…an angel of the Lord appeared to [Zechariah], 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 call him John….he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:11-13,17-20)
Before we break down today’s passage, we first need some context. This was the biggest day of Zechariah’s career as a priest. Luke 1:9 tells us that “[Zechariah] was chosen by lot…to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” As Daniel Darling explains in The Characters of Christmas, this was a “once-in-a-lifetime event, the highest honor in a temple priest’s life. Zechariah…had waited his whole life for this.”
As he’s in the temple on his momentous day, something even more momentous happens. An angel appears and tells Zechariah that he will improbably father a son he is to name John (that’s John the Baptist to you and me) who will “make ready a people prepared” for Israel’s Messiah. But Zechariah “did not believe” the angel’s words.
Don’t let the irony of this scene pass you by. Zechariah was at the top of his vocational field, doing the job of instilling faith in the people. And yet he is punished for showing a lack of faith himself.
Here’s what I think was going on. Zechariah was clearly doing his work for God. And yet his lack of faith revealed that, at least in this one moment, he was not doing his work with God—communing with him and relying on his promises.
So the angel punished Zechariah with silence, which of course would have precluded him from doing much of his work. But Zechariah comes out on the other side months later with renewed faith and trust in the Lord (see Luke 1:67-79).
Zechariah’s story is a wonderful reminder that God loves us too much to see his children work for him and not with him. We work for God when we view our office as our mission field, create art that shares themes of redemption, and use our businesses to right what’s wrong in creation. We work with God when we slow ourselves down enough to experience his presence, meditate on his promises, and rest long enough to simply enjoy being his child.
In his terrific book With, Skye Jethani cautions us not to put “God’s mission ahead of God himself.” I think Zechariah would reply with a hearty “Amen!” encouraging us all to work for and with God today!