In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. (Luke 1:5-13, NRSV)
There exists within Advent a dichotomy of feeling, emotion, and thought. It is undeniable when you read the biblical account of the Christ child and the events of Advent. Yes, there is hope, peace, joy, and love. But there is also fear and courage; silence and Holy declaration; joy and pain; hope and doubt; and we cannot neglect the view of the cradle and the cross from the central focus of Advent. Prayers that had been prayed over years, prayers possibly given up on; prayers for which a nation continued to hope, were about to be answered right at the intersection of this dichotomy of feelings, emotions, and thought. Prayers that a nation and this couple had long awaited.
Spurgeon writes, “Your prayers are all filed in heaven, and if not immediately answered they are certainly not forgotten, but in a little while they will be fulfilled to your delight and satisfaction. Do not allow despair to make you silent but continue to present your requests to God.” Perhaps Zechariah needed these encouraging words of Spurgeon. The scripture does not tell us how long he and Elizabeth had been praying for a child; verse 7 relays that “they are both now well stricken in years.” This phrase from verse 7 suggests that it had not been a short period of time. Indeed, each of us has experienced delays in answers to prayer; we have lingered in feeling, emotion, and thought around God’s timing in answering those prayers. The question is, did you continue to hope? I believe the text is tailored to teach us several things about waiting in hopeful expectation for God to answer; even the righteous experience delays, delay does not mean denial, and God’s delay may involve divine purpose.
The back story for Zechariah and Elizabeth indicate that they were devout in their faith. The scripture identifies them as a priest and a daughter of Aaron; both righteous and blameless before God (5-6). They had prayed for a child but the next verse tells us that not only is Elizabeth barren, they are both now well past the age of fertility. Zach and Liz are living examples that God does not play favorites in answering prayer. This couple seems like the perfect team to have their corporate plea addressed by God. Yet the pair remained childless. Infertility is a devastating plight. I have walked with many couples who have had to deal with the waiting, the hoping, and the testing, the negative test results over years of trying to conceive. Couples who experienced joy at the thought of conception who then had that joy smashed by the painful reality that it did not happen this time either. Your apparent no from God may not be conceiving a child, it could be relief from an illness, finding employment, it could be the reclaiming of a lost relationship, or a wayward son or daughter. You like Zach and Liz may have prayed and cried out to God, making your request known, standing on his word, believing in faith, and still no change in the request you have made. God’s delay is not based on your faithfulness.
God responds at the appointed time and in the appointed season. God always responds. The responses may be a no, it could be yes, or wait, not right now. Contrary to popular belief even the righteous experience delays in answered prayer. Walking upright, being dedicated, having a strong relationship with God, attending church regularly, giving your tithe, serving in the area of your gifts, does not keep you from this experience of delay. When Abraham and Sarah prayed God delayed; but answered with a son in their later years. Daniel prayed, the messenger from God explained, your prayer was heard when you first asked. We have prayed and the answer did not come immediately. The question is, did you continue to hope? We see that the righteous experience God’s delays, but know that God’s delay does not mean denial.
When you have prayed and waited on God to answer and the answer appears to be no, what do you do? For a while you would continue to hope. But after years pass and the means for God to answer and time period fades in the distance, it is then that delay appears to be denial. Most commentaries suggest that Zechariah no longer prayed for a child. Those prayers had long ceased and now his hopes and dreams turned to the promised Messiah. The story now shifts to Zechariah’s appointment in the temple. It is his lot to be one of three priests who set up the Holy Place to receive the prayers of the people (8-13). Zechariah had been selected among 3 other priests to serve that day. One priest would remove burnt ashes from the altar that had been burned in the previous service. A second priest was employed to bring burning coals from the altar of sacrifice to the golden altar in the sanctuary, the holy of holies. Zechariah’s job then was to enter with the incense, sprinkle it on the coals at the altar, and as the smoke ascended he would offer prayers of intercession for the people, along with his own prayers. At the same time the people in the temple would also pray. As he began to pray, a messenger from God, the angel Gabriel appears and tells him, “God has heard your prayers.”
This scene unfolds as if it were a set-up that could only have been navigated by God himself. But Zach had questions and concerns; while there was excitement there was also fear. Gabriel completed his declaration, and Zach’s unbelief granted him silence until “the day that these things take place” (20). The dichotomy of fear and courage; silence and Holy declaration; joy and pain; hope and doubt all met together in this moment. It was now that God began to reveal his plan. In the very first week of reading “Draw The Circle” one of the things Batterson writes is that “the plans of God are revealed in the presence of God.” Here Zach, while in the presence of God, receives his answer from God and as the younger generation would say “he wasn’t ready.” After a lengthy delay human nature would dictate that we question, we wonder, we not believe when we are face to face with the very answer for which we have prayed. One commentary suggests that God favored Zechariah with silence. In causing Zach to be mute until God’s plan was fulfilled, there was no way for negativity to creep out of his mouth. What evidence this is to encourage us to continue to hope and believe God.
Hope costs us everything and nothing at the same time. Martin Luther King Jr. said of hope, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Today what is it that you are holding out hope for? In this season of Advent, it is a good time to renew your hope in the Christ of God. The one of whom it is written in Isaiah 9: 6-7, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end” (NIV). This is the reason for the season! That even when there is a dichotomy of feelings, emotions, and thought, the Christ child is the reason for us to fear not, for us to rejoice, the reason for us to take courage, the reason for us to hear and receive the message of God and place our hope in him. Remember, even the righteous experience delays, delay does not mean denial, and God’s delay may involve divine purpose.
Jesus was born to die; John was to be his forerunner. At the appointed time God answered not just the prayers and hopes of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but the prayers and hopes of a nation. Billy Graham pens a sermon titled the “The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown.” “At the cradle, He was in the stall of an animal. At the cross, He wore a crown of thorns. But when He comes again, it will be as Commander in Chief of the armies of Heaven. This is the promise of Christmas. This is our hope. This is God’s gift of Christmas: the cradle—His Son; the Cross—His life; the crown—His coming kingdom”. Let us continue to hope!
Debra Bell is coordinator for Kerygma (Preachers’) Ministry, The Church Without Walls, Houston, Texas.
Graham, B. (2014, December 14). The Cradle, the Cross and the Crown. Decision Magazine.Retrieved from: https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/december-2014/the-cradle-the-cross-and-the-crown/
Hess, A. (2014, September 15). Why God Sometimes Delays Answering Our Prayers. Church Leaders. Retrieved from: https://churchleaders.com/daily-buzz/176349-daily-devotions-isaiah-30-18.html
King James Bible Dictionary. Retrieved from: http://www.kingjamesbibledictionary.com/Dictionary/Zacharias