Let me tell you my story, now that I can talk again…

I’m an old man, way too old to have an infant son.  But this is what the last year has held.  It’s a year I still don’t understand, and that makes me wonder at what God is going to do with all of us.  A year ago, I was just an ordinary Jewish priest, serving in the temple here in Jerusalem.  There are somewhere between 18 and 20 thousand Jewish priests right now, and we need at most 1,000 or so to do the work of the Temple at any one time.  So we’re divided into 24 different groups.  I’m in the Abijah division.  We call ourselves the A-game.  (The other priests hate that, to be honest.)  And with 24 different groups, we only serve at the Temple 1 month every 2 years.  And during that month, we were serving, and the Lord gave me an amazing honor.  We cast lots to see who God would choose to go into the Temple and burn incense in worship before him.  Most of the time you’re just serving outside in the courtyards.  It’s good and honorable work, but it really isn’t as remarkable day-to-day as you’d think.  But the lot fell to me.  God chose me to go in to burn incense.

So as everyone was worshipping outside, I went in.  Now as you go in to burn incense, you’re doing the ceremony, but you’re praying the whole time.  As priests, our job is to pray for the nation as a whole, especially praying that Messiah will come.  But I was praying for my wife and myself, too.  And that’s fine – we can pray for ourselves as we do our work.  You see, we have never had children, and now we can’t – or so we thought – and this is a really rough society if you don’t have kids.  It’s considered such a shame.  But it’s not really just the shame of it, though that’s there.  It’s just that we really want to have children.  We’ve been longing so long for it, and month after month and year after year of trying.  Nothing.  It hurts.  Terribly.  So I was praying for ourselves and for our nation.

And I about had a heart attack, because an angel of the Lord appeared to me.  Really.  Nobody believed me at first.  I mean, this kind of stuff doesn’t happen every day.  But there he was, standing just to the right of the altar where we burn incense.  And any of you who think it’s cool to see an angel, or who think angels are cute cuddly things, let me tell you.  You don’t really want to see an angel.  I’m pretty sure I’ve never been so scared in my life.

But he said not to be scared.  Gotta admit, I’m not sure I ever obeyed that command.  I was still freaking out.  But he said that my prayer had been heard.  Naturally, I thought he meant my prayer for Messiah to come, and I started to rejoice.  But then he kept talking, and he said “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.”

Now I’ve gotta tell you, I didn’t believe him at all.  I mean, who would?  We got married young, and we tried to have a child for 30 years.  And then it’s been years since then.  We’re well past the age when my wife can have children.  Maybe if they ever write this up in a book I’ll ask them to be kind and to just say that we are “well along in years.”  That’ll be a kind way to put it.  Of course I didn’t believe the angel.  Who would?  It’s impossible now.  Biology is pretty unforgiving.

I stammered out something about “How in the world can this happen?  I mean, we’re old.”  I was so flabbergasted that I almost had forgotten to be afraid.  And he responded and said his name was Gabriel.  Gabriel.  Oh Lord.  Gabriel, the angel who had brought visions to Daniel.  I’m just a normal old priest.  What am I doing talking to Gabriel?

And this guy apparently doesn’t take unbelief well.  He told me that since I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t be able to speak until it happened.  Honestly, that may sound harsh, but really it wasn’t.  I’m just so grateful he didn’t take the promise back.  I was worried that I might have messed the whole thing up.  It’s not that I didn’t want to believe, but at that moment, I just really didn’t.  But he said the promise would come true, but I’d be mute until then.  And I was.

As you can imagine, I’ve had plenty of reading time, what with being mute and all.  And I’ve been trying to figure out what it all means.  You’ve gotta understand the rarity of things like this.  I mean, it’s easy to read the Scriptures and think that miracles are going off right and left, all the time.  But that’s really a trick of recording.  You don’t record all the years and decades and centuries without miracles in the Scriptures.  You record the high points, so when you read through, it looks like miracle after miracle after miracle.  But in reality, there are long, long periods where we know by faith that God exists, but we’re not seeing him act in supernatural ways.  We’re just living and farming and hoping and praying.

Things like this occur rarely.  And they occur when God is going to do something big.  So I spent months searching the Scriptures to try to understand what this might be, that Gabriel – I mean, again – Gabriel had come.  And that he’d said that we – well past the age – we’re going to have a child anyway, even though my dear wife was barren.

