And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John….And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this?”
What a rich story this is! Deceptively simple at first, it seems like a warning against the lack of faith—an appropriate story, perhaps, for the feast day of St. Thomas. But Zechariah’s encounter with the archangel Gabriel is more than a rebuke for asking questions. It’s a story about how God communicates with humanity.
While the people are outside praying, Zechariah burns the incense which rises like prayer to God’s presence (“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee” Psalm 141). As he is doing this, Gabriel–a being who stands in the presence of God–appears, revealing that Zechariah’s own prayers for a son will be answered, though his wife Elizabeth is past childbearing age. This is first of two times that Gabriel will announce an upending of the biological order. About six months later he will appear to Mary who, at the other end of the child-bearing continuum, has never known a man.
The Bible tells us that Zechariah is troubled and fearful. Most people are when angels appear. “Don’t be afraid! There will be joy and gladness!” says Gabriel, and then Zechariah, still anxious, asks the thing he shouldn’t. He asks for a sign.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a sign when someone claims to speak for God. Adam and Eve may never have asked God, “Is it You?” but on this side of Eden we do. Signs are one way to see if someone has the authority they claim. God, in fact, seems rather fond of signs: rainbows, burning bushes, resurrection.
The problem for Zechariah is that the angel IS the sign, and unlike Mary who will later ask Gabriel, “How is this miraculous birth going to be accomplished?” Zechariah asks “How do I know you’re speaking the truth?” Zechariah misses the miracle right before him, not to mention the promise of joy.
But one of the most wonderful things about Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel takes place when this aging priest is rendered silent. When Zechariah asks The Sign for a sign, he becomes A Sign himself, speaking through his silence and with signs. “And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb.” It’s a remarkably poetic way to make a point and carry the message forward.
At the naming ceremony eight days after the baby’s birth, Zechariah’s mouth will be opened and his tongue loosed. He will prophesy about his son’s calling to go before the Christ and prepare God’s people for salvation.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people…that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear.”
We live in a skeptical age, full of epistemological questions. We know how Photoshop and spin doctors work, and Abraham Lincoln himself has reminded us not to trust every quote on the internet. How can we possibly know if a word comes from God? How will we recognize his presence when God is visiting his people?
When the good news is given to you, it will change you. You will become a sign to others, called and given authority to carry a joyful message.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Alice Campbell blogs about her experience of God and the Church at Grace is Everywhere.
Image: Archangel Gabriel, 14th c., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Public Domain.