There are so many beautiful, joy-filled hymns we sing at Christmastime. Some remind us of the sweetness of the silent night upon which the Savior was born and the humble conditions that surrounded Him. Some proclaim the long-awaited Savior has finally arrived!
But one familiar hymn has always sounded desperate and haunting to me . . .
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
This song represents the longing of God’s chosen ones, who at the time of Zechariah the Priest, had not heard from God for 400 years.
Until that one day when Zechariah, righteous in the sight of the Lord, was chosen by lot for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to offer the incense at the temple. This incense represented the prayers of the saints–the prayers of faithful generations desperate for the Messiah.
And it was in this moment that a holy interruption by the angel Gabriel began to reveal God’s plan for redemption, proclaiming the Messiah was indeed near.
11 “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:11-17)
What a startling event! This was not routine as usual. Did you catch what Gabriel told Zechariah would happen? There were many things packed into Gabriel’s words, but here are a few to focus upon:
“Your prayer has been heard.”
Which prayer? The one I just prayed? In his startled state, I’m guessing Zechariah was questioning every word which had just escaped his mouth. And while the Scriptures don’t tell us what Zechariah prayed for at this, the most important moment of his professional life, we can be certain that, as part of his priestly commitment, he prayed on behalf of the worshipers gathered outside that the Messiah would come soon. But he may have also prayed on behalf of his beloved Elizabeth, that the Lord might bless her.
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
Now, having a baby might not seem too strange, except that Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah. And while they longed for a child, at their age, they believed that ship had sailed.
Zechariah’s disbelief is displayed in the coming verses as he questions Gabriel’s credentials and how this could even be possible. And because of his disbelief, he falls mute, unable to tell the waiting worshipers (or even his wife!) what has just occurred.
“He will bring back many of the people Israel to the Lord their God . . . and he will go on before the Lord . . . to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Not only did Gabriel promise a child, but also that this child would prepare the people Israel for their Messiah.
If Zechariah, in his old age, was about to be a father to a child that would prepare the way for the Messiah, this meant the time of the Messiah was near.
Months pass, and Elizabeth bears a son. When they take him to the temple to be circumcised, they assume he will be called Zechariah after his father, which was the cultural norm. But Elizabeth declares that the long-awaited child will be called John. The people question Elizabeth’s decision, but Zechariah confirms it by writing on a tablet, “His name is John.” In this act of obedience to what the angel Gabriel directed, Zechariah’s mouth was opened, and he was finally able to speak.
After at least nine months of his own silence, knowing that centuries of God’s silence would soon – very soon – be broken with the birth of the Messiah, Zechariah is filled with the Spirit and begins to praise the Lord, reminding those gathered of the promises that God had made, of the mighty acts of the coming King, and of the ways that God would restore His people to Himself:
67His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:67-75)
He reminds the people what they have been told for generations, encouraging them to continue clinging to the hope of the coming Messiah. Because He IS near.
And then, Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son, a powerful word about John’s high and holy calling:
76”And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1: 76-79)
Oh, that I may have the faith of Zechariah, a bold faith to come to the Lord in desperate prayer, knowing that The Lord is near. He hears. And He keeps his promises!
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!