Advent: Life and light in our times of waiting and longing
Reflections on the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth from Luke 1
This blog is a re-working of my Advent Sunday talk on the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth from Luke chapter 1. Luke uses the birth of John the Baptist as a prelude to his birth narrative of Jesus. His interweaving of the two birth accounts serves to highlight the intertwining ministries of John and Jesus when they grew up.
The Christmas story highlights a number of ways in which life and light came into the everyday situations of ordinary people. And the same can be true for us today. The life and light of Jesus can touch and transform our everyday situations. This article offers some reflections from the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth about how God brings life and light into our times of waiting and longing.
Everyone, at various times in their lives, experiences a season of waiting or longing. Sometimes those seasons of waiting can be long, sometimes short and intense. They may be times of waiting for trivial things, or they may be an agonised waiting over something very important. Sometimes our waiting might be a very positive time of anticipation for something good and pleasing. Or we may be really struggling with a sense of delay over something we really hope will happen. What does it mean for the life and light of Jesus to be at work in our times of waiting?
Each of the four Gospels begin against the backdrop of the Jewish people in a time of waiting. The Jewish people were waiting for the appearance of God’s promised King, the Messiah, who would usher in a golden age of the rule of God. In the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel, we see some verses which show us the expectancy of the Jewish people:
Simeon is said to be “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). And the people as a whole are said to be “waiting expectantly” (Luke 3:15) for the Messiah.
The Jewish people had been waiting a long time. The words of their ancient prophets promised the coming of the Messiah, but the people were still waiting. And at the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were under the rule of the Roman Empire.
Those words from the ancient prophets seemed to be an awfully long time ago. God had seemed very silent lately.
Luke begins his Gospel, not straight into the birth of Jesus, but with another poignant story which runs in parallel to the Jesus story. In the midst of a whole nation who were waiting for a breakthrough, Luke introduces us to the story of a couple who are experiencing various profound circumstances of waiting in their personal lives.
Enter the characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Caught up in their own nation’s expectant waiting for the Messiah, Zechariah and Elizabeth were experiencing two very personal and poignant situations of waiting.
The first waiting was for children. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have any children. This carried a very negative stigma in their culture. To be barren was often in Jewish culture blamed on someone’s sin, but this was not the case for Zechariah and Elizabeth. The story tells us very clearly that they were righteous people. They had waited and waited for children, but they had never conceived and now they knew that the biological clock had long ticked past the point of no return. That must have been a very painful journey of waiting with only disappointment at the end of it.
But Zechariah also was experiencing another kind of waiting. Zechariah was a priest, which meant he belonged to one of the 24 priestly divisions. There were far too many priests to serve at the Temple in Jerusalem, so each division would serve for two separate weeks each year. When a priest was on duty at the Temple, they drew lots to see which priests would perform the special duties which meant you entered the more holy parts of the Temple. Again, there were far too many priests to all be able to do these special duties. So, some priests never got chosen in their whole lifetime for the special responsibilities. Every priest waited to see if they would be granted the special honour of ministry. It was something that they longed for and some would never see. In the midst of waiting for a Messiah who didn’t seem to be coming, in the midst of waiting for a child which hadn’t come, Zechariah had been waiting for a special priestly duty, which thus far hadn’t come either and in his old age he was running out of time for that.
But in Luke’s very first chapter, God is about to transform all three kinds of waiting. Zechariah gets his chance for the special priestly duties, he and Elizabeth get promised a child and they learn that their child is a preparation for the coming of the Messiah Himself. God was bringing a powerful breakthrough of life and light into their waiting.
What do we learn about God and His ways of working that help us to navigate our times of waiting? From the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth we learn about the purpose, process and perspective of waiting.
Purpose – God uses times of waiting to bring to birth new possibilities
The story of the birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth is the story of a breakthrough of life. The birth of John is not simply the birth of a new child, but his birth is symbolic of the new possibilities of God.
God’s intervention in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth breaks the mould and allows for new beginnings. God sovereignly interrupts the status quo of their lives and introduces a profoundly new development. When the people heard Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story, they vocalised this sense of God’s new possibilities.
Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. (Luke 1:68)
That question, “What then is this child going to be?” is a statement that recognises that the future is full of fresh potential. And it could be so because God’s hand was upon the child. But the new possibilities of God often come through times of waiting. And that’s because God’s purposes have perfect timing. You can’t hurry the purposes of God.
No sooner had Zechariah and Elizabeth been delighted with the news of a breakthrough from God, after many years of waiting, they were asked to wait again for nine months of pregnancy before John was born. But the waiting was vital because God’s purposes are woven into the fabric of human history. God works through people. And it takes nine months to bring a new human being into the world. Even Jesus had to wait nine months to be born. He didn’t just magically appear as a fully grown human being.
When we experience a time of waiting, it is never without purpose. It may certainly feel like that at the time. It may feel like our waiting is going nowhere. But in God’s eyes there is an end purpose to all our times of waiting. It’s just that we sometimes can’t see it at the time. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that God was up to something new with them and their son. They knew from the angel Gabriel the main role their son would play when he grew up. But they didn’t see the full picture then. The unfolding possibilities of God were still to come to pass.
So, the first principle from this story is to remember that our times of waiting are never without purpose.
Process – God is working in our waiting
The first principle was understanding there’s an end purpose to our waiting. So, the obvious question now is, “If I am in a time of waiting now and not at the end point, what does my waiting mean in the here and now?”
Our reading today assures us that God is at work even in the very midst of our times of waiting. You don’t have to get to the end of the waiting to know that God is at work.
The story of Zechariah in the Temple shows us this principle in practice:
“Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple” (Luke 1:21).
