John the Baptist’s birth foretold
5 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. 8 One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. 9 Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”
19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. 22 When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn’t speak. 23 When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home.
Thoughts on the passage:
At the time of Christ’s birth there was a great longing in the land. Outside forces, most recently the Romans, had taken over the kingdom. People were struggling to survive and longing for signs of hope. They wanted a priest to intercede on their behalf. They wanted a prophet to bring a message from God. They wanted a savior to lift them from poverty. They wanted a king to rule them. It is into this time that a star is born. What people do not understand is what kind of star it will be.
On any given Sunday, if I asked for a show of hands for who would like to come up and lead a prayer, I suspect that there would only be a handful of volunteers. We likely would see the same effect around the dinner table for a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Ask someone to pray for the meal and you are likely to get one of two things, a “no” or a simple prayer like “God is Great” that the person already knows. Praying, especially public prayer, is something that a lot of people are uncomfortable with. In fact, it is one of the things that is routinely outsourced to clergy whenever the chance is given.
This is not a new phenomenon. The role of professional praying has been around as long as there have been priests. While the duties have shifted and evolved, one of the primary roles for priests and clergy is to serve as an intercessor between people and God. Today this is largely done through things like leading prayers and services, but in the past, it also included things like offering sacrifices. At the heart of the role is the idea that priests and clergy are meant to be the mediator of the relationship between God and humanity.
We see this same thing playing out in the opening passage of Luke. Zachariah is fulfilling one of his duties as a priest, entering the inner sanctum of the temple to offer sacrifices and prayers to God. He goes on behalf of a crowd of people who have gathered in the outer part of the temple. His role is to be their representative to God and bring their prayers and offerings forward. The role of the priest is to communicate between God and the people.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were perfect parents for a messiah. While their age would seem to have made such a birth unlikely, it would also add to the power of such a birth, conjuring images of Abraham and Sarah who gave birth to Isaac at an even more advanced age. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were born into families of distinguished lineage. Zechariah was a Levite, those who served in the Temple, and Elizabeth was descended from Aaron the first priest of the Israelites. Here was a family that could give the people the sort of messiah they needed, a new high priest to come and bridge the gap between themselves and God.
Yet, this is not the message that Zechariah receives when he is praying in the temple. He is not going to be the father of the new star that will be born. His role will be to raise up another, John, whose task is to prepare the way for the messiah. God is not raising up a new high priest like Aaron of old. Instead, through John and then Jesus, God is moving people into a more direct relationship. Rather than trust in priests to intercede on behalf of people, God wants to connect personally with each one of us.
The transformation of the priesthood is an important part of what God is doing in the birth of Christ. It is not something that is hard to understand. While priests and clergy can help in providing a connection to God, it is better for people to relate directly to God. In Christ we are getting a new priest, not a human priest, but a divine priest, a direct way to relate to God. No longer do we need others to intercede on our behalf but instead we have can have a way to be in personal contact with God.
Imagine an old string of Christmas lights. One of the most frustrating things about them is their interdependence. Old Christmas lights were built in what is called a “serial circuit” and so if there is a break anywhere in the circuit, the whole string does not work. We all probably remember how frustrating it was to try and find that one bulb that was not working and wrecking the whole strand.
Now, think about our relationship to God. The more people we place between ourselves the less direct a connection we have and the more chance we have for a bad bulb to ruin our connection. Rather than simply add a new high priest, one more light on the strand that can go out, God is not sending us a new high priest to be on top of all the existing priests. Instead, like electrical engineers have done with Christmas lights, God is changing the relationship. Now instead a long string of connections between us and God we have a direct one, not dependent on others, but enabling each one of us to have access to God.
The people were looking for a messiah, and perhaps hoping that such a messiah would be a new high priest who would restore their connection to God. We see how much they longed for the connection in the ways that they gathered outside the temple and waited for the results of Zechariah’s prayers and offerings. They were longing for this new priest who would give them a better relationship with God.
I suspect that many of us are longing for a better connection to God as well. We long to have a relationship that is pure and simple, not filtered through the distractions of the world. In order to get ready for Christ’s birth, we need to look at all those filters we have put between ourselves and God. We long for connection to God but we often put limits on that same connection. We limit when it will happen. We limit where it will happen. We limit how it can happen. Are we ready for a new star to be born? Are we able to set aside our own expectations of what that star will be like, get rid of the distractions that surround us, and watch and wait for that pure light of God to grow in our hearts?
Questions to Ponder:
What are your hopes and expectations for Christ this Christmas?
Who is someone you know who has a good relationship with God and what does that look like?
What are the distractions that hinder your relationship to God?
What are the ways that you limit your relationship to God?
Wondrous God, as we prepare for Christmas, enter into our hearts again this Advent season. Help us to recognize the hopes and expectations that we bring to the season. Help us also to set these aside and to look not for what we want, but for what you are doing in the birth of Christ. Open us up to the unexpected ways that you are born into our hearts and lives. Amen