Yesterday marked the first Sunday of Advent. It is a time of anticipation, when we remember and celebrate God coming into the world. For me Christmas is also about surprises. In many ways, it always has been. That’s part of what makes Christmas – Christmas! I remember when I was a child Christmas Eve was the beginning.
The routine went something like this. All the kids were allowed to gather by the tree and take one gift and open it. We would go around the tree sorting out whose gifts were whose. The next step was to feel and shake each one, trying to get some clues as to what the wrapping paper was hiding. From our investigations, one gift was chosen and we were allowed to open it. Sometimes it turned out to be underwear or some other clothing and other times it might be the very thing we were anticipating. Regardless of the peeking, feeling and shaking, we usually were surprised by what we received.
The first Christmas had its share of surprises as well. The shepherds were surprised. But Mary and Joseph had also been surprised several months earlier by another angel’s message. And even before that a humble Jewish priest and his wife received the surprise of their lives.
In Luke 1:5-13, we read the story of Zechariah. He and his wife were from a tiny village several miles north of Jerusalem. A crowd has gathered in response to rumors that Zechariah and Elizabeth, a local priest and his wife, had just returned from the city. They have been to the temple to dedicate their new baby. That in itself is quite a story. You see, both are in their mid-sixties. But the crowd has gathered because rumor had it that the old man could talk again. When they left a few days before, the priest was as mute as a rock. Some say he had a stroke several months ago while on his last assignment in the holy place. Whatever the cause of his malady, they said he had been healed. A crowd of curiosity seekers has gathered to welcome the couple home and, of course, to see the alleged miracle for themselves.
Now for many, this would have been an odd scene. An old couple holding a child isn’t odd, but to be their age and holding their own biological child? From their perspective, this would have been a miracle. Here was a man sixty-seven years old and his wife Elizabeth, who is sixty-three. Long before they probably gave up on the hope of a having a baby. You see, their dream and constant prayer was that God would give them a child. They probably felt disgraced and forsaken by the Lord. In their culture, some people probably thought they must have committed some sin because she was barren. The rabbis even say childlessness is justification for divorce. But that wasn’t an option.
When we look at their story, it begins with the fact that Zechariah was a priest. It was his turn to go into the temple where God surprised him. His job was to inspect and prepare the shew bread for the Holy Place. Another priest would deliver it. They would draw lots four times each day to see what their next tasks would be. On the third day, his turn finally came to serve in the sanctuary itself.
He climbed the twelve steps from the altar area. A curtain blocked the entrance to the sanctuary. He would then step behind it into the Holy Place. His role was to enter at mid-morning prayers and add fresh incense to the altar. He would go behind the curtain as the people outside began to pray. His job was to add the incense, pause in prayer for a few moments, and then quietly step back out. Outside the people would continue praying in unison. The smoke of the fresh incense would billow out from under the curtain as a reminder that their prayers had reached the throne of God. It was a spectacle and honour to participate.
He did exactly what he was supposed to do. He placed the incense on the altar and bowed in prayer. But when he got up and began to back away, a flash of light filled the room. He saw something he didn’t expect. An angel of the Lord was standing before the altar. I can imagine Zechariah was almost scared to death. He probably thought this was it… his time on earth was over.
But when the angel spoke, he told Zechariah not to be afraid. He said the Lord had sent him to answer his prayers. I can imagine Zechariah’s mind went blank. What could he mean? What prayers? Then he told him that he would have a son. After all those years, his dreams would come true!
But then he did something all of us would have done under the same circumstances… he doubted. He told the angel he and his wife were too old. The angel responded, “I am Gabriel, the messenger of the Most High. You indeed shall have a son. You will name him John. He will prepare the way for the Messiah of God. And as a sign that this is true, you shall not speak until all this comes to pass.” And that last sentence came to pass.
When the angel left, Zechariah was probably pretty confused. The people outside became concerned because he hadn’t come out. When he finally came out, they could tell from the look on his face that something had happened. Zechariah tried to speak but couldn’t. Some ventured that he had seen a vision. Others assumed I had a stroke or maybe just breathed too much incense.
Eventually, he was able to write and bit by bit to explain what had happened. The truth is, nobody believed him. Elizabeth probably didn’t even know what to think. But soon she realized Zechariah was telling the truth. When she became pregnant, Zechariah probably wanted to shout for joy and tell everyone… but he was still unable to speak.
During this time, Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin came from Nazareth. She would not have believed the story if not for the fact she too had received her own message from God. She said she too was with child. She said the angel had told her she was to give birth to the Messiah who would redeem Israel. This explained a lot. Zechariah’s son was to prepare the way for hers.
Finally, the day arrived. The baby was born. But Zechariah still couldn’t speak. They went to Jerusalem for the baby’s dedication as the law requires. No doubt it was hard not being able to speak the words of blessing. All he could do was nod. When the time came for the pronouncement of the blessing and the giving of his name, the presiding priest began to call him Zechariah. It was the tradition to name the son after the father. Everyone assumed that they would continue the tradition. Elizabeth interrupted. She knew what the angel had told Zechariah. When the family argued with her, Zechariah motioned for a tablet. He wrote in large letters, “His name is John!” At that moment, Zechariah received his voice back. His silence had ended!
As I mentioned at the beginning, Christmas is about surprises. It is about how God breaks though the fear and doubt and darkness. Christmas is the story of how God surprises us by keeping His promises. He promised to send the Savior. And He did! Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of the Old Testament, was born in Bethlehem. He grew up in a humble carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. This John, the prophet of God, baptized Him. Jesus would go on to surprise many with His words, His deeds, and most of all by the claim that He had come to die and pay the price for sin. Jesus would be arrested, persecuted, unjustly sentenced, and crucified between two thieves. But on the third day, he arose from the grave. He ascended to the throne of heaven above with the promise that he will come again. He is coming to take all who trust in Him to an eternal reward.
If old Zechariah were here, he would tell you the Lord still surprises people. You would think by now we would have learned to expect his blessings. But we still doubt. And we still get surprised. If you are tempted to give up, to believe that nothing good can happen, that evil will triumph in this world, that you are too bad to ever be forgiven by God, or too old to ever change your ways, has God got a surprise for you!