In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Zechariah seems to get a bit of a bum deal. His question to Gabriel is not really any different than Mary’s. Unless we’re not privy to his attitude or demeanor, he appears to be asking the same sort of biological question as Mary. She asked “how can this be?” because she had not sexually “known” a man before. Zechariah, on the other hand, believed that he and his wife were far too old, and on top of that, they had been unable to ever conceive a child. (Notice that whereas Zechariah calls himself old, he refers to his wife Elizabeth as “getting on in years.” That’s a smart man!) Regardless, Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s alleged lack of faith is to cause Zechariah to be mute until the baby is born. This is likely less of a curse, though, and more of a proof: if God can shut up Zechariah’s mouth, surely God can open up Elizabeth’s womb! Sure enough, this is exactly what God does. Soon after now-mute Zechariah returns home, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. She stays in hiding for some time, likely thinking that she will miscarry, but she does not. After 5 whole months, she believes. Remember, Zechariah hasn’t been able to tell her. At the end of the passage, Elizabeth makes this prophetic announcement, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Barrenness is a heart-breaking, and often embarrassing situation. It shouldn’t be the latter, but it usually is. While it is not a person or couple’s fault, they typically receive it as such and bear the scars of this for a long time. The drives within us to procreate are very strong, and when anything prevents that from occurring, it is unwelcome to say the least. And yet, God delights in bringing life out of barrenness. There were a nearly countless number of babies born to parents thought to be barren in the Old Testament. Jesus was even born to a woman whose womb had never even had the chance to conceive, let alone fail to for any number of reasons. I’m convinced that God doesn’t cause barrenness, but delights in ending it, in bringing life out of it, because this is simply who God is. God is a God who makes a way when there is no way. God is a God who creates out of nothing, in unfavorable conditions. We can safely add to this, that God is a God who chooses unlikely candidates experiencing unfavorable conditions to do great and mighty deeds. God time and again delivers God’s people despite what appears to be hopelessness. To borrow a phrase from the recent Geico commercials, “If you’re God, you make a way when there is no way, it’s what you do.”
What is the barrenness in your life? What are the places where you have reached dark, dismal dead ends? Where do you feel like you have failed, and there is no hope of success? Have you given these to God? Have you asked God to make a way, to show you the way you ought to go? Have you tried walking that path, despite its apparent strangeness and even foolishness? You should. Today, as you pray, consider these things. We all have situations like this in our lives: literal barrenness, the painful loss of a loved one – perhaps even a child, a difficult and unwanted divorce, separation from a spouse, the hurtful loss of a friend, estrangement from a grown child, lack of success at work or even the loss of your job . . . the list could truly go on and on. Will you give God these situations of barrenness, loss, and darkness? Will you give God the things that you’ve given up hope for? Will you stop trying to force God to do what you want God to do next, and instead allow God to lead you down the meandering but bountiful path that God has prepared for you? Will you trust God to make a way when there doesn’t appear to be a way?