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The Gospel account of Jesus' birth begins with an angel visit to a childless old man named Zacharias who couldn't believe what he was hearing.
There was in the days of Herod, king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias and his wife was Elizabeth. They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. The whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him. WhenZacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, . . . . And Zacharias said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years." The angel answered, "You will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words."
The people waited for Zacharias and marveled that he lingered so long. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They perceived that he had seen a vision, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.
As soon as the days of his service were completed, he departed to his own house. Luke 1:5-23 NKJV, condensed
Zacharias, What Did You Say!?
I can't believe he said that! What a blunder! An angel from God was speaking and Zacharias insulted the angel by questioning his integrity! We'll need to set the stage to understand this one. Zacharias and his wife were a childless couple who deserved to have children, but it had never happened. Age is an important part of this story, and the hourglass of opportunity was looking empty. Their greatest desire in life had passed them by.
Zacharias was a priest serving at the temple in Jerusalem. It was a rotation system and when his term of service was completed, he presumed he would go home to a normal life. But while performing his duties, something that should have been routine, turned into a life-changing experience. Unexpectedly and totally out of the blue, while the congregation was praying outside and he was burning incense inside, God came to him in a sacred moment. Zacharias was in for a great awakening.
When the old priest was able to stop shaking and collect his thoughts, he heard words about his prayer, the one that rose above all his other prayers. "Zacharias, the prayer of your heart has been heard. God has been listening. Elizabeth will have your child."
Everything needs to stop for a moment. Take a deep breath; let it out slowly. Allow the words to sink in. But no, the angel was in high gear. He had a name for this child and a message of joy surrounding the birth. Then, topping it all off was a statement about the promised child being great in God's eyes. Is this too much or what! Can hope be planted in an old head?
I love Zacharias' response because it's so honest. This is an awesome story about a real man who likely felt wounded by the injustice of his childless state. And now this aberration was playing with his emotions and dangling a bundle of joy right before his eyes. "How can I know you are telling me the truth," Zacharias wanted to know, "How can I be sure?" Zacharias didn't want to be deluded, deceived or disappointed. He protested that it made no sense. Old people don't have babies. He had prayed for years and nothing had happened; why should he believe anything will be different now?
God had something wonderful in store for Zacharias, but his faith almost failed. It was difficult getting on board because Zacharias had his feet firmly planted in the real world. He needed a sign because he couldn't trust what the angel was saying. A sign is something you can actually see or experience which gives you faith to believe. And Zacharias got his sign. He would be unable to speak until his child was born.
These were strong words. Could it be that after years of fearing he would never have a son, now Zacharias feared maybe it would happen? Zacharias probably repented immediately for his doubts and questions. The sign he thought he needed stung him in the mouth. We can't blame him for his faithlessness. After all, he was right; old people don't have babies. He was correct except for the fact that Zacharias was addressing the angel of God. And with God all things are possible.
Remember the people who were praying outside the temple? They got finished with their prayers before their priest was done burning incense, and they started asking questions, too. Why was he taking so long in the temple? When Zacharias did come out, he couldn't speak. He couldn't explain. How would he ever get the people to understand what had happened to him with only his hands to do the talking! But the people were wise and figured out that Zacharias had seen a vision. Who, what, where, when and why?--all unanswered. A mystery waiting to be solved.
Wow, get this! As though nothing momentous had happened, Zacharias completed his time at the temple. Then he went home, still speechless, to the hill country of Judah. Thankfully, God was not through with Zacharias when he was slow to believe. God didn't say, "Forget you." Instead, God gave Zacharias the sign he needed. And proceeded from there, going forward with the plan.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Describe briefly a time when you were startled or taken completely by surprise. What emotions accompanied that experience?
In the Bible, angels are sometimes portrayed as God's messengers who acted as an intermediary between God and the person to whom God wanted to talk. Was that a good idea on God's part? Bad idea? No opinion? Why would, or wouldn't you, like God to speak to you through an angel?
The struggle to believe is described so honestly in this passage. Is that what you would expect from the Bible or does it surprise you?
Share with your group an example from your life of an answered prayer? Is it difficult or easy for you to think of an answered prayer and share it with others?
Look at the setting for Zacharias' experience with God. He was not alone and isolated, a whole community of God's people surrounded him. In what ways do you feel surrounded and strengthened? How does your congregation show people they are not alone in their life's journey?
Like Zacharias, all of us have problem situations we live with year after year. And we pray long and hard for that big miracle which never seems to come. How long is too long to wait upon God? What are we to do with unanswered prayers? How do you handle those angry emotions when disappointed with God? Have you ever lost hope? And regained it again?
Having babies comes naturally for most couples, yet it was denied to Zacharias and Elizabeth. Name something that many people do with ease, yet it seems in short supply or non-existent for you? How do you deal with the reality that life is not fair?
God didn't give up on Zacharias when his faith faltered. Discuss the sign God gave him. Was it punishment or gift? Have you ever needed some tangible evidence or little indication to confirm your belief?
The miracle of Christmas begins with the struggle to believe. Is there anything about Christmas (or life in general) which you struggle to believe?Zacharias was fulfilling his religious duties, but he had prayers that were not answered and hopes that were growing dim. Where are you at this point in your spiritual journey?
As you think about the story of Zacharias, can you see yourself in any way? Is there any point where you can say-- Yes, I know what that's like, I've been there.