Bible Study, Christmas Advent, Faith, life, Stories from Scripture, Uncategorized
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The Advent Fulfilled: The Unbelieving Priest and the Promised Prophet

Sometimes I imagine what characters of the Bible may have been feeling, taking in with their senses and experiencing behind the narrative in the scriptures. I do this to understand, to find sight where the details are few, to stretch within the miracle of scripture and find the human-divine connections. I do this to better understand. Every Christmas, I think about old Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and his unbelief and the unique discipline of silence exacted upon his by Gabriel. In my Christmas devotions today, I write from Zechariah’s voice, or thoughts, not to pretend that I know what he’s thinking, but to search for the deeper story of God’s faithfulness to us, even when we grow older and jaded and overly-familiar with God. He can make life spring up in the barren places (Isaiah 35) and give us joy and delight (Luke 1:14) where there had only been despair and sadness. God is always good on his word. And God is always good, as Zechariah learns here:

Long ago, many years ago in fact, I ceased to pray for a child. The desire, both mine and Elizabeth’s had become an obsession for a time. Every day we sat before the Lord in prayer and like old, sweet Hannah, begged and made promises to God.

But, He was silent. So it was to be. No child for Elizabeth and Zechariah of the house of Abijah, son of Aaron.

And Elizabeth bore her shame of barrenness admirably and where she may have been a mother to one, she mothered the community instead. As age closed her womb and drew laugh lines deep from the corners of her eyes, as time took away the quickness in her step and the strength of her back, she loved others with a vigor unmatched. She laughed from a place deep within, giving birth to a million joyful moments.

I alone heard her weeping in her silent prayers until the tears subsided and the dream, like a wildflower on a hot plain, dried and disappeared. I watched her become resolute in her decision to refuse to wither in her faith in God and she blossomed in a new-found love of serving others. Her job was not so clearly defined as mine.

I am a priest, a descendant of Aaron, serving in Herod’s temple. I fill a role well-laid for me. Elizabeth, her work, without children to tend and worry after, hers was a wilderness to be tamed, a path to be paved by her alone. She loves large and full.

And I’m finding that now, while she grows round with a miracle, I am left to watch, wordlessly, a promise I did not believe, grow in the body of the woman I call wife. I am, now, these months along, glad for the silence of my lips. Because although I am old, I find I have much to learn. Silence is my teacher.

And I remember that morning.

The sun burned hot, unseasonably so, and the people assembled for prayer must have been praying for a breeze as they gathered outside the Holy Place before the golden alter to pray. I am one of thousands of priests serving the Lord in the temple. There are more priests, sons of Aaron, nearly 20,000 at last count, than there are in my hometown. In all my long years of service, my name had not been drawn to burn the incense of prayer…until that day.

“And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even [between the two evenings] he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before Jehovah throughout your generations.”{Exodus 30:7-8}

The people gathered and their hearts looked for Messiah, as  always at the alter of incense. I alone crossed into the Holy Place, performing the ministrations of my calling and lineage. But I took with me the prayers of the people as I stepped forth and took in the anteroom of the Holy of Holies. At once I felt the weight of the cries of my people, the oppression and the longing: How long since Malachi had uttered prophecy to our people, how long would God remain silent? Had he forgotten us these four hundred years? Was Caesar indeed casting a shadow and hiding us from the Lord’s eye?

And while I felt the burden of my people, those souls dimmed by life’s struggle, I felt the pressing, unearthly weight of a greater presence. The scent of the incense filled the space, filled my nose and lungs and eyes and yes, my whole self. And I fell into a prayer so desperate that when he appeared before me, I rubbed my eyes, closed and opened them again.

I was not alone.

There were no instructions for this. Surely he was here to end my life. I had been displeasing somehow! I bowed, trembling, searching for the floor that seemed to have fallen away. There was nothing to grasp but the stone of the floor.

Do not be afraid,” he spoke with the voice of an instrument or the waves of the sea or the whisper of wind, I cannot say for sure.

Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son , and you are to give him the name Joh. He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will be bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the heart of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

And that which I’d held in my heart all these years the angel heard, even more than the words I mumbled: How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.

What he heard was: This is impossible, God is unable. His arm cannot reach into the iron rule of Rome and the darkness of this world and change anything. I cannot physically perform, not can my wife’s dry womb carry a child. We are as good as dead. You have made a mistake. 

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.

I mumbled words well-chosen yet I revealed my unbelief and the angel, Gabriel, ancient high messenger of God closed my voice. And I am silent still, reliving the scene behind the door, over and again.

I arrived home the following afternoon, while the sun was reddening the western sky and met the cool of our home with relief. I fell into Elizabeth, and she understood my speechlessness, my fervor that grew within me along the long walk home. I was a foreigner in her arms, so long had we acquiesced to our age and routine and, yes, we’d given up on God, given up on hope. But as we rested and listened to the neighbors go about the evening meals, and the songs and the voices fade and retire into the night, I prayed that God would help me believe, help me have the strength to hold and raise up a child who would be Heaven’s messenger to our people.

I am awash in silence, and the better for it. My thoughts begin to sift down and settle and I am learning to let the doubts go, too. This is my future: to believe in the God I serve. He is, in the wilderness of my soul, teaching me how to do that.

And I cannot deny the power of God that he chose to place in my old body and the might of his spirit to make young an old woman’s body. Instead, I take her in my arms and try to embrace that power into my very soul.

And she laughs her big, hearty laugh, and pulls me closer still.

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