Texts: Isaiah 40:1–5; Luke 1:5–25
The silencing of Zechariah is quite an extraordinary scene.
Zechariah was a priest who made his living with his voice. His vocation was to bless, to pray, to teach. And yet, there he stood—like a quarterback without an arm—voiceless in the temple, unable even to finish his temple service with the customary blessing. Furthermore, Zechariah was a descendant of the priestly family of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Aaron’s part in the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt was to speak eloquently. Yet, Zechariah, a son of Aaron, could not utter even a word.
The even greater irony is that Zechariah’s name anticipated the kind of news Zechariah received from the angel that day in the temple. His name means “God remembers.” And when Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child, even in her old age, God was remembering His people in the way He had promised. For when the Bible talks about God remembering, it is not simply His rummaging around in His memory bank. When God remembers, He acts. So God remembered His people on the day Gabriel told Zechariah he would have a miraculous son, a son who would forerun the promised Messiah. God’s action that day in the temple fulfilled Zechariah’s own name in the ultimate way. Yet, the one whose name means “God remembers” did not believe that God was about to act. He forgot. He forgot God’s wondrous actions of old. He forgot what God did for Abraham and barren Sarah, Isaac and barren Rebekah, Jacob and barren Rachel. He forgot just how good God is, and he doubted God’s word.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are both described as “righteous before God.” That’s because their hope was in the Lord and in His promise to act and send the Messiah. Zechariah prayed regularly for this. Yet when the Lord answered his prayer, he doubted the word of the angel and sought a sign. His offense was not in expecting too much from the Lord. It was in expecting too little.
A story is told of a beggar who approached Alexander the Great for alms. Feeling exceedingly generous, Alexander ordered the beggar to be given the government of five cities. The beggar was taken aback and said, “I didn’t ask for that much.” Alexander said, “You asked like the man you are; I give like the man I am.” Our God is generous. He gives us exceedingly great and precious promises. He invites us to ask and has promised to answer. He gives us more than we either desire or deserve. He is exceedingly generous. That’s who He is. But we, like Zechariah, so easily forget that. We don’t expect much from Him. That’s who we are.
You, like Zechariah, are priests who easily forget. God’s indescribable goodness has made you His royal priests through Holy Baptism. God, in mercy, has chosen you as His own possession and set apart your mouth to do priestly work—to pray, to teach, to proclaim His goodness. You have every reason to be bold and confident in your prayers. But instead, you’ve doubted this and have thought, “What good will my prayers do?” You have every reason to be confident in the Lord and His directing of your life, but you’ve doubted that He knows what He’s doing. You have every reason to live with joy in all circumstances, knowing that you are a beggar who has been granted a kingdom; yet you live and think and pray like God is stingy and disinclined to help. You are royal priests of the King of kings. But you insult the King by not expecting much. We often ask as people of little faith. And it grieves the Holy Spirit. We are like Zechariah. We so easily forget God’s fatherly goodness.
But God does not forget. God remembers. He does not forget His promises, and He does not forget His priests. He remembered Zechariah’s prayer and acted. God gave Zechariah way more than he expected. Zechariah hoped for the Messiah, and God gave the Messiah within Zechariah’s own generation and extended family. Old Zechariah hoped he might father a child, and God gave him a great child—John, the forerunner of the Greater Child who was God in the flesh. The ultimate instance of God remembering us and His promises was to send the One to whom John pointed, the One who was the greatest and most faithful Priest ever. He would perfectly remember and trust the Father’s goodness in our place. He would always have a confident hope in God, even in the most hopeless situations. He would do all this so that His faithfulness might be credited to you in your Baptism. He would be not only the most holy Priest but also the most holy Lamb. The Lamb of God sacrificed for you. The Lamb whose blood would atone for all your doubt and of God.
Because God has remembered us, we have a “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), as the Book of Hebrews says. And great He is. He used His voice mightily to bless, to pray, to instruct, and to gather sinners. He was the most faithful Priest, but He chose to be silent before His accusers and go to an unjust death in our place. He was the Greater Aaron, hanging on a cross with arms outstretched like a priest in prayer, uttering an eloquent absolution: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is the Greater Zechariah, who always remembers and never forgets His Father’s unspeakable goodness. He never lost hope that His Father would raise Him from the dead as promised. He is your eternal High Priest, seated at the right hand of God as your intercessor and advocate.
We must never forget the people we are. Like Zechariah, we are poor, pitiable beggars, deserving no good thing from the Lord. But we must also never forget who the Lord is: gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God remembered Zechariah and gave him a son to proclaim the Messiah. God remembers your need for forgiveness and acts, providing it for you in Holy Absolution. He remembers your need for holiness and acts, providing it for you in Holy Baptism. He remembers your need for strength and courage to live under the cross with patience and joy and acts, providing it all for you in the Holy Supper.
In Advent, we are especially reminded that we are waiting for the appearing of our blessed hope, Jesus Christ, who will bring us into His glorious kingdom, beyond anything we can imagine. Yet even now, He exceeds our puny expectations. We ask Him for some comfort for our wounded consciences, and He applies a double portion (Isaiah 40:2). We ask Him to give us a little help in our trials, and He gives us a Kingdom. We ask for help enduring the pain of disease and sickness, and He gives us the promise of full and complete healing in the resurrection on the Last Day.
At John’s birth, Zechariah’s voice would again be heard. But at another child’s birth soon thereafter, angels’ voices would be heard on earth. What Child Is This? Jesus Christ, the Savior, Zechariah’s hope and ours. In the name of Jesus. Amen