‘But the angel said unto him, “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” Luke 1:12
Imagine you are sitting on a park bench, scrolling through your phone while waiting for the 3 o’clock bus. On a hunch, you look up from your screen to see a stranger sitting beside you, smiling.
“Hello…” you say, but what you’re really saying is, “Do I know you?”
The stranger proceeds as if you two had been in the middle of a conversation. “What if I told you that by this time tomorrow, you will be able to fly?” He stares straight into your eyes unblinking. He actually believes what he’s just said, and he expects you to believe it too. You, fly?
What would you do? What would you say?
I would probably reply, “Sorry, but I don’t do drugs,” before I make up an excuse to leave. I would always look back on that moment as a weird one, but I would wonder about the possibilities, somewhere in my subconscious. I would remember the times when, as a kid, I tied a wrapper around my neck like Superman and leapt up, up and away … unto the floor. Living with a little concept called Reality, and it’s distant cousin ‘Gravity’, has taught me that I can’t fly, so I don’t even try or even entertain the possibility. And with that, I shove the memory of the stranger’s pitch into the ‘Don’t-even-think-about-it’ cabinet of my mind.
That’s probably what Zacharias felt like when he, while performing his priestly duties in the temple, was told by the angel Gabriel that he would have a son. He and his wife were ‘far advanced in years’ (read, they were really, really old) but they had no children, and it was definitely not for lack of trying. They had prayed and trusted in God for at least a child, but none had come. Yet they remained faithful to Him. Zach had probably even resigned to serve God wholeheartedly, even if God didn’t give him a child. And that’s quite commendable too.
But now, an angel appears and tells him he would have a child? A son, no less? Of course he was amazed that an angel had appeared to him, and this was clearly from God … but what was this? Could he dare get his hopes up again after watching them get dashed for decades? Could he dare try to even wrap his mind around all the angel said about this ‘son’? Was this a practical joke from on high? Did God even do practical jokes?
His doubts stood abreast to the angel’s words, and all Zach could say was, “What proof can you give me, so I can be sure? I’m really really old, and my wife is an old woman too.” And, if you know the story, Gabriel said that because he doubted, he wouldn’t be able to speak until those words were fulfilled. And, just like that, Zacharias couldn’t speak.
Every time I look at this story, it looks a bit unfair. [Am I permitted to think that?] So Zacharias doubted, but haven’t we all? He was only human. Why did God expect him to believe the unbelievable? I even tried explaining it away as Gabriel acting rashly without God’s permission, but angels don’t operate that way. They call Him the Lord of hosts for a reason. There’s a chain of command for heaven’s armies, and God is at the top, and none move without His permission. Those angels that rebelled and left their assigned posts were cast out and bound (Jude 1:6). If Gabriel had broken rank here he’d have been out of a job too and, well, we still see him visiting Mary a few verses down, so…
So why treat an old man so?
In the days and weeks that followed, Zacharias might have had a conflicted mind; the guilt of doubting God’s words battling with the question of why God would do this. And just in case he wondered if it was all in his head, his tied tongue was proof enough that it was still so real. And Elizabeth’s cheeky remarks about the cat finally getting his tongue didn’t help matters. But what was this about her feeling dizzy these days? And was she gaining weight or, was her belly getting bigger, or…?
And then it dawned on him that it was real. They really were having a baby! How did this happen? Of course he knew how it happened, he just didn’t expect it to result in a baby. In their old age? Impossible! But then, God had said they would, hadn’t He?
The reality of his doubts stared at him every day, along with evidence of God’s ability. If he had just believed perhaps he would still have his speech. Oh, to have the faith of their forefather, Abraham. So, apparently, God expected them to have that kind of faith. But now, Zach had doubted and he was stuck without speech. Maybe this would be with him forever, like Jacob’s limp. Or, like the angel said, perhaps when the son is born it will all be over…
In the months leading to delivery, Zach’s understanding of God’s ability was proven to him. The evidence before him was too much to deny. The angel’s words played in his mind over and over. And he knew that it would be true. Not only were they having a son, but this boy would be a major part in God’s plan to prepare His people for Messiah? Despite his doubts?
In time, the baby was born and Zacharias named him John, just as the angel had said. It was quite providential, since John means “the Lord is gracious,” or “The Lord has stooped down to favour us.”
And then, Zacharias’ speech was returned. And what did he do? Now that his words could match the faith built up on the inside, filled with the Spirit of God, he spoke words of blessing and prophecy, telling of what God was set to do through Messiah and through John, his boy. (John shows up in later chapters as John the Baptist)
Doubt is a part of our human experience. It is a consequence of our fallen nature. Since we are used to the mundane reality around us, accepting God’s promises that seem to be above the normal is not easy, and doubt sets in. That’s human. But to relate with God, we must have faith; faith in Him and His ability. And God wants to be a part of our lives much more than we want Him to, but our doubts prevent us from allowing Him.
So what does God do? He doesn’t need to take our speech. He has a better solution: he gives us new hearts that can grasp and believe His words, and then we can say the right things. He did this through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus, creating new hearts in all that believe in Him. Zacharias was living in a time before this Redemption plan had reached fruition, but God still wanted to use him. So, however long it took, some faith was built in him. And, ironically, when he could speak, it was this Redemption Plan he spoke about (see Luke 1:69-75).
Now, faith is a gift to anyone that trusts in Jesus. It is through this faith that we are saved, all an act of the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8). And with faith, He can do so much in and through us. Our part is to keep or minds focused on God’s ability, even when facing insurmountable odds. In reading His word and following Him, we grow stronger in faith. We would trust in His words better, we would speak as He pleases, and He will do great and mighty things in and through us.
We may still encounter doubts at different points in life. The giants and mountains we will face may be bigger than the ones we’ve encountered before. But the more we follow Jesus, the stronger we are in faith, and the better we can overcome doubts when they come up. So when the giants come, we send them to the ground, and when we meet the mountains, we send them for a swim.
Zacharias, and Elizabeth’s story by extension, may seem like filler episodes in a season-long Christmas TV show, not furthering the plot or telling us about the main characters. But they are anything but fillers because they show us the human faces of the time. Zacharias shows us that, true enough, while we were unable to meet up to God’s standards, despite our doubts and lack of faith, despite the lethargy that had set in with reality and it’s unfulfilled promises … God was coming to our neighbourhood and bringing us to His. He didn’t wait for us to measure up to His standards before calling us. Now all we have to do is to respond to his call, by believing in Him. He’ll handle the rest, because He can.
Elizabeth’s story … well, she’ll take the spotlight tomorrow. See you then.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He hath visited and redeemed His people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David; as He spake by the mouth of His holy prophets…
…that He would grant us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life…”
Zacharias speaking in Luke 1:68-70, 74-75