The Christmas story contains the narratives of two miraculous births, both recorded in Luke 1 and both announced by the angel Gabriel. The births of Jesus and John the Baptist are intrinsically connected to each other in Scripture as God promised the Messiah would be preceded by a forerunner (Malachi 4). I’m not saying both births are equally important, but each is crucially important in its own way.
For over 400 years after this promise, God remained silent while the Jews expectantly waited and looked for both to arrive. To this day, when our Jewish friends observe Passover they still set a place and leave an empty chair for Elijah. Luke records in detail the important story of the forerunner John the Baptist, starting with his father Zechariah the priest.
Zechariah’s Big Day
Zechariah was chosen to burn incense on the altar in Jerusalem’s temple; an opportunity that a selected priest could perform only once in his life. There were hundreds of priests in his division alone, most of whom would never get this privilege.
While all the other priests remained outside the temple singing and praying, Zechariah entered the Most Holy Place where the altar of incense was located. The altar was right in front of the tall, thick curtain that separated the rest of the temple from the sacred Holy of Holies.
You can imagine the awesome weight of this moment. He probably carefully rehearsed in his mind exactly how he would perform his duty, so he wouldn’t blow it as Aaron’s sons did (Leviticus 10). Still, things didn’t go exactly as he imagined it.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and overcome with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth.’ (Luke 1:11-14)
Fear > Faith = Failure
Noticeably absent in this scene is a celebration. Zechariah allowed his fear and doubt to trump his faith, which killed the moment and earned him a reprimand.
Fear of a high-ranking angel actually seems pretty reasonable to me. “Do not fear” is the most common message that angels have for us because most people are scared out of their wits when they see one!
Zechariah’s healthy fear unfortunately morphed into unhealthy doubt, even cynicism.
‘How can I know this?’ Zechariah asked the angel. ‘For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.’ The angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until these things take place, because you did not believe my words.’ (Luke 1:18-20)
Zechariah missed a huge opportunity to rejoice at this answer to prayer. In the next six months of silence, however, God did a deep work in Zechariah’s life, which prepared him for his greatest ministry opportunity to date—fatherhood. I see three big turnarounds for Zechariah, which changed his life and ministry.
God turned Zechariah’s fear into faith.
Unhealthy fear is a reflection of an unhealthy faith.
Mary’s flinch-factor was similar to Zechariah’s. She too had a healthy fear of angels and a basic understanding of biology. Soon after seeking clarification, Mary’s fear quickly turned into faith, whereas Zechariah’s fear grew into skepticism.
Another difference between Mary and Zechariah is that Zechariah’s news was an answer to his prayers. Mary submitted to God’s will instead of resisting it like this trained and ordained priest did.
Is your disposition toward God today fear or trust? Is your vision to grow your faith as ambitious as your vision to grow your ministry?
God turned Zechariah’s work into worship.
My ministry at LifeWay is to serve pastors. Having been one for almost three decades, I know how hard it is sometimes to worship in the church we are leading. Like Zechariah, we can be so focused on working for God that we forget to worship Him.
Do you expect God to speak to you, as well as through you, each Sunday? Zechariah’s sermon at the end of Luke 1 is evidence of his heart change.
God turned Zechariah’s repentance into restoration.
After 400 years, God finally shattered His silence with the births of both John and Jesus. God broke Zechariah’s silence, too, after a season of brokenness. Once his heart was opened, you couldn’t keep his mouth closed (Luke 1:68-80).
Featured image is The Preaching of St. John the Baptist in the Desert, by Massimo Stanzione (1585-1656).