Our First-Person Christmas series will feature five Sundays of first-person narrative sermons. The initial presentation was this past Sunday, featuring a personal look at the life of Zechariah. For those of you who missed being there, here today and tomorrow is much of that manuscript. And even if you were there, reading it will likely refresh your memory with new insights you may not have caught by ear.
My Name is Zechariah
Yes, my name is Zechariah, you may have read about me in the Bible. OK … I know what you are thinking. “Yes, Zecharia, like in Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, ZECHARIAH, Malachi!”
Actually, there are 31 different men in the Bible who have the name Zechariah … which means “Yahweh remembers.” You need to remember that, because I’m going to tell you more about that later!
My home is in the hill country of Judah, were I live with my wife Elizabeth. I am a priest and serve the nation of Israel in that capacity. My background is not just from the tribe of Levi, but actually I am descended from the line of Aaron, dating back 1500 years to that brother of Moses. And I might add that my wife Elizabeth is from the same unique family lineage of the Aaronic priesthood.
And as you can see, I’m a rather old fellow, as is my wife; and therein lies the great sadness that has attended our lives over the decades. We had been childless, even to well past the time and age of bearing children.
This was a great sadness for both of us, but particularly for my wife Elizabeth. In our culture, childlessness can be seen as a sort of judgment from God … or at least a suspicion of that. But we knew that was not true in our circumstance. We have lived our lives consistently in an upright fashion, trusting God and honoring his commands – being faithful to observe the law, doing so joyfully as servants of the one true God.
Even so, I have to say, it still was an inner hurt that never went away. Our home was terribly quiet. The sounds of children at play would always dredge up to our conscious awareness that there was a vacancy in our lives – a hole that was never filled, not even by all of the good and blessings we received.
You may not know or understand this, but there are literally thousands of priests in Israel (somewhere around 18,000 right now), all connected to the lineage of Aaron. I have a lot of distant cousins! God wasn’t kidding when he told Abraham that his offspring would be like the stars of the sky or the sands of the sea. I am from the family – the division – of Abijah. There are a total of 24 divisions of the priests – this set-up dating all of the way back 1,000 years to the time of David.
Though I have responsibilities on a regular basis, particularly during the festival times of the Jewish calendar, my division only serves in the Temple for a week at a time, once every 24 weeks. Those 7 days are a busy and intense time.
Not long ago, during my rotation week of serving, I was chosen by lot to go into the Temple and into the Holy Place to burn incense. It was a daily event that accompanied the daily sacrifice – before the morning sacrifice and after the evening offering. This was an amazing opportunity – a day that would/could only happen once in my lifetime. The incense represented the prayers of our people – the whole nation – before the Lord. The focus of the entire nation at that moment in time is upon that priest who goes before the Lord.
It was the regular experience in the Temple at this daily moment for a crowd of people to gather and see the priest go into and out of the Holy Place; and they pray during this time as well. So, yes, I was a bit excited about this and could feel my heart pounding somewhat as I went inside and began to offer the prayers. Others had told me of what an intense spiritual moment this was for them.
But none had a story quite like what happened to me. Suddenly I was not alone!! There appeared an angel on the right side of the altar. I was terribly frightened! How many of you have had an angel show up when you least expected it?
And he began to talk to me, telling me that my prayer had been answered. My prayer?? I was praying – as all the faithful in Israel would pray – for God’s ultimate redemption in the coming of a long-awaited Messiah. Was this to be the prayer to be answered? Well, more on that later …
But the angel’s words were, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”
Ah … OK … I wasn’t really thinking about that right now. And … well … I wondered – Does this angel not see how old I am? And if you think I look bad for having babies, you should see Elizabeth!
