I met with four men for the Tuesday night Bible Study. They represented a cross-section of the jail population. Two men were about to spend their second Christmas in jail while still waiting for their trial date to come up. One man will be “celebrating” his first Christmas in jail. And the final man was scheduled for release at 9AM the next morning.
All four men knew what it was like to wait. All had experienced hardship. One was eagerly awaiting the next chapter in life’s story. One man was honest enough to say that, as he waited, his thoughts moved to plans of revenge.
Tonight we read:
5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.
8 So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is 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 in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also 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 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’[b] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”
19 And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
21 And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. 22 But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.
23 So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. 24 Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
I gave them some background on the story. Here was a man who, by external appearances had done everything right. He was born in the priestly tribe. He had married right. He had even been selected to serve in the temple. Some priests lived their whole lives without ever being chosen for that.
But as he was in the temple serving, something was still on his mind.
When each of us is praying or waiting in the presence of God, what is still on our mind? The men I was meeting with yearned for freedom. They yearned for restoration of broken relationships destroyed by reckless choices. They understood what it was like to be before God, and still have something on your mind – a wound that has yet to heal; a source of shame that is often unspoken. It is the cry of their hearts as they wait in their cell. It is that soul ache that presents itself while waiting for sleep.
An angel appears before Zacharias with amazing news: “your prayer is heard.” And he responds with skepticism just as these men might. What if an angel appeared in the jail cell? Is this vision a result of bad jail food, or poor ventilation? The men understood why he had questions.
There was some discussion about verse 20:
“But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
Was God being petty and vindictive? One man wondered if this punishment was Gabriel’s idea and God had nothing to do with it. How much does God punish us for unbelief, and how often does God just expect unbelief from us? There are no easy answers in tonight’s study.
The men understood what it was like to not be heard, and to have difficulty communicating to others.
…for he beckoned to them and remained speechless.
In some ways being incarcerated is like being stricken mute.
We wondered how being mute changed him. What did he learn in this time of enforced silence? What did he learn during this time of waiting? The men talked about how they have learned to observe others. Is this a good day to joke around with that guy? Is the guard in a particularly crabby mood today? Did someone just receive their divorce papers?
Elizabeth was hidden away for 5 months. Being in jail is like being hidden away. Elizabeth could see the world carrying on while she watched. These men watch the daily news programs and the world moves on, for better or for worse, without them.
It seems that Zacharias and Elizabeth had much in common with the waiting experienced by the incarcerated.