Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nativity Stories: Priest and Prophet, Redux

In this season of Advent, we've been reviewing the messages of the Bible's many nativity stories: Cain, Abel, Seth – the grace of God is the only way out of the vicious cycle of a fallen world; Noah, Isaac, Moses – God will give rest, God will promise, God will deliver; and Samuel – God will hear our persistent, heartfelt prayers. And down through the years we come – past David, past Solomon, past prophets and kings aplenty, through the exile to the return under Zerubbabel and Ezra and Nehemiah, and through centuries of divine silence. 

And the people watched. And the people waited. The Old Testament scriptures left off, because the voice of prophecy grew still. Tyrants like Antiochus Epiphanes rose. The Maccabees – sons of the priest Mattathias – fought him off, cleansed the temple, instituted the celebration of Hanukkah, and then founded the Hasmonean line of priest-kings like Simon Maccabeus' son John Hyrcanus, who forced the Idumean descendants of Esau to convert to the Jewish faith. 

The Hasmonean rule ended when John's great-grandson Antigonus was defeated by an Idumean named Herod, whose dad had been friends with Antigonus' betrayed brother; and so Herod the Idumean took his place as king of the Jews.

A few decades into this Herod's reign, Luke introduces us to a certain couple: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Both were descended from Aaron, the first high priest of Israel, just as the corrupt Hasmoneans were. But unlike the Hasmoneans, Zechariah and Elizabeth aren't corrupt. In fact, both of them – not just one or the other, but both of them – were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6), just like Saul the Pharisee, perhaps just a little boy at this time or yet unborn, later would be (Philippians 3:16). 

But like him, even Zechariah and Elizabeth would need a Savior. No matter how good we think we are, we still need salvation. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived their lives in a town in the Judean hills (Luke 1:39) – probably Hebron, which was one of the six ancient Cities of Refuge owned by the tribe of Levi, to which those who killed intentionally or accidentally could come to seek safety (Joshua 21:13). But, living among fellow priests and Levites, these two were old and childless (Luke 1:7).

Now, Luke drops us into the action on a day that seemed like any other. What makes it so important is that it's about fifteen months before the manger. Among the Jewish priests, there were twenty-four divisions established by King David long ago – twenty-four priestly houses – and each had a shift during the course of a year to provide the priests who'd staff the temple (1 Chronicles 24:7-19). Zechariah belonged to the eighth division, the House of Abijah (Luke 1:5; cf. 1 Chronicles 24:10). 

Now, within each house, there were far more priests than tasks, so the rabbis tell us that, because of priests shoving each other off ramps in the temple in a dangerous race to the job they wanted, a system had been set up to lend order. There were four lots cast – picking, first, one priest to clear ashes from the altar; second, thirteen priests to slaughter the sacrificial animal; third, one priest to offer incense; and fourth, one priest to offer the animal's limbs on the altar (m. Yoma 2).

The system mandated that the incense offering had to be made by a priest who'd never served that way before, and that fit Zechariah perfectly. He'd never had a chance to do it, all the years of his life. But now, in his old age, he finally had the chance (Luke 1:8-9). When he was a young priest in his twenties, maybe he daydreamed about finally entering the temple sanctuary. But he waited. His thirties – waited. Forties – waited. Fifties, sixties – waited. And here he is – in his seventies, eighties, maybe nineties – and his name finally comes up. This is his long-awaited calling! This is why he's a priest!

So there he stands, maybe trembling on the first day of his service. It's morning, time for the first of the two daily sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-42). The Court of Israel is thronged with worshippers eagerly watching as the lamb is slain and divided into pieces. The pungent stench of death fills the air, stinging the nostrils of the crowd – a reminder of the costly nature of their sinful ways. But the crowd has gathered, and they're praying their hearts out (Luke 1:10). They need to communicate with God! It's about more than blood and loss; they need a relationship with him, they need to hear and be heard! 

And that's what the incense offering is for: the aroma arises to heaven, the sweetness of their prayers blotting out the stench of death. And as the people watch and wait, the priest will emerge and convey God's answer by blessing them. That's how it's done. That's how it works. The incense offering carries a promise from God, recorded in the Law: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God” (Exodus 29:45).

That's what Zechariah has come to do. Inside the temple, he stands at the southern side of the incense altar, surveying its shining gold plating, staring down between the four horns to the smoldering coals (cf. Exodus 30:1-9). A pile of incense, specially formulated by one Jewish family for this purpose and no other, rests in his age-knotted hands, cupped above the altar. Everything inside is peaceful, quiet – the way it's meant to be. Zechariah moves to drop the incense – and he isn't all that moves. Suddenly, a man stands at his right hand, appearing out of thin air (Luke 1:11)! The man stands at the east side of the altar, between Zechariah and the door; the man faces the veil that marks off the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant stands, hidden.

