My wife Val, who teaches Maths, tells me that it’s about a hundred million to one that my lottery numbers will come up (or even less, seeing that I don’t do the lottery). To which, the standard answer is, “So there IS a chance?”
Looking at Luke 1: 8-10
“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. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”
And here, Luke describes something of a “lottery situation.” Zechariah was one of out of 20,000 priests in Israel. He served at the temple in Jerusalem for just two one-week periods each year. Plus: when it came to offering the incense at the daily sacrifice, a priest could only do this once in his lifetime .It was an honoured ministry, for the priest stood in the Holy Place alone. And as the worshippers prayed outside, the priest offered the incense inside, symbolically offering the prayers of the people to God. This was a task enjoying considerable prestige because there were many who would never have the chance to be there. You were, truly, one of the few.
Because today, the lot fell on Zechariah.
Has that ever happened to you? Something really unexpected happens, and you say, “I am so lucky!” A hundred-million to one shot. If you are a believer –if you believe that God intervenes in some way in human affairs- then you really have an issue with “coincidence,” right? Can there be such a thing? Is this just chance or was I chosen? That moment, that person, that opportunity….
It’s strange to hear hardened Atheist celebrities admit that they feel “blessed.” Blessed by whom?
And this is what has happened to Zechariah.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
It is at this point that Zechariah’s life takes on new meaning. I expect that Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed long and hard for children. The answer, though, had always seemed to be a flat “No.” Was it that God didn’t care? The truth was that God cared more than they ever possibly thought. He was preparing a surprise for them all along. But, the time had to be right (and God always get the timing right!).
There is almost a comic double-take in this strange scene. The priest, carefully putting on the vestments, the nervy solemnity of the whole occasion, the scary interruption of an angelic voice… the shocked surprise.
And then, the angel gives the gracious part of this message, “Your prayer has been heard.”
There is going to be a child after all! Yes, it had looked hopeless, but this is the very thing that God specializes in. Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son. And he was to name him John. John was shorter form of the Hebrew name, Jochanan. Jochanan means “God is gracious.” It was a name full of meaning, for God was not only being gracious to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God was being gracious to all the people of the world. For this son, John, was going to be a prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was going to prepare the way for the Messiah.
For Zechariah, this was the dawn of a brand new day. Four centuries of prophetic silence has just been broken. God is getting ready to act. As it puts it in one translation of Ezekiel: “I am ready to go to work on the hearts of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 14). And now the two sides of the narrative combine: the God side and the human side. This is something we have all experienced, whether we call it luck or chance or “the descent of the muse,” or coincidence or serendipity. It seems like we have a hundred words to explain that feeling, that moment of intervention, when things shift gear and move inexplicably in our favour.
And, of course, God’s story is not the same as Zechariah’s story. It is so much bigger than Zechariah than our man is staggered into silence. We have been told that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “upright” people. In the context of first century devotional living, this meant that they were believers in a living God and ready to submit their lives to his authority. We don’t live in that context, and so we are stuck with the lottery concept of “coincidence.” But God is not bound by our inhibitions nor constrained by our atheism. He speaks. And every day, people hear for the very first time.
Maybe today is your day.
Father, I receive something strange from this passage:
It’s the perspective of the one who is chosen.
I begin to see that your choosing involves my response and is, truly, my responsibility.
I want to work with you, Father,
Because I trust that you have all things in your hands,
But be patient when I stumble and falter through fear and misunderstanding.
I realise that I am not the centre-point of all this choosing.
Neither was John. But we are a part of your patterning, your purposing, your story.
So I want to choose you too, Lord.