Luke does a masterful job in this story of pulling together the threads of the Jewish world and all its hopes. There are echoes of several Old Testament stories here, most notably the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2) and Elijah (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) and the prophecy at the end of Malachi (Malachi 4). Woven in with these stories (and so much more from the Old Testament and Jewish history) is a sense of the frustrated hopes of the Jewish people, who were longing for a Messiah -- not necessarily a religious figure in our sense, but rather a warrior-prophet who would reinstate the political state of Israel, much like the Maccabees had done a century and a half before. It is hard for us even to begin to understand what it was like for the Jewish people in these days and how firmly their hopes were wrapped around the anticipation that God would act decisively in history. Rabbis had made a growth industry of interpreting the "seventy weeks" in the book of Daniel, and all interpreters agreed that the prediction of God's action was very, very near.
In that anticipation, the temple in Jerusalem was a growth industry. Estimates are that there were about nine thousand priests employed by the temple, living throughout the region and traveling into Jerusalem to serve as their divisions and their lots were chosen and scheduled. A generation ago, Herod the Great had undertaken to rebuild Ezra's rather pathetic temple, replacing it with a grand vision of massive stonework. That project was about half finished at the time of Zechariah's vision, and the people were excited -- not about Herod, who was a violent tyrant disrespected and feared by all, but about the glory of the temple and the anticipation that finally, God would return and their functional exile would end. Yes, the people had returned from Babylon five hundred years before, but God's presence had never returned to Ezra's temple, and they were waiting for God's presence, God's action, God's messenger, God's Messiah. What's more, no prophet had appeared for almost four hundred years speaking God's words with authority. Since Malachi and a few other minor prophets, the heavens had been silent.
In the midst of that context, Luke tells us an amazing amount of detail about Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are firmly established as far as the Jewish concerns about ancestry and genealogy, and their pedigrees are perfect. They are righteous, not tainted by the graft and cynicism that had grown up around the all-consuming temple industry in Jerusalem. Even as the Jews waited in hope, we gain an excruciating glimpse into the frustrated longings of Zechariah and Elizabeth and their heartbroken yearning for a child. (This story echoes that of Elkanah and Hannah and the birth of Samuel very strongly, and that theme continues through Luke 1.) Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense. He is not, as many preachers have said, going into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) -- rather he is simply going into the Holy Place, immediately outside the Holy of Holies, where the altar of incense and a few other furnishings were placed. Burning incense on the altar of incense was a daily occurrence, and it was surrounded by an important time of prayer when people would gather outside and offer their prayers while the priest fulfilled the duty of burning a handful of incense on the coals. So for a few minutes, Zechariah is all alone in the very heart of Jerusalem, in the heart of the temple, alone with his prayers, alone with his hopes, alone with his frustrated longing and a handful of smelly incense.
And God shows up. God shows up in the form of an angel. The angel speaks powerful promises that address all Zechariah's hopes and fears, that affirm and verify the longings of his people and that comfort Zechariah, this righteous man, in his own longing. Or at least they should. But Zechariah has lived so long in frustrated hope that his response to the angel is, quite literally, "Says who?" Most translations, tragically, tone down the scathing bitterness of Zechariah's response to something like the ESV's "How shall I know this?" The Greek is "kata ti" which means "according to who?"
It is hard to wait in hope. It is hard to hear God promise good things and not see tangible evidence that those promises are moving toward fruition. In the wisdom of God, human life contains so many seasons that fall between planting and reaping, between the longing and the fulfillment, between the promise and the reality. It seems God's standard operating procedure to give a vision, but then to (as Oswald Chambers says) take us from the mountaintop of vision down into the valley of drudgery where God beats us into shape to receive the vision he has given. The struggle for us is to remain open to the fulfillment, not to close our hearts either by growing cynical or by settling for the also-ran of our own paltry efforts. What are we willing to settle for? Do we dare wait fully extended in hope, and risk appearing a fool if God doesn't show up? And when opportunity arises to step toward the fulfillment of our longings, can we step toward them decisively, firmly, faithfully?
In a severe mercy, Gabriel (we gain a tantalizing glimpse into the courts of heaven through Gabriel's description of himself and his station) strikes Zechariah dumb. Gabriel's response and its tone make sense if we understand what Zechariah has asked and the disrespectful tone of his question. Gabriel stands in the presence of God, where every human falls to the ground. Gabriel comes not in his own authority, but by the direct command and plan of God. God is moving, fulfilling the word he has spoken generations before. Who are you, Zechariah, to doubt God's promises? Since you see fit to speak so disrespectfully, your mouth is closed until you see the child and act to name him in faith, in obedience to this vision.
It is comforting that Zechariah is not discarded for his cheek. God still uses him to become the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. In the fulfillment of the vision, Zechariah himself gains a difficult gift. Instead of being free to tell people that now God is working to fulfill his long promises, Zechariah is silent. He receives the time of Elizabeth's pregnancy as a time of reflection, of pondering, of waiting. While he watches her belly swell and the fulfillment of the promise grow, he has time to reflect on his own attitudes and to repent, as his son will call the nation to repentance.
But before the birth of John, we get an alternative example of how to respond when God comes to announce the fulfillment of his plans. More on that tomorrow.