It was strange but exciting all at the same time. My uncle had become a Hollywood actor. As a young child, I knew my uncle as the one who loved to serve orange-flavored Tang at parties, who sported new hair-dos that eventually trended with the rest of the uncles in the family. And then at one of our holiday gatherings in his Los Angeles area home, my uncle gathered us around a TV and showed us a couple scenes from a Seinfeld episode where he made an appearance…as an “extra.” For the first time, I wasn’t paying attention to the main actors and their comedy. I was fixated on those who didn’t have the spotlight or major lines. After all, as I learned, they’re important too!
As we enter into another Christmas season, what are you focused on? Maybe you already know the main actors and plot lines of the Christmas story, but how many of the “extras” are you familiar with? About 52 weeks ago, I posted some simple attitudes that make for a meaningful Christmas. This year, I invite you to join me in taking another look at the story of Christ’s birth in the gospel of Luke to pay close attention to the “extras.” As we do, I hope we’ll see ourselves in the story and end up fixing our hearts on the Savior who came once to dwell with us and who will come again so we can dwell with Him.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were faithful and devout Jews. He was a priest. She was “a descendant of Aaron” herself (Lk. 1:5). Known for their upright, blameless lives (v. 6), they were also known for their empty home, absent of any descendants to call their own though they were “well advanced in years” (v. 7). It doesn’t take much to read between the lines of Luke’s narrative. The aged couple had endured year after year of disappointment and unfulfilled desire. But this never stopped Zechariah from living for the Lord and serving His people. In the very next breath, Luke portrays Zechariah dutifully carrying out his priestly ministry:
So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division,…his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
Luke 1:8-9, NKJV
Zechariah’s faithfulness in ministry wasn’t contingent upon the fruitfulness of his personal life.
Life didn’t have to be full of perks in order for him to walk with God or work for God. Ministry wasn’t a this-for-that deal for Zechariah. Even though his lifelong prayers for Elizabeth had seemingly been unanswered, he didn't stop praying to God and praying on behalf of others. Don’t run ahead too much in the story and point out the fact that he was unbelieving of the angelic message he received a few verses later. Take a moment just to admire Zechariah’s track record a bit in his life context. Through the years of disappointment, he was faithful still. Makes me wonder how many times he leaned on the words of Habakkuk and if I can do the same:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 3:17-18, NIV
ASSURED of answers
It wasn’t just another day at the office for Zechariah. The angel Gabriel “who stands in the presence of God” was sent to this faithful priest to bear a message of hope for Zechariah’s family and for all of humanity. Not only would his wife Elizabeth bear a son, but he would eventually prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah! The message is grand in scope, but the story of Zechariah’s trembling fear underlines it all. Sure there’s the natural fear that strikes when a routine duty is dramatically interrupted by a heavenly apparition! But Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah seem to highlight a fear that lay deeper in the heart of the soon-to-be-father.
Do not be afraid…for your prayer is heard…
Luke 1:13, NKJV
Did you notice the basis for the angel’s assurance? The reason Zechariah doesn’t need to be afraid? “Fear not” is one of the most oft repeated commands in Scripture, and most commonly the rationale that follows is the assurance that God is with us. (For starters, check out Gen. 26:24; Deut. 31:6; Isa. 41:10; 43:5; Jer. 42:11.) In other words, fear often originates from our unbelief that God is truly with us, and we don’t need to fear when we’re convinced of God’s loving presence.
But that wasn’t the assurance behind Gabriel’s instruction to not be afraid in Luke 1:13. Instead, Zechariah needed to be assured that his prayer was heard.
Zechariah’s fear originated from his unbelief not about whether God was with him but about whether God heard him.
I wonder how many of us have ever felt that fear. Sometimes that uncertainty has actually held me back from praying for particular things or people so I can avoid the hurt of feeling unheard. On the other hand, there are times when I’ve voiced other prayers while subconsciously telling myself not to get my hopes up! The expectation of being unheard may show up differently in your walk than mine, but if you’ve experienced it you know how deflating and debilitating it can be.
God’s messenger invited Zechariah to rise above that and to experience what David once testified of in the Psalms:
In the day when I cried out, You answered me,
And made me bold with strength in my soul.
Psalm 138:3, NKJV
And I believe God wants you and I to bear that same testimony, to find a new boldness grounded in the assurance that God both hears and answers the cries of our heart. This season, let’s pray those prayers we’ve held back. Let’s re-pray those prayers we once threw out like meaningless pennies into a fountain. Let’s accept the invitation to be unafraid, freed from the uncertainty about God’s attentiveness to our needs and hopes.