9th Day of Advent
5In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and 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.”
18And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.
It happened at the most important moment on the biggest day of Zachariah’s long priestly career. To be chosen to burn incense in the Holy Place of the temple was the highest honor that could be bestowed on any priest other than the high priest. It is estimated that there were something on the order of 18,000 priests at the time of Jesus’ birth. There was no retirement plan for priests as was true of the Levites, so they continued to serve until death or disability prohibited them. These 18,000 priests were divided into 24 divisions, averaging 750 priests per division. The priests of each division were on duty at the temple in Jerusalem for one week at a time, twice a year, during which they officiated at the morning and evening sacrifices. For every sacrifice there were typically over 50 priests on call—far more than there were jobs to do. So for the priests of an activated division, reporting to the temple was sort of like reporting for jury duty. There was a good chance that you would end up not being selected to serve.
Their duties were varied. Some served as watchmen. One cleaned the ashes of the pervious sacrifice from the altar. One refilled the water in a large basin. One oversaw the burning of any leftovers from the previous sacrifice. One cleaned and trimmed the candles. One laid a new pyre for the burning of the next sacrifice for which they could use any kind of wood except olive or grape vine. One laid the pyre for the burning of incense. For this they used only the finest fig-wood. Another, chosen by lot, to prepare and slaughter the lamb for the sacrifice. One burned the sacrifice. Finally, the highest daily honor fell to two priests, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, who were selected by lot to burn incense before the Lord. This was a once in a lifetime distinction. Once chosen you were henceforth ineligible to be considered again. Instead, for the remainder of your life you were given the honorific “Rich and Holy.” It was a privilege that most priests would never know.
Zachariah was an old man. He had long since lost count of how many times lots had been drawn and his name passed over for this blessed recognition. Perhaps he had despaired of ever being the one to offer incense before the Lord while praying for his people. Like his prayers for a son, his desire to serve this highest of priestly functions was long unfulfilled. Not all of our hopes and dreams come true. But now, late in life, the honor was his!
Reverently—almost holding his breath—he carefully arranged the incense on the altar. It was a precise mixture of 11 different spices including such things as frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, saffron, and cinnamon. It was designed to fill the room with a sweet fragrance upon which the prayers of the priest would gently ascend into heaven. Even the burning fig wood added to the aroma. But as he lit the pyre and gratefully breathed in the fragrance, another of his senses was suddenly overwhelmed. Just a few feet away stood a figure in dazzling white. The greatest honor in his life had been immediately followed by its greatest shock—and as he would soon learn, an even greater honor. He found himself in the presence of an angel of the Lord!
Angelic visitations are universally terrifying in scripture. So the first words from an angel’s lips are usually “Fear not!”. Gabriel, the same angel who would soon visit a young maiden in Galilee, brought Zachariah good news. God has heard your prayers and will soon answer them. Elizabeth will bear you a son! And what a son! Like Elijah of old, he would be the Messenger of Yahweh. The one who would announce the coming of the Messiah! Not only Zachariah’s prayers but also the prayers of Israel were about to be answered and Zachariah’s baby boy would play a critical role.
It would have been better for the old priest to have said nothing at all than what he did say. Gabriel was offended by the response Zachariah gave and he struck him mute until the infant John was born and his name announced.
Gabriel’s announcement seemed too good to be true to Zachariah. The priest was not so much guilty of outright unbelief as he was of serious doubts. But as Darrell L. Bock reminds us, “Doubt is not unbelief, but it is not faith either. When it comes to what God has promised, doubt hangs in a dangerous canyon between faith and unbelief.”
Doubts can plague our hearts and minds as well. What matters is what we do with them. Do we wrestle and seek truth? Or do we feed our doubts and let them grow? This Advent season, may we be filled with hope and joy as we celebrate God’s most amazing gift to us: Jesus Christ.
Questions to Ponder
- Zachariah couldn’t believe it when God finally answered his prayers. Do you ever struggle with waiting on the Lord? Is there anything that you need to surrender to Him right now?
- In Mark 9 an anxious father cried out to the Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief!” If unbelief, doubt, and faith are points along a continuum, where on that scale do you typically reside? How does the Advent season help you to grow in your faith?