Today is Ash Wednesday, one of my favorite “holy-days” because it ushers in the season of Lent. The six-week fast to Easter Sunday can signify the antiquated strictures of old-world church tradition to some, or the barrenness and deprivation of the wilderness (like the 40 days Jesus spent there) to others. But for me it has always and only been a time of knowing the tenderness of God, a time of coming face-to-face with the humanity of Jesus, and a time of meditation and reflection. This year, because I always come to a deeper understanding of these things through conversation, I thought I would share some of those reflections with you. I hope you’ll join me, every Wednesday and Sunday, for the season of Lent.
This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Luke 1:8-14, 18-20:
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” . . . 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! 0But 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.”
Conversing With Angels
Now, this was not the chosen-by-lot occasion of entering the Holy of Holies where the priests have to tie a rope around their ankle (in case they die in the Holy Presence of God and need to be dragged back out. Yikes). But it was a role that passed by lot between the families appointed by David to serve in the tabernacle–this wasn’t business-as-usual for Zechariah. So you’d think he might be expecting something unusual to happen. Instead, oh, there’s just this angel and he seems to think Elizabeth is going to have a kid. Like that’s believable!
But that’s just it: Zechariah doesn’t seem to believe him. His response baffles me. “How can I be sure?” he asks. “How will I know this for certain?” the NASB has it.I can just imagine Gabriel’s confusion here . . . “Uh, how about, I’m an angel?”
Just for reference, this is the same angel Gabriel who made the prophet Daniel go nearly catatonic (he passes out and Gabriel has to stand him back up, then just lies there for several days after their conversation), so I think we can surmise that he probably struck a pretty imposing figure. He himself kind of scoffs at Zechariah’s apparent blindness.
“I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God.” (Like, “Who do you think I am? Do you think I normally just hang around here chatting with people?”)
Losing the Plot
How many times in the annals of Israel had God opened the womb of the barren to alter the course of history? How many times had He put those who were beyond their prime right into the middle of the action when most directors would have cast a younger actor in the lead?
Believe me, Zechariah was very familiar with all those stories. He was a priest, he lived and breathed this stuff. But he was missing the signs all around him because he was waiting for something . . . something, what? Something new? But God isn’t somehow new on the days He performs miracles. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same God who sent a messenger to Abraham, to Daniel, and yes, to Zechariah, is the God who speaks to us today AND performs miracles among us.
I heard a great message at New Years about the Bible being the testimony of God. “Testimony” in the Hebrew means, literally, “Do it again.” It’s a prayer, but it’s also a prophecy: “As it happened, so it will happen.” That’s why Revelation says “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
Want to prophesy (and Paul says you should–eagerly)? Tell what Jesus has done, because what He has done He will do again. The Bible is the testimony of God. What He did then, He will do now.
Maybe you’ve those people who say, “If God is real, why won’t He give us a sign? I just need Him to show me proof, then I’ll believe in Him.” And all the while they are sitting in a body that IS PROOF that God exists, speaking with a voice that he gave them, surrounded by a world of wonders that is took mankind 4000 years to come up with something other than a divine explanation for. (Which, in my opinion, can’t hold water compared to the original.) But aren’t we doing the same thing when we don’t believe that God is as present, as real, as able to perform miracles as ever He was?
Today we all have access to the Holy of Holies, we all stand in the presence of angels and a great cloud of witnesses (those who’ve given testimony). Why don’t we believe?
“An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign” Jesus said. Why adulterous I wonder? Evil, maybe. Blind, surely. But adulterous? What is the other lover here? I contend that it is certainty. Like Zechariah, we crave to be sure. Continuing this series on Sunday, I’m going to talk about the allure of certainty . . . and the bottomless pit of doubt.
A Sign, a Testimony, a Prophet
Zechariah wanted a sign. So God made Zechariah himself a sign, making him mute (and possibly deaf, since the people have to write things down to communicate with him), till the day he gave testimony to the sign God had given him and named his son John. Maybe nine months unable to hear had finally taught him to see. Nine months unable to speak finally taught him to testify.
Today, Zechariah is counted a prophet in both Christian and Islamic traditions.