"But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time."
Every now and then, God surprises us. I'm not talking simply about daily gifts of grace, the little delights that come unexpectedly. Rather, I'm speaking also of big surprises, the sort that come as if out of nowhere, the surprises that stun us and threaten to turn our lives around, or even to overturn them altogether.
Zechariah had one of these experiences. A priest by birth, he might well have been surprised that it was his turn to fulfill his priestly duty in the Temple. This was not a common occurrence, and Zechariah might have been startled to learn that his name had come up in the craw. But his surprise of being chosen to serve in the Temple was nothing compared with the shock that awaited him as he burned incense in the sanctuary. All of a sudden, an angel appeared to him . . . big surprise number one. The angel told him that his wife would soon give birth to a son . . . big surprise number two, because Elizabeth was well beyond childbearing years. So how did Zechariah respond to God's surprises? He asked, "How can I be sure this will happen?" (1:18). He "didn't believe" what the angel had said to him (1:20). In a way, it was sensible for Zechariah to doubt whether his wife would actually bear a son, given her age and long life of barrenness. Yet, we must remember that Zechariah wasn't receiving this news from some human prophet. He was staring into the face of an angel of the Lord! Surely this would have been reason to accept even the surprising news of Elizabeth's pending pregnancy.
But not for Zechariah. Luke doesn't tell us why he responded with unbelief. We do know that he was righteous before God and faithful in his obedience to God's law (1:6). Moreover, we know that God had chosen Zechariah to be the father of John the Baptist, one of the most significant human beings in God's plan of salvation. Perhaps Zechariah was so stunned that he couldn't think straight. Or, perhaps, his heart was hard when it came to the issue of a child. We can only imagine how many hours Zechariah had spent throughout his life begging the Lord for a son, only to hear what seemed to be a permanent "No." Maybe Zechariah's heart was primed to be skeptical. How better to protect himself from disappointment.
Because Zechariah failed to believe God's promise through the angel, he was silenced for the time of his wife's pregnancy. But notice how God's grace prevails. Zechariah did indeed receive the son of promise. His unbelief may have displeased the Lord, but it did not keep him from blessing Zechariah with his heart's desire.
Today, I want to be open to anything and everything God wants to do in my life. I want to have eyes to see the small surprises, so that I might receive them with gratitude. And I want to be ready to say "Yes" to God's call, no matter whether it fits with my expectations or not.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How has God surprised you in your life? How have you responded to these surprises? Have you ever responded like Zechariah? How can you be more open to what God wants to do in and through you?
PRAYER: Gracious God, as I read this account of Zechariah's encounter with the angel, I find it easy to relate to him and his response. You know how I am, Lord, how reticent, how questioning, how unresponsive to your unexpected surprises. I'm surprised you haven't shut me up for nine months. (Thank you for not doing this!)
Help me, Lord, to be open to your surprises. May I see the small ones so I might accept them with thanksgiving. May I be open to the big ones, even if they threaten to unsettle my life.
Thank you, dear Lord, for your amazing grace. Thank you for blessing Zechariah with a son, in spite of his unbelief. Thank you for blessing me so richly even though I am often reticent to trust you.
All praise be to you, God of grace, God of surprises. Amen.