December the 14th finds in the Gospel of Luke chapter 1 verses, 5-25:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 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. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 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. He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. 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 appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
It is estimated that there were, at this time, about 18,000 priests divided into 24 divisions. The division of Abijah was the eighth (1 Chronicles 24:10). Apart from the major pilgrimage festivals, when all divisions served, each division would serve only a week at a time in rotation. Given the large number of priests, this occasion would be Zechariah’s only opportunity to perform this service in his lifetime. It was one of the priest’s duties keep the incense burning on the altar in front of the Most Holy Place, as we in the book of Exodus:
“Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come.” (Exodus 30:7-8)
We can see in the Gospel of Luke:
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7)
I remember a sermon on this passage being shared at Crossroads a few years ago. We learned that barrenness, according to the rabbis of that day, was one of two signs that God had cursed you. The other was leprosy. It is important that Luke included that “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” given that people would have thought of them as cursed.
Religious people, in that day as well as today, can be very good at shaming. It is painful even today to be barren. But in that day, a person's significance and their livelihood was connected to their ability to produce a family. Childless couples did not have any support in their old age. Zechariah and Elizabeth would have felt so much shame from their community. And they must have felt a lot of fear too.
This occasion was, no doubt, a high honor for Zechariah. And God chose this day to meet with Zechariah through the angel Gabriel. It's important to note the meaning of the names Zechariah and Elizabeth: Zechariah means "God has Remembered" and Elizabeth means "The Oath of God". Combined their names mean "God has Remembered His Oath". They both had prayed for a child. Luke doesn't tell us how long they'd prayed, or if they were still praying. But the angel Gabriel met Zechariah and told him that their prayers had been heard.
In yesterday’s posting, we saw the Old Testament prophecies about the messenger that would come to announce the Messiah, and how those prophecies were fulfilled by John the Baptist. Today we have the announcement to Zechariah that his wife is going to bear him a son and that he is to call him John. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. This baby will grow up to be John the Baptist and he will be the messenger prophesied about in Malachi 3:1 and in Isaiah 40:3-5.
The two ornaments that go beside the tree tonight are a small sign that has Luke 1:16 (highlighted in red above) and the angel Gabriel.