Most modern tellings of the nativity story begin with the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. But that’s not quite the beginning of the story – not even in Luke’s gospel itself. Six months before that historic encounter, Gabriel has another divine errand, to an old priest performing his duties at the temple in Jerusalem.
Zechariah was a righteous and blameless man, as was his wife Elizabeth (v6), and their lives were similarly about to be turned upside down, almost as much as Mary’s. It was another miraculous birth – only this time because of age. They had never been able to have children, and presumably had long since given up hope. But they remained faithful, and got on with the day-to-day business of living, and serving their Lord.
And into this pair of quiet lives comes the angel, with an extraordinary promise: ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John’ (v13).
You see, there was one other prophecy in the bible that had to be fulfilled before the Messiah could come. It was one of the very last words in the Old Testament, given to the prophet Malachi: that Elijah would return first, preparing the way for the Messiah.
This is the divinely-appointed task that John – later known as The Baptist – would come to do. That’s why it’s so important that he comes ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (v17), ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. John is that ‘voice calling in the wilderness’ (Isaiah 40:3): the herald announcing that the Messiah has come!
So there’s no time to waste – if Angel Gabriel is going to visit Mary, he has to visit John’s would-be parents first. So he does.
Yesterday we dwelt on the idea that God keeps his promises – which he does again here. But today let’s feast on this short but profound phrase in v13: ‘Your prayer has been heard.’
What a glorious thought! That Almighty God, the creator and sustainer of the universal, all- powerful and all-knowing – this God hears our prayers. He listens, his faced turned towards us, full of love: he knows who we are, and what we’re asking.
Many of us will have prayers we’ve prayed for a long time, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s take heart today and seize this promise with renewed faith: God hears our prayers. Yes, yours! And let’s have courage to keep praying them. God has not forgotten you.