Advent: Zacharias and the Angel

Advent, Zacharias and the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Jerusalem, priesthood, Luke 1The Advent story begins with Zacharias meeting the angel Gabriel–as found in Luke 1.

Somehow over the years, I’d missed several interesting aspects of this event.

Let’s start with the first: who were Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth?

Members of the Aaron line, they both came from the family of priests. In 4 BC, which is when this event probably took place, Zacharias would have been familiar with the Torah and Elizabeth probably was as well. Zacharias could read and write, as noted in the text.Most priests lived ordinary lives in their small towns.

The couple lived in the hill country of Judea, an area that stretches basically from Jerusalem in the north to Hebron in the south–in the hills. No surprise, Bethlehem is in the hill country. You can view the area on this map.

“They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.”

This was at a time when a barren woman was considered cursed by God.

What did Zacharias’ priesthood mean?

Many priests lived in Israel at the time, numbers run between 8,000 up to 20,000. With so many, they were divided into 24 divisions. Abijah’s division was the eighth in a twice-a-year rotation to serve at the main temple in Jerusalem.

Twice a year divisions journeyed to Jerusalem for one-week service in the temple. Some eight priests served for the two daily sacrifices–one in the morning and one at night.

They threw lots to determine which priest would get which task. It was a once in a lifetime experience to be given the opportunity to burn the incense offering to God.

As a righteous man who loved God at a time when the priesthood was riddled with corruption, Zacharias undoubtedly felt honored when the lot came for him to offer the sacrifice.

Advent, Zacharias and the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Jerusalem, priesthood, Luke 1

Model of the Tabernacle where Zacharias served (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The priests entered the temple into the Holy Place, separated from the most sacred spot– the Holy of Holies–by a thick “veil.” They set about their assigned tasks individually, and once finished the next priest entered.

According to the Mishnah,crowds of worshippers waited  outside. The priest who kindled the incense offering would exit and bless the people once their sacrifice rose to God–their prayers rising up to God like incense.

What’s the story on the angel?

“So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.  And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”

On this great moment in Zacharias’ life–a life that lacked the joy of children–he entered the Holy Place and kindled the fire in a hushed and quiet space. He was all alone.

Advent, Zacharias and the angel Gabriel, Elizabeth, Mary the mother of Jesus, John the Baptist, Jerusalem, priesthood, Luke 1

Angel Gabriel, mosaic in the Hagia Sophia. (Wikipedia)

Except, then he wasn’t.

How startling to look up and see someone who shouldn’t have been there, had no way of getting in and looked different from anyone you had ever seen before.

“The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”

What prayer? The praise of God when Zacharias offered the incense?

A good and worthy sacrifice, acceptable to God, but what about the other half of that clause? Weren’t Zacharias and Elizabeth being given the desire of their hearts? A child?

Like any good angel, he told Zacharias to “fear not.” Notice he called him by name.

If you were Zacharias, what would you conclude?

There’s more:

“He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also 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 a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zacharias was an educated priest. He couldn’t miss the importance of that reference to Elijah.

It had been 400 years since God had spoken through a prophet. Among the last words were these, from Malachi 4:5:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophetBefore the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

The angel just told Zacharias that the Messiah was coming. The child his wife soon would carry would be the forebearer, pointing the children of Israel to their coming Messiah.

He introduced himself. His name was Gabriel, which means “power of God.”

Zacharias’ response. What would you have done?

As one commentary noted, “His age spoke more loudly to him than God’s promise.”

Zacharias blurted out a logical question in that time before assisted reproduction techniques: “how can this possibly be?

For that lack of faith, Gabriel told him he’d be mute–and so he was.

Outside, the crowd grew restless-what had happened to the priest?

“But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.”

Something was up, but what?

The answer came nine, maybe ten months later. Silent the entire miracle pregnancy, when it came time to name the baby–everyone assumed he would be called Zacharias– Zacharias was given back his speech.

 “ He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled.  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed,and he spoke, praising God.”

What is significant to me, and what I’ve missed for years is the next sentence:

  “Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?” The hand of the Lord was with him.”

The people who lived around Jerusalem recognized something miraculous had occurred. They discussed it all over the countryside. They had to be waiting and watching, wondering what God was up to.

Given that, did Jesus really come into the world in an insignificant way?


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