My beloved wife, has, from time to time, described me as being a bit on the stubborn side. The phrase she uses is something like: “You make a Missouri mule seem obedient.” Well, I may be a bit set in my ways, but I do like to think I would at at least recognize, listen to, and believe the words of an angel, should one appear to me. Not so Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah. He was old at the time of this story, and he and his wife had failed at one of their most important cultural duties, bearing children. In Israel and among oriental peoples generally barrenness was a woman's and a family's greatest misfortune. The highest sanctions of religion and patriotism blessed the fruitful woman, because children were necessary for the perpetuation of the tribe and its religion. Indeed, barrenness was considered a punishment, though for the life of him, Zechariah could not understand why he was punished. Some scholars suggest that by this time, probably the only time in his life he would serve at the temple, his faith had been reduced to a mere repetition of the prescribed rituals; he was simply going through the motions.
How many of us are, or know folks like that? Every Sunday finds them in church; they start and end their day with prayer; they treat others as they would want to be treated and even go out of their way to aid and assist those in need. Yet, in their hearts the”re is no fire. They even contemplate why they do all these things. Maybe it's like my Daddy told me: “There are some things you do simply because they are things you do. For Zechariah, going through the motions was what one did simply because one was born a priest.
And so, when Abijah's order was called, Zechariah dutifully reported to the temple where he offered sacrifices, adjudicated legal matters, pronounced blessings over the people and performed other priestly tasks. Then one day he won the lottery. It was the custom that each day a lottery was held to determine who would enter the Sanctuary and burn the incense. The Sanctuary was the most sacred part of the Temple. It was an impressively high building, of white stones some of which were of very great size: 36 feet long, 18 feet broad and 12 feet high! The building had a vestibule and two halls. The first hall was called the Holy Place. No one was allowed to enter it, except priests twice a day. It was beautifully decorated, as described in 1 Kings 6,15-36. The inner sanctuary was thirty feet in length, width, and height. Solomon overlaid it with pure gold and covered the altar with cedar.[a] 21 Solomon covered the temple’s interior with pure gold. He placed gold chains in front of the inner sanctuary and covered it with gold.
There were three main religious objects in the Holy Place: the altar on which incense was burned, the table with bread offerings and the candlestick with seven branches.
It was here that God interacted with humans, and here that God interacted with Zechariah through the angel Gabriel. While there are unknown thousands of angels in the bible, only three, Michael, Gabriel, and Lucifer are named. Michael the Archangel is the leader of all angels and of the army of God. Gabriel is the messenger
Most modern images of angels are sweet, cherubic appearing creatures in white flowing gowns, with halos and lovely wings...the parts played by little children in the classic Christmas pageant. But that's not an accurate or realistic image. Daniel was terrified when he saw Gabriel and fell with his face to the ground. While we do not know exactly what he looked like, we do know two things: His appearance was frightening, and he was recognizable as an angel.
As Zechariah was in the Sanctuary burning the incense, all the people who gathered to worship were praying outside. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
“Don't be afraid” Gabriel begins his message: “Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers[a] back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Poor stubborn, faith-lost Zechariah. Not only can he not believe what he has heard from the angel; he voices his disbelief. “I'm too old.” he says; “so is my wife.”
“Well, then,” answers Gabriel, “because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
When Zechariah comes out of the Sanctuary, it is clear to those waiting that something has happened. Because he was unable to speak to them,and could only gesture, they realized he had seen a vision.
We don't know how Zechariah explained to Elizabeth what had happened, but Gabriel was right, an elated Elizabeth soon found herself pregnant... (Luk 1:24) and for five months she did not leave the house. She said to herself, (Luk 1:25) "What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me."Even when we doubt God, even when our faith is reduced to simply going through the motions, God doesn't give up on us. Even though we may think God doesn't hear our prayers, that they are just empty recitations, God listens. God answers. It may not be when or how we think it should be, but God listens and fulfills our needs. Somewhere deep down in the bottom of his soul, Zechariah found the faith to recognize Gabriel, and the courage to ask “How?” In silencing Zechariah's tongue, Gabriel also silenced his doubts and restored his lost faith. If we can only find the strength to confess our doubts, to continue to pray when praying seems useless, we, too, will find our prayers answered and our faith restored.
May you see the angels this Advent. AMEN.