Have you ever hoped and prayed for something so much that you ached for—so badly that you didn’t think you could live without it? You prayed and prayed day after day, month after month, year after year, and…
I have dear friends who wanted a child more than anything. They invested everything they could to make their dream come true. They prayed. They took medications, had surgeries, fertility treatments. They did everything but came up empty.
If you’ve ever had a similar experience, you know the clock keeps ticking. The years pass. Eventually it’s time to give up, move on, think of something else—anything to get rid of that empty feeling.
You pretend you’re okay. You try to find another dream, a hobby, a distraction, or a giant hammer like the one the Grinch used to quiet the noise in his head. And you go on day after day, month after month…
Liz and Zach were just like that. Young and on fire, they dreamed of a beautiful family. Everyone they knew, all their friends, their siblings, even their cousins had homes filled with the love and laughter of children. Like my friends, they had tried everything. They took advantage of every available technology, and they wore out their knees in prayer—begging God for one child.
But the cruel years went by. And Liz couldn’t even bear to tell Zach when it had been almost a year since her last cycle. Not a chance, she thought. Not a prayer. She kept her tears to herself and decided to be the best aunt she could be since she would never be a mother or a grandmother. And her husband’s name would die with him.
She couldn’t fool Zach. He knew. But his heart was too big to let her know. He kept his smile, and somehow, he even held onto a thread of hope. Our God is the God of miracles, he thought. There is nothing He can’t do. And if He can do anything, I can surely hold onto my desperate hope.
Zach had always had an important but mundane job until one day, his boss said, “Your number came up today. Do you know what that means?”
Zach knew. His boss hadn’t even finished the first sentence, when Zach’s heart pounded in his chest. His pulse drummed in his ears. He couldn’t hear another word. And nothing else mattered. His number had never come up. There were so many men in his family and the other families who were pledged to the priesthood that many of the priests would never have the lot fall on them—not once in their lifetime.
For the first time in his life, Zach had been chosen to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar. An old man, he had lived a long and faithful life. A devoted priest and loving husband, he bore the admiration of the other priests and his family. He and Liz had walked faithfully according to the Torah, and they were righteous before God. Although it may have seemed God had abandoned them, they never abandoned Him.
Zach gathered the incense, pulled open the veil, and entered the Holy Place. He’d heard the stories, seen the drawings, but he had never seen the golden lampstand with its seven flames lighting the whole room. The golden table on the opposite side held twelve loaves of bread to represent each of the twelve tribes of Israel. His pulse quickened as he looked toward the altar of incense and behind it the huge double veil that stretched from ceiling to floor and covered the Most Holy Place.
He had never been so near to God, but he still felt the nagging emptiness of lost hope. He glanced over his shoulder and listened. The prayers of the people outside echoed through the hall. It was time for him to place the sweet, crushed incense onto the altar.
But, as he turned around, an angel of the Lord appeared and stood on the right side of the altar of incense. Fear gripped him, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many people will rejoice at his birth for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the rebellious to wisdom and justice. He will prepare the people for their coming Lord.”
Tears mingled with his fear. That tiny thread of hope—how could he trust it after so many years? God had performed miracles. The Red Sea. Manna. Water from the rock. But God had never performed a miracle for him.
“How will I know? I’m old, and my wife is too.” He swallowed his doubts and wished he could swallow those words.
The angel stood tall, eyes narrowed, shoulders back. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. My words will be fulfilled in their time, but because you did not believe, you will remain speechless until the day your son is born.”
Zach had lost all track of time. The incense and the showbread smelled sweet, but the angel was gone, and the prayers had ceased.
Outside, the people waited, wondering why he was taking so long. When he came out, he looked dazed and dumbfounded. Something had happened. He couldn’t speak. He made gestures, but no one could understand him.
In silence, he completed his work, and when his time of service had ended, he went home.
After some days, Liz realized she was pregnant. Hope had been reborn.
* * *
I used considerable license with this story, not to change it, but to make it feel more personal. We’ve all faced disappointments. We’ve all had hopes and dreams that didn’t work as planned. But the God who created us, holds us close. He knows us. He loves us. And He wants the best for us. That doesn’t mean of life full of comfort, pleasure, and ease. But it does mean a life full of hope and promise, a heart overflowing with love that is born from knowing how much He loves us.
Elizabeth and Zechariah had given up hope of ever having a child, but they never gave up on God, and He never gave up on them. Was their life full of comfort and ease after John was born?
They still lived under Roman occupation. They were subject to corrupt religious authority. Life wasn’t easy. And even though their son paved the way for the Anointed One, their son would pay with his life.
History doesn’t tell us whether Zechariah and Elizabeth were still alive when John was beheaded, but their story of faithfulness assures us that they saw the bigger picture, the grand mosaic pieced together by the Grand Designer, the Almighty God who sent His Own Son to die in place of all of us.
I encourage you to read the first two chapters of Luke and picture the Christmas story in a new way.