Luke 1:5-20

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Certain literary genres have recognizable patterns. When you read a fairy tale, you know the knight in shining armor will save the damsel in distress, or that the fair and kind maiden will triumph over her evil and conniving sister. In mysteries the characters are different but the patterns similar: the smart, careful sleuth will solve her case, catching the culprit and revealing all in the last scene. When we watch these stories unfold we pick up the clues the author has scattered across the story and allow our expectations to be guided by them.

Biblical literature is like that, too, and anyone reading Luke – whether in the first or twenty-first century – can hear clues that set our expectations, this time not for a rescue or a solution to a mystery, but for a miracle.

Here are the clues: two righteous and faithful people too old to have children, a barren wife, and a chance assignment that brings the husband into the Temple. When you hear or see these kinds of things unfolding, you know something is bound to happen. This story is reminiscent of that of Abraham and Sarah, who were also faithful, barren, too old to have children, and entertained messengers from God in what seemed like a chance meeting. Yet from these two came Isaac and eventually the whole nation of Israel.

There’s another clue as well: disbelief. Sarah laughed when she overheard the messengers tell Abraham she would have a child. And now Zechariah disbelieves and so is rendered mute, not so much as a punishment but as a sign that when all these things come to pass so also will his speech be restored.

Why the elaborate literary set up? Because biblical authors, from the narrator of Genesis to Luke, love to point out that nothing is impossible for God. Barren? What of it – God is the giver of live. Old? So what – God is the renewer of all things. Chance encounters? Hah – not when God is involved. Disbelief? Come on – when it comes to the miraculous most of us are taken off guard.

So: feeling kind of ordinary, or beset by a challenge that seems overwhelming, or not sure you have it in you to do what you feel called to do? Well, get ready, because our God loves to take ordinary people facing ridiculous challenges and do extraordinary things through them. First it was Isaac, child of promise and laughter. Then it was John, set apart like the prophets of old to herald the coming Messiah. Next… Who knows? Maybe it will be you.

If so, one word of advice. Just do what the angel says. 🙂

Prayer: Dear God, you delight in taking unlikely people and doing wondrous things with them, for them, and through them. May we be open to your movement and purpose and so be instruments of your grace, mercy and peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Post image: “Angel Gabriel Stuck Zechariah Mute,” by Alexander Ivanov.