And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Lk. 1:18-20)
The days were tired. Evening never came soon enough. It’d been a long life under Roman rule. It’s not that Zechariah and Elizabeth were ready to die. It’s just that they weren’t 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 priests, seeing in their faces the son he never had. He’d already grieved that unanswered prayer. And then God answered it (Lk. 1:13).
God answers prayer in his timing, which is to say, not in our timing. Luke points out that Elizabeth and Zechariah were both “advanced in years” (Lk. 1:7). That’s another way of saying, “…too old and achy to even be thinking about having children.” They were at the age when you’re supposed to be able to spoil children, not raise them, to shake them up like a can of soda and give them back to their parents. But they were about to be the parents. And they were old.
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 innovations usually amounted to new packaging of 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 his generation the “Joshua generation.” But he eventually realized that every generation gets called that. It probably 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 shuts his mouth.
It is impossible to know why Zechariah doubted or exactly what the nature of the doubt actually was. Age was certainly a factor. But it seems to be about more than just a question of 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 a number of certain promises to be fulfilled, and Gabriel had just told him that the first of all (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20) those promises was about be fulfilled in his elderly wife’s womb. And if that were being fulfilled, everything was about to be fulfilled.
Could that really happen…today?
Zechariah had spent his entire life learning how to believe that God’s promised future would happen—in the future. We all think Jesus is going to come back in the future, but I imagine we’d be just as surprised as Zachariah if that future arrived today. Well, that’s what happened to Zechariah. 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 settle down and begin letting go, trusting that God will fulfill his promises in some distant tomorrow. But God is no respecter of day-timers. Retirement would have to wait. Tomorrow was at hand.
For nine months this teacher of the Law will be unable to speak. He’ll have more ‘quiet time’ than usual, to say the least. Maybe he’ll start reading Joshua again. Now mute, he’ll have to be removed from any ordinary social roles. More importantly, his priestly duties—teaching the Covenant, service at the altar, temple staff meetings—all those things will have to be put on hold, because all those things are now 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. Priest’s were echoes of Israel’s past. Prophets were bullhorn’s of Israel’s God, who always speaks in the present tense.
“Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying…” (Lk. 1:67ff).
And out came in concentrated form the announcement that all of God’s promised future was at hand (Lk. 1:67-79). The entire priesthood would henceforth be silenced, because a Lamb was coming prepared for the slaughter, and He would need no assistance at the altar (cf. Heb. 7). The old institutions were passing away, behold the whole world was becoming new (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).
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 will speak today, act today, answer prayer today, change our hearts and our habits and our homes today. But God will always, and will only, work in our lives and in our world today.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…” (Heb. 3:7, 15).
Even the day Christ comes back will be a today like any other. If you only ever expect Christ to come back some distant tomorrow, or even the next tomorrow, you may never learn how to listen and look for the way Christ is showing up every today. Are you expecting Christ to come today?
“Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).
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