Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless and too old now to start a family, or so they think until Zechariah has an encounter with an angel that leaves him speechless.
I suppose the most famous Bible story is the one about how Jesus was born. I'm sure he must be the most famous baby in history. But the Bible also tells the story of another baby, born six months before Jesus.
It all began with a man called Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. They were good people, careful to obey all of God's special laws, and God had always taken care of them, but there was one thing missing from their life – they didn't have any children. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old now and they thought that they would never have a family.
Zechariah was a priest, he worked in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where people went to worship God and to pray to him and to say sorry for the things they'd done wrong. It was the job of the priests to take care of the temple and to help the people to do things God's way.
Every morning and evening one of the priests was chosen to go into the Holy Place, a special room in the temple that ordinary people were not allowed to enter. Once inside, the priest would burn spices that sent a cloud of sweet smelling smoke drifting up to heaven and when the people outside saw the smoke, they would begin to pray.
One day Zechariah was chosen to go into the Holy Place – he was very pleased, there were many priests in the land of Israel and some of them went their whole lives without ever receiving this great honour. As he stood, all alone, burning the spices, he prayed to God, thanking him for all his blessings. Suddenly the room was filled with light and there, standing by the fire, was an angel.
“Be not afraid!” declared the angel.
“Argh!” Zechariah screamed
“I said, be not afraid!” the angel repeated, “I bring good news! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will become pregnant and have a son and you are to name him John. He will be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and many people's lives will be changed because of him.”
Zechariah thought about what the angel had said and then at last he replied, “Mmmmmm, how can I be sure that what you have said will come true? Elizabeth and I are very old now – too old to have children.”
“I beg your pardon!” exclaimed the angel, “I am the angel Gabriel, I've met God, it was God who sent me with this message for you. But if proof is what you need then proof is what you shall have. From this moment on, until everything I have said has happened, you will not speak a word!”
And with that the angel vanished.
Shaking his head in amazement, Zechariah left the Holy Place. The people outside had been wondering what was taking him so long and seeing their puzzled faces Zechariah tried to explain. He opened his mouth to speak but not a sound came out and Zechariah realised, what the angel had said was already beginning to come true.
Zechariah had an idea, he tried to show the people what had happened by making signs with his hands. He pointed to himself. “You?” they asked. He nodded and pointed over his shoulder. “You were in the Holy Place?” Another nod and then he waved his fingers and raised his hands into the air. “You were burning the spices?” He put his hands together. “You were praying?” He covered his eyes. “You saw a bright light?” He drew a circle above his head and then flapped his arms like wings. “And a chicken ran round the top of your head?” Zechariah slapped himself on the forehead. It was no good, this wasn't going to work, so he gave up and went home.
Well, a few weeks later Elizabeth told Zechariah that she was pregnant. “Thank goodness!” he thought, “Now I can have my voice back.” But when he tried to tell her how happy he was he found that he still couldn't speak. It looked like he would have to wait until the baby was born! Perhaps you already know, but it takes nine months for a baby to arrive. Imagine not being able to say a word for nine months!
At last the day came when Elizabeth gave birth to their baby and just as the angel had said, it was a boy, after all these years they had a son. “Wonderful!” thought Zechariah. But when he tried to share his joy with his wife he found to his horror that he still couldn't talk! He didn't understand it, the angel had told him that he wouldn't speak a word until everything had happened. He'd said that Elizabeth would become pregnant and she had; he'd said that the baby would be a boy and it was! What else had to come true? And then he remembered, the angel had told him that they were to call their son John. That meant waiting another week until the baby was eight days old, when they would take him to the Temple to be named.
When the day came, Zechariah and Elizabeth and their family and friends gathered in the Temple as the priest held up the baby for all to see and declared, “I name this baby Zechariah!”
“No!” called out a voice and everybody looked round. It was Elizabeth! “No,” she insisted, “he is to be called John.”
“John?” asked the priest, “Are you sure? He's your first born son, he should be named after his father. There's no one in your family called John! We'd better ask your husband what he thinks.”
Zechariah thought that it was an excellent idea to call the baby John. Zechariah thought that if they didn't he might never speak again! He jumped up and down and shook his head, he didn't want them to ignore Elizabeth.
“Oh dear,” the priest sighed, “he doesn't look very pleased. Don't worry old chap, we won't call him John.”
Zechariah nodded furiously, he did want them to call the boy John.
“You see,” the priest smiled, “he agrees with me!”
Zechariah was beginning to panic when a thought occurred to him. He pointed at himself and then pretended to write something in the air. To his enormous relief the priest understood and sent someone to fetch a writing tablet. When it arrived Zechariah grabbed it, wrote as fast as he could and held it up for everyone to see.
“His name is John” they all read together. And the moment they did Zechariah felt like he was going to be sick! The feeling started in his stomach, it came up his throat, it reached the back of his mouth, he tried to hold it in but his lips opened and out came “Hallelujah! Praise the LORD! Oh, I've got my voice back!”
The news of what had happened spread throughout the land and all the people wondered, what would this little boy grow up to be? One thing was for certain – God was with him!