Connections 12.18.2016: Father of the Forerunner

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Luke 1:8-20

Two weeks ago, I encouraged us to put ourselves in Mary’s shoes—to truly feel empathy for her when she heard the news that was both devastating and life changing. Can we do some imagining about Zechariah, too?

Zechariah’s position in society was very different from Mary’s. A priest who was honored, revered, and upstanding, he got to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and offer the sacrificial incense. One day, he was fulfilling this duty that belonged to him because of his position. Usually, the process was fairly simple: enter, approach the altar with the proper amount of respect and humility, and hold his flame to the incense bowl. Then back away, bowing in awe of the Lord God.

This time, though, Zechariah met a direct representative of God face to face. An honored man of God, entrusted by the people to represent them before the Holy Father, Zechariah had grown accustomed to his time at the temple. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before! He was absolutely terrified. And then the strange man spoke, giving him ridiculous news: he and Elizabeth, both well past childbearing years, would have a son named John. Impossible! And Zechariah said so, thinking this must be some kind of trick.

But then the man identified himself as Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God. Zechariah sensed a level of power that he hadn’t realized before. He felt even more afraid. If this was truly a representative straight from the throne room of God, then God probably wasn’t too happy with Zechariah right now. He was the priest, after all, the human representative who entered the temple on behalf of the people. And yet he had just questioned—even ridiculed—the almighty Lord.

His fear was warranted. Even as Gabriel told him he would be unable to speak until the child was born, Zechariah felt a pull at the back of his throat. His voice—his tool for pronouncements, lessons, and sermons—left him. He was God’s representative! How could he possibly represent the Lord without words? He left the temple that day both amazed and ashamed.

I think it probably took Zechariah a few months to move past his shame and his feelings of inadequacy. I’m sure his marriage, years after the strain it probably endured due to infertility, hit some rocky spots once more as he struggled to maintain his authority and dignity without his voice. But then, I imagine, as Elizabeth felt their baby grow and was touched by God’s Spirit herself, the two of them found a new way to navigate the uncertainty. We know that, by the time John was born, Zechariah had learned his lesson. With humility, he gave up the right of naming his own child and affirmed Elizabeth in her insistence that he be called John (Luke 1:59-63).

Immediately, Zechariah was redeemed—able to speak and praise God and prophesy about God’s plan (vv. 67-79).

Discussion

1. What new thoughts did you have about Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, after reading this post?
2. What can we learn from Zechariah’s reaction to the angel’s news?
3. Why do you think God took away the priest’s voice? How would this have affected his religious service? His influence in the community? His home life?
4. Think of the many stories in Scripture where a couple thought to be infertile is able to have a baby due to God’s blessing (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Rachel and Jacob, Elizabeth and Zechariah). Why do you think God often chose to work in this way?
5. How could stories like this one encourage couples struggling with infertility today? How might these stories be painful for them? What can you and your church do to minister to couples in this situation?

Reference Shelf

Poor Zechariah. His story was going so well: the narrator calls him righteous before God and a blameless follower of the Torah. The lot falls to him and he gets a chance to shine, to fulfill his duty and bring credit to himself and his family. Then the angel Gabriel appears to him—surely this must be a sign of God’s favor? Sure enough, his prayers have been answered, and all that faithful service and dutiful obedience has been rewarded; like Abraham, he will have a child in his old age!

Zechariah asks the angel for proof, stating the obvious: he and his wife are too old to have children. His answer is biblical; “how shall I know this?” was what Abram asked God when God promised him the land, and “for I am old and my wife is getting on in years” repeats the quote from Genesis 18:11 already cited in v. 7. With all due respect, this is a dumb question; I know, the correct teacherly point of view is there are no dumb questions, but this is dumb. An angel of the Lord stands before him and says, “Your prayer has been answered.” What sort of evidence would have convinced him if the appearance of an angel was not enough? (This is a question that will come up again in the final chapter of the Gospel.) And if Zechariah can quote from the story of Abraham, can he not remember how the story turned out? Luke’s use of the quotation helps us see why Zechariah gets disciplined—for being a schoolboy who did not pay attention to the daily lesson.

Gabriel offers him no proof of his good news, beyond the fact of his own identity (maybe Zechariah did not know who it was?). He also apparently does not even raise his voice—v. 19 begins “Answering, the angel said to him”—but matter-of-factly says he was sent from God’s presence with good news to speak to Zechariah. The order of things in v. 20 is important: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things happen, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” The curse comes first: Zechariah spoke imprudently, so he will speak no more for a while. Then the reason for the curse: he did not believe Gabriel’s testimony, which was God’s good news for him. Last of all, so that the emphasis falls here, is the promise: all these things will happen in their proper time, Zechariah’s doubts notwithstanding. Since Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have a baby in the ordinary way (except for their age), Gabriel’s statement that these things will happen is as much a statement of faith in Zechariah’s willingness to be a part of God’s plan as about God’s ability to make things happen. Gabriel zaps him for doubting, but is confident that the old priest will not take a vow of celibacy out of spite. And his speechless condition, therefore, is “both punitive and propaedeutic—both a judgment upon unbelief and an education for belief.” Zechariah will learn something about the way God works in the world while he quietly watches and listens to his wife and to her kinswoman Mary.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 28, 33-34.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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