A significant number of couples in the Bible story had to endure the pain of childlessness. A ‘reproach’ is how it felt to Elizabeth in her 1st century culture. Yet it’s fascinating how often childlessness was the prelude to the birth of some remarkable figure who would carry forward the plan of God.
- Abraham and Sara had to wait for Isaac
- Isaac and Rebekah, in turn, had to wait for Jacob and Esau
- Manoah had to wait for Samson
- Hannah had to wait – painfully – for Samuel
- And then there are Zechariah and Elizabeth
By the time you get to their story, in Luke 1, you almost expect that something is going to happen. Someone of significance is about to be born. A deliverer, a member of the royal line. And sure enough, as the story unfolds, we are introduced to John, the prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord.
Should we feel at least a bit sorry for Zechariah. After all, despite his profession, what could have prepared him for his meeting with Gabriel? And even though he was familiar with the story of Abraham and Sara, that was then and this was now.
No doubt Gabriel could have appeared to Zechariah at any time. But he chose the temple. Zechariah just happened to find himself on duty on that particular day. As the people prayed outside, Zechariah met Gabriel inside.
No doubt fear is a reasonable response when one unexpectedly encounters Gabriel in the course of one’s duty, but Zechariah gets to hear those wonderful words:
Do not be afraid
Zechariah’s prayer has been answered and his wife is going to have a son.
But what had he been praying for? The obvious answer is a son. After all, that’s what the answer was going to be – a son called John. Would the old man still be praying for this, or might that particular prayer have been consigned to the archives years ago?
But the birth of John would certainly prove to be the answer to more than just the prayers of one old man. Are we meant to take note of the crowds praying outside? Whatever their personal hopes and desires, were there some of them, at least, who longed for the day when God would come to his people? The day when their redemption would begin to dawn? Had Zechariah prayed these prayers too, and these too were now being answered?
Either way, his prayers have been heard. And either way, he had been praying for some considerable time.
But it’s too much for him. It would have been astonishing enough to hear the prophecies about his son, had Zechariah been a young man. Who would expect this? But to hear all this at his advanced age was more than he could accept. The price for his resistance was to be left speechless until the child was born.
And like Isaac, Jacob, Samson and Samuel, John would grow up to play a key part in God’s plan. And his birth formed the intersection between the private drama of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the much wider drama of redemption.