At the end of yesterday’s reflection, the angel had just appeared to Zechariah in the temple. God breaking into his disciplined routine, with a life changing encounter. Today we see what Gabriel brought to him.
And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 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. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 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.”
Zechariah’s response was fear. This is the usual response to angels. I haven’t encountered an angel, but in the Bible and experience of people I’ve met, it’s a scary moment! The bright, glorious beauty, majesty and power is at the very limit of what human beings can cope with. How much more glorious and beautiful is God’s majesty! We speak often of fear as a negative and chronic fear can be, getting locked into mindsets of expecting the worst is destructive. Chronic fear is expecting negative things, this fear is about the unexpected. Gabriel startles Zechariah, and then immediately reassured him with words of grace and love from God.
What beautiful words of reassurance. “your prayer has been heard”. God has heard your prayer. Decades of prayer, waiting, longing, have all been heard. Earlier this week, Mark Warburton wrote about Psalm 130 and waiting, Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited a very long time, not knowing if God would ever give them their hearts’ desire.
This period of lock-down is full of waiting and unknowns. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know if we will contract this virus. We don’t know if our prayers to end it are making any difference. On Saturday I recognised that one of the profound, painful emotions I’m experiencing in powerlessness. Stuck at home, we are unable to do as much to help others as we would like. People I have phoned this week, feel the same, “I feel useless’, ‘I wish I could do more’. My wife is an A&E Doctor but unable to work for 14 days, because one of our children had a fever on Monday, she’s finding that so tough. When I recognised I felt powerless, it reignited my desire to pray. The one thing we can do in this season, is to pray and rely on the power of God. Prayers of empathy, remembering people before God because we care about them AND prayers of faith, crying out to God to bring change where we are unable to. Zechariah and Elizabeth had decades of powerlessness and barrenness, but God had heard their prayer.
‘And you will have joy and gladness’, Gabriel uses two similar words (‘gladness’ here is a rare word, meaning ‘exultant rejoicing’) to express the abundance through repetition. There is a joy like no other when God speaks to us with reassurance, fulfilment and hope. His words are powerful, beyond their simple meaning. Yes, Zechariah & Elizabeth will celebrate having a baby, like many couple do, but when God gives joy, it’s more than a human celebration, it’s an overwhelming, heart re-shaping, healing, restoring, releasing experience. I can recall a few moments when God has spoken words of life, with joy and gladness and they are unlike anything else I can describe. Happiness is a response to pleasure, Joy is a transforming experience of God. Think of the gap between the words ‘nice and delicious’ and you’re some way to seeing the gap between ‘happy and joyful’. This joy will not be a private thing, Gabriel goes on to prophesy that from the start of his life, John will have a wider impact, many will rejoice at his birth. It will be a sign of hope, which will spread in the power of the Spirit.
Gabriel then prophesies over John’s life. He will be great, he will be set apart and holy, (no alcohol.) and he will be filled with the Spirit from within his Mother’s womb, which we see fulfilled later in the chapter when Mary visits Elizabeth.
There is something so wonderful about prophesying over babies, I love doing it at baptisms and we’ve prayed for God’s original design for each of our godchildren when they were born. They may not have the historical impact that John the Baptist had, but speaking words of life and destiny over children helps us in so many ways. It helps parents and wider family to see their redemptive qualities, (even when they’re not fully formed or hard to parent), to pray, love, encourage and nurture the gold that’s in them. It helps us to invest in their lives, to see them become who God has made them.
The prophesy over John’s life fulfils the last words of the Old Testament, (Malachi 4.5-6) the previous words of scripture before the start of the gospels. 400+ years of history are bridged when God speaks. It’s a prophesy about reconciliation between generations. God’s heart has always been for loving links from generation to generation, because through those links passes wisdom and the story of God’s love for his people. Broken relationships between parents and children break that chain, they rob the child and generations to come of wisdom, a God-given means of spreading his values to all humanity. When we see the value of what each generation can pass on to the next and then see the mess there has been in the Western world in the past 50 years, we realise that we urgently need to see generational reconciliation in our day. We might feel powerless for that to happen. We are, but God isn’t, so he invites us to pray!