A Delay in the Temple
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
“A Delay in the Temple”
Elizabeth looked so serene sitting there next to the kitchen window in the early morning light. She held a steaming cup in her hands to warm them, and her old wool shawl was draped across her shoulders. She raised the cup to her face and just held it there, breathing in the aroma of orange and mint and berries, watching the steam rise before her eyes.
Zechariah sat watching her from across the room, as he did every morning. This was their private ritual. As he was finishing his breakfast she would rise from the table, pour the heated water into her cup, and take her place beside the open window, where she could watch the shifting colors of the sunrise illuminate the hills before her. After a long period of quiet, she would always say something. Sometimes it was just a comment about the weather, how the clouds were dark or the air was cool or the rain was light or the light was especially clear. But more often, Elizabeth would offer a more thoughtful commentary on the inner workings of her heart or a startling insight into their lives. Zechariah waited, as he always did, for Elizabeth to begin.
“It’s not just about a baby, you know,” Elizabeth said, putting her cup down on the windowsill and rubbing her hands over her swollen belly. Zechariah didn’t know, and waited for her to explain. “I mean, this is an incredible blessing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not just about getting what we want.” She lapsed into silence, and Zechariah knew she wasn’t waiting for him to respond. He had been silent ever since that day in the temple. At first, Elizabeth had fretted over him, trying in exasperation to get him to talk to her, to respond to her questions or to her own deep brooding silences. But after a few weeks, she had given up trying to get him to talk, and she had started talking to her husband as she never had before. Or perhaps he had started listening as he never had before.
She told him things she had always tried to keep hidden from him. These were things that he suspected, of course, but she had never been able to put them into words. Or he had never wanted to hear them. She spoke at length about her pain and humiliation at their infertility. Actually, she had used the term barrenness. And she had spoken about her barrenness, not theirs. Elizabeth confessed that she thought it was all her fault, that she had searched her heart for years, trying to figure out what she had done to deserve this emptiness, what she had done to earn God’s disfavor. She spoke with sadness at how everyone around her had seemed to agree with her, that she must have been deserving of this fate of bareness for some unknown reason. Her voice shook with anger when she spoke of years of isolation and rejection. Zechariah knew he was implicated by her tone, that she believed he thought her at fault as well. Now, finally, she was putting it all into words, and he could not speak. He could not comfort her, he could not tell her of his own years of doubt and self-blame.
“I don’t know what happened to change all of that,” Elizabeth had said to him in one of her early morning monologues. “But one day when I was praying, it was as if God was telling me that I was just fine the way I was, mother or not. Barren or fertile, God loved me.” Zechariah thought back over the years to a time when Elizabeth had suddenly become less defensive about the whole baby thing. She had ignored the comments that were negative and unhelpful. A new calm had enveloped her. She and Zechariah seemed to argue less, and to sit in a comfortable silence together more often.
Elizabeth’s late in life pregnancy seemed to startle him more than it did her. In those months since his visit to the temple, Zechariah had wondered what kind of a priest he really was. He had always served faithfully and carried out his priestly duties with care and integrity, but he had not realized that on some levels his faith had eroded. He believed in God in his head, but somewhere along the way his heart had stopped believing. Zechariah no longer trusted God in his gut. This was the horrible truth that had been revealed to him in the temple: that he had become an emotional atheist.
Zechariah opened his mouth to say something to Elizabeth, but nothing came out. He had not gotten fully used to the silence that had enveloped him since he had gone to Jerusalem months before to serve in the temple. Everything had gone according to tradition. He and the others from the priestly lineage had gathered for their week of service in the temple. They had talked and laughed, sharing news from home and other small talk about the Romans or the weather or the latest local gossip. Then the group of men drew lots to determine what their temple duties would be that week. Zechariah had gasped when he drew the lot allowing him the privilege of going into the Holy of Holies, that most sacred place where the prayers were offered up to God.
Zechariah had waited for this moment all his life. One of his colleagues picked up a piece of rope from the floor and joked: “Want to tie this to your ankle?” They all laughed nervously, remembering the tradition in Solomon’s temple, when the priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year, that vast empty room with the empty throne. The priest’s one job was to atone for the sins of the people, and he would utter the unspeakable name of God, and then wait to be blasted to bits by the power of God. They tied a rope to the ankle of the priest, just in case God showed up in all of God’s power and might and the priest was struck dead by the intensity of holiness. Just in case, they could pull the priest out of the holy of holies, dead or alive.
