During Advent, we are featuring devotionals written by clergy of the Greater NJ Annual Conference of the UMC. For this first week, we are focused on reflections related to Zechariah, the skeptical father of John the Baptist, and his wife Elizabeth.
Luke 1:5–16, 23–25, 76–80 (CEB)
5 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. 8 One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. 9 Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.
23 When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home. 24 Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, 25 “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people.”
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
80 The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.
There once was this time when I thought I had to get everything right in order to please God. I had just come back to my faith in Christ and had just been received back into the church, something I had sworn would never, ever happen again; yet, there I was filled with a new hope and in church worshiping for the first time in at least eight or more years. The truth is, as much as I had recommitted my life to Christ, there was much guilt that I had to sort through as a result of my abandoning the faith years earlier.
It’s kind of strange how something good can lead to something not so good. For me, what good news it was that I had accepted Christ back into my life and was back on track to serve the Lord in the context of a Christian community. Still, that good news quickly became paralyzing. No matter what I did, or didn’t do, I felt overwhelmed by a deep sense of profound guilt and remorse. Jesus had given his all for me, he had even died on a cross for me, yet who was I to be worthy of that?
A good healthy dose of that sort of “guilt” might inspire someone to go back to church and back to God; however, for me, the guilt became so overbearing that it actually hampered my ability to serve and to witness to my faith. Every prayer I prayed, I was stuck in an endless cycle of apologies for everything I had done throughout my life, things I had done up to that moment, and the things I would potentially do once I was done praying. It was a spiritually harrowing, exhausting, and paralyzing time. I was filled with anxiety that God would not save me, even though God had already promised me that salvation was mine through Jesus Christ.
When I think of Zechariah, that is exactly what I imagine happened. Scripture tells us that he and Elizabeth were both righteous in God’s sight, both from priestly lines. What this means is that they had satisfied God with their commitment to following his law. This does not mean they were perfect, but more or less means that their hearts were seen to be in the right place.
Yet, when in God’s presence being given a miraculous revelation that he and his wife prayed for every night, Zechariah found himself skeptical. Who was he or Elizabeth that God would allow them, both without children, to suddenly have a child in old age. Who were they, Abraham and Sarah? This couldn’t be. Surely he wasn’t worthy of such an honor.
The doubts, the fears, the uncertainty, the shock, the wanting to avoid false hopes and newly crushed dreams, Zechariah finds himself paralyzed. It was his sacred honor to serve in the inner sanctuary of the temple, where the Ark of the Covenant sat. It was his duty and yet, all he could do is doubt what the Lord was placing on his heart.
That doubt and fear had long-term affects. Well, really they were only about 9 months in length; however, nine months of not being able to speak would seem like an eternity, no doubt. Still, it wasn’t until Zechariah laid eyes on his son John, the boy chosen by God to prepare the way for Jesus, that Zechariah realized that God’s promise is FOR REAL. At that moment, he was no longer paralyzed, but freed from those fears, guilts and uncertainties. He went from being unable to speak, to quite audibly confirming the name of his son, who would go on to be known as John the Baptist.
The same was true for me as well. Once I realized that God’s Salvific work had been done in me, that there was nothing I could do to earn God’s grace, I just HAD to open up to it and truly receive it. God’s free gift was just that FREE…and it was GIVEN. All I needed to do was to fully accept it in order to free myself up for serving God. All of these years later, I am a pastor and serving in so many ways that Jesus still amazes me. God is great, all the time.
By Rev. Todd Lattig
For Pondering & Prayer
Friends, the same could be true for all of us. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. Advent is not a time of earning the grace of the coming King of Kings, but a time of preparing our hearts to make room for the one who is ALREADY KING of our lives. If you but open your hearts full to Christ’s free gift, and accept it, you will find yourself freed to witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ in your life and the lives around you.
Prayer: Lord, I know I am not perfect and you have not asked me to be. You have simply asked me to open myself up to you and to completely put my faith in you. I do Lord! Help me where I do not, so that I may more freely serve you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.
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