In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
The Gospel according to Luke opens in an unexpected way. Like the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, it is primarily an account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But, it does not plunge straight into that narrative. First, it sets the scene and builds up our sense of expectation. Of course, the moments of scene setting are not inconsequential. Each of these moments serves to draw us into the totality of Jewish history, as well as providing a foretaste of the divine whirlwind that is about to be unleashed on humanity. Today’s reading tells us of a necessary moment in the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. It also contains very direct links to the history of the Jewish nation.
The scene is set by introducing the reader to the holy priest, Zechariah, and his devout wife, Elizabeth. Zechariah was of the ancient priestly line of Abijah. Ten centuries earlier a member of this line had served as a priest to King David himself. Elizabeth’s antecedents were no less creditable. Her lineage could be traced back to Aaron, who was both the brother of Moses and the first High Priest.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had another connection with Jewish history. Like Abraham and Sarah, and other historic figures, they had not been able to have children. And that is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.
One day, Zechariah was performing his priestly duties in the holiest part of the Temple. Whilst there, an angel appeared to him and spoke of the son who would be born to him and his wife. That son, who we will come to know as John the Baptist, was destined to: turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. Unlike Joseph’s response to God’s messenger, the holy priest expressed doubt … how could two people of their age be expected to parent a child? For this doubt Zechariah was struck dumb until his son was born. Zechariah was prevented from spreading his scepticism amongst the people. Instead, his inability to speak would shine out as a sure sign that God was working in that place.
Of course, as promised, Elizabeth became pregnant, and Zechariah remained silent. In faith, Elizabeth carried the divine miracle of her God-given child, while Zechariah was given the time to contemplate the working out of the power of God in his life.
Very few of us find it easy to create the space we need to listen to and to embrace God’s word in our lives. But … when we are claiming to be too busy and distracted by our earthbound duties and responsibilities to listen to God’s words to us, we need to remember this: everyone on this earth is given twenty-four hours in each day. Some give in to the demands of earthly concerns for every one of those hours, while others make time to be with God in His reality. It is all a matter of priorities. The question is: what do we consider to be most important in our lives, God or all those distractions?