Summary: When Zacharias met an Angel in the Temple, announcing the birth of his son, he was confronted with an answer to a long-forgotten prayer. Like him, we should be prepared to find forgotten prayers answered, and to perservere in praying for those things whi
First Sunday in Advent
Today is a day of beginnings. It is the beginning of the Christian year. It is the beginning of the season known as Advent, the four Sundays prior to Christmas. And, it is a beginning for St. Athanasius Anglican Church, because this is the first time we, as a parish, have celebrated a Church New Year’s day and the First Sunday in Advent together. It is, therefore, providential that the gospel lesson for today is about a beginning – the beginning of John the Baptist, when his imminent conception is announced to John’s father, a priest named Zacharias.
John the Baptist figures prominently in many of the gospel lessons assigned in the lectionaries for the Advent season. This is no surprise, for John was preparing the people to receive their Messiah. So, when we are preparing ourselves to celebrate the first advent of Jesus into the world, it is no surprise that we find ourselves reading about the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord.
But today, I am going to focus our attention on the primary character of the gospel lesson, and that person is not John the Baptist but his father, Zacarias. The episode Luke records here is chock full of beginnings, and it is ironic that poor Zacarias probably thought it was full of endings.
Zacharias was only one of about 18,000 priests who were organized into 24 courses or divisions, to perform priestly duties at the Temple in Jerusalem. When it was the time for a priestly division to perform certain duties, there were still too many priests for the work that was to be done. So, for certain tasks, such as the one Luke mentions – burning incense before the veil covering the Holy of Holies – the priest who was to perform this task was chosen by lot. Luke tells us that in the days of Herod, the lot fell upon Zacharias to burn incense in the Temple.
Now this was a singular honor. With the number priests available, it was possible a priest might never be chosen, and even when he was chosen, it was a once-in-a-lifetime service of ministry. We don’t know how old Zacharias was when he was chosen, but it is likely he was well into his sixties or even older. No doubt, Zacharias had been waiting and hoping for this honor for a very long time. And, when it finally came to him, I wonder if he didn’t think to himself that now, finally, one of his fondest hopes and dreams had been fulfilled.
But, when Zacharias finally came into the Temple and approached the altar of incense, he got a shock. Luke says an angel of the Lord “appeared,” and so I’m going to guess that the appearance was sudden and completely unexpected.
We know what happened next – the angel announces that Zacharias and Elizabeth will have a son. The angel tells Zacharias he will name the son John. The Angel goes further to identify John with the person prophesied in the Old Testament lesson from Malachi we hear read a while ago. Gabriel quotes a phrase from the last verse of the Old Testament to be committed to writing – that Elijah the Prophet will come and turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. And he says this verse will be true concerning John.
I suppose we have may have heard this story many times. But, something jumped out at me this year as I was reading it, something I’d never noticed before. The very first sentence which Gabriel speaks is amazing! He says – “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
When do you think Zacharias and Elizabeth had been praying for a son? Do you think it was recently? No, more likely it was a long, long, long time ago. It would have been normal for them to have married in their late teens or early 20s at the latest. And, after a year or so, I think they must have begun to fret because Elizabeth had not conceived. More years passed, and I’m sure their prayers became earnest and pleading – that the Lord would be merciful to them and grant them a son. A son would have provided them a kind of security in their old age. But, you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if they got around to praying for a daughter too, for a daughter would have been a joy and a comfort and a help for them far more so than no child at all.
But, eventually, the day came when they no longer prayed for a child, son or daughter. As the years rolled by, as Elizabeth passed through menopause – well, these things are not rocket science. Both Zacharias and Elizabeth knew that the time of child-bearing were over.