Jack Van Marion, D.Min. is a faculty member in the DWS program, co-teaching The Christian Year: Forming Congregational Spirituality. He is also Lead Pastor of Preaching and Teaching at Calvary Church in Edina, Minnesota.
What time is it? We ask this question frequently. Knowing the time gets us to work on time; it shapes our decisions, and determines our activities. Knowing what time it is will also help us gain spiritually edifying insights. Take, for example, Luke’s account of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel of the Lord in the temple of Jerusalem at the time that Herod, king of Judea, did Rome’s bidding in that region (Luke 1:5-25, NIV Study Bible 2011). The text is as follows: (vs. 8-10)
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 burnt offering of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
We then learn of Zechariah’s startling encounter with the angel of the Lord standing at the right side of the altar of incense. The angel calmed Zechariah’s frightened soul and said:
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 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.
Here are a few observations:
- There is no definite time reference in this text. Verse 8 reads: “Once.” Is there anything in the text that gives us a clue as to what time Luke is referring?
- Zechariah is chosen to perform a high priestly duty. The duty is described as taking place in the temple of the Lord. Where? At the altar of the Lord? Where is that altar? In the Holy of Holies. How often does the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies and when?
- A quick reading of the text easily leads to the conclusion that John was praying for Elizabeth, his wife, to become pregnant with a child: 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. But is that the prayer the High Priest is to offer God at that specific time, in that specific place, while the people outside are praying and waiting for Zechariah’s priestly blessing?
The answer is No! For it is the Day of Atonement, the 10th of Tishri, the day when the High Priest and the Israelites follow the Lord’s prescriptions found in Leviticus 23:26-32 (see also Lev. 16:2-34 and Numbers 29:7-11). On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Zechariah’s duty centered on praying for the atonement of Israel’s sins.
So what of Zechariah’s prayer? The angel announced that God has heard the prayer. But it is the context, the timing of it all, which helps us see how God answered Zechariah’s prayer. Consider the following:
- The annual and daily sacrifices did not accomplish the desired result; what was needed is a sacrifice that is “once for all.” What was needed is a Lamb of God.
- God answers Zechariah’s prayer in a wondrous way: He opens Elizabeth’s barren womb and she becomes pregnant. And that child of Zechariah and Elizabeth has a very specific task as mentioned in the angel’s message to Zechariah. The child is to announce the coming of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
With these insights in mind, now consider Luke’s narrative. Following the angel’s announcement to Zechariah, we learn of the angel’s announcement to Mary. That took place in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:26ff).
As Mary absorbs the news from the angel, she decides to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth. No wonder, for the angel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant. And that was a wonder. So Mary hurries to visit her distant relatives. What happens?
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, blessing Mary and the child that Mary would bear. How marvelous! It was not at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry that John announced “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Talk about child labor. John began his work of announcing the Savior while being formed in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth. John did the jumping, alerting his mother; his mother did the Spirit-filled speaking. John’s first act was a jump of joy. Then, years later, God moved John to trumpet the coming of the Messiah. God indeed had heard Zechariah’s prayer—wondrously, in the fullness of His time, with precise timing.
When studying your Bible, and preparing your sermons and liturgies, keep on asking, “What time is it?”