I love the Advent season, something I have mentioned here before. I love how Scripture introduces us to the main characters of the story that culminates with the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ. How different that story is from the mind-numbing songs and stories that are paraded out right after Thanksgiving. What more can you tell me about Rudolph or Frosty or the Grinch or even Santa Claus?
But the ancient story is ever new. I never tire of hearing the Old Testament prophecies and reliving the anticipation that Israel must have felt as the people awaited their Messiah. The angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and to Mary leave me with wonder. The hurried visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and the intrauterine celebration of John the Baptist filled with the Holy Spirit when he hears the voice of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of our Lord.
And just as certainly as we relive the “old favorites,” as is always the case with Scripture, there is always something new to discover. That happened to me today. The Gospel reading is found in Luke 1:5-25. It is the story of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple. Now just a quick backstory: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been getting their Denny’s discount for many years. They were certainly senior citizens. They had no children because Elizabeth was barren all those many years. Then suddenly, while Zechariah was offering prayers in the form of incense on behalf of the multitude of people who were waiting outside, the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared.
You know the story: Zechariah is afraid; Gabriel tells him he will have a son; Zechariah is incredulous; and Zechariah is told that because of his unbelief he will not speak until the baby is born. Most of us know the way the story plays out. But today I saw something I had never seen before. I almost wonder if it was there before. Okay, I know it was, but I hadn’t noticed it until today.
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. (Luke 1:11-13 RSV)
Say what? Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Zechariah was in direct response to Zechariah’s prayer. He had prayed that his wife would bear him a son. God had delayed the answer until the right time. Zechariah, Elizabeth and their son would become part of the great developing story of the coming of God’s salvation to the world in God’s time.
I tend to wonder why Zechariah reacted as he did, especially after the angel laid out all the particulars about this son that would be theirs:
“And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord,
and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink,
and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother’s womb.
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17 RSV)
What do I do when God assures me he has heard my prayer? I usually keep praying and wondering and sometimes doubting and looking for backup plans. Sound familiar? How does God assure me he has heard my prayer? I can only answer in one way. If God lays a prayer burden on my heart and makes it clear that he wants me to spend time in intercession, then I can be assured that he will also answer. You and I both know that it may not look exactly like what we imagine, but God will answer and it will be something he will use for his glory.
Zechariah expected a child from Elizabeth when they first married and for many years afterward. Yet the answer came when Zechariah was more fit to be a grandfather or even a great-grandfather. But the son did come and Jesus said of him, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11 RSV). By that time, no doubt, Zechariah had passed from the scene. He would not see John be used by God to announce the coming of Jesus. Mercifully he would also not witness his son’s martyrdom, but his prayer was answered.
That gives me great hope for the deep prayers that God has placed on my heart. With Zechariah I sing:
“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 NABRE)