“A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isa. 40:3).
“Elizabeth was barren and both [she and Zechariah] were advanced in years” (Lk. 1:7). The days were tired. Evening never came soon enough. It’d been a long life under Roman rule. It’s not that they were ready to die. It’s just that they were not ready to start a new life. It was time to slow down. They were at peace with God, they’d lived faithfully (cf. Lk. 1:6), and the burdens of the priesthood would soon be carried out by the next generation. Zechariah had spent these latter years training up young men, seeing in their faces the son he never had. He’d already grieved that unanswered prayer, for now Elizabeth was both very barren and very old. And then God answered it (Lk. 1:13).
By this time, Zechariah’s mind was no doubt made up about a few things. He knew that the world’s treasures were peddled in smoke and mirrors and that human innovation, with all its willful gullibility, is never more than a new arrangement for the same old empty promises. When he was young, life was charged with possibility. His favorite book of the Bible was Joshua. People had called their generation the “Joshua generation.” But he eventually realized that every generation gets called that. It’s has something to do with hope, maybe also regret.
Truth is, Zechariah had long given up on that naïve faith in the future, or at least that a new future could begin today. His favorite book now was Ecclesiastes. It resonated. It’s not that he had lost faith in God. Indeed, he had faith the strength of an old growth forest, unmovable by the winds of change. It’s just that sometimes God is in the Wind (cf. Jn 3).
Are you sure you’ve got the right address? Zechariah says, in effect, to the angel Gabriel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man…” (Lk. 1:18). Gabriel is annoyed. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God…” (Lk. 1:19). How will you know? You will know when an angel who stands in the presence of God comes and tells you. That’s how you’ll know! So Gabriel silences him.
It is impossible to know why Zechariah doubted or exactly what the nature of the doubt actually was. Age was certainly a factor. But he seems to have more than just a question about fertility odds. Gabriel said that his son would “be filled with the Holy Spirit…and come to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children…” (Lk. 1:15-17). Zechariah was a priest. He knew where that line came from. It’s the very last line of the Old Testament (Mal. 4:5-6), which, for Zechariah, was not yet “Old.” It was just kind of….“on hold.” For it to become “Old” would require it being fulfilled. And given the nature of the prophecy, if that were being fulfilled, everything was about to be fulfilled.
Zechariah had spent his life learning how to believe that God’s promised future would happen—in the future. And in a moment, that future was beginning right now. Maybe the Joshuas of the world are ready for a revolution today, but today Zechariah would do well to have his knees replaced. He identifies more with Methuselah than with millennials. At this stage, it’s time to die quietly trusting that God will fulfill his promises sometime in the future. But God is no respecter of our daytimers. So Zechariah would have to reframe all he’d ever believed. The time was at hand.
For nine months this teacher of the Law will be unable to speak. He will be removed any ordinary social roles. He’ll have some alone time. Maybe he’ll may start reading Joshua again. More importantly, his priestly duties–teaching the Covenant, service at the altar, temple staff meetings–all those things will now be put on hold, because all those things were not growing “Old.”
It’s no wonder that when he does open his mouth for the first time after nine months it is no longer as a priest but as a prophet: “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying…” And out came in concentrated form the announcement that all of God’s promised future was at hand (Lk. 1:67-79). The priesthood was being silenced, because the Lamb preparing for the slaughter would need no assistance at the altar. The old institutions were passing away, behold the world was becoming new (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).
Sometimes the Lord shakes up our world (a change of frame) to prepare us for repentance (a change of mind). Often these times of reframing are necessary, because all too often we frame God right out of our world. It’s easy to believe in the God of yesterday, it’s easy to believe in the God of tomorrow, but it’s hard to believe in the God of today. It’s hard to believe that God can speak today, answer prayers today, change our hearts and our habits and our homes today. But God will always, and will only, work in our lives and our world today.
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
Even the day Christ comes back, the second Advent, will be a day like any other, a day we call today. The question for us, then, does our faith frame the living God in a yesterday that is always gone or a tomorrow that is never here? Have you talked to God—have you listened to God—today?
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:7, 15).
Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn.
Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.
~ Author Unknown