For four hundred years the Lord had been silent. No prophets had been born in Israel and even though many things had happened, the Lord hadn’t sent anyone to tell the people what He thought – all they had was what we call the Old Testament – with all God’s law and the wonderful stories of what the Lord had done many years before.
But the Old Testament had left the people wanting more. God had promised Israel a Saviour, a Messiah, who would one day come as a descendent of the great king David, and rule forever and ever. And to make matters worse, the Israelites no longer ruled themselves! Some time ago the Romans had invaded their land and taken it over, so the people now lived under Roman control and longed for the coming of the Saviour – the Messiah – who they thought would save them from the nasty Romans!
But they didn’t understand! God HAD promised to send the Messiah, the mighty Saviour, but God wasn’t thinking about the problem of the Romans! What did it matter who ruled over the people – if the people could never be set free from the guilt of all the bad things they’d done? If the people couldn’t be forgiven, then they could never be friends with God! This was the problem God had in mind when He talked about a Messiah, to deal with the real problem of sin and death once and for all – but it was going to take a long time for the people to realise that they’d got it all wrong! (PAUSE)
There was a man and wife who lived in Israel at that time. The man’s name was Zechariah and he was a priest who served God in the temple for 2 weeks every year. His wife’s name was Elizabeth – she was also a member of the priestly tribe called the Levites.
Zechariah and Elizabeth loved the Lord God and were good as far as God was concerned, always being careful to do all the things the Lord had commanded. But like many people at that time, Zechariah and Elizabeth were longing for the time when God would send the Messiah, the Saviour – to save the people, and they would often pray to the Lord that He would arrive soon.
But even though Zechariah and Elizabeth loved the Lord and tried to please Him in every way, the Lord had left them without any children. (P) To be childless was seen as a terrible disgrace, because people often thought that when a woman couldn’t have children - it was a sign that God wasn’t happy with her! And now Zechariah and Elizabeth were very old, well beyond the time when they could normally have children. (P)
During the 2 weeks of service at the temple in Jerusalem which Zechariah and his priestly order, the order of Abijah, did every year, the time came to chose someone to go into the temple sanctuary and burn incense at the incense alter! There were many priests in the order of Abijah, and the way of choosing someone to go in was by casting lots! Casting lots is kind-a like throwing dice - the one who gets the highest number is the one who’s chosen to go in. (P) This job, of burning incense, was a very important job that if you were lucky enough to be chosen, you could only do once in your lifetime, and many priests never got the chance to do it at all! In all the years Zechariah had been serving at the temple, he’d never been chosen, and now he was very old.
But this was to be Zechariah’s year! For as the lots were cast, Zechariah was chosen - and carefully he made his way into the temple sanctuary to burn the incense at the incense alter, while a great crowd waited outside, praying!
As Zechariah stood in front of the incense alter, suddenly an angel from the Lord appeared standing at the right side of the alter. Zechariah was terrified, but the angel said, ‘don’t be afraid Zechariah. For God has heard your prayer …’ Which prayer did the angel mean? His prayer for the Messiah to come soon? Or, his prayer for a son? The angel continued, ‘your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son! You are to name him John. You will be overjoyed and many will rejoice with you when he is born for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. Now your son must not touch wine or strong drink for he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will persuade many Israelites to turn to the Lord their God, and he will be a man with the spirit and power of the mighty prophet Elijah from many years ago. (P) And, he will come before the Lord, preparing the people for His arrival.’
All this was too much for the old man! Could he really believe all he was hearing and seeing? Had the angel really promised to answer both his prayers at once? That Elizabeth and he would have a child, but even more importantly, this child was a sign, a messenger sent to prepare for the arrival of the long awaited Messiah?
Zechariah shook his head, it was all too much to take in – surly this couldn’t all be real. ‘How can all this happen?’ He said, ‘I’m an old man and my wife’s an old woman?’
That’s when things started to go wrong for Zechariah. While the crowd outside started to wonder what was taking Zechariah so long, the angel responded to Zechariah’s un-belief.
‘I am Gabriel!’ He said, ‘I stand in the presence of God Himself. It was Him who sent me to you to bring you this wonderful news. But now, since you won’t believe what I have told you, you will be unable to speak a word until the child is born! For my words will come true at the proper time.’
Meanwhile, the crowd outside were beginning to get a little anxious, why was Zechariah taking such a long time to do this simple job? Then, as Zechariah appeared they breathed a huge sigh of relief – only to become worried again as the old man made gesturing motions, unable to speak! It was then that they realised he’d seen a vision. (PAUSE)
For the remainder of his 2-week of service, Zechariah stayed at the temple performing his duties as best he could, - bearing in mind that he couldn’t speak since his conversation with the angel Gabriel. (P) Then, after the 2 weeks were up he went home, and not too long after - his wife Elizabeth became pregnant! (P) For the next five months Elizabeth lived in seclusion, out of sight of prying eyes, while at the same time she rejoiced, saying, ‘The Lord’s so kind, He’s taken away my disgrace at not having any children.’