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God Promised Zechariah a Son
Winter Quarter: Creation: A Divine Cycle
Unit 1: The Savior Has Been Born
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 18, 2016
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Luke 1:8-20
Background Scripture: Luke 1:1-23; 57-66
At the outset, we must state our bewilderment at the sequence of the studies in Luke chosen by the editorial committee of the Universal Lesson Series! We began with the annunciation by Gabriel to Mary of her impending pregnancy by the Holy Spirit. Then we moved to her visit with Elizabeth and study of her song, The Magnificat. Now we drop back to Luke’s beginning of the saga, after his introduction to Theophilus about his reasons for writing. The intention of the editors may well be Mary’s story is more engaging, but sequentially it misses Luke’s thorough work of researching and laying out the beginnings of the events leading to the Good News of Jesus.
One writer observed how overlooked Zechariah is in the unfolding drama. Who is this man who appears in the first scene of the first act of the Biblical drama? Well, he’s a priest in one of 24 divisions of the priesthood of Aaron’s descendants. There were so many priests that David set up these divisions. Periodically by lot, one of these many priests was given the holy task of entering the Temple to offer incense. Incense produced both the aroma and the smoke, signifying the prayers of the people going up to God.
What an honor for Zechariah, but what a shock when he is confronted by the angel Gabriel! Moreover, he is given startling news: after all these many years, he and his wife Elizabeth are to become parents for the first time.
In Biblical times, being childless was seen as a lack of blessing. Some even saw it as a punishment from God! William Barclay writes Jewish Rabbis said seven people were excommunicated from God, and the list began: ‘A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child.’ Childlessness was a very serious human and religious problem for this good couple. Shame is added to disappointment!
Zechariah doesn’t believe Gabriel! Gabriel basically asks, “Who are you to question me? I have come straight from God to tell you!” His disbelief is punished with a nine month period of silence. There is no suggestion of an immaculate conception – they are just old! Zechariah delays a long time in coming out of the section of the Temple reserved for the priests. When he does emerge the people become aware something has happened, and his inability to speak adds to the drama.
We must add here the story of Jesus in Luke begins and ends in the Temple! (Luke 24:53) This bracketing of his Gospel will serve to reassure Jewish believers. The identification of Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous” people is important as well. Elizabeth is also a descendant of Aaron. Righteousness and justice are consistently used Biblical descriptions of how the vulnerable and the outcast are to be treated. Such will be the thrust of the account Luke will write depicting the ministry of Jesus.
Zechariah’s disbelief will change across the time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. In many ways, he becomes an example to all of us who struggle on the journey of faith. Questions and doubts have a role to play as we move from stage to stage of faith. We don’t all hold the same beliefs and understandings in the same way. For some of us, a lot of time must pass. Moreover, we must live many years for us to come to the fruition of faith. When we do come to a fuller faith, we must not stand in judgment of others still on their journey. We can only point to the One we have come to trust, whose promises are trustworthy. Faith is much more trust than belief; and the opposite of faith is not doubt, but disobedience. True inspiration comes when our seeking mind meets the revealing Spirit of God. A wise teacher once said to Sam: The Word of God is given, but it is given to the one seeking for it. “Seek and you will find.”
Let us focus on this son who will be born. All children are special, and, in the Jewish culture, male children are very special. This boy will indeed be special. He is described by Gabriel as being filled with the Holy Spirit even before birth. His task will be to bring back Israel to God and, like Elijah, he will bring the disobedient to righteousness. His lifestyle will be as unique as his message. That message will be to prepare the way of the Lord.
With the intervening accounts of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary and her visit to Elizabeth, don’t miss the unusual fact Elizabeth named the child – not Zechariah. Here is more evidence of Luke’s emphasis on the role of women in the unfolding story. The name “John” means “gift of God.” Truly John the Baptist was such a gift. Jesus Himself will say of him: “of those born of women none is greater than John.”
The task given to Zechariah and Elizabeth was not only a joyous one for them because her barrenness was ended, but was also the beginning of the fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah had spoken so long before: “A voice of one calling: in the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
These promises were exactly what Gabriel said to Zechariah he could not believe! Not only the prayers of this old couple, but also the prayers of the people of Israel for generations had been heard. The ancient promise of God to Abraham and his descendants were being fulfilled. Many will find joy in John’s birth.
At the close of chapter one in Luke, Zechariah breaks into this own song of praise to God. Verses 67-79 are beyond the readings for today, but they add one more insight into this man. He becomes the first evangelist to proclaim for whom his son will prepare the way! We should ask ourselves “Are we telling the story of Jesus and His love?”
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at email@example.com.