An angel of the Lord appeared to him . . . 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.’ (Luke 1:11-13)

Advent is about God entering this world in person. In a way that we will never be able to understand, the Maker and Ruler of the universe humbles himself in order to become one of Earth’s citizens. Given the significance of this, it is not surprising that Jesus’ birth is surrounded by supernatural events, particularly the appearance of angels.

This first happens in the centre of the great Temple in Jerusalem. The aged Zechariah is terrified by Gabriel’s appearance. He is told that his wife will bear a child, that the infant is to be called John and that he will be a blessing both to his parents and to God’s people. The child will bring people back to God and – most importantly – make a people who are prepared for the Lord. It is an awesome promise, but Zechariah queries the angel’s pronouncement. ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years’ (Luke 1:18).

This is not the wisest response, and the angel pronounces God’s discipline on unbelief: Zechariah will be silent until John is born.

I think there are two lessons here:
Zechariah goes to serve God but instead God serves him.
With God we always receive more than we give.

Zechariah is ‘righteous in the sight of God’, yet when it comes to trusting God, he wavers. Zechariah and his wife may have been praying for years for a child. Yet when Zechariah is told by an angel that his prayer is going to be answered, what he in effect says is, ‘Now, it’s all very well of you to say that but I’m really not convinced.’

Zechariah and Elizabeth have prayed for a child, but over the years he has allowed doubt to wear away the promise. What makes Zechariah’s lack of faith worse is that – as every Jew knew – there were precedents for God giving a child to the elderly and childless, most notably to Abraham and Sarah, who were the ancestors of all the Jewish people. Zechariah had forgotten both his own prayers and what God had done in the past. We can often do exactly the same thing.

But God does use very ordinary people, with all their flaws and deficiencies. I find that encouraging and hope you do as well.

Revd Canon