For nine months Zechariah was mute. And on the eighth day they took their son to be circumcised, and, as was the custom, they gave him a name at his circumcision. “Will he be called Zechariah?” they asked. “No,” Elizabeth responded. “He shall be called John.”[vii] Zechariah scribbled his agreement on a tablet and, as he did, speech returned. And not merely speech, but song. A prophet’s song emerged from the mouth of the man for whom speech had been dormant nine months, each word speaking to the rescue of a God who came for his people, even when they had stopped hoping for him, even when belief that he could come seemed impossible.
It is a joy to see young people who love Jesus. But there is something particularly special about the righteousness that comes with age. Like wine, there is a flavor that holiness develops that can only come with years.
There once was a husband, Zechariah, and a wife, Elizabeth, who loved God deeply. They had this kind of beautifully aged righteousness. Zechariah had given his life in God’s service as a priest. Luke says that “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”[i] Few in scripture receive such a high commendation.
“But,” Luke tells us, “they had no child.” Their barrenness was no small thing and certainly not a personal choice. They had yearned for a child and prayed for a child. But no child had come. Any childless couple, any mother who has lost her pre-born child, knows the mark of pain, the empty place that can’t be covered up in the heart. Everyone who has walked through this loss knows the temptation to sin against God in the face of disappointment and shame.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth had walked righteously in the face of grief.
Then, one day, Zechariah had the incredible blessing of being chosen to enter the Holy Place in the temple to burn incense. He never could have anticipated what awaited him.
The angel Gabriel met him face to face. The elderly man fell in fear. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” Gabriel consoled him, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”[ii] Zechariah couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But the news just kept getting better: “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.”[iii]
And he would not just be righteous, but he would have an incredible vocation: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”[iv]
This broke the limits of Zechariah’s belief. Even in front of this otherworldly creature of unfathomable glory, his decades of disappointment smothered the wick of hope. In words that strangely echoed the words of the unbelief of Abraham, the grandfather of his people, he replied, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”[v]