Many have embarked on the work to record the fresh activity of God among us.
These accounts were entrusted to us and make us both eyewitnesses and respondents to God’s action now–just as the first servants were.
Therefore, since I have thoroughly investigated these matters from their first origins, it seemed like a good idea to write to you, Theophilus, as a man of influence. I will endeavour to give you a considered account, so that you may see the depth and significance of what has already inspired you to believe.
In the time of King Herod’s rule over Judea in the land of Israel, there was a certain priest named Zechariah. He served in the religious order of the Israelites descended from Aaron, in the division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was also from the line of Aaron (the priest who served alongside Moses). If anyone qualified for God’s blessing it was Zechariah and Elizabeth–they did what was required of them by God–they followed the Lord’s commandments to the letter and in spirit–nothing more could be asked of them. This made the following reality all the more unexpected and burdensome: Elizabeth had never been blessed with a child of her own; she was barren. They could not physically conceive because of their age and had long accepted this private heartache and very public grief.
As you know, the temple in Jerusalem needed to have priests continually serving in ritual worship before God. One day when Zechariah’s division happened to be responsible for the inner workings of the temple, they cast lots according to the custom. The lot fell to Zechariah, so he would go further into the holy sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. As the perfumed smoke began to rise up from the inner chamber, all the worshippers gathered in the outer sanctuary began praying.
Then the completely unexpected happened–an immense angel of the Lord was right there with Zechariah, standing to the right of the incense altar. The angel’s appearance made Zechariah recoil, feeling the shock in every extremity of his body. Then his feet were cemented to the spot–he was speechless with fear. But the angel spoke to him in his own tongue, “Settle your fears Zechariah, for your prayer has not found a god who is hard of hearing and whose voice has no power and whose heart has no grace. God has heard your prayer and will now act – your wife Elizabeth will have a son from her own barren womb. Let this be a sign that the Lord Almighty will act out of his generous favour toward you–call the child John.
The angel continued, “You will once again know joy and delight in your household, and many people in times to come will rejoice because he was born to you, for the Lord sees the great gift he is giving–John will know what true greatness is to God. His lips will never taste wine or any other fermented drink–he will be set apart for God’s saving work–even in the womb the Spirit of the Lord will enfold him. He will bring back many of God’s chosen people, Israel. Through him the Lord will gather his people in. He will speak the words of the Lord in the way Elijah did–with authority and great effect. Fathers estranged from their children will break the silence and seek to restore those severed bonds. The fool will also listen to wisdom and learn to walk in humility with the Lord. And the result: a people ready for God to act!”
Zechariah’s first reaction was disbelief, “How can this be? My wife and I stopped praying for a child years ago, decades even–that should tell you how old we are.”
The angel replied, “You can be sure of my word, for I am Gabriel, God’s messenger. I am speaking on behalf of The Creator who is ever-present. Let me assure you I have not been sent on a fool’s errand! This news comes to you unblemished; this is direct from the mouth of God. Because you have believed my words to be foolish, you will become the fool, for you will be without a voice in the world. From now until the day of the birth you will not have the power of speech. You will have much to listen to and meditate on, as God’s word matures into living reality.
Meanwhile, outside where the worshippers were assembled there was also an awkward and confused silence. As their final prayers had trailed off they began to wonder why there was such a long pause after the normal conclusion of the service. Where was Zechariah? What could be keeping him? When he did emerge, no sound could be heard from his mouth. He kept trying to make himself understood by making signs. Then they realised that God must have spoken to Zechariah through a vision–a vision so potent it had left him completely dumbfounded.
A little while later Zechariah returned home, having completed his priestly responsibility at the temple, in silence. After he returned home his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. For the next five months she did not make her condition public. She was only able to share her joy with her husband and would say, “This is the Lord’s doing! This one act of kindness has restored my dignity among our people–now I can lift my head, look people in the eye and speak of God’s goodness.”
