In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, 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 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.
He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And 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 on 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.
An angel appears to the old man Zechariah. He may have been lost in his thoughts as he performed his Temple duties, and seeing an angel suddenly appear beside the altar at which he was burning incense must have startled and frightened him. Zechariah should have been the only person in the room.
God had heard Zechariah’s audacious prayer – that his line would not die out with him and Elizabeth. God had granted them a son. Clearly the aged Zechariah and post-prime Elizabeth would have to play their part in this, but perhaps Zechariah hadn’t thought it all through.
The angel goes on to describe their child, who is to be named John. God gets to choose the name. This man John will be a great prophet, as great as Elijah, and a reconciler of people to people, and people to God. An amazing and beautiful ministry.
Zechariah didn’t disbelieve – he just needed further assurance from the angel. “I am old”, said Zechariah. “I am Gabriel”, said the angel. Gabriel stands in the presence of God. Case closed. So was Zechariah’s voice, at least until he was able to announce his child’s name.
Gabriel may have had a higher angelic role or status than some. The Bible does not name him as an archangel – in fact, only Michael is given that title. Some Roman Catholic traditions may look to the book of Enoch (not in the standard Bible) where seven supposedly high-ranking angel characters are named. While we have read that God is surrounded by hosts of angels Gabriel reveals that he has a standing position before the presence of God. Angels do not get tired of standing.
Don’t be surprised when God answers your prayers!
Can you remember what happened after this? If not, read on in the chapter. Why might the angel have dealt with Zechariah in that way?
Do you pray audacious prayers, or do you think them through first, and then decide not to pray them?
Father God, when angels bring a message, there’s usually more to it. You had prepared the gift of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but the child you gave them was not sent to be their comfort for their old age but one who would go before the Lord, whose message still challenges us today. I should have my wits about me should an angel come my way. Amen.