It can be uncomfortable, can’t it?
Our story today starts with a period of silence – of 400 year’s silence, to be precise. Between five and seven hundred years before, God’s people – God’s faithless people – had been taken into exile, deported from their land by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Around that time the prophet Ezekiel had had a vision of the throne of God lifting from the temple. God had had enough, and he was leaving.
Around 70 years after the Babylonian exile, God’s people started to trickle home. But it was a sorry homecoming. They had to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. And they had to rebuild the Temple, which had been thoroughly destroyed and desecrated by the army of Nebuchadnezzar.
But though they rebuilt the Temple, there was never a moment – as there had been when Solomon’s temple, and when the tabernacle – that travelling temple in a tent - were consecrated, of God descending, of him coming in glory to inhabit the temple.
They went about their daily sacrifices, but I suspect it was with a niggling of doubt at the back of their minds. Where was God?
Nor was it all plain sailing politically. Far from it. From the time that the Babylonians took the people of Judah into captivity, they were never again an autonomous Jewish state. Oppressed by Babylon then Persia then Greece, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and finally Rome, the people of God were oppressed, brutally persecuted and restricted in the practice of their religion.
There were so many promises of God still unfulfilled. He had promised their greatest king, David, that his kingly line would never die out. He had promised a time of freedom and relief from their enemies. And God had promised that he would again come to his Temple.
And for 400 years, the people had struggled on, beleaguered, exploited, subjugated and demoralized. And in all that time there was no authentic prophetic voice bringing God’s comfort, promise or even rebuke. Where was God? Had he forgotten his promises? Had he altogether abandoned them?
400 years of silence.
Enter Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. In addition to sharing the constant ache of a nation apparently abandoned by God, they had their own personal grief. They were childless. And they were so old by now, that they had resigned themselves to their childlessness.
Poor Elizabeth had lived for decades with the shame and disgrace of being a barren woman. That was what defined her – not Elizabeth who makes excellent stuffed dates, but Elizabeth the childless one. Zechariah was grieving the son he would never have to follow in his footsteps. They had prayed and prayed and prayed. But heaven seemed like flint. And so their grief, in a way, embodied the grief of the nation. Where was God? Were they utterly abandoned?
Zechariah was a priest. It wasn’t a full-time job, but for one fortnight every year he would go to the Temple to take his turn at the priestly duties.
On the day in question, he had drawn the lot for the greatest honour that an ordinary priest could know. At the time of the evening sacrifice, he would be permitted to enter the Holy Place and offer incense on the altar there.
In the court outside, the assembled worshippers would be offering their prayers. And as the incense burned inside the temple, the prayers in the court were rising to heaven.
Part of the ritual of afternoon prayers is called the Tachanun. Let me read you a few words from it:
‘Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint. O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, Lord, how long?’
So Zechariah enters the temple, his heart pregnant with his own unanswered prayers; the temple full of the unanswered prayers of the nation.
He looks up from his duties, and there is Gabriel, standing beside the very altar that he is serving at!
And what are Gabriel’s first words to him? ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.’
Which prayer, I wonder? The prayer of the nation, that he had carried into God’s presence through the incense in his hand? Or the unspoken prayer of his heart?
I’d like to suggest that it was both. That as Zechariah and Elizabeth typified the desolation of a whole nation, so the point of God’s response was a reply to both them and the whole nation.
‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.’ And what was his task to be? ‘See in verse 18 – ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
There is a story of an English tourist who was staying overnight in a little town in the Depp South of the USA. He joined a small group of men sitting on the porch of the general store and attempted to strike up a conversation. When after some time, he’d had no success, he asked in desperation, "Is there a law against talking in this town?" Now at this point you need to understand that I only do accents in the privacy of my own home. So you need to imagine the Southern drawl. "Nope," replied one seasoned old citizen. "Ain't no law against it. We just like to make sure it's an improvement over silence."
And that is the sense in this passage. God has been silent for 400 years. He hasn’t been absent – though it probably felt that way – but he has been silence. But when he speaks, it’s certainly an improvement on silence.
I wonder if you noticed how much God speaks in this chapter? First we have Gabriel, bringing the very words of God; first to Zechariah, then to Mary. Then the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth’s mouth, and she prophecies. Then Mary prophecies. And finally Zechariah’s mouth is opened, and he prophecies. Not to mention the small matter of two miraculous conceptions.
God has broken his silence in grand style. The Holy Spirit is on the move. But what is he saying? What is it, that after 400 years, makes it worth his while breaking his silence?
And what we find in this story is an absolute explosion of blessings. It’s as if God has been waiting and waiting, and he can contain himself no longer. It’s like a fruit machine that suddenly sprays you with winnings. Like a dam bursting, or a bottle of champagne spraying all over you. I’ve tried to pull together a list of all the blessings God speaks of in this chapter. It’s probably not a complete list, but these are the ones I found:
Do you see what I mean? The passage is electric. And if our spines aren’t tingling as we hear this story, we’ve probably missed the point.
