In the chill of the early morning darkness, Zechariah climbed the stairs toward the Temple gate. A rooster crowed in the distance. Nothing had changed—except he was a half-year older, and the pain in his knees made the ascent more difficult. As always, he would join the other priests and swing open the massive gate to welcome the people.
He could soon retire in peace and leave the priesthood to younger, able-bodied men. This was his last year, and his responsibility would be passed on to his son—except he didn’t have a son.
When he entered the court of God’s house, he didn’t fall to his knees and whisper his usual, fervent prayer. He headed toward the gathering of priests near the columns on the far side.
His worn-out prayers were faint echoes in his mind. Lord, lift the curse upon our home. Let this be the year Elizabeth will bear our child. He had prayed those words beyond their usefulness. His wife was old enough to be a grandmother. Circumstances had delivered God’s answer. They would die childless.
Each day, from the Temple’s Holy Place, the sweet smell of burning incense rose toward Heaven, bearing the prayers of Israel. Some people came in desperation, seeking help, believing God was listening. Many were thankful for what they had received. But sometimes, a man’s curse makes it difficult to count his blessings.
What had he done wrong? His prayers had fallen upon deaf ears. He had followed Torah, offering sacrifices, giving tithes, doing all that God commanded. Either God wasn’t listening or God didn’t care.
“Shalom.” He embraced the priest nearest him.
When the lots were drawn to determine the day’s assignments, Zechariah’s legs went weak and he stiffened to steady himself, afraid he might faint. He swallowed hard, holding his mouth firm until his burst of joy returned to his earlier feelings of despair.
Only once in a lifetime was a priest allowed the honor of entering the Holy Place to offer incense. How was it that he should be chosen during his last days? After more than thirty years, he had assumed he would be among those who never drew the opportunity. He took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, finding it hard to believe the lot had fallen upon him.
Three long blasts from the silver trumpets awakened the city to the gray of dawn. Purple streaks of thin clouds were acquiring just a hint of pink. When he stood with the other priests as they pushed open the heavy gates, his mind went to the preparations needed for offering incense.
The altar’s glowing coals were stirred into flame.
The Temple was ready to be filled with people.
As soon as the crowd had gathered to pray, he entered the Holy Place and stood before the golden Altar of Incense. Another deep breath. This was a special moment, unlike anything he could have imagined.
The red coals overcame the chill in the air. The veil of the Holy of Holies hung before him. His hand trembled as he held the golden censer, which gleamed from the light of the seven-branched lamp on his left.
A movement drew his glance to the right. He stared for a moment, but nothing was there. Only a shadow cast from the Table of Showbread.
Focused upon the altar, he strained to hear the precise moment when the people, bowed to the floor, made an end of their prayers.
It was time. People were waiting to see the smoke rise, a symbol of their prayers ascending to God’s throne.
The incense crackled as it hit the coals. Caught by the flame, a cloudy stream of fragrance pushed high into the sky. As soon as the cloud became visible, people would feel the God’s presence and know he had heard their cries.
Zechariah bowed in worship, trying to absorb the magnificence of the moment. Before his knee touched the floor, he fell back.
A column of brilliant light filled the air in front of the showbread, like a doorway to Heaven had been thrown open. Out of the brightness stepped a man.
The stranger’s countenance was like lightning, his garment white as snow. “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah,” he said. “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give birth to a son. You must name him John. He will bring you great joy, and many will rejoice at his birth. God will recognize him as a great man.”
His tone was gentle, but with the power of a trumpet. “He must never drink wine or other fermented beverages. Even before birth, he will be filled with the Spirit. He will turn many Israelites back to the Lord their God. In the spirit and power of Elijah, he will soften the hearts of fathers toward their children and cause the rebellious to accept godly wisdom. He will prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.”
“How can this be?” Zechariah pushed himself to his feet. “This is impossible. My wife and I are too old, far past the days for having children.”
“I am Gabriel, sent from God to bring you this good news.” His look went from joyous to judgmental. “Because you have not believed me, you will be unable to speak a word until the day of your son’s birth. All I have said will be fulfilled in due time.”
The angel’s words echoed in Zechariah’s mind like thunder across the valley. He bowed, not knowing what to say. When he looked up, the angel was gone.
The Holy Place seemed intensely quiet. Shaken and confused, Zechariah tried to regain his composure. How much time had passed? The people must be waiting for him to give the benediction.
As he rushed to his place at the top of the porch steps, everyone was staring at him. He moved his mouth, but no words came out. Frantically, he made signs with his hands. He pointed toward Heaven, touched his mouth, and then covered it with his hand.
Confusion showed on people’s faces. Obviously, they didn’t understand what he was trying to say.
One priest stepped up and whispered in his ear, but Zechariah couldn’t hear a sound.
Another priest grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the crowd. His lips seemed to be asking if Zechariah was sick. What were the words after that? Their meaning was clear.
He was under God’s curse and must leave.