The text of today is unique to Luke and is about the foretelling or annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. It begins by introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth and then moves to the temple where the announcement of the birth is made by an angel. Zechariah responds to this announcement in disbelief and leaves the Temple after being struck dumb. The announced child is conceived in Elizabeth’s womb fulfilling the angelic announcement.
In the first verses of today’s text, Zechariah and Elizabeth are introduced. Zechariah means “God has remembered,” and Elizabeth means something like “My God’s oath.” While Zechariah is a priest, Elizabeth is from a priestly family. By stating that they were childless (when barrenness was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment), despite the fact they were righteous and blameless, Luke probably wants to indicate that there is no connection between sin and punishment. That they were advanced in age, and so may have lost all hope of having a child, is to show the wondrous nature of the angelic announcement.
The priests were divided into 24 groups, and each group served twice a year for a week at a time in the Temple. On this occasion, Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary and offer the incense. A sacrifice was offered twice a day, both on the outer altar and on the inner altar, inside the sanctuary. A list was compiled of those priests who had never been chosen to enter the sanctuary, and then lots were cast to determine the priests who would bring the sacrifice to the altar and clean the ashes off of it. This honour normally came only once in a lifetime. This was perhaps the most dramatic moment in Zechariah’s life as a priest. It was thus a significant moment for God to break into human history.
Zechariah’s immediate response to the angels’ appearance was one of fear and terror. The first words spoke by a character in the Gospel of Luke are by the angel and are an exhortation not to be afraid. The angel then announces, not only the birth of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also the greatness of the child. The name of the child is to be John, a name which means “God has shown favor” or “God is gracious”. Zechariah’s response is a direct quotation of Gen 15:8, “How will I know that this is so?” To Zechariah’s emphatic “I am an old man.”, the angel responds with an even more emphatic, “I am Gabriel.” Gabriel was sent to speak for God, but because Zechariah did not receive the good news, he would not be able to speak until the annunciation was fulfilled and the child was born. Though Zechariah was to pronounce a blessing on the people after he came out of the sanctuary, he could not do so since he had lost the power of speech.
The angel’s announcement comes to pass and Elizabeth conceives. She praises God for his graciousness to her.
There are numerous occasions in our lives when things do not go the way we want them to go. We try everything and nothing seems to work. We begin to think that God does not care for us or that he is punishing us for some wrong that we or our forefathers did. We might even stop praying at these times and lose faith. The text of today calls for exactly opposite attitudes to these and challenges us to cultivate them.
First, if things are not going the way we want them to go, it does not mean that God is punishing us for some past sins. There is very clearly no connection between sin and God’s punishment. To be sure, any kind of negative feelings that we harbor, any resentment that we hold on to, any sediments of anger residing in our hearts, can lead to blocks in our minds and bodies and can affect our health. Giving in to despair and desperation and losing hope can also lead to ill health.
The call is a call to hope. It is a call to continue to petition God, and to keep asking him for what we need, with confidence and courage. It is a call to continue to believe that God can do what is impossible and that nothing and no one is outside the scope of God’s power. He can, with a word, make all things whole.