The people outside the inner Temple courts were waiting and they were asking questions about their waiting. In our times of waiting, we’re not always sure what’s going on. So, we ask questions in our waiting. The people were asking themselves, “Where’s Zechariah? Why is he taking so long in the Temple? He should have been out by now. How much longer are we going to have to wait? Is Zechariah OK? Should we send another priest in to investigate?” They had lots of questions.
But all the time they were asking their questions, God was having a profound encounter with Zechariah! God was intervening as the people were waiting for Zechariah. They were wondering why he was taking so long. God was working in their waiting, but they just didn’t know it. It was only when Zechariah came out, that the penny dropped for them.
“When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple” (Luke 1:22)
What else does this story teach about the ways in which God works within our times of waiting? The story reassures us that our prayers are not just bouncing off the ceiling. Gabriel says to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13). When we are waiting and we are praying for a breakthrough, when an answer is a long time coming, it’s easy to think that God is not listening. But this story assures us God is listening. And the story gives us an interesting perspective on the question of silence, which we often interpret as negative.
In the story, Zechariah is forced into silence as he waits for his son to be born. Nine months before he can speak again. But that silence for Zechariah was not unfruitful. Just imagine all the thoughts that were going round his head as he recalled his encounter with the angel, as he quietly watched Elizabeth progressing with her pregnancy. He could not fail to recognise that God was at work, even if he couldn’t say so with spoken words. Our times of waiting can sometimes be accompanied by a sense of silence, but God can be just as much at work through silence as He can through noise.
The story also teaches that God works in our waiting in the everyday moments of our lives. Zechariah encounters the angel when he is just going about his job as a priest. Yes, he was doing a special task that day, but it was still just a priestly task. He met an angel when he was doing his job. Let’s be open to the fact that in our times of waiting, God could be working in our everyday contexts.
Another encouragement from the story is that our own personal doubts don’t stop God working out His purposes. Zechariah asked, “How can I be sure of this?” (Luke 1:18). He had his doubts, but God pressed on and allowed Zechariah to catch up with Him. By the time John was born, Zechariah was so ready to believe in God, that he sang a whole song about it. More of that in a minute.
Zechariah’s doubts ruled out neither the work of God nor Zechariah’s place in God’s purposes. Yes, Zechariah had to endure silence as a learning experience, but God didn’t bypass him altogether. God didn’t say to him, “Well Zechariah, because you doubted, I’m going to choose someone else now.” God showed He was creative enough to work His purpose, even if it meant giving time for Zechariah to catch up with Him.
In our times of waiting, when we experience a wobbly moment in our faith and we don’t feel strong about what we believe, don’t let anyone persuade you that God is writing you off because of your doubts. Yes, just like with Zechariah, God will want to lead us on a learning journey so that we catch up with God and learn to trust Him more, but we won’t be disqualified from God’s story. When God acts on the large scale, He takes care of the smaller concerns within our hearts, too.
So, we’ve thought about the purpose of waiting, that there is meaning in our waiting. And we’ve thought about the process of waiting – that God is working right in the very midst of our waiting. Purpose, process and now:
Perspective – Waiting creates a space where God’s light can better guide us
The qualities of life and light feature in the story of the birth of John the Baptist. We’ve already thought about the life of a new baby symbolising the new possibilities of God. When John is finally born and Zechariah has caught up with God from his place of doubt, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed and he can speak again. And the first thing he does is sing. He sings of the mercy of God, he sings of the faithfulness of God, to keep His purposes and to bring redemption to the world. And he finishes his song with these beautiful words:
“Because of the tender mercy of our God, the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
In the birth of his son, Zechariah sees the light of God shining upon the world in a new way. It’s light to guide those who live in darkness and who live in fear of death. And it’s a light to guide people from despair into peace.
In our everyday language we say that we are seeing something in a new light. That’s a statement about perspective. God’s light gave both Zechariah and Elizabeth new perspective to see Him at work in their waiting.
Elizabeth could see in hindsight the perspective of God. “The Lord has done this for me” (Luke 1:25).
And Zechariah begins his song by saying:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them” (Luke 1:68).
Zechariah recognises God has come. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are given fresh perspective to see that out of the silence, God had come through. In our times of waiting, let’s pray that the light of God would bring us the perspective we need to see all that we should see. Sometimes it only takes a small shift to make a big difference in our perspective.
Consider the following sentences where the words are all strung together:
How do you read that sentence?
God is nowhere, or
God is now here?
The placing of just one letter makes the difference between two completely opposite meanings of the sentence. Having the right perspective could make the difference between realising that God is right with us in our waiting, rather than being nowhere.
Purpose, Process and Perspective. All very important principles in our times of waiting.
What should be our response to God in our times of waiting? Let us trust God at His word, even when the external circumstances don’t make it look likely. And while we wait, let’s ask God, “What do you want to show me, teach me as I wait?” Don’t think that waiting is unproductive. The waiting may be more productive in our lives than the time the answer comes.
All our waiting finds its fulfilment in God’s presence. Take a look below at the two sets of verses from Luke’s Gospel. The first is from Zechariah’s story right from the start of the Gospel. The second verse is the very last verse of the whole of Luke’s Gospel. What’s the common link between the 2 verses?
“Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” (Luke 1:8-9)
“And they [the disciples] stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (Luke 24:53)
Luke’s Gospel starts and ends in the Temple with people waiting. Zechariah was waiting for God to rescue his people, he was waiting for a child. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus’ first followers are waiting at the Temple for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The bookends of Luke’s Gospel are God’s people waiting in the Temple, the place symbolising God’s presence. And in between those bookends is the story of God’s intervention through Jesus, His presence in the world, which is the fulfilment of all our waiting.
And God is waiting, too. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God is patiently waiting because He wants everyone to come to repentance and to know Him. God is not only working in our waiting; He is our companion in our waiting, too.
“Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).