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Old Zechariah's Promiseby Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Streaks of gray salt Zechariah's heavy black beard as this old priest climbs the steps of Herod's Temple to the twin pillars that frame a massive doorway into the gilded building.
His heart is racing. Not from the stairs — he's been climbing the rugged Judean hills all his life — but now, in the twilight of his years, Zechariah is about to satisfy a lifelong dream to burn incense before the Holy of Holies inside the Temple.
He steps the final stair and peers into the darkened portico between the pillars. The heavy bronze door swings easily on its pivots and he slips in, pushing the door closed. The deep sound of it shutting echoes throughout the hall.
From the brightness outside his eyes struggle to adjust to dimness within. On his left is the seven-branched lampstand, the flickering of its lamps now steadying as drafts from the massive door closing subside.
An eerie stillness prevails except for the sound of his feet striking the paving stones. He is alone.
Now he moves to the small golden altar in front of the curtain, fumbling in the shadows with incense he has brought. He places the incense on the altar and ignites it with a coal from the censer. The incense flares and begins to release a delicious fragrance that expands to fill every corner of the hall with its delight.
Now Zechariah begins his prayers as the fragrance rises heavenward.
"True it is that You are the Lord our God,
and the God of our fathers,
our King and the King of our Fathers,
our Savior and the Savior of our Fathers,
our Maker and the Rock of our salvation..."
The words of the familiar prayer resound throughout the hall. Today he speaks them before the Holy of Holies itself.
Finally he is quiet once again. He must remember this moment, savor it, let it form indelibly in his mind so that he may recall it forever after.
He will tell his wife and his .... No, Zechariah has no children. Elizabeth has been barren all these years, and though they have earnestly desired sons and daughters, God has sent none. And so Zechariah takes this time alone before the presence of his most Holy God to lift his petition once again.
"Mighty God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of my forefathers Levi and Aaron. I humbly ask you for a child, a son, I ...." His words taper off as his emotions begin to get the better of him.
Slowly he becomes aware that is someone else in the hall. He can hear nothing, but he senses a presence. He glances to the right; just beside him stands a man in shimmering clothing.
Zechariah instinctively flinches, though the man is still. Yet Zechariah is gripped with fear. This isn't a just man. This is an angel. What have I done to offend God? he wonders. What mistake have I made in the ritual, that that God has sent an angel to punish me? Zechariah begins to tremble.
But a voice, a warm and deep, resonates throughout the hall, "Fear not, Zechariah," says the angel. "Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to name him John, 'beloved' of the Lord."
It is like a dream. Zechariah hears the voice and the promise, yet he can scarcely believe his ears.
"He will be a joy and delight to you," the angel continues, "and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord his God."
A son! thinks Zechariah. A son!
But the angel is not finished. "He is never to take wine or other fermented drink...."
A Nazirite, Zechariah realizes. My son is to observe the strict Nazirite vow all his days.
"... and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth."
Ah! A prophet, thinks the old man. Filled with the Spirit so that he may speak for God.
The words roll on and on. The angel has not lifted his voice, but his speech fills the entire volume of the room with its intensity and boldness.
"Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
Finally, the angel is silent and the echoes throughout the cavernous Temple still.
The angel lingers to the right of the altar of incense as if waiting for something. How should I respond, Zechariah wonders, to this promise of a son? What is this? How can a son be born to an aging priest and his withered old wife? It is good to be true?
"How can this be?" he blurts out. "How can I be sure of what you are saying? For I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
The angel stiffens as if Zechariah has said something wrong, and his next words take on a more formal tone.
"I am Gabriel," he declares, lifting himself to his full stature. "I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
As Zechariah watches, the glimmering angelic light gradually dims. The angel is gone. Zechariah is stunned — staggered by the rebuke and astonished by the angelic promise: a son. He and old Elizabeth will have a son!
Zechariah completes his tasks at the altar, turns and retraces his path to the giant doors. His step is quicker now, a young man's pace. The censer is swinging, but he does not restrain it. A son! Let it swing!
He pushes the great bronze door open, strides into the brightness outside, and descends the stone steps with a speed and deftness that belie his years. A son!
His fellow priests wonder at his delay. They cluster about him to hear the story which tumbles from his lips at a rapid pace. But no sound voices his words. He speaks but cannot be heard. Zechariah is mute.
"He has seen a vision," says one.
"He has had a visitation," says another.
"He is a bit daft," says a third.
But Zechariah doesn't care. He is speechless but his heart is burning within him. The muteness proves it! he realizes. A son! A son! And then he pauses.
How will I tell Elizabeth? he wonders, and then chuckles.
"I'll find a way," he says to himself, smiling. "I'm sure I'll find a way."
This is a fictionalized account of Zecheriah's vision in the Temple from Luke 1:5-25. Text quoted is from the New International Version. Other background materials may be found in Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Christ (Eerdmans, 1960; reprinted from 1874 edition), pp. 162-170. Online version.
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