Before I could debrief with him a bit on this matter of age and discuss my natural skepticism, even seeking some sort of sign or evidence beyond his words, he continued his message. He said some interesting things that are to come true of my son John. Let me list them for you …
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
There is no doubt that a child could bring great delight to us, and beyond that to those who know us. But this seems to be speaking of something more than that. Somehow this revelation is that this boy of mine is going to be powerfully blessed in God’s work…
He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
Of course we understand that a vow to abstain is related to a particular commitment to God’s work, which is clearly the future for John. And it is wonderful to hear that God will be with him by the filling of the Holy Spirit – that is for us in Israel only the rare benefit of those that God particularly sets apart…
He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
There is no doubt that a great need exists in the nation for people to return to faith and trust in our God. These are discouraging times with the Roman occupation. So many of our national and spiritual leaders are in an unholy alliance with them, while others – the “Zealots” we call them – look for a political or military solution. But the heart of the matter is a spiritual issue – a declension from a true trust in God and obedience to Him.
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.”
Wow, speaking of the hopes of a Messiah – this part of the message was truly messianic – bringing up the name of Elijah. It was not the prophet of my name (Zechariah) who spoke about Elijah coming again, but the next and last prophet – Malachi … writing, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents…”
Some people believe Elijah himself is to come again, though I have always understood it to be someone in the same God-given power and authority to lead the nation to revival … and this angelic message to me was that my son John was to do this service. And why? It would be to prepare the nation for this promised Messiah to come with true and full salvation.
Up until this point, I had not said anything, as this was a lot to take in … I mean, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how old I am … and then … (not the best moment of my life or career, I admit), out of my mouth comes, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
You would think that being a priest and a descendent of Aaron – being one who has always been deeply aware of the details of the Jewish scriptures – that I would be quickly open to the idea that God can intervene miraculously and bring life to that which is dead and hopeless. No less than our Father Abraham had the same experience and he believed the prophecy – being credited to him as righteousness for believing God’s promise … though his wife Sarah was worse than me – she outright laughed at it.
But they weren’t the only ones. Samson and Samuel were born to women of advanced age. But so many years had passed with no children. So much pain … and for my wife Elizabeth – the shame of being barren. We had given up hope long before the angel Gabriel showed up.
Yep, Gabriel – that’s who this angel was – the same one who spoke to Daniel on two occasions. I didn’t have a chance to say something like, “Sorry I didn’t recognize you; I’ve never seen an angel before!” He went on to say …
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.”
Well shut my mouth! Literally! That’s what happened. Try as I might, I couldn’t talk, though I remembered every word perfectly as stated to me. And yes, I deserved it for not believing immediately. And though I could not talk, I knew altogether that this was real and going to happen exactly as stated.
All of this took a lot more time than was the routine for a priest doing the incense. The folks standing and praying outside were wondering what the delay was all about. I’m sure I was a sight when coming back out to them; and when I could not talk to them, they knew that I had seen a vision and had an unusual experience. Through motions I attempted to share what had happened, though few understood much about it.
My week of service time had passed and I went home, communicating mostly in writing to my wife about all that had occurred. Elizabeth and I were much secluded in the coming months, though her relative Mary – the mother now of a baby named Jesus – came and spent three months with us. In time, our son John was born.
Elizabeth has also been invited by Randy and Chris to speak to you… just don’t tell her about how I talked about how old she is!
According to Jewish law and tradition, we took John to be circumcised on the 8th day. Now remember, I haven’t been able to talk all this time. In the Temple, they thought that we would surely name the boy Zechariah, after me. But Elizabeth spoke up for us and said that, no, he would be named John (as the angel had told me).
Not believing we would do this – there were no “Johns” in our family – everyone looked at me to see my reaction. And asking to be able to write my response, I wrote that indeed his name was to be John. This surprised everyone; but even more surprising was that at that very moment, my voice returned.
All of these events have caused quite a stir, I must say … especially back home in the hill country of Judah. Though John is still just a little fellow, it is clear that there is indeed something special about God’s hand on him – everyone can see it and they all comment about it.
(the rest of the story will come tomorrow)