But no one Zechariah knew had ever had such an experience. Perhaps they, too, had long since stopped believing in the power of God. Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day with a feeling of excitement in spite of his low expectations. This duty could only come to him once in his life; perhaps he would find something here to speak to his deep, empty sadness.
It was when the incense had been lit and the clouds of smoke began to billow out around him that Zechariah noticed someone standing off in the corner, to the right of the altar where the incense pot sat puffing holiness into the air. At first Zechariah cried out in surprise, fearing that a foreigner had come there to defile that most sacred of spaces. But the air began to shimmer around the man and Zechariah gasped again at the sight of his shining face. The man spoke slowly, as if Zechariah was hard of hearing “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.” Zechariah’s hands were shaking so badly that he pressed them against his mouth to still them. Suddenly the man, the angel, closed his eyes as if listening to some deep music within him and then he began to hum softly. Soon the words tumbled out, flowing over Zechariah, words about joy and gladness and rejoicing. The angel sang of this child John, the one who would prepare the people for the coming of God.
By the end of the angel’s song, Zechariah had sunk to his knees in fear, and he shook his head in disbelief. “How can this be? How shall I know? It’s not possible.” Zechariah hadn’t meant for the angel to see, had not meant for the angel to know how empty and unbelieving his heart had become. He had not even fully known it himself until that moment. The rest of his time in the temple was a blur to him, and he knew that his deep, unbreakable silence was so that he could not speak of his doubt to Elizabeth.
Everyone had wondered why Zechariah took so long in the temple that day. All the outside world knew was that there was a delay in the temple. But for Zechariah, the world had stopped and started again in that empty span of waiting. He trembled for days afterwards. And on the nights that followed, Elizabeth held him long into the darkness, wondering at his silence, wondering at his fear. And they had made love in the deep, wordless way of the long married.
“It’s not just about a baby,” Elizabeth said again, bringing Zechariah out of his remembering and back into their kitchen. “I mean, there was a time when I believed that being in relationship with God was about asking for things and having God give them to me. But God is bigger than all that. God is bigger than my wants and needs and desires and God does not exist to make my life easy or to give me what I want.” She laughed, “It’s strange, now that I have what I have always wanted, I know that God is even more than this baby. It’s not just about a baby. It’s about having this big mystery that lives inside of me, that lives inside of each of us.”
She was silent again, and as she held her hand against the movement in her belly, a frown formed between her eyes. “There was a time,” she said, “when I convinced myself that not having children was better, that this world was too violent and horrid a place for any of us to inhabit.” As she chose her next words, a shadow passed across her face. “I know that I can not protect this child, that even my love can not keep him safe from any harm that awaits him.” She looked worried, as if the truth of the future was speaking to her, as if she could see her son’s fate, see his imprisonment and beheading, see the senseless violence and suffering of the world bearing down on her body. As if she could see into the future: sense the shadows of Herod’s murder of the innocent children or the pain of any child or adult whose life would be taken by a violent madman. Mother grief was reflected in her eyes. A spasm of sadness and worry crossed her face as her eyes sought out the eyes of her husband. “Will it be alright,” she whispered. “Will it be alright?”
Zechariah came to sit next to her, to touch her face, to take her hands into his hands. He looked into her eyes and longed to tell her what he had discovered in the temple: that God was love not fear, forgiveness not judgment. He longed to tell her what he now believed with his whole heart: that God’s fullness will satisfy our emptiness, that God’s redemptive love is more powerful than any force of evil in this world, that God’s forgiveness far outstrips our brokenness, that God’s love is stronger than death. He wanted to say that he now knew that God could “weave out of terrible happenings wonders of goodness and grace.” But he could not yet speak.
And so Zechariah smoothed the worry from Elizabeth's brow and kissed her lips and held her close. And together they looked out at the dawning day, at this strange, mysterious world that pointed in all its terror and all its beauty to something beyond itself. And Zechariah felt unmistakable, unnamable belief singing in his heart. And he welcomed this belief like a long-lost friend coming home at last. AMEN.
 This line appears in the OCBC worship bulletin each week in “Prayer for Those Affected by War and Natural Disaster.”