In the sixth month God again sent the angel Gabriel to Israel. He did not send Gabriel to an influential place, but to a town called Nazareth near the Sea of Galilee. He did not send Gabriel to an influential man or even a married couple. No, instead God sent his messenger to a young woman pledged to marry a man named Joseph, whose only credential was that his ancestry could be traced to King David. This young woman was a virgin–this was of utmost importance because her only means of access to security in the world was through marriage, and the only guarantee of marriage was her purity. If anyone was to have no influence, no social standing, no heritage to voice claim to God’s blessing, it was Mary. But just as Joseph was pure of royal ancestry, Mary was noble of heart.
The angel drew near to Mary and said, “I bring you great respect! Oh how you are treasured by your Creator! Is the Lord not with you even as I speak!?”
As the stranger’s words settled upon Mary she was all at once disturbed and awestruck. Before she could find any words the angel addressed her by name, “Mary, settle your fears, for you are pleasing in God’s eyes. Listen and I shall tell you your legacy: From this time you will carry a child in your womb and then give birth to a son. You will be the first to speak his name–call him Jesus. In him you will see the true greatness and likeness of the unseen God. The Lord Almighty will place on this one man a double birthright. Firstly, in him, God will bring to maturity the promise to King David that his kingdom would never end. Secondly, in him, God will ensure the seed of Abraham grows into a mighty tree and flourishes forever. It will be just as God promised–heaven and Earth ruled under the one King–the child you will now bear.”
Mary asked the angel, “How will this begin now? You must know I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “God the Holy Spirit will bestow the creative power on you–this is a loving power that sets apart that which is good, rather than pronouncing it worthless. Only God of the Highest Heaven can bring light to the shadow of the womb. That can only mean the one to be born is from light imperishable! When people ask of his origins, simply call him the Son of God.
The angel went on, “What is more, your relative Elizabeth will also bear a child! Yes, her frail old body will give birth! Her family will bless the fragrant head of a newborn child. Those who whispered behind their hands will see her, grey haired and round with child–six months pregnant! Not only will you share your joy with her, you will also share your legacy. You will be the first ones to realise that God brings the obscure, the unexpected, and the impossible out into the broad light of day. This is how it is with God.”
Mary answered, “The Lord has confided in me. Just as your words have been spoken over me, now let this happen to me.” Then the angel was gone.
Mary acted quickly, going to a town in the Judean hills. Here she came to the threshold of Zechariah’s home. She called out in greeting to Elizabeth. Inside the house, Elizabeth recognised the voice of Mary. At that moment the baby kicked in her belly. Elizabeth was filled with emotion–moved by the Spirit of God. As Elizabeth made her way to the door that had been closed for so many months, she called out: “Blessed! How blessed are you among all women?! How blessed is the child you will carry into this world?!”
Perhaps it was when the door swung open that the two women first saw each other. Elizabeth gushed, “What makes me so special? Look at you carrying this gift deep within yourself–I’ll call him my Lord. For he has come to me when I least expected. I recognised your warm greeting first. Then all at once my baby kicked, he really did–satisfy my soul, I’m fit to burst! The Lord has breathed the word and this woman has accepted it with joy–surely then, it will be done!”
Then Mary responded:
Ah, my soul fails to contain all the praises of the Lord
and my very spirit wears a robe of pure delight –
I know this is God’s doing,
for God does all the saving –
he sees what I shall wear,
and clothes me with grace at his table.
Surely I am blessed,
and multitudes not yet born will be blessed;
they will also come into the Lord’s confidence,
because of what the Lord Almighty has entrusted to me –
Yes, true greatness and honour are God’s legacy.
Mercy, upon Mercies!
For those who revere the Lord.
Mercy, upon Mercies!
Young and old will face each other and agree –
He acts in strength for the fragile.
Where are those who have opposed his rule?
Where are their proud ideas now?
Oh, they are nowhere to be found!
Tyrants have been brought to level terms,
Now they share plain speech with those of humble heart.
Has he not filled the belly that was empty –
with all that is good?
Look how he sends the rich away,
to fetch a plate of true proportion.
Israel has been his close confidant;
Abraham and his descendants, with King David among them,
have each lent their ear to him.
Surely he has remembered their legacy
and has called forth a wellspring of mercy never to dry up
Look! the waters of God’s deliverance are soon to break open –
It will be just as God promised!
Mary kept Elizabeth company for about three months before returning to Nazareth.
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