Now as you can imagine, my very first thoughts ran to our patriarch Abraham.  I mean, that his wife Sarah was barren, and that when she was way past childbearing age, God promised Abraham and Sarah a son.  And he made that son, and Abraham’s descendants through him, into the nation of Israel, our people.  And he promised that he would bless the world through us, Abraham’s offspring.

And now he’s telling us we will have a son.  Why?

But as I searched the Scriptures, I found another time.  The great prophet Samuel.  Samuel’s mother Hannah struggled for so long, unable to have a baby, and God gave her the blessing of Samuel.  And he went on not just to become a great prophet – one of the greatest ever – but also to be the prophet that prepared the way for our people Israel to have a king.  He was the one who God used to anoint David, the king of the Jews, the house in whom we still hope, for the Scriptures say that Messiah will come from David’s house.

And now he’s telling us that we will have a son.  Why?  Is God going to do something similar again?  Does he mean that our baby will prepare the way for a king?  Could he prepare the way for the Messiah to come from David’s house?

Because it gets even more amazing than that.  Our young relative Mary came to visit about and stayed with us for three months.  She just left recently.  And she showed up pregnant.  Now you can imagine what I thought, and I was getting ready to rebuke her, but my wife Elizabeth stopped me short.  (She usually knows when to tell me to simmer down and listen.)  Because Elizabeth said that our baby in her womb leaped when Mary walked in.  And I know babies kick, but Elizabeth said this was something different.  And she said she just knew that this was something different, that the Lord had done this in Mary.  Now that’s a bit weird to me.  I mean, really.  Mary isn’t married yet, she’s just betrothed.

And it seemed to me that there was a much more down to earth explanation.  But then Mary started talking, and you’ll never believe what she said.  And she said that Gabriel had appeared to her, too!  And I wrote down what she said he said, because it’s so amazing.  He said to her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.[1]

She asked the obvious question, telling him she was a virgin.  How could this happen?  (And he apparently was a little more understanding with her than he had been with me.)  And he answered her, “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.[2] And she said that the angel told her that we were expecting a child, and that’s why she’d come, because this is all so confusing and bewildering.  But she swore she was still a virgin, and I believe her.

But what do we make of all of this?  What is God doing?  Gabriel coming to us both.  My wife expecting a child, after all this time.  But even more, Mary expecting a child, though she’s never been with a man.  A man born of God – really a man, but with the Spirit of God, not with an earthly father.  What’s going on?  We really don’t understand, to be honest.

And just last week our dear little boy John was born.  That’s why I can talk to you now.  See, he was born, and I’d written on my writing tablet to tell her that we had to name him John.  Nobody in our family has ever been named John, so we got a lot of push back, you know.  I mean, he was supposed to be Zechariah the 16th.  We do the family names thing in my culture.  But Elizabeth insisted they name him John, and everybody looked at me.  I don’t know what they were thinking, like I was going to say something or whatever.  It’s amazing how they keep forgetting.  But I motioned for my writing tablet and wrote “His name is John.”  And suddenly I could talk again!  Praise God!  I am so sick of that writing tablet.  I’m gonna burn that thing.

So now everyone in the neighborhood’s amazed.  God’s hand is clearly on our little John in a special way.  And God has been faithful in his promises, so we trust he will be faithful when he says that John is going to bring many of the people of Israel back to the Lord our God.  The angel even told me that John would go before the Lord in the Spirit and power of Elijah.  And Elizabeth swears that the baby in Mary’s womb is going to be the Lord.  I don’t really get it.  It’ll be a baby that’s really a human.  But there is no human father, and it’ll be a baby that’s really the Lord, the God of Israel.  We don’t understand what God is doing, but we’re waiting to see, waiting to see what happens when Mary has her baby in a month or two.  What is God going to do with all of us?  Does He mean to finally save us?  Is Messiah finally going to come?

You know, it occurs to me that you’re waiting, too.  That’s what Advent is – waiting for the day you celebrate the birth of Mary’s baby.  But might you be waiting for more than just a celebration?  Might you be waiting for God to do something great in you during this month?  Where are you waiting to see God act?  Do you believe he would?  Do you believe he will?

Because God wants you to see what it means that he came to earth, incarnate, as Mary’s son.  Do you understand how that upends everything?  Do you understand that he’s calling you to a different life, a better life, an eternal life – in the work of this young boy to come through Mary.  Would you pray that God would do amazing things in you in this next month, in the presence of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ?

This was originally published in Ministry and Leadership in Winter 2013 and is republished with the permission of Reformed Theological Seminary.

[1] Luke 1:31-33

[2] Luke 1:35

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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