Traditionally, the advent stories begin with prophecy. A recounting of Old Testament patriarchs that foretold of the coming of Christ. Familiar words in the book of Isaiah telling of a holy Shoot coming off the stem of Jesse.
Today, I wanted to start my own advent by simply reading Luke’s story from the very beginning. Chapter one, verse one. Word by word. Watching how He brought all the details together in those final months before that miraculous and holy birth. Luke himself said that it seemed good to him to write the narrative that is now re-told every single Christmas in perpetuity. He felt absolutely convicted to write down every single detail from the very beginning that he followed consecutively. And examined thoroughly. And investigated meticulously.
Thank God for Luke.
I love that the story doesn’t begin in the manger.
it begins in the temple
The advent story begins with a priest. And his wife, who was also from a priestly lineage. Together, they knew the law. And the commandments. I mean really knew it. And they followed it carefully. Striving to live their lives blamelessly both morally and ceremonially. Incidentally, they had been unable to have children. We catch up with them on a day when the duties of the job fell on Zacharias to burn incense inside the temple on the day of the Sabbath. One commentary explains that the portions of the law and the prophets that were read ceremonially at that time when this event were to take place were Numbers 6 (the law of the Nazarites) and Judges 13 – when the angel appeared to Manoah’s wife who was barren and foretold of her impending conception of a son named Samson, who would be a Nazarite.
Zacharias was called up to burn incense and intercede for the entire population of God’s people in a 30′ x 15′ room containing the golden altar that he would place the incense upon. A room that only the priests could enter.
He was entirely alone when he went inside it. And outside, the people gathered and prayed. Scholars will tell you that this was the most distinguished part of the Sabbath day service. In Revelation 8, it is the same ceremony that took place after the seventh seal was opened on the scroll that Jesus held as He sat at the right hand of God. The same broken seal that ushered in a 30-minute silence throughout the vast expanse of heaven. And then, before the trumpets blew, an angel with a golden censer came and offered incense with the prayers of the saints. The same ceremony that Zacharias was on his way into the temple to perform.
If the temple is patterned after heaven (as Hebrews 8:5 describes), it seems (as Matthew Henry explains) that there would be a silence at the temple for a mirrored 30 minutes while the people silently prayed.
The people prayed. Zacharias prayed.
and then came the angel
Zacharias was righteous. And blameless. And a priest with holy privilege. And still, he was afraid. In the same way the shepherds would be two pages over and some time later. After that life-giving Babe was born. And the glory of the LORD shone brightly around them. God knew what He was doing when He covered over Moses that day. He knows that we cannot bear the impact of His glory when even a glimmer of it in the presence of angels terrifies us.
But the angel said something unexpected. And spoke a promise of answered prayer to man who had long been waiting (and possibly long-since given up). Before there was any indication that Elizabeth was pregnant. Before even the most discerning person could begin to guess that her body was showing signs of a miraculous change, God foretold it.
We all know the stories foretelling the birth of Christ. But we don’t often talk about the foretelling of the birth of a man who would prepare the way for Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And that day, while the rest of the city was silent, God spoke through an angel to a man simply being obedient in his duty to serve and intercede.
sometimes answered prayer comes in the most unexpected moments
And in that unexpected moment, Gabriel told Zacharias seven perfect things:
• his wife would bear him a son
• his son’s name would be John
• many people would rejoice at his birth
• he will be great in the sight of the LORD
• he would follow the laws of the Nazarites (as were already being read in the synagogue that day)
• he would turn many of the children of Israel to the LORD
• he would go before Him in the spirit and the power of Elijah. In other words, he wouldn’t perform miracles. But his word would be enough to win over the hearts of the people.
And when he was done speaking, Zacharias reacted the same way that Abraham did when he was told similar news in Genesis 17:17. And the same way Sarah reacted when she overheard God telling Abraham again that they would, in fact, have a child in Genesis 18:12. The verse doesn’t outrightly say it, but the cross-references to do the verse imply it. He laughed. “How can I possibly believe this?!” he said. But the interesting thing here is that it was considered unbelief.
How in the world can Abraham and Sarah react the same way, and it’s accounted to them for righteousness and for Zacharias, it’s considered unbelief?
Friends, there is so much responsibility in knowledge. And understanding. There is responsibility when we hear the truth of God’s Word. We must do it and not just hear it. Zacharias knew God’s Word inside and out. Luke goes out of his way to tell us that in verse six. If he knew the commandments and ordinances, he also knew the covenants and promises. And he knew what God did for Abraham.
When we know what God has done, and don’t believe He can (and will) do it again, we are choosing to not believe His Words. That’s the black and white truth of it. LORD, I believe. But please… help my unbelief.
The last words that Zacharias spoke were the words of unbelief to Gabriel. From that moment forward, his voice was taken away until after the foretold event of his son’s birth was fulfilled. Sometimes He has to render us speechless in order to usher in glory.
As he left the temple that day, the entire multitude of the people of God were standing outside waiting for him. Expecting the speech and the ceremonial blessing of Numbers 6:24-26 that always followed the offering of incense. But he could not speak. And Luke 1:62 also indicated that he could not hear. He simply had to wait for the fulfillment of the word that was spoken to him.
And then… a short time after, while he was still unable to speak, Elizabeth conceived. And while her husband remained silent, she spoke out loud. The handful of commentaries I read don’t stop here. They don’t take notice of the words that the once-barren woman spoke. They hurry along to the next part of the story. Possibly the better part of it.
But I want to stop here. And honor Elizabeth. And acknowledge her very important role in this pre-ordained, God-written story.
While the world was still awaiting the Messiah to take away the sin of the world – to bear our reproach – He quietly began the story by taking away one woman’s shame. And her story prepared the way for Mary’s. And her son’s ministry prepared the way for Jesus.
Thank You, LORD, that advent started in the temple with an angel and one childless couple’s long-awaited answered prayer. And thank You that You make it a habit to foretell miracles.