There is something particularly beautiful about righteousness that comes with age. There is a sweetness to it that can only be developed over the years.
There was once a husband and wife who who had this kind of beautifully aged righteousness. They loved God deeply and sought him together. Luke says that, “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”[i] If you thumb through the Bible there are very few people commended as highly as this.
“But,” Luke tells us, “they had no child.” This was no small thing and certainly no personal choice. They had yearned for a child and prayed for a child. But no child had come. Any childless couple, any mother who has lost her pre-born child, knows the mark of pain, the empty place that can’t be covered up in the heart. Everyone who has walked through this loss knows the temptation to sin against God in the face of disappointment and shame.
But these two, Zechariah and Elizabeth, had walked righteously in the face of grief.
Then one day Zechariah, who served as a priest, had the incredible blessing of being chosen to enter the Holy Place in the temple to burn incense. He never could have anticipated what awaited him.
The angel Gabriel met him face to face. The old man fell in fear. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” Gabriel consoled him, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”[ii] Zechariah couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But the news just kept getting better: “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.”[iii] They would not just have a son, but a son who would be "great before the Lord!"
And he would not just be righteous, but he would have an incredible vocation: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.”[iv] He would be a prophet who would turn people's hearts to God and prepare God's people for a special work of God.
This broke the limits of Zechariah’s belief. Even in front of this other worldly creature of unfathomable glory, his decades of disappointment smothered the wick of hope. His unbelief overshadowed his righteousness. In words that strangely echoed the words of unbelief of Abraham, the grandfather of his people, he replied “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”[v]
Oh Zechariah. How shall you know this? You mean, other than a holy regent from the very throne room of God appearing to you in the Holy Place?
“I am Gabriel,” the angel responded. “I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 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.”[vi]
And so Zechariah reappeared, mute, and so he gestured and drew on the ground and they understood. This was a man who had beheld something otherworldly.
And otherworldly he was. For Elizabeth did conceive, and she rejoiced in God’s gracious gift.
Nine months passed and a handsome baby boy was born to this elderly couple. Nine months Zechariah was mute. And on the eighth day they took their son to be circumcised, and, as was the custom, they gave him a name at his circumcision.
“Will he be called Zechariah?” they asked.
“No,” Elizabeth responded. “He shall be called John.”[vii]
Zechariah scribbled his agreement on a tablet and, as he did, speech returned. And not merely speech, but song. A prophet’s song emerged from the mouth of the man for whom speech had been dormant nine months, each word speaking to the rescue of a God who came for his people, even when they had stopped hoping for him. Even when belief that he could come seemed impossible. Even when it seemed as though the womb of this oppressed people could not possibly bear the child of hope.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[viii]
From the mouth of one who could not believe in the birth of his own son spilled out the promise of the birth of one who would bring salvation, who would forgive sins, who would give light to those in darkness and guide feet in peace.
The songs of Christmas are songs of hope, songs of redemption, songs of joy. The songs of Christmas are songs that even break through our unbelief and show us that yes, we can dare hope, because the Son of God has come and is coming and he will bring salvation even to us who struggle to believe it.
Hark a Thrilling Voice is Sounding is a 9th Century Latin Hymn I only recently discovered. This modern arrangement is beautiful: the haunting and hopeful tune in its arresting simplicity evokes the mood of Zechariah's song.