Supporting Cast to the Christmas Story: Zechariah

Pontormo, Jacopo da, 1494-1556. Birth of John the Baptist, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49459 [retrieved December 14, 2013]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

In our first installment, we took a look at the shepherds. Last time we considered the Magi. Now it is time to learn from the story of Zechariah.

Zechariah has been in the shadow of his famous son – John the Baptist. John certainly is an important character. But Zechariah was a man who had waited a long time, and so we can benefit from his story as we wait.

First note that Zechariah was “getting on in years.” And he and his wife Elizabeth were childless. In our culture, childlessness has a definite sting. Many modern day parents long for a child to be given to them. But in Zechariah’s day the burden was even greater – especially for the women. To be childless was a curse, possibly for having committed some grievous sin. The text, however doesn’t leave this as an option, for they both were “righteous before God” (1:6).

Are you suffering some kind of affliction? Are thing especially hard for you? It is possible that it is because you have done something that causes the heartache, but it is not necessarily the case. It might be just the randomness of life; or it could be that God has something for you in the midst of it.

You might say that Zechariah was “called to jury duty!” Back in I Chronicles 24, the priestly class was broken up into 24 different groups, each group taking turns serving in the Temple. Zechariah was in the 8th group (actually not all the groups had survived the Exile and the four that did survive were broken down into a new grouping of 24). It was his group’s turn to serve, but Zechariah was chosen for an extra duty. Of the three men serving, Zechariah was the “chief of the course.” He would get to burn the incense that was a symbol of the people’s intercessions.

This was an honor that was chosen by lot. Most of those serving as priest never got this honor – a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Not all your opportunities are “once in a lifetime,” but what things are you looking forward to? How are you preparing yourself for those times?

Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29360 [retrieved December 15, 2013].

I have never seen an angel (although some mighty peculiar things have happened!). That, of course, is exactly what happened to Zechariah. And I imagine him sputtering with surprise and fear. The angel tells him to “fear not” (this has to be one of the hardest commands in all of scripture to obey), and then outlines for him that he will have a son, and oh, what a son he will be.

The angel says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” Luke 1:13 (NRSV)

It seems obvious that Zechariah’s prayer had been for a child – heard prayer followed by the promise of a son makes that case. But is it possible that Zechariah’s prayer is actually deeper than for just a child? First look at the context. Zechariah is in the Temple, the focus of Israel’s hope. He is offering the incense on behalf of all the people. Certainly he has prayed (repeatedly) for a child. But the description of what this son will be and do suggests that Zechariah’s prayer was actually for a lot more than a child:

“He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”   Luke 1:16-17 (NRSV)

You are no doubt praying for a variety of things – tests and papers, labs and classes, dissertations and job interviews – all good things. But what might lie deeper than these? What blessings might God bring to the world through what you are desperately crying out for?

Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut – a hard lesson for those of us with *so* much important stuff to say! Zechariah’s might have kept his disbelief to himself and been spared the consequences (although in general it is best to express your doubts). However with an angel before him, doubting is a bit hard to explain. This is an example of a time when actions do have unpleasant consequences, for the (indignant – can angels be indignant?) angel Gabriel proclaims muteness upon Zechariah in response to his unbelief.

Zechariah Coming out of the Temple Speechless, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29361 [retrieved December 14, 2013].

This punishment has some interesting secondary consequences. First, it prevents Zechariah from performing one of the responsibilities of his office. After burning the incense, he was to bless the people, but this blessing will be impossible for the mute Zechariah. It is more than possible to receive a blessing from one who is in a state of disbelief. God can use that person no matter what. But it is a blessing to Zechariah to not be able to pronounce blessing on the people at this point. For to follow a rote program in that state is to risk hardening your heart.

Are you at a point of doubt? Are there questions about God that you are wrestling with? Don’t be too uptight! Unless there is an angel talking to you (!), doubt is a natural part of the faith journey. But do be care full what you do and say. This is the point where being in a faith community can serve as a great help to you. Zechariah walked out to a waiting crowd, who understood something very strange had happened. And he can go home where we will see that he has family and friends to support him.  Let those around you carry you over these rough places on your road.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus (from the Isenheim Altarpiece).

The other consequence is that Zechariah will not be able to name the child. The naming of the son is a prime responsibility of the father. Again, a mute Zechariah cannot do it. When the time for naming arrives (the 8th day, the day for a male child to be circumcised), the process is a bit messy. Somehow Elizabeth knows that the name will be John. Finally a table is produced, and Zechariah is able to write the name John. Then Zechariah’s mouth will work again, and things get really messy!

Note that it is God himself who has taken on the task of naming the child! Yes indeed, a special child.

In the end, all that is left for Zechariah to do is to praise God. No doubt he will praise him for a son, for the fulfilling of the promise to the nation, for working so powerfully in brings John his name.

What will you praise God for today?

Next time: Angels


Charlie Claus has previously explored the shepherds and the Magi as supporting cast members to the Christmas story. For the Emerging Scholars Network’s growing Advent collection click here.

Updated: 12/23/2013.

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Charlie Clauss

Charlie Clauss works with Intervarsity's Graduate Student and Faculty Ministry in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

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3 Comments

  • jolpi2000@yahoo.com'
    John commented on December 22, 2013 Reply

    Cuntrast the disbelief of Zachariah withe the humble acceptance of Mary..,,, how is it that nothing is mentioned anout her great faith abd belief in the power and plan of God.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on December 23, 2013 Reply

      John, Thank-you for your comment. The author of the series was going to write about Mary in this series, but found her more than part of the “Supporting Cast to the Christmas Story”. A topic for Advent writing in 2014, if not more general writing before?

      With regard to Mary, I commend to you two other posts from our growing Advent collection: http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2010/12/advent-table-topic-announcements/ and http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2013/12/babies-and-bethlehem/.

    • charlieclauss@gmail.com'
      Charlie Clauss commented on December 24, 2013 Reply

      John, I have often puzzled over the difference between Mary and Zechariah..

      You should note that Mary’s initial response is not that much different from Zechariah:
      “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?'” But Gabriel only explains what will happen.- Mary is not upbraided for her question.

      We can speculate that their hearts were different places, but the the text gives us no reason to differentiate.

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