Thursday, December 1, 2016

Afraid to Believe?

It's Thursday in the first week of Advent, the 5th day.  This morning, I wanted to return to the text in Luke 1, just to "muse" some more about how the first Advent began - with someone who was afraid to believe.

Luke 1:8-20
8  Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,
9  according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
10  And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
11  And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
12  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
13  But 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.
14  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
15  for 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.
16  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,
17  and 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.”
18  And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
19  And 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.
20  And 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.”

I love the details in the bible's stories.  Zechariah is a priest who is a part of a division.  What that mean is that Zechariah is part of  a priesthood that totals 18000.  Being in a division meant that the total number was divided into monthly duties, so approximately 1500 each month served the Temple duties in Israel.
Consider vs 9.  He was chosen by lot which means they "drew straws" so to speak to determine who was going to enter the Holy Place to do the liturgy, change the bread, fill up the oil, keep the candles lit, and most of all, say the prayers.  The thing is, any priest who was chosen by lot to do this - and there were 1500 each month available - could only serve once in their lifetime.  It was a privileged position to be in, and it was so sacred that it was reserved for a one time duty only.

Consider vs 10, the people outside are praying "at the hour of incense".  Incense was a symbolic picture of prayers going up to God.  Zechariah steps to the altar of incense to drop the incense onto the flame and to pray the daily prayers - but perhaps also the prayer he had been giving to God concerning his and Elizabeth's plea for a child.

And then it happened.

The angel - Gabriel we find out in vs 19 - stands at the right hand which is always a position of favor, or honor, (remember Jesus is at the right hand of the Father) appears at his right hand...which means the Angel is very close and his appearance frightens Zechariah.  Who wouldn't be?

Then Gabriel tells Zechariah why he has appeared.  "Zechariah God has heard your will have a him will be for you a time of joy and gladness..."  BUT, Zechariah cannot believe it.

Is that something we can relate to?  Do we pray, sometimes out of desperation, urgently, wishing, hoping against hope, wanting to know if God is listening?  Jesus said we should always pray and not lose hope, not give up.  Sometimes we give up.  We stop praying, assuming God is not listening.

"Your prayers have been heard" is a challenge for us.  If we are afraid to believe we will end up like Zechariah, convinced that whatever we are asking for could never happen.
Think about it...God hears our prayers.  He listens, and his silence is not a rejection, but a deliberate act of kindness in allowing us to continue to seek him...and he says "seek me and I will be found."

One more detail.  Zechariah's doubts are met with Gabriel's stern incredulity... "I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God, and I was send to speak to you and bring you this good news...and you  don''t believe it?  You think God is silent and therefore doesn't hear?  Well, you'll be silent and not able to speak".  TA DA!

When we come to God do not come thinking we get the last word in.


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