Several years ago I heard a powerful sermon that I went on to repeat more than once with great appreciation from its hearers. I have recently come to realize, however, that what I was preaching was not completely accurate.
The Sermon I Used to Preach
Based on Luke 1, the sermon was about persevering prayer. Despite their faithfulness, Zacharias and his wife had not been blessed with a child. The narrative begins by describing Zacharias and Elizabeth as “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). In their day, as in many contemporary societies, to have a child was viewed as a sign of God’s favor. The opposite was also perceived to be true: that to go childless in marriage was a manifestation of divine disfavor. You would expect, then, that after reading such a glowing report of their attributes, the next verse would be that God showered them abundantly with the blessing of children.
“But,” the text says, “they had no child.” Not only did they have no child when the story begins in the book of Luke, but they are twice beyond the possibility of ever having children. First, Elizabeth is barren. Like Elkanah of old, Zacharias may have chosen to take another wife to bear him children (cf. 1 Sam. 1). Instead Zacharias remained faithful to Elizabeth. Together they endured the scorn of society. Together they weathered the tortured looks and fielded the painful inquiries of nosy neighbors advising them to have a child soon. I imagine Elizabeth weeping into the supportive arms of her husband as she saw other women distracted with the busyness of mothering—nursing their babies, taking them to sit at the rabbis’ feet in the synagogue to learn of them, interrupting sibling squabbles. Their childlessness was not by choice, but they bore it faithfully; Zacharias remaining faithful to his one wife, and Elizabeth remaining faithful to the God who permitted her that lot in life.
Beyond barrenness, both Elizabeth and her husband are now “well advanced in years” (verse 7) when Luke begins his narrative. It was impossible for them to ever become parents. If they had been ostracized by some who perceived their childlessness as a sign of divine disfavor, they had done so into their mature years. Yet they were not bitter. They were blameless.
In their day it was not unusual for a girl to get married between the ages of 12 and 16. We could estimate that Elizabeth, now postmenopausal, was at least 50 years of age. Conservatively, then, she and Zacharias had spent 34 years in marriage with no child. For more than three decades they had prayed for a child, to no avail. So when Zacharias, a priest after “the division of Abijah” (verse 5), was selected to serve in the temple and burn incense, I imagined that he added his own personal prayer for a child to his generic corporate prayers for Israel. The angel who appeared as he burned incense, I surmised, heralded the answer of his personal prayer. “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John” (verse 13). What is the longest, I would go on to say, you have prayed for something? Praying perhaps for an unbelieving spouse to accept the faith? Praying for a broken relationship? Praying for a financial breakthrough? Praying for an adverse health situation? How many decades have you been on your knees with God about this issue? Have you persevered in that prayer beyond the point of objective possibility? You can have the assurance that God hears your prayers!
Revisiting the Record
In my interpretation of the text, I made a significant and unwarranted assumption. I assumed that having a child was paramount for Zacharias and Elizabeth, even at this late stage in their lives. Did not the angel say that they would now have a son although they were barren before? Had not Hannah, in the Old Testament, pleaded with God until He opened her womb? Since childlessness was an adverse situation in their lives, I assumed that they would have been praying about it. Kind of like how we assume that people who are experiencing persecution would be praying for it to end, and yet we often find them praying for strength to endure it. But when I looked more closely, I found that I did not need to make assumptions about the content of Zacharias’ prayer as he ministered in the temple. The answer lay in the text. I’m thankful for God‘s graciousness as we fumble through our understanding and proclamation of His Word. It is a mercy that we continue to need.
So why did I revisit the story of the birth of John the Baptist? My appointment to the role of associate editor at Adventist Review prompted me to read the compilation Counsels to Writers and Editors. This statement in the final chapter gave me pause: “The publications sent forth from our printing houses are to prepare a people to meet God. Throughout the world they are to do the same work that was done by John the Baptist for the Jewish nation. . . . As John prepared the way for the first, so we are to prepare the way for the second, advent of the Saviour.”* I needed to revisit the life of John the Baptist, so I started at the beginning of his story, in Luke 1.
As I reexamined the text, the most glaring thing I found was the absence of what I had thought was the substance of Zacharias’ temple prayer. To be sure, the fact that it does not say that they were praying for a child does not preclude that prayer. Yet the Bible does not mention it as the substance of Zacharias’ prayer, so why would I? It is, in fact, more likely that after all those years of barrenness, Zacharias and Elizabeth had accepted their lot in life. The Bible does, however, indicate what the substance of Zacharias’ prayer was.
Whatever Zacharias was praying about, John the Baptist was at least part of the answer. We know that Zacharias is offering corporate prayers for Israel in the temple, and the child promised by the angel would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (verse 16). Apparently Zacharias’ prayer included a petition for Israel’s spiritual renewal. The angel goes on to summarize John’s mission: “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17). Zacharias was praying not only for the people to return to the Lord, but also that the people would be ready when the Lord should come. John would prepare the people for the anticipated coming of the Lord.
Following the birth of John, Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit, declared that the Lord God had “visited and redeemed His people . . . as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets. . . . And you, child [John], will be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways” (verses 68-76). In other words, Zacharias understood from prophecy that the coming of the Messiah was at hand and that John was to be His herald.
He was not alone in his anticipation of the Messiah. Following the birth of Christ we learn of Simeon, who was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Simeon apparently understood that the Messiah could potentially come during his lifetime, because after seeing Jesus in the temple, he declared, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (verses 29, 30). He and God had an agreement that he could live until the fulfillment of the promise. Beyond Simeon and Zacharias, we learn that there was an untold number of others who were also waiting for the Redeemer to whom Anna bore witness of Christ’s arrival (verses 36-38).
Zacharias, then, is among those who understood, from the prophecies, that the coming of the Messiah was at hand. He was in the temple praying for Israel in the context of the anticipated first advent. It is in answer to these prayers that the angel promises him a son: a son who is part of the answer to the very prayers he is lifting up to God. Although he and Elizabeth are physically incapable of contributing to answering the prayer of their hearts, the angel proclaims that they shall indeed participate in heralding the coming of the Christ.
Jesus is coming soon. The signs all around us make it abundantly clear that His coming is near at hand. Before He returns, there will be a people, like John the Baptist, to herald His return. Through those who are eagerly waiting for His return, praying for His people, and living lives of full surrender to Him, He will raise up His end-time heralds. The question is: What are we praying for this Christmas?
* Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), pp. 178, 179.