Good news comes to Zechariah

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias

William Blake, 1799

The story begins:  Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod king of Judaea there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of the priesthood called after Abijah.  His wife also was of priestly descent; her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were upright and devout, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.  But they had no children, for Elizabeth was barren, and both were well on in years.

Once, when it was the turn of his division and he was there to take part in divine service, it fell to his lot, by priestly custom, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer the incense; and the whole congregation was in prayer outside.  It was the hour of the incense-offering.  There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense.  At this sight, Zechariah was startled, and fear overcame him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.  Your heart will thrill with joy, and many will be glad that he was born; for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.  He shall never touch wine or strong drink.  From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit; and he will bring back many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will go before him as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah, to reconcile father and child, to convert the rebellious to the ways of the righteous, to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, I stand in attendance upon God and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.  But now listen; you will lose your powers of speech, and remain silent until the day when these things happen to you, because you have not believed me, though at their proper time my words will be proved true.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, surprised that he was staying so long inside.  When he did come out he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had had a vision in the sanctuary.  He stood there making signs to them, and remained dumb.

When his period of duty was completed Zechariah returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she lived in seclusion, thinking, “This is the Lord’s doing; now at last he has deigned to take away my reproach among men.”

Priest:  What kind of priest was Zechariah? *

Thoughts: on parenting — Donna Ross

How different today’s world is from Zechariah’s world! Today we know that Elizabeth may not have been “barren” after all — but it may have been Zechariah who was infertile. Today we know that babies are created when a mother’s egg unites with a father’s sperm — but in Luke’s day it was thought that the whole baby was carried in its father’s sperm, with the mother contributing a receptive womb (just as fertile soil receives the farmer’s seed).

And yet again how similar our worlds are, after all. So many couples today, just like Elizabeth and Zechariah, long for babies who never come. All babies, then and now, are miracles for their parents — and sometimes for the rest of the world, too.

Have you known a “miracle” baby?

* Priests

Zechariah was not one of the priests who served daily in the Jerusalem Temple, but one of a multitude of country priests who lived throughout Israel.

Every direct male descendant of the first Jewish priest, Aaron the brother of Moses, was automatically a priest. However, by the first century C.E. there were so many priests that they had been divided into 24 sections, with each section coming up to Jerusalem for two weeks a year. Even with 24 sections, there was still a surplus of priests in each section, so lots were cast for the most important jobs.

During the week when his section was serving, Zechariah drew the lot for offering incense in the sanctuary.

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