You see, God is doing something new. Put crudely, God is up to something. And we remember how, in the Old Testament, when God is up to something, he so often starts his work in a barren womb or a similar place of brokenness and marginality.
So the nation of Israel is founded in Sarah’s womb. The deliverer of Israel is plucked just minutes from death from the Nile crocodiles. The first kingmaker, Samuel, is born from another barren womb – Hannah.
And now, God’s definitive move. His greatest ‘up-to somethingness’ ever. And here are two miraculous births, and more angels and prophecies than you can shake a stick at. God is marvelously at work, and he has taken the initiative. God has opened his mouth, and what he says is worth waiting for.
I’d like to take just a few minutes drawing out three things we learn from God in this chapter.
Firstly, God keeps his promises.
The whole passage is bristling with echoes from the Old Testament. Do you remember how Jesus said he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets? Well, it starts here.
In Gabriel’s words to Zechariah, he quotes almost word for word the closing verses of the Old Testament. The last recorded words before God fell silent were these, ‘See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the father to their children, and the hearts of the children to their father, or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.’
And Gabriel’s words to Zechariah: ‘He will go on before the Lord, in the Spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Do you hear the resonances? The words are like a pair of book-ends, framing the silence in between. These words to Zechariah – they are not the sleepy words of a God who has just woken up and noticed the time. They are the crafted words of the master author. They are the opening speech in Act 2 of the heavenly drama – God is bringing up the curtain in just the right way and at just the right moment.
God’s promise-keeping is made explicit in Zechariah’s song. God has remembered his holy covenant; he has not forgotten the oaths he swore; he has done what he promised to do through his prophets.
God’ timing is different from ours; it is different from what we sometimes would like it to be. But God’s timing is best, and he always keeps his promises.
Secondly, God acts decisively in history
Our God is not a God who winds up the universe and wanders off to watch Eastenders. He is not a God who watches from a distance, content to give things a little nudge from time to time.
No, he is a God who is intimately involved in the every-day; who is mindful of the griefs of his people. He is a God who leans out of heaven to pay attention to the poor and the oppressed. He is a God who acted powerfully in history to save his people from Egypt, and who is acting in history once more to save his people in a more profound way still.
Thirdly, God’s purposes are for blessing.
We’ve looked at this, haven’t we? When the flood-gates open; when the dam is broached or the cork is taken out of the champagne bottle, what does God flood us with? Blessing after blessing after blessing.
Certainly the outworking of those blessings took the people by surprise. When Jesus turned up on the scene as an adult, perhaps 30 years later, he didn’t fit the mould that people expected. Relief from enemies for one thing. Didn’t at all work out like the Jews had hoped.
But God’s purposes were for blessing then, and he still purposes blessing today.
But note this: though God is overflowing in speech and blessing, though his passion and enthusiasm are almost overwhelming, his action is tender and intimate. This is no jihad or crusade. Monumentous though the event is, God acts tenderly and gently with two unassuming women. His actions are minute – microscopic, in fact. And yet the whole of history swings on this pivot.
What is happening here? What we are seeing is seeing the unfolding of God’s plan – his grand design, that John describes as having its inception before the beginning of the world. And amazingly – staggeringly – he is entrusting it to two ordinary women. Not kings, not priests,not to great men, politicians or business magnates. In fact – extra-ordinarily for the time – he’s not entrusting it to men at all. But just as the first witnesses of the resurrection will be women, so the first participants in this marvellous plan of salvation to come are two women.
And they are ordinary women. But at the same time they are extra-ordinary. Because they surrender themselves to the will of God and line themselves up with his purpose. And that is an extra-ordinary thing to do.
Look again at their words. Verse 45, Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord says to her will be accomplished.’ In verse 38, Mary says, ‘I am the servant of the Lord. May it be to me as you have said.’
These two unassuming, ordinary women were central to the unfolding of God’s salvation plan, and they hold that point of centrality because they humbly chose to align themselves with God’s purposes, and made themselves available to the Holy Spirit.
And, extra-ordinary as that choice is, it is by no means exceptional. The Bible is full of ordinary, broken, sinful, messed-up people who chose to align themselves with God’s purposes and make themselves available to the Holy Spirit. History, too is full of examples of such people. And there is no reason in heaven or on earth why we – you and I – should not be one of them. Sinful, broken, humble, ordinary, uncertain? That’s just the ground where God loves to work.
Oh, they didn’t have an easy life from then on. Read on in the gospel and imagine what it must have been like to be the mother of either John the Baptist or Jesus. Making ourselves available to the Holy Spirit never has been a recipe for an easy life.
But when we see how God is burgeoning with blessings for his people, how can we live any other way? The invitation stands open. Today, will you choose to align yourself with God’s purposes? Will you make yourself available to the Holy Spirit? Will you be a part of what God is up to? Will you be a bearer of his blessings?