Ritual Means Little
If The Heart Hasn’t Changed
As I mentioned in a previous post, the phrase “Christmas Story” encompasses far more than just a nativity scene. There are other related events and people that add a lot of color and meaning but receive nothing more than a passing glance. Leaving them out means we get only a partial picture.
Zacharias Is A Good Example
One person connected to the birth story that gets very little attention is Zacharias. His story is found in the first chapter of Luke and takes place six months before the conception of Jesus.
Let me share his experience.
Serving But Possibly Cynical
The story opens with a few background details about Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth.
He is a priest and they are described as righteous and blameless (upstanding) but childless. They are also well beyond their child bearing years. Not a happy state since children were believed to be a sign of God’s blessing. Culturally it was considered shameful not to have kids.
At the time of the story Zacharias is in the Temple burning incense and something very unusual happens. An angel appears and tells him very matter-of-factly that his prayers have been heard. He and Elizabeth will have a son whose name will be John.
There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time for the angel to appear. Incense was symbolic of prayer and this is obviously something for which Zacharias and Elizabeth had prayed. His response, however, was anything but believing. Instead of humbly accepting this good news and being thankful he was skeptical. His response:
How can I be sure of this? (Luke 1:18)
Which is like asking for another sign. In digital language you could add a smirk at the end of that question. He was being a little sassy.
“I don’t accept special deliveries by angels. I want a sign more agreeable to my expectations!”
If an angel showed up in my devotions I think I would be a little less demanding.
But in this case, the angle gave him what he asked for. A sign that was more like a judgment and it really made him believe. He was stricken with dumbness until John was born. Not the kind of sign anyone wants but one that gave Zacharias plenty of time to think. He learned to be comfortable with his own thoughts for the next nine months, at least.
The angel did say things about John’s life that are important to note.
- His birth would make many joyful and glad.
- He would be filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb.
- He will drink neither wine nor strong drink meaning he will be singularly focused on the ministry to which he is called – somewhat like a Nazarite Vow – think Samson.
- He will have power similar to Elijah’s and will stimulate a revival of Messianic expectation throughout Israel.
- The revival will also change attitudes and hearts between fathers and children and citizenry and government.
Not being able to talk, he was reminded daily of what the angel said and what this would mean for his son. Even when Elizabeth miraculously became pregnant he could do nothing but contemplate with wonder the meaning of this unusual event.
I’m sure he had a lot to say to John after the boy was born.
Several questions come to mind which need to be addressed.
No Excuse For Unbelief
Why was Zacharias incredulous?
Admittedly the angel’s announcement was unusual but for a man at the top of the religious order, who was well versed in what the Bible taught, this shouldn’t have been unusual. Several before him had similar experiences.
- Abraham and Sara had Isaac when they were too old to have children.
- Samson’s mother was barren and his parents were given pre-birth instructions about his calling – deliver Israel from Philistine domination.
- Samuel’s mother was barren but through prayer he was not only born but dedicated, pre-birth, to a special priestly calling – also similar to a Nazarite calling.
Zacharias knew their stories well. He also knew the spiritual turmoil Israel was in at the time. He shouldn’t have been surprised.
The judgment on Zacharias may at first seem harsh but considering all the facts it was quite mild. The judgment served a specific purpose too. It wasn’t just punitive.
Extraordinary Times Call For Extraordinary Measures
Why an angel?
John’s ministry was extreme. The means by which it was implemented were extreme. The times required such measures and nothing less than an angel could make the point. Zacharias didn’t receive it so well at first but it didn’t take long for him to get the picture.
I’m sure the angel left an indelible and reinforcing image for many years to come.
From Mechanical Discipline To A Focused Purpose
Of all the possible signs to choose from why dumbness? Well, blindness would be too extreme and paralyses would be too distracting. Dumbness eliminated all frivolous conversation and gave him plenty of time to mentally prepare himself for a very special fatherhood.
Zacharias needed more than belief. He needed focus and his son would require special preparation, the kind Samson didn’t receive from his parents. Zacharias would play an important part in teaching and preparing John for his special calling. The inability to talk gave him plenty of time to strategize.
From Personal Opinions To Heart Felt Repentance
Why John the Baptist?
The entire nation, including Zacharias, was mired in legalisms and mechanical service and had lost sight of anything other than a political salvation.
Christ coming in the midst of that is like having Christmas in the middle of a parliamentary debate. No Christmas spirit to be found, celebrating only with Scrooges.
People needed to be awakened to the gift of all gifts, to grace, to forgiveness, to acceptance and understanding, and John was the one selected to shake things up.
Zacharias epitomized the lethargy of mechanical service without heartfelt belief. John would change that and his father was the first one to experience the change.
Bored Servant Becomes Hopeful
Through this experience, Zacharias went from drudge to expectant.
When I say Zacharias was bored I’m not being critical. Under the circumstances who wouldn’t be?
- As a priest he did the same things over and over, year after year. It was ritual at its worst. No thinking required. He worked very hard to qualify and then performed mindless functions, no end in sight. The incense was formulated and burned in exactly the same way at exactly the same times. Nothing ever changed.
- Although he had prayed for children, he was now beyond the usual child bearing age so what was the use.
All that changed with the birth of John.
The good news is this story is for those struggling with unbelief: religious unbelief (boredom), political unbelief (critical) or any other kind of unbelief. If you struggle with unbelief this story is for you.