Luke begins his Jesus story by introducing us to an old man and an old woman. Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithfully serving God despite many obstacles to faith: barrenness, foreign occupation, national crisis, and the silence of God. It had been hundreds of years since Israel had heard or seen directly from God. In Zechariah’s day there was no glory cloud leading the way or manna falling from heaven. The walls of enemy cities were not crumbling, nor were there armies fleeing at the sight of angels. And there were no prophets bringing a fresh word from God for the contemporary moment. The evidences for God were in the distant past and his promises of an abundant future were beginning to fade from memory.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were among those who held on to faith. They kept hoping against hope while praying and doing what God had called them to do. On one particular day, God called Zechariah to a special task. For the first time in his priestly life, he would have the privilege of burning the incense offering inside the Holy Place of the temple. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As Zechariah placed the incense on the altar and watched the smoke rise heavenward, he began to pray in earnest. At this moment he was the link between God and his people: Almighty God was seated upon his throne in heaven, the people were outside praying, and Zechariah was in between.
And then God spoke.
Through an angel, God gave Zechariah good news to share with his fellow believers. The good news was that Zechariah would be the father of a prophet who would prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. Once again, God was beginning to act in the midst of his people, and Zechariah was the first to witness his opening movements.
Yet, Zechariah doubted. He could not believe what his ears were hearing. His elderly wife giving birth to a child! His own son preparing the hearts of the people for the coming Messiah! A renewal amongst the people of Israel! And an angel from heaven telling him all this!
On the one hand, we understand why Zechariah doubted. If we were in his sandals would we do any different? It’s not as if he had ever seen an angel before or caught a glimpse of heavenly glory. These things were new and marvelous and strange. They were unbelievable.
On the other hand, it is a wonder Zechariah ever doubted. Everything about his surroundings was shouting out reminders of who God is and what he had done. As Zechariah entered the temple, he could hear the bleating of a lamb and could see the blood-stained altar it stood beside – God would provide a sacrifice for sins. Moving into the Holy Place, Zechariah could spot the flickering candles atop the golden lampstand – God is light and glory for his people, even as they dwell in darkness. Looking to the right, he could smell the twelve loaves of bread – God is always present and will provide for his people. Then Zechariah might cast a glance to the heavy curtain separating himself from the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant would have been – God is faithful to his covenant word and will rescue his people from slavery. Finally, as he lay the incense on the altar, he could smell its pleasing aroma and see the smoke rising up – God listens to and answers the prayers of the righteous.
Zechariah’s problem was that his eyes of faith were shut to the reality of God all around him. Though he faithfully waited on God and trusted him for salvation, when the time of fulfillment approached, his faith was not large enough to see it. His thinking had been limited by the constraints of this world and his imagination dulled by the effects of sin. He wanted proof that God would do the impossible things he promised, but the proof was all around him.
If Zechariah had remembered the story of another elderly couple receiving an unexpected son, perhaps he could have believed that God would do the same for him. If he had thought back on all the times God showed up in the midst of Israel’s troubles, perhaps he could have believed that God was about to act again. Like Thomas would do some years later, Zechariah saw and heard the impossible, and it was beyond what he could believe. It was not that he outright rejected it, but that he sought more evidence. He had faith, but it was weak.
Zechariah’s weak faith is a lesson for us. If God showed up unexpectedly in our life, would we have the faith to believe? Are the stories of what God has done for his people fresh and real in our minds, or do they seem more like fables? As we sit amongst the assembly of God each Sunday are we blind and deaf to what is happening around us?
While Luke’s account of Zechariah contains a warning for us, it is also an encouragement: the size of our faith is not what saves us. Whether our faith is as tiny as a mustard seed or as towering as an oak, if it is rooted in Christ it is effective. God used Zechariah for a holy purpose, even as his faith was too small to fully see the wonders of God. We too, can be effective in our service to God even as our faith stumbles and doubts. But let us remember to remember. Let us look and wonder at the evidences of God’s activity in our world, both past and present. God is able to do far more than we can imagine. Don’t doubt it.