206: The Road to Bethlehem – Preparation, prophesies old and new

I really enjoy the TV show Pointless, in which contestants try to score as few points as possible by coming up with the answers no-one else can think of. If there was a Christmas episode with a category ‘Characters in the Nativity story’ I’m sure that the highest scores would go to people like Mary, Joseph and perhaps even the donkey, but the Pointless answer would be the name of a man we only hear about in the Gospel of Luke…

bethlehem

In Luke 1 we meet Zechariah. His name means ‘the Lord has remembered’ which is quite fitting, as we shall see. He is rarely mentioned in Nativity plays or in readings in carol services. He was the husband of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and he was a priest and ‘was right in the sight of God obeying all the commands and rules faithfully.’

He was certainly no lukewarm believer and was a good man. We are told that it was the duty of Zechariah’s family line to serve at ‘the temple of the Lord’, and the lot for performing the incense offering had fallen to Zechariah. A priest only ever performed this once in a lifetime so it’s not hard to imagine the responsibility Zechariah would have felt offering up intercessions for the people as the incense smoke rose. It would have been an awesome moment for him, perhaps the pinnacle of his life so far, but little did Zechariah know that he was about to be upstaged by God!

Words for the Week

Luke 1

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. The angel was standing at the right side of the incense altar. When Zechariah saw him, he was amazed and terrified. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will have a child. It will be a boy, and you must call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you. His birth will make many people very glad. He will be important in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or other such drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will prepare the way for the Lord. He will have the same spirit and power that Elijah had. He will bring peace between parents and their children. He will teach people who don’t obey to be wise and do what is right. In this way, he will prepare a people who are ready for the Lord.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is old too.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I serve God. I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will have to be silent. You will not be able to speak until after John is born. That’s because you did not believe my words. They will come true at the time God has chosen.”

During that time, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the temple. They wondered why he stayed there so long. When he came out, he could not speak to them.

Writer’s Thoughts

Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children. Elizabeth was barren and anyway she was now too old to conceive. Zechariah would certainly have prayed over the years asking God to grant them a child. He would also have prayed for the coming of the promised Messiah to deliver his people from the Romans and restore the Jewish nation, along with the promise of one coming who would go ahead to prepare the way, prophesied many centuries before (Isaiah 40:3; Malachi 3:1) and yet his immediate reaction to these amazing words from the angel Gabriel (probably after sheer terror!) wasn’t awe and relief and excitement, realising that his prayers for a baby and for his nation had been heard; it was disbelief and scoffing! In fact, it was a good example of how not to talk to an angel as next thing he knows, he has become mute!

It’s easy to be hard on Zechariah but I wonder how much I believe that when I pray God will answer my prayer? Always? Sometimes? Occasionally? And although I may know many bible verses telling me that God loves me, that he is kind, that he is powerful, that he is just and so on (I can probably recite them to you!) how much of my life do I live in the reality and the good of that? What promises has God given to me through prophetic words over the years that I’ve forgotten or given up on through disbelief? Michael Milton says that disbelief ‘turns off the colour and turns down the sound of life as it was meant to be lived.’

Luke continues by telling us in v 57-66 that Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant and has a baby boy. At his circumcision, with everyone fully expecting him to be named after his dad, there is quite a commotion when she says ‘John’. Zechariah who still cannot speak, writes down for all to see ‘his name is John,’ and at that moment the breakthrough comes and he speaks. Or rather he breaks out into a Spirit filled prayer of praise and prophecy which just bubbles up out of him. He is a changed man. Whilst the baby was growing inside Elizabeth, something was forming and developing within Zechariah who seems to have become metaphorically fertile again after a kind of spiritual barrenness. And so we see that his enforced silence wasn’t so much a punishment as perhaps an invitation.

“Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the Spirit of love.” John of the Cross

If you read the beautiful words of Zechariah’s prayer (Luke 1:67-79) you will see that after his outburst of praise he begins to prophesy about Jesus (who hadn’t been born yet!) and also over John about his destiny preparing the way for Jesus. No disbelief now and this breaking of a nine-month silence also broke the 400 year silence since the last of the Old Testament prophets spoke. This change was brought about through God working in silence, restoring faith in Zechariah along with a new recognition of His greatness and power.

As we enter into Advent with all its noise and bustle and activity, let’s remember that God often speaks most clearly when we quieten our own minds and voices. Sometimes our words, like Zechariah’s to Gabriel, manifest our own limits, whereas silence makes room for God’s power to work in us. We may grow tired and disheartened with what feels like silence and unanswered prayers but God is always at work and we may rediscover him in silence!

“It is silence in which God is known and through the silence of His mysteries that God declares Himself to us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Like Zechariah, through silence we can learn to trust in God’s transforming power taking place in the things we know about and the things not-yet-known.

Own it personally…

1. How do you feel at a gut level, when you hear words like ‘waiting’ and ‘trusting’, in relation to life in general? Do you bring these feelings into how you relate to God? Ask God to show you why and to help you by his Spirit to bring your feelings back into alignment with the truths that He is totally trustworthy (2 Samuel 7:28) and waiting doesn’t mean that you are forgotten (Isaiah 40:31, Micah 7:7)

2. Do you have prophetic words and promises given to you in the past, that you have given up on or stopped believing that they will be realised? If so, imagine they are in a book up on a high shelf and take them down and blow the cobwebs off the book as an act of re-engaging with them and ask God to help you do this. If this feels painful, ask someone (a friend or from the prayer ministry team perhaps) to pray alongside you.

3. Within the activities preparing for Christmas, try to have a short time each day in silence. You don’t have to sit (although you can!) Perhaps look carefully at a natural object — or engage in work that doesn’t require you to hear, see, or express words like a job around the house or gardening or a long walk in nature. Or pray the prayer below as an intention to meet God in the silence. Don’t strive for anything particular to happen, just ‘be’. Recognise how you feel but even if it was tricky, give it a few tries!

Speak it Out – Pray and Prophesy

Give something which leads into prayer, either a written prayer, or a suggestion about how or what to pray in response. You can also link to a Youtube video or other online resource.

From a collection of prayers, source unknown

‘This moment is for You.
I consent to Your action
In my mind and in my heart
In my will and in my soul.
I welcome Your action!

And to prepare myself, to make room for You,
I will sit here, quietly, with my eyes closed,
In an attitude of peaceful rest and loving devotion,
My intent is to welcome You.
I will slow down my thoughts and my imagination,
I will calm down my fears and my emotions,
I will try to exercise patience and humility
And I offer you these feeble efforts…

I lift up my soul to You,
Whispering in my heart and in my mind,
“Here I am! Quiet but attentive to You”

“Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.” Friedrich von Hügel

The scholar, William Hendriksen on Zechariah’s song, “Objectively it amounts to reconciliation with God through David’s line, the Rising Sun, the Messiah. Subjectively it is the quiet and comforting assurance of forgiveness and adoption. It is the smile of God reflected in the reconciled sinner’s heart, the shelter from the storm, the hiding-place in the shadow of His wings, the stream that issues from the fountain of grace. To that peace the Rising Sun directs our feet.”

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