Sunday, December 19, 2010

Prayer for the prayerless

Lk 1:8-23

8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."

18And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." 19And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.


Because there were too many of them for every priest to burn incense in the sanctuary, casting lots was used to narrow the field. In addition, casting lots eliminating favoritism. It was purely a matter of chance who was chosen by lot. Not bribes or nepotism or other kinds of preferential treatment.

Here’s a classic case of a random event. Random by design. So what are the odds that Zechariah would be the sanctuary at just the time that Gabriel appeared to him? This event was once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Indeed, few Jews, including priests, ever encountered an angel, or burnt incense in the sanctuary. The conjunction to two improbable events renders the conjunction all the more improbable.

But therein lies the unspoken irony of the event. Behind this seemingly chance encounter is the unseen, all-seeing hand of God. Although human hands visibly cast the lots, the invisible hand of God also cast the lots. He directed the lots to choose Zechariah. Unbeknownst to them, they played with loaded dice that day.

Some miracles can be outwardly indistinguishable from ordinary events. They seem perfectly normal. They employ natural media. They dissolve into the mundane surroundings.

Sometimes God is never nearer than when he seems to be far-gone. Very present when he appears to be utterly absent.

The angelic apparition was a stereotypical miracle. Conspicuously supernatural.

Yet in this encounter there are two miracles in one. We tend to focus on the conspicuous miracle, to the neglect of the inconspicuous miracle.

God moves in our lives in so many little, daily, unobtrusive ways. In small things as well as large. In quiet things as well as loud.

Zechariah prayed for a son. No doubt Elizabeth also prayed for a son. But when the moment came, when his prayer was answered at long last, when the answer came from the lips of an angel, no less, Zechariah is surprised. More than surprised–incredulous.

No doubt there is some irony in this. Why pray for something if there’s no expectation that God will hear your prayer? If, when he does, indeed, hear your prayer, you react in disbelief?

Of course, prayer often has more to do with desperation than expectation. We pray, not necessarily because we expect God to answer our prayer, but because prayer is our last resort. We have done all that’s humanly possible, but it’s not enough. We turn to God when we are powerless. Caught on the ledge of the cliff.

And, indeed, it is wrong to make demands on God, as if he owes us something, as if we can boss him around. Expectancy of that kind is irreverent. Out of place.

So why did Gabriel’s statement take Zechariah by surprise? If I were guessing, I suppose Zechariah stopped praying for a son long ago. For years, he and his wife prayed for a son. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

But when no son was forthcoming, when Elizabeth was well past her child-bearing years, they got tired of praying. At least Zechariah did. He lost hope. He lost heart. He gave up. At that point prayer seemed futile. Mocking his inmost desire.

When Gabriel spoke to Zechariah, Zechariah had forgotten that worn-out prayer. Zechariah forgot about the prayer, but God had not forgotten. God remembered the prayer that Zechariah had long forgotten.

God answered his prayer. But what is more, God answered a forgotten prayer. Although Zechariah ceased praying, God never ceased hearing.

So Gabriel must remind Zechariah of his own long-forgotten prayer. For as Gabriel explains, these things come to pass in due time. God’s time.

Not all our prayers are answered. We frequently pray foolish prayers. Shortsighted. Misguided. To get whatever we ask for would be a curse rather than a blessing.

We pray for what we think is best, but the how and when are up to God. If he does answer a prayer, the timing and the circumstances lie with him, and often transpire in ways we could never foresee.

Zechariah asks how he can be sure. That question echoes the prologue, where Luke is writing Theophilus to inform and confirm him in the faith.

For the reader, it’s ironic to see a man questioning an angel. Demanding a sign. Demanding proof. For the angelic apparition is, itself, a sign from God!

This is the same angel who spoke to Daniel so many centuries before. The same angel who stands before the face of God.

Yet Zechariah is so blinded by years of aching, enervating disappointment–so blinded by his tiresome, predictable routine under the sun–that when something unpredictable occurs–when even an angel from heaven comes down to him and speaks to him–he finds it hard to break the spell of his ingrained, heartbroken pessimism. He doubts the indubitable.

And this from a man of faith. A man of God. A true believer. Zechariah is not an unbeliever. Not a nominal believer. Not like those who fell in the wilderness.

But like a tree in winter, he has withdrawn into a subsistent spiritual existence to survive the bitter conditions. He never lost his enduring faith in God. But he lost his youthful joy in the Lord. The birth of John will restore his joy. Bring light and delight to a battle-weary saint.


Like Zechariah of old, what sustains us in the yawning, pale gray stretches of our journey are the rare and unforeseeable, yet tiny timely glimpses of eternity. Like dappled moonlight, broken by the overhanging trees, we walk in alternating pools of light and shade. When we seem to be lost in the dark, a white beam of starlight, piecing the wind-blown branches, momentarily illuminates the blackness ahead. Then the breeze blows again, and the path darkens again. Darkens behind us, after we pass.


Thank you, Father, for remembering our unremembered prayers. For answering us long after we cease to ask, or hope, or dare.

Thank, you, Father, that nothing happens by chance. For each uneventful thread, in our little lives below, is woven into the surpassing tapestry of your eternal plan for the saints in glory.

By the love of God, the grace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.