Needless to say, this stranger startles Zechariah – nearly gives him a heart attack (Luke 1:12)! Luke admits from the outset that this is no man; this is an angel of the Lord. In fact, as we'll soon learn, he's Gabriel, one of the highest-ranking angels in heaven, and he's come with a special purpose. I imagine Zechariah screams, or else is sputtering in disbelief. Gabriel tells him not to be afraid. Gabriel represents God's unexpected interruption of the 'normal' course of the ritual. Why does that come as such a surprise to Zechariah? Maybe Zechariah was too much like us: doing holy things in a holy place but never once expecting God to do anything – least of all to deviate from the script.

Gabriel tells Zechariah, “Don't be afraid” (Luke 1:13). Gabriel being there means that all this praying hasn't gone unnoticed. The crowd outside, praying under their breaths or chanting prayers aloud – they've been heard. Isn't that the whole point of the ritual? Before the incense column even hit the ceiling, God was listening. Zechariah's prayers from his youth, when he still hoped he'd have children someday – God heard them. Decades flew by, Zechariah barely remembers those days on his knees as a newlywed, but those prayers reached God just the same. 

And the prayers of all Jewish history, no, all human history – all this time, we've been asking God to do something about the waywardness of the world. And we pray and we pray, and nothing seems to change, and we wonder if God's tuning us out – and Gabriel's here in the temple to let Zechariah know that God has heard it all! And Zechariah's going to have a son, the son he'd asked for years ago, and that son is the assurance that, no matter the wait, God hears his people's prayers.

Zechariah finds it too good to be true. He's been tutored in the Bible; he's familiar with the story of Abraham asking dumb and doubtful questions; Zechariah should know better. But he asks what will happen to let him know that this is going to take place – as if a personal visit from Gabriel weren't enough (Luke 1:18)! 

Now, I don't know the tone in Gabriel's voice when he answers. I may be reading more irritation into the reply than was actually there. But I imagine Gabriel's response sounding something like this: “Excuse me? Excuse me? Hey, buddy, look at this name tag: 'Gabriel.' I have a full-time job, and it involves being face-to-face with the Majesty on High at all times, in perfect communion and bliss. I got sent away from the glory of God's immediate presence to run this little errand, and this is how you act? Doubting me? Fine, I'm going back home. You want an extra sign? How about you close that cynical mouth of yours – there's a sign for you! I'm outta here....” (cf. Luke 1:19-20).

That's how I would've delivered Gabriel's lines, at least. (Might say more about me than Gabriel!) And just like that, Gabriel's gone. Meanwhile, the crowds outside are watching the temple with bated breath (Luke 1:21). Maybe they see the incense going up. They know what comes next. This isn't their first tamid service. They're waiting for Zechariah to come out and bless them, as a sign that God heard them. But he's taking a long time. Did he slip and fall? Does he need medical attention? Did he forget what he's supposed to be doing? Is God angry? 

Oh, look, there's Zechariah! The crowd waits expectantly for a blessing – but the priest can't talk. He's gesturing. Something happened in there, he saw something – and they don't know what. What's going on? What does it mean? But Zechariah's faithlessness stood in the way of them hearing the answer to their prayers. He has no blessing to give. The masses must hold their breath a while longer (Luke 1:22).

As Zechariah finishes his work, morning and evening – I guess a substitute wasn't allowed, so there he is, the voiceless priest, going back into the temple day and night, probably looking apprehensively over his shoulder to see if Gabriel's hiding somewhere – he must be thinking about what Gabriel said to him. How could he not? Gabriel told him that, like Abraham, he'll have a child in his old age. And not just any child. This child is going to be filled with the Holy Spirit, even in utero (Luke 1:15)! 

In just a few months time at the most, within Elizabeth's womb will rest a fetal prophet – an unborn person, living in person-to-person relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. It cuts against everything elite American culture wants you to believe about the unborn. Even as an unborn child, this child will be able to recognize an embryonic God in the womb of his mom's kinswoman Mary – but more on that next Sunday.

In answer to this special grace, the child will be called to live a special lifestyle – the same one to which Samuel was called from his birth. No wine, no strong drink, no participation in the usual course of daily pleasures. He's set apart for a special kind of holy self-denial, because he has a job to do. He'll be someone great – maybe not as the world counts greatness, but more importantly, as God counts greatness. 

And with that greatness, this child will grow up to prepare the people for the Lord who is coming – he'll rebuild Israel to the Lord's specifications, he'll restore them to what they once were, so that they're ready for the Lord to arrive on the public scene (Luke 1:17). “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16). 

He's not great because of any attributes or characteristics he has in himself. He's great because he points. Even in medieval art, he's usually shown pointing. He does what the whole Old Testament does: points to the Messiah who's coming. This child is great because he sums up the whole Old Testament in himself. You want to know what the Old Testament is all about? Just watch this kid – you'll see. He's a one-man Old Testament, which is why he's later called the greatest man of all who ever were born of woman (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28).

Zechariah doesn't know all that yet. But he has a sense that Gabriel's words must be important. So he packs his bags and goes back home to Hebron after his week away, he sees his wife – she expects to hear his voice call at the door, but he can't (Luke 1:23). Can you imagine Elizabeth trying to make sense of her husband's sudden muteness? But somehow, he manages to explain it all to her. He's got time. 

