December 16: Silent Nights (Part One)

LUKE 1:5–20 NLT 1996

It all begins with a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.

One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.

While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”

Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

Consider This

It all begins with a Jewish priest. It has the feel of Once upon a time, or A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It sounds like a good start to a Christmas story, except that we never start here. Zechariah and Elizabeth never make the Christmas pageant. Their story is never in the children’s picture book. They don’t get a carol. No background appearance in the nativity scene.

When we go straight to Mary and skip this intro, we maybe miss something in the Advent turn from the clouds to the cradle. If the birth of Christ is the beginning of the new creation, then It all begins is Luke’s “In the beginning” and it begins with a simple elderly temple priest and his wife, who had been unable to have children.

There’s Zechariah, minding his own business, doing his priestly thing because it was his turn to keep the incense pot smoking. It was routine work that had been done for genera­tions, but then something big happens that only he gets to see. The angel shows up and says, “God has heard your prayer.

Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son” (v. 13).

And Zechariah doubted. We’ve seen this story before, with Abraham. He and Sarah were also elderly and childless, but God said he would create life where life couldn’t happen in order to rescue humanity.

Abraham laughed. Zechariah didn’t even get the chance to snicker: “since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time” (v. 20).

We can think of doubt as being inconsequential, but for Zechariah it robbed him of something for nine months: the ability to tell everyone about the miracle God was doing.

The belief in Jerusalem was that at the proper time the prophet Elijah would return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Everyone outside the temple was praying for Elijah to show up, but God was first inside answering one prayer in order to answer hundreds of thousands: “He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah, [to] prepare the people for the coming of the Lord” (v. 17).

And so when Zechariah came back outside, he couldn’t talk.

These days, many folks enter the modern Christmas season with a sense of uncertainty in the world, and so want to be as big and loud and in your face about it as possible so everyone knows what we believe (think “war on Christmas” and “Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays”).

But with God, it all begins with a silent night—actually nine months of them. So as we make the Advent turn together, let’s find ways to be still and silent and know that he is God, because all this chatter could be festering doubt, distracting from the new thing that’s beginning.

Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!