He was an old man, and his back ached with the day’s work. Some of the younger priests did the heavy lifting required by the work. But still, the old priest had spent most of the day on his feet. And so, there was a sharp, grinding ache in the small of his back, stabbing down his left leg.
He looked forward to some time for rest, even some time stretched out on his back to ease the pain, striking down from his spine into his hip. But he knew he could not hope for that relief until the afternoon incense offering had been made. The old priest hoped that whoever was chosen to do the offering would be quick about it. At home, his old wife would use her still strong hands to knead the pain away. But she was not here in the temple with him nor could he hope even to lie down until he got out of his heavy priestly robes.
He scarcely paid any attention as the lots were being drawn to choose from among the priest present who would enter the holy place to offer the incense. It was only when the man standing beside him nudged him that Zechariah realized that he himself had been the one chosen for the task. It was a great honor, but even as he stepped forward, he grimaced and hobbled with each step. Honor though it was, the task would cost him a good deal of pain.
As he shuffled into the dim seclusion of the holy place, he began almost immediately to experience a feeling of disequilibrium. It felt almost as if the stone floor was tilting to his left. He could see that it wasn’t. Still he felt himself losing his balance. He staggered, raising his arms for balance as he might on the deck of a ship rolling in the waves. But he wasn’t on a ship at sea. He was in a vast stone building that looked as solid and steady as always. He nearly dropped the incense pot and hot coals that he was carrying.
Was he ill? Was he having some sort of fit? He wondered if he ought to turn back. And then the old priest saw him. A titanic presence to the right of the altar, so massive that his mere presence seemed to bend the world. The solid stones of the temple seemed almost to sag under the mountainous weight of his presence.
A strange, unearthly silence surrounded this vast being, an almost musical silence like a rest between notes. The Presence seemed almost magnetically to be drawing Zechariah toward itself, while at the same time every impulse in Zechariah’s reeling mind longed to turn his body around and flee for the door. But his body seemed somehow no longer his to command. He stood rooted like a tree before a gale, and like that storm-torn tree, he felt as though parts of himself were been stripped away by the power and holiness before which he stood transfixed. But there were no winds, only an utter stillness.
Then, out of the musical silence, there came a voice. It was clear and rational yet not the least bit human. It was the voice of the ocean and of the stars on a cold winter’s night, speaking together at once. At the sound of the voice, he began to tremble from the pit of his stomach to the tips of this fingers. The incense pot in his hand began to rattle. The angel spoke, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” This angelic mountain had just addressed him by name! “Zechariah!” “Zechariah!” “Zechariah!” The sound of his own name riding the waves of that voice echoed and echoed into the depths of this bowels.
“Your prayer was heard.”
Already reeling, Zechariah’s mind stumbled at this statement. “What prayer? What does he mean?”
“Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son.”
With a shock of recognition and remembering, the ancient prayer, once fervent, even desperate, now long abandoned, came back to him. The child, the son, whom they so longed for and pleaded for, yet who never was – that prayer? The memory of that prayer and that longing unfulfilled rose up again from the mists of Zechariah’s past, a deep ache from days long gone, and a grinding pain that radiated out again from the pit of his stomach.
But the angel was still speaking:
You shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. [ESV]
Zechariah struggled to drag his attention back to what the angel was saying to him. But the reminder of that long unanswered prayer had become like a knife in his mind. Had this angel come to mock him, to stir up this ancient ache in his heart yet again? The old bitter sadness overcame his fear, and he spoke with a wounded boldness, “How am I to believe such a thing? I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years beyond such things.”
There came from the angel a sudden, violent silence, a silence that struck Zechariah like a blow and caused him to stagger back. The voice returned, now deep and cold and measured and solid. “I . . . am . . . Gabriel. I am standing before the face of God . . . before the face of God . . . before the face of God!” The words pounded like a hammer inside the old man’s head. His vision began to cloud. He feared he might collapse under the weight of the angelic voice.
“I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this wonderful news.”
The words pierced the haze of the old man’s ancient sorrow, and the promise of the earlier words leaped up again. “Your wife will conceive and bear you a son.”
“I’m going to have a son!”
But the angelic voice was not finished, and the heavenly power wrenched his attention back to the present. “Now, listen well! Because you did not believe my words . . .”
Zechariah gasped inwardly. His heart fell as he remembered his own words, his bitter unbelieving words. “How am I to believe such a thing?” He had said that to this one who is standing before the face of God! He had scoffed in the face of God. The promise is lost. The wonderful announcement will now be withdrawn. “I have ruined all!”
But the angel still spoke, “my words – which will certainly be fulfilled in their appointed time . . . will certainly be fulfilled . . .”
Again, Zechariah gasped. His heart soared. The promise is not lost. The announcement is reaffirmed. And even as the angel’s voice rumbled on in his ears, he heard the same angelic voice simultaneously whisper to him in a deep recess of his mind, “Did you really believe that the purposes of God are thwarted by your sins, little one? Is not the mercy of God for precisely such a one as you? Rejoice! And be at peace, little foolish one. God is about to give you much time to search your heart and grow wiser.”
“Now, listen well! Because you did not believe my words, which will certainly be fulfilled in their appointed time, you will be silent. You will not have the power of speech until that day when these things take place.”
The silent music of the angelic presence lingered a moment more, then the vast weight of divine glory that surrounded the angel seemed to lift and evaporate. And as a cushion, when the sitter arises, begins to resume its previous shape, so the massive stones of the temple too resumed their level solidity as the mountainous being withdrew.
Suddenly, the old man’s legs became weak so as barely to hold him upright. The incense burned on the altar – when had he accomplished that? He staggered out of the holy place, his eyes wide, his mouth gaping. His fellow priest surrounded him. Clearly, he had met the Holy in the holy place. And he could tell them nothing.
As some young priest hurried to support him, Zechariah thought, “Oh, now, my poor back!” But even as the thought passed through his mind, the old man knew the pain in his back was gone. It had left with the angel. Instead, there was a new strength and suppleness to his back such as he had not felt for many long years. That renewed strong back would serve him – and God – well when soon he would embrace his old wife as he had not done for those many long years. It would not be long, he knew, before that same old wife would whisper to him in astonishment and joy, “I am with child!”
© 2019 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.