The very last words of the last book of the Old Testament read:
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (Mal. 4:5-6).
But God’s people had to wait…
It can be easy for us to gloss over because in our Bible the Old Testament and New Testament are back to back. In the turn of a page we can miss something very significant: 400 years of “silence.” Hundreds of years have gone by between Malachi’s prophecy and the angel appearing to Zechariah.
400 years with no new word from the Lord.
In many ways, these “silent years” (also called the intertestamental period) were “not so silent years.” There was no new word from the Lord, but God was still moving forward His rescue plan!
The land was taken over by the Persian Empire then by Greece, the Holy of Holies was desecrated, the Jews (led by the Maccabees) revolted, the Greek language became commonly spoken and the Roman Empire grew powerful, the rise of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and more!
Life for God’s people moved on… the prophecies were not forgotten… the faithful remembered and still waited…
And there… into the silence, into the waiting… God spoke.
The time had come. BIG things were just beginning! Here is where the gospel of Luke opens, with the priests in the temple and one in particular, Zechariah.
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
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.”Luke 1:5-17
For generations God’s people held onto hope, in faith believing that God would rescue and redeem Israel. And here, in the temple before the Lord, Zechariah hears the words of great wonder from an angel of the Lord: his prayers have been heard!
What many prayers a priest of the Lord must have offered! Prayer for himself, his wife, their friends and family, the Jewish people, the world… for the coming of the Messiah! The Lord heard Zechariah’s prayers and he would have a son, and not just any son, in him the words of the prophet Malachi would come to fruition.
Were these words what Zechariah expecting to hear? No. It had been a loooooong time since he’d thought Elizabeth (his wife) could bear a child…. It had been a loooooong time since the prophets had spoken… and yet Zechariah as priest offered incense and prayers before the Lord in expectation.
And the Lord had answered.
The gospel opens with an amazing account of the Lord’s miraculous plan unfolding. Zechariah and Elizabeth were about to welcome a child. The seemingly impossible was about to be possible. And their (im)possible son would prepare God’s people for the coming of something even (im)possible, even greater than they imagined but exactly what they’d been waiting and hoping for over hundreds and hundreds of years… the Messiah was coming!