Zechariah and Elizabeth have revealed some wonderful things to me this week about prayer. Prayer: a conversation with the One who created us, knows us, loves us. Sometimes, though, we may feel like our prayers don't make it beyond the ceiling of our own minds. It is as if they get stuck somewhere between our lips and the ears of the Father.
Re-reading Zechariah and Elizabeth's story in Luke 1, three truths stand out to me. Take a look.
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.
1. Zechariah and Elizabeth are acquainted with desire and disappointment. As a young couple they had wanted to have children like everyone else. They prayed and experienced the crushing disappointment of no pregnancy month after month and year after year. And during the years of unfulfilled longing they were both "righteous in the sight of God" and continued their daily liturgy of worship and work and faith. Though they were sinners just like us, Luke records that they lived in righteousness. They did not let their disappointment turn to toxic bitterness and anger against God, nor did they take their loss out on the community around them.
2. When Zechariah was 'on duty' as priest, "all the assembled worshipers were praying outside." The community was gathered together engaged in the liturgy of corporate worship. Together, they lifted Zechariah's incense-burning and prayed that the Father would receive their worship and hear their prayer. They were waiting for the Messiah. Like Simeon, the whole community was "waiting for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2:25). Like Anna, they eagerly anticipated the "redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38). We, too, gather in corporate worship. I wonder, however, how important we truly believe this gathering together to be. How eagerly do we anticipate the redemption of our individual and corporate lives; how fervently do we pray for the consolation and redemption of our culture?
3. The angel tells Zechariah, " your prayer has been heard." Which prayer is the angel referring to? I've read this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth countless times and have skipped over the implication of the angel's statement. I've assumed that the prayer heard was the prayer accompanying the act of incense-burning. But the angel immediately goes on to tell Zechariah that he and his aged wife will have a child. Years of longing lifted to God, month after month of anguished disappointment. Did they assume that God had not even heard their prayers? By the time of Zechariah's service as priest in the temple, he and his wife have accepted that childlessness was a component of their story. They were old and beyond child-bearing. But the angel tells him that the time has come for those prayers to become a tangible, physical 'Yes'.
Of these verses in Luke, one commentator writes,
Prayers of faith are filed in heaven, and are not forgotten. Prayers made when we were young and entering into the world, may be answered when we are old and going out of the world. Mercies are doubly sweet that are given in answer to prayer. Zacharias shall have a son in his old age, who shall be instrumental in the conversion of many souls to God, and preparing them to receive the gospel of Christ.
What is my ah ha?
Though we don't hear "yes", "no" or "maybe", even though there is no concrete fulfillment of our beseeching prayer, God hears our prayer. There may be reasons beyond our understanding for why our prayers are unfulfilled.
Will we live by faith and not by sight? Though we don't receive what we want when we want it, do we live out of the truth that God is good and generous or do we turn to belief that God is stingy and withholding of his grace? God invites us to live faithfully, to earnestly pray our longings, and to pursue the righteousness of Christ-in-us. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, will we reject bitterness and continue to seek his face individually and in corporate worship? Will we affirm that God is God even when our experiences disappoint?
Thank you, Father, for your living Word — Jesus Christ, our Lord. Lord, we believe that you hear us; help us in our unbelief.