5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
For thousands of years God’s people had longed to see the Savior. God had given hints and pictures of who that person would be for thousands of years. A descendant of King David. Born in the city of Bethlehem. And someone would come before him to prepare the way.
Zechariah was an Old Testament believer. He knew the promises of a Savior from sin. He trusted them. But his life was marred. He and his wife longed for a child. They had seen as their friends and family had children. And every time they got to hold a precious baby, their hearts ached that this wasn’t their child. They prayed for a baby. But now… now they were old. Way past the time that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth could have a baby. Zechariah had given up. And he blamed himself. He carried a load of guilt that he couldn’t provide a baby for his wife. He knew the promises. He knew that God heard his prayers. But he had given up hope. He knew it all intellectually and he trusted that it was true… but was it true for him?
You know the truth. You know who Jesus is. You know that he was born on Christmas day. You know that he lived a perfect life. He never sinned. He was faithful in all he did. He was God’s own Son! You know that he died to take away the sins of the world. You know that his forgiveness transforms people so they want to obey him.
But when it comes time to make that personal… how do you handle it? When you struggle with guilt, do you trust that Jesus died not only for the sins of the whole world… but your sins, too? This is what Zechariah struggled with. He knew the truth and he trusted it… he believed that all of God’s promises would come true. But he struggled with knowing that God’s promises were for him, too.
Zechariah was a priest. In those days, the different divisions of the priests would take turns serving in the Temple. And every day, one priest got to go into the Holy Place of the temple to burn incense. God had given strict commands in the Old Testament concerning who could and could not go into the Holy Place. Only a priest could go in, and only at certain times of the day, and only one at a time. At dawn and at twilight, a priest was to burn incense in the Holy Place. This incense was a picture of prayers: The prayers of God’s people rose like burning incense before him and smelled good to him.
But the priest was to go in alone. All the people in the temple would assemble in front of the Holy Place and wait. When the priest exited, they knew their prayers had been accepted. If something happened inside, though, they knew that God was displeased.
Each division would hold a daily lottery to find out who was burning incense on that day. And Zechariah won the lottery. So he went in to burn incense. He went in as God commanded, alone, to burn incense, to show that the prayers of God’s people were a pleasing aroma to him. Prayers like Zechariah had prayed for years. Like his plea to have a child.
And as Zechariah is at the altar burning incense… he sees someone. You know how you might be in your home alone, and you turn a corner and there’s someone there? How startled you get? Well, imagine that, but much more. And this isn’t just “someone.” It’s an angel. Our reading says, When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. No joke!
But this angel isn’t here to punish Zechariah. Even as the incense burns that shows how pleasing the prayers of God’s people are to him, even as the incense burns that shows how Zechariah’s prayers are pleasing to God, the angel announces: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” God has heard the prayer of his people. God heard Zechariah’s prayer!
But it gets even better. “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah’s precious child isn’t just any baby. It won’t even be “just” a miracle baby. This baby is the one who will get the people ready for Messiah! The angel quotes the Old Testament prophecies about the forerunner!
But Zechariah didn’t believe it! He knew that God’s promises were true… but they couldn’t be true for him. Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” And because Zechariah doubted, because he couldn’t believe that God’s promise was for him, he suffered a consequence for his sin. He lost the use of his voice.
That’s not the end of Zechariah’s story, though. You see, about nine months later, his wife gave birth. To a son. And when it came time to name the child, Zechariah trusted God. Zechariah showed his trust by obeying God’s command. He named that child John. And Zechariah praised God. God allowed Zechariah to speak, and the first thing he did was praise God. He showed that he trusted God’s promises – not only for his people, but for Zechariah, too. Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago) (Luke 1:68-70) Zechariah repented of the sin of not trusting God… and when he met with forgiveness, when he saw the good things that God had promised and delivered, he praised.
What about you? Jesus came for the whole world. You know that. But he also came… for you. To deny that is a sin. To deny that your sins are forgiven, too, is a sin.
How do we prepare for Christmas? The same way Zechariah was prepared. We prepare by examining ourselves and seeing our sins revealed. We prepare by confessing our sins. And we are prepared by God when he tells us about the forgiveness of sins. We are prepared by hearing the good news. Our good news.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus came for you. He has forgiven your sins of thinking God’s law doesn’t apply to you. He has forgiven your sins of not trusting that he came for you. As we prepare for Christmas, look truthfully in the mirror of God’s commandments. See your sin, just as Zechariah was forced to see his when confronted by an angel. Confess your sin. Admit it. Don’t use excuses or justifications. Simply confess: Yes, this was wrong. I sinned. And hear now the stunning truth: Jesus forgives you. Not just the whole world. Not just those people around you who suffer. You.
Trust God’s promises. He keeps them… not just for the world, but for you, too.