Luke begins his gospel by introducing Zechariah, a very minor priest. Politically important priests lived in Jerusalem. Zechariah, on the other hand, lived in the countryside and visited Jerusalem only when his team was on duty, twice a year for a week at a time. Luke tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth were upright, and blameless in the sight of God and observed all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. And that is despite the very real possibility that they did not realize that God loved them so much.
They were old for their time and had no children. Zechariah’s name had never been drawn by lot to burn incense in the temple. God, it seemed, had withheld the ultimate fulfillment of a married couple, children, and of a minor priest, the opportunity for that special service. And yet they continued to live a blameless life in God’s sight. They were two of the very best people in their society.
One day, the lot fell to Zechariah to burn incense, the most important moment of his entire life. Five priests entered the temple, but Zechariah alone entered the holy place. A crowd of worshipers gathered outside the temple to wait for him to complete his ritual duties and come back out to pronounce a blessing. But this day was different from all others. An angel appeared to Zechariah and told him his prayers had been answered.
Luke does not say what those prayers were, but verb tense Luke uses indicates that it was the answer to a specific prayer, not a habitual prayer. It probably means whatever Zechariah was praying just before the angel appeared, and therefore probably not his own personal needs. The angel promised him a son in his old age, and that son would answer whatever he had ever prayed, whether for his own needs, for Israel, or for the world beyond Israel.
Unfortunately, Zechariah chose that moment to turn from his regular character as upright and godly priest and revert to crotchety old man. He asked the angel, “How will I know you’re telling me the truth. My wife and I are old.” Zechariah knew the Scriptures. He knew that Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and others had borne children in old age after years of barrenness. He knew that God had worked many other miracles. He knew that everything ever spoken by an angel had come to pass, no matter how unlikely it seemed. And yet he chose to challenge the angel and declare his unbelief. He demanded a sign.
Unbelief is a serious obstacle to God. When Jesus went back home to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, his friends and neighbors rejected him. The Bible says that he was unable to do any mighty works there—not unwilling, but unable—because of their unbelief. Had he been able to do every conceivable miracle on that occasion, it would have blessed the people who received them, but would probably not have had long-term significance for the development of the kingdom of God. In the long run, it didn’t matter whether these people received their miracle or not. And so it is written that their unbelief prevented miracles from happening.
But in Zechariah’s case, God had prepared the birth and ministry of Jesus for generations. Hundreds of prophecies relate to it, including one in Daniel that named the approximate time. The ministry of John the Baptist was part of the preparation. There is no way Zechariah’s unbelief could derail it. The angel identified himself as Gabriel, a name already part of the historical record. Zechariah got his sign. He would be unable to speak until the day John was born.
Usually the priest who entered the holy place fulfilled his work quickly and left. Zechariah stayed in the holy place for a long time, so long that the crowd wondered about it. When he came out, he had been struck dumb and could not finish his priestly duty to pronounce a blessing on the crowd. Somehow, they understood that he had seen a vision. When his term of service ended, he went home and spoke for the next time to name his newborn son nine months later.
The crowd wondered what was taking him so long, this priest who had not been called to this service until he was an old man. We could understand if they concluded that he was a great sinner, that God had chosen that moment to punish him. We could understand if they concluded that he had been struck dead. There must have been great relief when he finally came out and great wonderment to realize that he could not speak. But they concluded not that he had been punished, but that he had seen a vision.
Perhaps this group of ordinary people had more faith than Zechariah did. We, too, ought to be more open to the possibility that God is here, that he is moving among us, and that he wants to work wonders. That he has a plan for our welfare, not for calamity.
American society today is very skeptical. We seem to have settled for a God of the gaps. We believe whatever science has to tell us on any given day, even though that changes noticeably over the years. We seem to think that if science has spoken about something, that settles it and there is no place for God in the matter. We make a distinction between science, or what we call reality, and religion, which we call someone’s private opinion.
Even in the church, people often regard those who talk about signs and wonders as some kind of fanatic. It isn’t reasonable. It isn’t normal. Some even teach that God’s supernatural activity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit passed away with the early church. And so the church today prays too often without any expectation that God will do anything. We hope against hope, but too often we do not believe.
Now I doubt if any of us have ever prayed a prayer that, if not granted, would derail some portion of God’s cosmic plan. We more greatly resemble the citizens of Nazareth than Zechariah. If we pray for something and then go out and tell other people we don’t have much hope of it happening, that is unbelief. If we find ourselves doubting God’s love, wisdom or mercy, that is unbelief. It is not unbelief to be uncertain of what to pray for, but if we know what to pray for and it seems like too much even for God to do, that is unbelief.
Americans do not see miracles like the ones reported from Africa or Asia or South America. We do not believe those reports very much, either. We decide that the stories are exaggerated or that there must be some other, more rational explanation. In consequence of our unbelief, God cannot do many miracles here. God does not stop wanting to do miracles in our midst; as in Nazareth, he cannot. God dislikes unbelief. It does not anger him. It grieves him.