“Peace on earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King. The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.” It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Edmund H. Sears
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us…by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Zechariah’s song, Luke 1:68.78-79
When you turn to the gospel of Luke, the story of Christmas begins with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Because they come first, it can be easy to quickly move on from their story. We know an angel appeared to Zechariah and that he went mute but have you considered the bigger picture?
What is Zechariah’s lot in life?
We learn he is a priest. He was born into his profession. Every direct descendant of Aaron was automatically a priest. That also means that there were a lot of priests. In fact, there may have been too many-it is believed that there were around 18,000 - 20,000 priests. Given the large number, they were divided into sections. At certain times of the year, like Passover, all the priests would serve. For the rest of the year, the work was divided among them all.
In addition there were special assignments, like the honor of burning incense in the temple. Lots were drawn to determine which priest would perform this duty. Given the larger number of priests, some would never have the opportunity to go.
To his astonishment, Zechariah was chosen and was performing this very duty on the day the angel appeared to him. In the morning and evening each day, a priest was invited into the inmost chamber of the temple where the holy of hollies — the Shekinah Glory of God’s presence dwelled. As the priest kept the incense burning, the smoke would be visible outside the temple. People prayed when they saw it. As the smoke drifted above so to their prayers ascended to God. When the burning was complete, the priest would come out and bless any who gathered at the temple.
That’s not all we know about Zechariah. At that time, it was highly valued for a priest to marry a woman who was also an ancestor of Aaron. Again, Zechariah’s lot was good as Elizabeth claimed this family lineage.
However, life was not totally smooth sailing for Zechariah. While we don’t know much about his everyday life, we do know that he also lived with a great sadness. He and Elizabeth had no children. There was great cultural and familial pressure to have children. Childlessness was actually grounds for divorce. This was quite a burden to carry. Which makes that little phrase used to describe Zechariah and Elizabeth so significant. Luke tells us “Both of them were righteous before God.” They were honorable people, who loved God and showed it by the way they lived their life. Whatever their lot, they endured it, together, with God’s help.
Little did they know that one of the hardest things they may have faced for all those years, would change. The mercy and favor of God often comes in unexpected ways. An angel appeared to Zechariah on that day he was selected by lot to serve in the temple and said that God had heard his prayers. Not only would they have a baby but that their son would help prepare the way for the long awaited Savior who was also coming. The prayers of the people had been heard as well.
This encounter with the angel was not easy for Zechariah. It all hardly seemed real. While the angel brought incredible news, Zechariah was not sure about it all and did not respond well to it. The angel got upset with him. Who knew that could even happen? As a result, he was not able to speak at all until his son was born.
More and more I am aware of the importance of timing. Perhaps it was only after time had passed and only after experience had forged wisdom and mercy deep within Zechariah and Elizabeth that they were ready for a baby like John the Baptist. In his time of silence, Zechariah’s voice grew. Pastor Russ Ramsey explains, “Stillness allows a mind to hold complicated thoughts without losing them. Silence was a gift God gave to Zechariah, and the old man put it to work.”
In time, Zechariah found his voice and it rang praise and gratitude. All he could think of was God. “Blessed be the Lord” he said,”for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us…by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us… to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
When Zechariah finally speaks we hear his love for God, that part of his character that we learned of in the very beginning of his story. In fact, the name Zechariah means the Lord has remembered. Zechariah knows God has been good to him and his people. The Lord has heard their prayers and remembered them.
There is something very powerful and beautiful here. The Lord has remembered us. The Lord has looked favorably on us. A Savior has been raised up for us. Whether we respond well or not. Whatever our lot. Whatever comes our way. When the tender mercy of God dawns on us, we too can break forth in praise and gratitude. Even more, we can remember God as a way of living. We can recall his promises and provisions. And as we do, in time, we discover the way of peace.
As the song says:
“When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well,
It is well, with my soul.”**
What is my lot?
What am I waiting for?
What do I need to remember about God?
How can I walk in the way of peace?
*The Advent of the Lamb of God, Russ Ramsey
** It is Well With My Soul, lyrics by Horatio G Spafford