One of my least favorite phrases Christian pastors say is: “God showed up today!” It strikes me as flippant, as if God is a lazy teenager we’re trying to rouse to get into church. My response (unvoiced, of course) is, God didn’t show up. He’s always here. The real question is, will we show up?
But there are times when the presence of God is really seen and felt in a powerful way, This was the case in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron, Moses’s brother. The particular day Luke describes in Luke 1 was a special day for Zechariah because he was chosen to go into the holy place and burn incense at the altar. To decide who would get this honor, priests would cast lots. If chosen, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event and the highest honor in a temple priest’s life.
This wasn’t only a special day because of the incense-lighting, but because as Zechariah lit the incense, an angel appeared. If you know the Christmas story, you might shrug your shoulders at an angel appearance. Angels are as synonymous with Christmas as pine trees and candy canes.
But angels didn’t just regularly appear at Herod’s temple. Israel hadn’t heard from God in 400 years. So after this long winter of silence, suddenly and without warning, Gabriel—the same angel who had appeared before Daniel 500 years earlier during a time of sacrifice (Dan. 8:16)—was now in the presence of the trembling priest.
What do you do when you’re visited by an angel? Zechariah’s response is identical to Daniel’s: they both fell on their faces in fear. Fear because an angel, even in a diminished sense, represented the holiness and white-hot glory of God. In those days, God wasn’t seen as a “man upstairs” or a cosmic running buddy. He was the One who could strike with vengeance and who judged nations.
Silence and Faith
Gabriel’s announcement stunned Zechariah: “Your prayer has been heard.” What prayer? Some speculate this refers to his personal years-long desire to bear children. Others speculate the angel was referring to the prayer whispered by every faithful Jew, praying for the coming of the Messiah. But as I read this, I wonder if the angel might be referring to both. Because both the desire for a son and the longing for God’s kingdom were, in a sense, one and the same. The long years of anguish and darkness, of year after year with no child, likely gave way to a desperate pleading for God to come.
Sometimes God has to quiet us so we can hear him. Sometimes we have to be still so we can see him move.
And now, it was happening, and he couldn’t believe it. So the angel repeated the words, this time with more authority: I stand in the presence of God, and I am telling you that you and Elizabeth will bear a son.
Zechariah, the aging priest. Elizabeth, long past the time of childbirth. They would have a baby. And not just any baby, but one who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit in a way that is both reminiscent of the empowering of Old Testament prophets (Jer. 1:5) and also a foreshadowing of the time when God would pour out his Spirit on all who believe (Acts 2:28).
Zechariah’s response was stunned disbelief. I’m too old. My wife is past childbearing age.
God loves to hear honest doubts, field hard questions, and hear anguished cries. But disbelief is a sin, an unwillingness to trust that God can do the impossible. And so Zechariah’s punishment was to be struck mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
And in a way, this affliction was less of a punishment and more of a gift from God. To not speak would be to sit in silence before God, to quiet the chattering of the soul and the noise of circumstances. Sometimes God has to quiet us so we can hear him. Sometimes we have to be still so we can see him move.
Waiting for Dayspring
Imagine the newfound joy in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Not only would they become parents after decades of infertility and despair and disbelief, but they would parent the last of the Old Testament prophets and the forerunner of the Messiah.
The delight in Elizabeth’s life was evident when she hosted her younger cousin Mary after Mary’s own visit with the angel. When she heard Mary’s news—that in her womb would be the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Ghost—Elizabeth worshiped.
“Why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” she exults. Even though she was present with her own story and her own miracle, she was quick to look past herself and toward the unborn Christ. Fleming Rutledge explains Elizabeth’s joy:
Elizabeth’s cry of supernatural joy has nothing to do with the ordinary human pleasure in contemplating the birth of a child. It is her response to that revelatory kick from John the Baptist, already vitalized by his destiny as “The prophet of the Most High [who will] go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76–77). No phony innocence here, no sentimental glorification of motherhood, but the announcement of the turning point of world history—the entrance of God himself on the human scene.
This is the real story of Christmas, the heart of Christianity: brokenness and new birth. The same God who birthed life into Sarah’s dead womb had now breathed life into Elizabeth and Mary. And Mary’s child’s life, death, and resurrection would breathe new birth into God’s people through the ages.
This is an adapted excerpt from The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Christmas (Moody Publishers, 2019).