And the prophecy begins to come true. Elizabeth – older than most, but not nearly as old as Zechariah – is pregnant soon enough. For five months, she stays inside the house, doesn't mingle with the other women of the town (Luke 1:24-25). Welcomes a very special visitor in the sixth month, gets clarity that God is doing something very big (Luke 1:26-56). And after three months of Mary's visit, a son is born (Luke 1:57).

All her neighbors knew that something incredible was happening. God was “magnifying his mercy” to Elizabeth – going out of his way to show special compassion to her in big ways (Luke 1:58). There she is, cradling her newborn son – the son she never thought she'd have. And the time has come for the next big step, his circumcision, the deadline when the child needs to be publicly named as a distinct person, a son of Israel. Elizabeth's neighbors are here, Elizabeth's family – sisters, nephews, nieces – all show up. They want to follow tradition. A man's firstborn son carries his name – that's just how it's done. At the very least, he needs a family name. It's tradition! Tradition means naming the boy “Zechariah, Jr.” (Luke 1:59).

There's nothing wrong with tradition. Tradition is important. But tradition doesn't trump transcendence. When God is doing a new thing, tradition's meant to bow its head and step aside. Elizabeth insists on the name Zechariah somehow must've explained to her earlier (Luke 1:60). That name was John, meaning “Yahweh is gracious” – because this name means that God's grace is intruding into a new way on the human scene, interrupting the normal course of tradition, just like Gabriel interrupted Zechariah's ritual. 

The neighbors and family don't know that (Luke 1:61). Maybe they worry that Elizabeth is trying to take advantage of her husband's unfortunate condition to get her own way. They implore him to do something – note that they gesture to him, meaning he was probably deaf as well as mute – and he mimes his desire to write (Luke 1:62-63). They give him some slate, and they expect to see a message like, “Stop her!” Here's the pivotal moment: will Zechariah side with Gabriel and Elizabeth, or against them? Will Zechariah belatedly believe what the angel prophesied, or not? Is Zechariah, in his old age, capable of accepting something new?

He slowly flips his tablet around, so that all gathered can see what he scrawled: “His name... is John” (Luke 1:63). And in that instant, in the very act of public faithfulness and obedience to God's word through Gabriel, Zechariah's ears pop open, his tongue comes untied, his voice-box comes unstuck – and I like to think that in the first second, every word he'd tried to say for those months, starting with the priestly blessing, came rushing out all at once (Luke 1:64). The prayers are heard! The prayers are answered! An old dog has learned new tricks! And as soon as the way is clear, Zechariah can't help but praise God in a way that terrifies all those married to the mundane, the neighbors and relatives addicted to the average (Luke 1:65-66).

Before his ordeal, Zechariah could talk. His words were priestly speech. But now, on the other side of the crucible of silence, Zechariah ascends from priestly speech to prophetic speech. He's intoxicated with God! He sings a song, prays a prayer, because the Holy Spirit that fills his newborn son (Luke 1:15), that recently filled his wife (Luke 1:41), now fills him as well – a whole family awash with the indwelling God (Luke 1:67)! 

Like baby, like proud papa – he's a prophet, and he's going to bless the Lord God of Israel for taking action. This child really is great, and that's not just paternal pride. As the ultimate Old Testament “prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76), this baby is a sign that salvation is near: the Lord is looking graciously on his people with redemption on his mind (Luke 1:68). The Messiah is on his way (Luke 1:69)! The ancient prophets were right (Luke 1:70)!

That's why John will bring such “joy and gladness,” and why many rejoiced at his birth (Luke 1:14). “Joy and gladness” – not words we often associate with the harsh and wild prophetic ministry of John, living in the desert, eating locusts and honey (Matthew 3:3-4). But his harshness yields joy, because it mows down everything that disfigures. People are glad to see him, because he cleans them, restores them, sets them free for something new to be built (Luke 3:7-14). He releases them from the baggage of their past so that they can welcome with open arms the greater grace to come. 

Real joy doesn't come from “doing our own thing.” It isn't found in an empty quest for self-fulfillment on self-chosen terms. Joy isn't in the gratification of pleasures – which is something you'd never find in John's life. Real joy means “turning to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17). Real joy comes through the message John will share.

John's birth is a prophetic sign that the world stands poised on the cusp of the Most Magnified Mercy. The untrammeled mercy of God is moving from promise to fulfillment before our very eyes here – that's what John means (Luke 1:72-73, 78). John is a sign that the dim moonlight of the Law is giving way to the blazing dawn of the incense-altar promise – the promise that God would dwell among the Israelites. John means that God will dwell among the Israelites – in Israelite skin – soon enough (cf. John 1:14), so that we can serve God fearlessly “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). 

The promises are about to come true. John is the downpayment. John is Advent in human form! With our sins forgiven in the wake of the repentance that John's baptism will bring (Luke 1:77; cf. 3:3), we can walk in this new dawning light and find real “salvation from our enemies,” the enemies of sin and death, by going to the new City of Refuge – and it isn't Hebron (Luke 1:78-79). I imagine John's infant hand stretching out to gesture... pointing toward the horn of salvation from the house of David (cf. Luke 1:69), about to poke through the surface of Bethlehem. Let's point with him.

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