10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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 give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.
This Christmas season I want to spend some time looking at the prayers of those involved in the Christmas story 2000 years ago. Sometimes during this season instead of being filled with the anticipation of advent we can become filled with boredom as we anticipate more of the “same ol’, same ol’” We have heard the story once to often and there is a definite tarnish to its new ring. Often our prayer lives can become a reflection of this season were we know God can do the impossible but we don’t anticipate that He will. So we pray with little expectation and our prayer lives take on the methodical monotone chant of apathy. Some of us have entered the stage of praying but not believing. For some of us we have been praying for the same thing over and over, we have been asking for a long time and it seems like God has been silent for even longer.
It’s easy for us to forget but the Christmas story starts with prayer, Luke introduces us to a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth who is barren. They knew all about the anticipation of life and also the disappointment, they understood the pain of infertility and seemingly unanswered prayer. I’m sure they went through all the stages that infertile couples go through. At first denial, this isn’t happening to us, yet given time it becomes evident that children aren’t coming, so along with the disappointment comes the death of a dream. In an attempt to avoid the pain they avoid children and all they really want to do is hide. Yet, as with all death, close on the heels of despair comes anger. It just seems so unfair, scripture says “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” Have you ever been there, you have lived right and this is what you have to show for it, nothing, it’s easy to be angry with God! At some point the anger gives way to acceptance and they come to the conclusion that this is their lot in life. No matter what angle you look at the Christmas story from it always starts with disappointment and despair. Zechariah and Elizabeth had probably prayed for a long time for children and the answer had always seemed to be “no.” It must have felt like God didn’t care? The truth is He cared more than they knew but the answer was only going to come in His time. What I love about this couple is that their fertility issue didn’t create a faithful issue, Zechariah kept on serving God. The question becomes in spite of your seemingly unanswered prayer will you continue to be faithful and serve? Pastor will you still go and offer prayers for your people even with the lingering disappointment in your own prayer life? Zachariah went into the Temple and as the worshippers prayed outside, he offered the incense inside, symbolically offering the prayers of the people to God. Don’t miss the moment when God answered not only his prayers but the prayers of the people, at the moment when the incense was going up symbolizing the prayers, in that moment God answered. His answer would not only be a blessing to Zachariah but to many others “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth”. Am I praying in such a way that it blesses those around me? Do we realize that the answers to our prayers are so saturated with His blessing that one person can’t contain them all, they have to spill out into the lives around us.
I wonder what Zechariah expected would happen when he was serving as a priest before God. Do you think he anticipated an answer from such a messenger as Gabriel when he lite the incense and the people were praying? After calming his fear the angel had a simple message “Your prayer has been heard” Do you believe that God has heard your prayer? Do you pray with expectation?
Zechariah is an old man he has been praying for a long time and not hearing anything from God but we need to remember that the silence of God is much bigger than just Zachariah’s life; God has not spoken for 400 years. Can you imagine being the first to hear from God in over 400 years? What would you have said? Yet this moment when God spoke was not only an amazing moment for Zachariah but for all of Israel. Only they would not know what God said for some time because when God spoke Zachariah first response was to question His Word. Isn’t that just like us, we pray, God answers our prayers and instead of dancing and jubilation there is disbelief and doubt! The result of Zechariah’s doubt was silence, the people who had been waiting for 400 years would not hear the good news from the one who doubted. Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple, all he really had to do was lite the incense, it’s not like God was going to show up! Sometimes our prayer lives can take on the mechanical grind and redundancy of just getting the job done and getting out. We need to remember that prayer is not work time its face time, it’s not redundancy it’s relational. We are no different 2000 years later, we don’t really expect God to show up and the time we schedule for prayer is just another indicator of this. Do we even have time for God to show up? The people had to wait because he was busy listening to God’s message. In our lives we need to remember people can wait while we are waiting on God, unfortunately for many of us the one we often leave to wait is God. Even though he could not speak, the people understood that something spiritual had happened that God had touched his life.
This Christmas God wants to make an appointment with you about your disappointment. I don’t know what lays heavy on your heart today, but God does and He cares. Do you need a touch of His grace today? Perhaps you feel worthless and useless. Perhaps you feel barren and lifeless, there is a spiritual emptiness in your life and you need His Spirit to fill you. Perhaps you are weighed down by sin in your life and you need release. God wants to breathe hope into the stale air of your impossible situation. Is it time for you to let go and let it out, to allow the incense of your heart to waft into the nostrils of God? This Christmas don’t just go through the dull mechanical motions of a stale story, go into His Temple and smell afresh the powerful fragrance of salvation.