The Gospel of Luke begins with Zechariah, Elizabeth and angel Gabriel's prophecy of the birth of their soon-to-be-son, John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as living righteous and blameless lives before God. In fact, the name Zechariah means “God remembers,” and Elizabeth's name means “God is abundance.”
Although they longed for children, Elizabeth was barren and already considered an old woman. But, while Zechariah was serving at the temple offering incense and prayers to the Lord, the angel Gabriel appeared to him saying that Elizabeth would conceive and give birth to a son. According to Jewish law and custom, newborn boys were named after their father, but Gabriel told them that this boy’s name would be John. The angel told Zechariah that John would be a great prophet who would prepare the way for the coming Savior of Israel.
Upon hearing this message from Gabriel, Zechariah responded by asking, “How can I be sure of this?” Gabriel then told Zechariah that he would not be able to speak until the child was born.
Biblical interpreters commonly view Zechariah’s temporary impairment in speech as a punishment for his lack of faith. However, it’s important to consider that requesting a sign of God’s divine presence was a custom of the time. Perhaps Zechariah’s temporary impairment was not a punishment given, but a sign bestowed of the promise of God’s divine fulfillment not only in the birth of John, but in the upcoming birth of the Messiah. Israelites had been living under the occupation of foreign powers for generations and many Jews felt that God had been silent in their plight. Zechariah’s inability to speak served as a sign of the promise that abundance and salvation after generations of silence was coming in the birth of John, and the birth of Christ.
Nancy Eiseland in her book The Disabled God (1994) writes, “Our bodies participate in the image of [God] not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.” Is it possible that Zechariah’s impairment was a promise of the greatness of John, and the coming glory of Messiah…. rather than a punishment?
The biblical text follows Zechariah’s return home and Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth proclaims that God has “shown his favor” and taken away her disgrace. After long years of waiting for their own child, this couple experienced untold blessing as the chosen parents of John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for the Lord.
During this advent season, Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us that God remembers each of us…. and is about to provide more abundantly than anything we can ever imagine!
May this Advent season lead us to anticipate with great expectation the God who remembers God’s people, promises, and provisions through the incarnation in Christ, Our Lord and king.
Our long-awaited Messiah has come!
(The main scripture text for this Advent reflection came from the Gospel of Luke 1: 5-25; 59-79, NRSV.)