”The Story Behind the Story”
December 1, 2019 – Advent 1 – Year A
Each Advent season we hear the account of the relatives of Mary, mother of Jesus, supporting and encouraging her as she prepares for the birth of the baby that is growing inside her. However, if we were to hear the story for the first time, we would be awe struck. So, let’s hear the legend about cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, while maintaining an open mind. I want to offer to you a healthy dose of suspicion as we look at this story.
The account of Zechariah and Elizabeth can be found in Luke 1:5–80. Remember, this account was not dictated in one sitting. Instead it was compiled over many decades from various accounts of life with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was said to be a priest in the temple during the Roman reign of King Herod. His wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron’s priestly line and both of them were reported to be “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Their moral standing before God is noteworthy because they remained childless until they were well advanced in years, so says our scriptural account. During that time, barrenness had been seen as a consequence of personal unrighteousness. This verse declares that Elizabeth’s barrenness was not due to sin, but rather due to God’s plan to accomplish Divine purpose. Those of us with scientific minds are already questioning the validity of this claim. How can this be so, we wonder? So the story now has a big question mark attached to it.
At this late stage in life, during Zechariah’s priestly rotation of duties in the temple, he was “chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:9). Each priestly division served in the temple only one week every six months and the duties were assigned by lot. So, the opportunity to keep incense burning on the altar outside the Most Holy Place by placing fresh incense there before morning sacrifice and again after the evening sacrifice happened rarely, if at all, in a priest’s lifetime. However, it is reported that God had a plan for Zechariah, and as Proverbs 16:33 explains, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from God.”
While Zechariah was placing the incense, Gabriel, an angel, appeared with a message for him. The message was that his and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child had been heard. Now, if I were Elizabeth or Zechariah, I’d be saying, “Ya sure. You’ve got to be kidding! There is no way!” But, as the story is told, aged Elizabeth would bear a son whom they would name John. The child would be great in the sight of God and filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, so says the account. Their son would turn many people’s hearts to God in preparation for the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah. Zechariah did not believe the angel, stating that it was impossible because “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18).
As we heard in today’s scripture reading, the angel Gabriel scolded Zechariah for his unbelief and declared, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place” (Luke 1:20). When Zechariah emerged from the Holy Place to the people waiting for him to pronounce the blessing, he was indeed unable to speak. Through signs and hand gestures the people understood that he had seen a vision. You really have to love the drama associated with this story, don’t you?
Can’t you just imagine the spectacle. An angel and aged Zechariah in a verbal jousting match. And the angel Gabriel has the last word – literally. Ah – Steven Speilberg can’t come up with a story as good as this one.
When his week of service concluded, Zechariah returned home to his wife to a town in the hill country of Judah. There, his wife conceived just as the angel had said. Elizabeth immediately recognized God’s role in her pregnancy saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:25). Heh! How else can you explain it? She kept herself in seclusion for five months, seemingly focusing on praising God for the unborn child within her.
In Elizabeth’s 6th month of pregnancy, Mary (newly pregnant with Jesus) came to visit in order to be encouraged by confirming what the angel Gabriel had told her about both Elizabeth’s pregnancy and her own. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she was filled with the Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:42–45). Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth for about three months, which would have been around the time Elizabeth gave birth and Mary’s first trimester was complete.
This tale is an important one in conveying the power and dominion of God. Even an old woman and a young seemingly troubled teenager can become pregnant if God wills it. For those who hold onto the inerrancy of this story, it is pivotal in understanding Jesus as Divine. For others, this is a tale that helps to unfold the drama of Jesus’ lineage as a gift for all humanity.
Elizabeth gave birth to a son, and her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her. On the eighth day during the circumcision and naming ceremony, the people were going to name the baby Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth prevented them saying, “No; he shall be called John” (Luke 1:60). Elizabeth believed what the angel had told Zechariah and she stood firm in obeying the command to name the baby John. When the people turned to Zechariah for his thoughts, he wrote on a tablet “His name is John” (Luke 1:63). As soon as he had written this response, “his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” (Luke 1:64). Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied about the role John would play in preparing the way for the Messiah (Luke 1:67–79). All of this fulfilled the prophesies of ancient scripture.
The child grew and became strong in Spirit eventually being known as John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth are not mentioned again in the Bible, and the Bible records that John lived “in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). As such, most readers conjecture that Zechariah and Elizabeth passed away before John’s ministry began around thirty years after his amazing birth. So, they did not get to see him calling for repentance and announcing the coming of the Messiah. However, if you are following this story, their experience of living righteously and praising God for God’s miraculous work in their lives must have helped prepare their son for his life of service to God.
Well, there you have the story behind the story. It is a pretty amazing drama, isn’t it? What does it say to us today? I hear it as a tale of faithfulness, whether or not all details are factual. Are we attentive to God’s call? And when we experience God’s nudging, do we pay attention? And if we pay attention, are we willing to put ourselves into God’s hands and respond? If the answer is yes, then I assure you, God is constantly calling you. It may be in a most amazing way, but God has great aspirations for you! Stop. Listen. Act. Amen.