1: A Miraculous Message
The archangel Gabriel, God's holy messenger, flashed through the heavens like lightning and descended to the earth. He touched down in Jerusalem. He was in the temple, in front of the golden altar of incense in the Holy Place.
An old priest went about his work there quietly in the tender light of the seven lamps on the golden lampstand. Around him were walls inlaid with gold.
The priest's name was Zechariah. His home was in the hill country of Judea. He had come to Jerusalem with other priests to serve in the temple. When they cast lots to see who would be allowed to go into the Holy Place, Zechariah was chosen.
It was time to offer the morning sacrifice. The old priest scattered some aromatic herbs, incense and myrrh on the glowing coals of the altar of incense. He inhaled the sweet aroma and mumbled some prayers.
The people stood in the outer court. They were praying too. A cloud of the fragrant aroma and a cloud of prayers ascended to heaven.
Suddenly Zechariah saw the angel standing by the altar. His prayer broke off in mid-sentence, and his hands began to tremble. He was startled and shaken.
Zechariah was afraid of the heavenly figure.
The angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call him John."
His prayer had been heard? The angel was not talking about the prayer Zechariah had been mumbling at the altar; he was referring to a prayer prayed years before. When Zechariah was young and newly married, he had prayed repeatedly for a son. God had not been gracious to him; it was as if He had not heard Zechariah's prayer.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old. They were lonely, for they had never had a child. This caused them great sorrow at first, but in time they became used to being alone. Now that they were old, it was no longer possible for them to have a child. They no longer prayed for a child or hoped for one. They had forgotten that prayer.
Could it be that the Lord still remembered that prayer? Was He now going to grant their request at last? In his great amazement, Zechariah forgot his fear. He shook his head in disbelief, and in his heart he laughed at the idea. No, that was impossible. An old, wrinkled woman like Elizabeth could not possibly bear a child. God could not be gracious to her now, after all these years.
Zechariah shook his head as he listened to the angel. The angel had more to say: he announced that an even greater miracle would take place.
"Your son will bring joy not only into your lives," said the angel. "There will be many who rejoice at his birth, for he will be a great servant of the Lord. He must not touch wine or strong drink. The Holy Spirit will dwell in his heart from the time of his birth. He will lead many children of Israel to repent and turn to the Lord their God. He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare a people for the Lord."
Zechariah heard what the angel was saying, and he understood. His son was to be a great prophet. His son?
"No," said Zechariah, "that's impossible. I am old and my wife is old. How am I supposed to believe all this?"
The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. God Himself sent me to speak to you and bring you this joyful message. And behold, you will be silent. You will not be able to speak until the day this happens, for you have not believed my words, which will surely be fulfilled in their time."
The people waited in the outer court. They whispered to each other and watched the entrance to the temple closely. They were surprised at the priest. Why did he stay in the Holy Place so long?
At last they saw him coming, looking pale and perplexed. Humbly they bowed their heads, waiting for his blessing. But he said not a word. When they looked up to see what was happening, his trembling arms were extended and his lips moved, but no sound came from his lips. He couldn't speak.
Something strange must have happened to him in the temple, they thought; he must have seen something wonderful there. He tried to make signals to them, but the holy priest's blessing did not come from his lips, for those lips had uttered words of disbelief in the temple.
Zechariah soon left Jerusalem with the same priests with whom he had come. A different group of priests came to take their place. He hurried to his home in the hill country, where his aged wife was waiting for him.
That aged wife was to become young again, just as Sarah became young when she was oldl A miraculous child was to be born! Yes, finally Zechariah could believe it.
He had to believe it. Even if he felt an impulse to say, "That's impossible," he would feel his tongue lying useless in his mouth. He was so happy that he wanted to sing, but he couldn't. He couldn't even tell Elizabeth what had happened. He had to inscribe it on a tablet for her to read.
"His name shall be John," he wrote. "That's what the angel said."
God is gracious-that's what the name meant.
Yes, God was indeed gracious. Although Zechariah and Elizabeth had forgotten their prayer, God had not forgotten.
Although His people had wandered from Him, He would show them love and grant them the greatest possible redemption. God's time had come.