Waiting: The Story of Zechariah
Scriptures: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:5-20
I have waited a long time for this day. As a child I watched my
father offer sacrifices in the temple. My father was a priest, as was his father and grandfather going all the way back to Abijah, the grandson of Aaron the first priest of Israel. My father came from a long line of priests, so of course he became one, too. And one day he was chosen by lot to burn incense on the golden altar in the inner courtyard of the temple. This was a great privilege. There were about 18,000 priests in Jerusalem at that time, and each day only one of them was chosen to burn incense in the inner temple. On the day my father was chosen he said to me, "Zechariah, one day you too shall be a priest, and one day you too will burn incense on this altar."
That was fifty years ago. True to my father's word I became a priest,
and I did all the things a priest is supposed to do. For decades I offered sacrifices, washed temple vessels, taught the law, and performed rituals of cleansing and purification for many people. But I have never yet burned incense on the golden altar in the temple. I am still waiting for that part of my father's promise to be fulfilled.
Alas, I am also still waiting for something even more important. All
my life I have wanted to be a father, to have a child who would look up to me the way I looked up to my father and grandfather. Elizabeth and I were barely engaged when I began making a wooden cradle. The other priests laughed. They said, "Zechariah, aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself?" I said, "Wait and see." For years I kept that cradle dusted and polished, ready for the child that never came. Eventually other things got piled on top of it and it was forgotten. Not long ago I found it again. I took it out, looked at it, then I broke it up, and used it to start a fire in the stove.
The other priests were sympathetic, up to a point. But as time went
on, they began asking questions. They said that childlessness was a sign of God's punishment. They hinted that Elizabeth must have some unconfessed sin. They suggested that I divorce her and try to have children with someone else. But how did I know the problem wasn't with me?
Besides, I couldn't divorce Elizabeth. I love Elizabeth. And I don't
think God works that way. I don't think God withholds children as a punishment for sin. God has given children to far worse sinners than I, and withheld them from those who were far more holy. Look at Abraham and Sarah. God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation, but Abraham and Sarah were childless. Was God punishing them for some sin? I think not. I think God was waiting. God waited until Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90 before giving them a child. Or look at Hannah. Hannah pleaded with God to have a child. She waited years and almost gave up before God answered her prayer and gave her Samuel.
I know that God can give children to childless couples. God has
proven that in the Bible. But God does not seem to do such things any more. There has been no prophet in our land for over 400 years. For 400 years there have been no great kings, no judges, no visits by angels, no voices from heaven, no miraculous births. It's as if a wall has been built between God and our world, and no one can find the gate.
It was not meant to be that way. According to the scriptures God was
not supposed to abandon the world, God was supposed to enter it. Malachi, the last of the old prophets, said,
'Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me,' says the Lord, 'and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,' says the Lord of hosts.
Malachi promised that God would send a prophet like Elijah to prepare
us for the coming of the Lord. And we will certainly need preparing. If God's Messiah actually comes to this world, we will all have to make changes. To receive God's Kingdom we will need to give up thinking we can build it for ourselves. To receive God's forgiveness we will need to give up thinking we don't need it. To receive God's peace will have to give up our power, not to mention our hostility, so that God can beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We will need someone to prepare us for the coming of God's Messiah.
But Malachi spoke 400 years ago. All we have gotten in the last 400
years is wave after wave of dictators and tyrants: first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans.
I don't know, maybe we've been fooling ourselves, the way I did with
that cradle. Maybe God isn't sending any more angels or prophets or miraculous children. Maybe the promises of scripture are just dreams.
And yet there is one promise that is finally going to be fulfilled.
Today I was chosen to burn incense in the temple. After decades of waiting my name was drawn. My father's promise will finally be fulfilled. I had begun to doubt whether I would live long enough to see it.
Which makes me wonder. If my father's promise could be fulfilled
after all these years, could God's promises also come true? Could not God even now send me a child, the way God did to Abraham? Could not God even now make my child his messenger, a prophet like Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord? Could not God even now send his Messiah to bring peace on earth and good will to all people?
Well, I better quit talking and get back to work. It's almost time
for me to enter the temple. Besides, if an angel ever did appear to me, it would probably be while I was working, the way God appeared to Abraham while herding cattle or to Moses while tending sheep. If God ever comes into our world again, it will probably be some place ordinary, some place where people are not satisfied with the world as it is, some place where people are quietly and faithfully serving God and waiting.