this incredible pronouncement about how Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have a baby and how that baby will bring great joy and will prepare the way for the Savior of the World.
And how does this faithful servant of God respond? “How do I know that’s going to happen?” Zechariah demands proof! But God doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Gabriel tells Zechariah that he will be unable to speak until that Word comes true.
I’ve often thought God was a bit harsh on Zechariah
After all, was his question, “How shall I know if this is so?” all that different from Mary’s question, later in this same chapter, “How can this be?” Maybe it was the tone, maybe it was the attitude behind the question. But I think it was also because Zechariah should have known better.
Think about the two of them: Mary was a young girl, probably in her early teens. And being a woman, she was not taught the Scriptures to the same degree as a man – and certainly not to the same degree as a priest
Then there’s Zechariah. A priest; An old man. Someone who has read and studied and probably even taught the Scriptures for decades. “To whom much is given,” Jesus said, “much is expected.” Zechariah’s training and experience should have caused him to have greater faith than a teenage girl, but it didn’t.