Commemoration of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Parents of John the Baptist
(1 Samuel 1:1-20 / Benedictus / Romans 4:13-25 / Luke 1:1-7)
O God, who alone knits all infants in the womb: You chose improbable servants – old and childless – to conceive and parent the forerunner of Christ and, in so doing, demonstrated again Your strength in weakness. Grant us, who are as unlikely and unworthy as Zechariah and Elizabeth, the opportunity to love and serve You according to Your good and gracious will; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have a surfeit of priests at Apostles: not too many, of course, but certainly an embarrassment of clerical riches. Jack, Thomas, Laird, David, Rob, me: six priests for a parish the size of ours is unusual to the point of being unheard of; we are something of a clerical unicorn in our diocese.
The division of labor among so many priests is an interesting dilemma. Each priest wants to serve, but there are only so many liturgical opportunities available: preaching, celebrating the Eucharist, baptizing, marrying, burying, and the like. Each month, Fr. Jack prepares and distributes a liturgical leadership schedule showing the priestly assignments for that month. I don’t know exactly how he makes these assignments, though certainly prayer is involved, as are other practical matters like travel or priestly obligations during the week. When the schedule comes by email, I open it expectantly to see when and how I am blessed to serve that month. I suspect all the other priests do likewise.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea the clerical situation in the second Temple was not so different. Historians estimate that there were some eight thousand priests in Israel at the time, far too many for each to serve full time at the temple. Instead, the priests were divided into divisions — twenty four in total — of roughly three hundred thirty priests per division. Each division served a week at a time, twice each year: fourteen days each year in which to exercise one’s priestly duties.
How were these duties assigned? By casting lots: rolling dice, drawing straws — I don’t know exactly what the process looked like, but there was an assumption underlying it; God, and not chance, was in control. Casting lots was not a flippant way to decide important matters; it was a holy means of discernment given by God and superintended by him.
It is one of the two weeks for the division of Abijah to serve in the Temple. There is an old priest in that division — probably several old priests, but one who captures our attention — Zechariah. What do we know about him, beyond his advanced age? He was married to an old woman, Elizabeth, who was also of the priestly line.
Luke 1:5–6 (ESV): 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
And they are disappointed. They want a child but have none; and now, the time for that is well past. For a Jew — for a priest, at that — to fail to fulfill God’s first commandment to man — be fruitful and multiply — was a tragedy bordering on a curse.
Well, Zechariah is on duty this week, as he had been twice a year for many years. And, by lot, he is selected to enter the Holy Place at the time of prayer and offer incense before God on the altar. This is a big deal. Zechariah might well have gone his whole life and never had this honor before. The process was highly organized and streamlined. One priest had prepared the altar with coals. Another had readied the incense. All Zechariah has to do is enter the Holy Place, scoop some incense, place it on the coals and leave. But things don’t go as smoothly as planned.
You know the story. An angel — we soon find that it was Gabriel who stands in the very presence of God — appears to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar. And the angel speaks to Zechariah, saying:
Luke 1:13–17 (ESV): “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
I read this and I smile. I want to say to Zechariah, “You old dog, you! You finally get to go into the Temple to offer incense and prayer on behalf of the people, and what do you do? You remind God that you don’t yet have a child, and that you really want one.” Or, maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe Zechariah had given up praying for this years ago, so long ago that he had even forgotten the prayer. Either way, right here Zechariah becomes the patron saint of skeptics everywhere.
Luke 1:18 (ESV): 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Gabriel sounds a bit peeved in his answer: “Do you know who you’re talking to, old man, and who sent me to you?” Well, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close. And then Gabriel causes Zechariah to become mute, and apparently deaf, for the next nine months. I like to think that this is not punishment, but confirmation: an ongoing sign of God’s power in the midst of human frailty. It’s all very strange and the people are very confused when Zechariah stumbles out of the Temple. They reckon he has seen a vision, but he can’t verify that for them. Good on the old priest, though. Given all he’s been through, he still finishes out his week of service before he goes home to Elizabeth.
How does he tell her? Does he write everything out or play charades? And, not to be crude at all, but John was not divinely conceived. His birth was a miracle, but not that kind of miracle. The old man and the old woman are intimate in the way of husband and wife; they know one another in the biblical sense. I wonder — not pruriently — but I wonder what that moment was like, a union filled with rekindled hope and wonder and possibility all of which had died years ago. I’ll bet there was never another moment like that before or after for those two, and that moment also was a gift from God.
Luke 1:24–25 (ESV): 24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Here is the first glimpse into Elizabeth’s heart. She has lived for years as a failure, as a wife unable to carry on her husband’s line, a tragedy in Israel. And she has keenly felt the reproach of that failure. But, no more. The Lord has looked on her, has acted with favor toward her.
Here, Luke interrupts this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth to tell us of Mary, the mother of our Lord. But, for us, that is for another day. We pick up the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth four months later, just in time for the birth of a baby.
Luke 1:57–66 (ESV): 57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Joy, wonder, relief: how can we describe the mix of emotions swirling in Zechariah and Elizabeth and among all their neighbors and relatives? God has clearly done something here, something out of the ordinary, though none of them know exactly what yet. It’s all a bit much, and the crowd seeks some solace in the ordinary, in the expected. “Surely, you will name the baby Zechariah after his father?” That’s customary. But this old woman and new mother is adamant: “No, he shall be called John.” That’s what the angel had commanded, and she was not about to fight him over this. When a final appeal for reason is made to Zechariah, he confirms it in writing, “His name is John.” And then the dam breaks and Zechariah can hear and speak again and praise gushes forth like a pent up reservoir set free to flood the land once again: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,” he begins, and we have echoed the rest this day.
And, as we Anglicans are wont say: here endeth the lesson; Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in obscurity, burst forth into the redemptive story of God for one shining moment, and then slipped back into obscurity.
What are we to take away from this story, though we really need nothing more than the sheer wonder of it? I hope you will ponder it yourself, far beyond these few comments I’ll make.
I am drawn to this first description of Zechariah and Elizabeth:
Luke 1:6–7 (ESV): 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
We see glimpses of great sadness and disappointment in their story; their life hasn’t worked out as they had planned when they were young and just getting started on their life together: big family, son to carry on Zechariah’s name and his priestly vocation, daughters to help Elizabeth around the house. No, just a certain shame and reproach now, a barrenness not only for Elizabeth but for Zechariah, as well. And yet…and yet “they were righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” That is not easy to do when you are disappointed in the Lord. Have you ever been there? Holding on can be hard when things are not going to happen like you thought they would happen (adapted from Cave of Adullam, Sara Groves), when you don’t understand what God is up to or if he’s even there at all. Zechariah and Elizabeth are patron saints for all of us who are, from time to time, tempted to give up. And all of us are, from time to time, tempted to give up, I reckon. They are there beckoning to us: walk in the ways of righteousness — just one foot in front of the other, that’s right — holding on to the commandments and statues of the Lord. They are reminders that God is faithful — always faithful — but not always as we expect and not always on our timeframe. They are exemplars of patient faith and holiness: we want a microwave faith — hot in an instant — but they remind us of a campfire faith — life wrapped in foil and tossed among the embers of the fire of God’s love, ready when it’s ready and not a moment before, all in God’s good time.
Perhaps I can draw this final lesson from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. It is never too late to be blessed and used by God. Even more, it’s never too late to realize that God has been blessing us and using us all along while we were perhaps waiting and hoping for something else. Amen.