The season of Advent does more than just introduce us to the hope of salvation; it gives shape to how we understand salvation. Luke presents God’s salvation, not as a concept that can be abstracted and compartmentalized as we often do with ideas, but as a story with a past, present, and future through which God’s salvation hope is being constantly threaded. Just as life is most often experienced and explained within the framework of story, Luke presents God’s salvation the same way, with the hope of Israel’s past entering its hopeless present.
The first inklings of Advent’s salvation story begin, not in a great royal hall with a king and advisors conceptualizing policies, but in the quiet, sacred space of Israel’s Most Holy Place of the temple with a priest named Zacharias. Zacharias is old, not well known. Though his wife, Elizabeth, is barren, they both have lived a righteous life. Zacharias does not have much to show for his life, or much to look forward to, but he has remained devoted to the ancient ways God ordained for Israel. On this day, Zacharias has been given a lifetime opportunity to enter into the revered, historical sacred space to offer incense to the Lord, to minister as his ancestor Aaron did. This space is also the site where the Roman general Pompey entered, massacred priests, and finding no idol, declared the Jews to have no god. Zacharias is entering a place that has encountered both honor and horror. On this day, both the priest and the place will encounter hope.
As Zacharias carried out his duties, an angel, Gabriel, appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name 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; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Here now into Zacharias’ disheartened awareness and into the dishonored holy place is hope spoken and set; hope promised in the form of a son. A son to fill Zacharias’ heart with joy, and a son to turn Israel’s hearts to God. A son who shall bear witness to the reality that, despite all the horror and hopelessness that has haunted and taunted Israel all these years, God is still with them, still at work, still the bringer of salvation. Still. That which once was is about to be again.
If you look carefully at the characters mentioned in the text (1:5-17), in the priestly role, Zacharias is a reflection of the High Priest Aaron; in the prophetic role, his son John will be a reflection of the great prophet Elijah. If we observe their names and ministries chronologically as on a timeline, each of these men in their time were witnesses of God’s salvation. God is up to something new, but it is also something very old; this salvation story is rooted in ancient days. As one who has lived his life, day in and day out, devoted to the God of this very old salvation story, these words of hope echo in Zacharias’ mind, bouncing off Israel’s past with a reverberating vision of where Israel’s future is headed.
These salvation stories of ancient days echo in our minds as well, hope reverberating in our hearts. What will you do when you hear that hope and encounter its comfort? Zacharias doubted it. He responded to the angel “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
Here Zacharias serves in the place of God’s presence while doubting the angel who stands in God’s presence. Sometimes we can go without hope for so long, we refuse to believe it even when it’s right in front of us. After so many years of disappointment, hope can hurt; it feels like a tease. To teach him to hope again, God made Zacharias silent for the next nine months. As Elizabeth’s belly would grow, so would Zacharias’ hopeful anticipation of God’s salvation in the form of his crying baby son, a sign that God is not silent. When Elizabeth later learned she was pregnant, she reflected “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”
Hope is being poured into these days of hopelessness. God was still at work authoring another story of salvation; even in the painful days we deem hopeless, a story of hope remains. It started in the days of Aaron, it echoed in the days of Zacharias, and it still reverberates through this current season. What will you do when you hear the story of hope? I hope you will make your heart ready to embrace God’s salvation work.