Around the time Jesus was born, there were apparently some 20,000 priests living in towns all over the country. They were each on a rota for a week’s service in the Temple at Jerusalem, twice a year, after which duty, they would then go back to their own home town. From the time of King David, the priests had been organised into 24 divisions, and one of their special duties was to keep the incense burning in front of the Most Holy Place, supplying it with fresh incense before the morning sacrifice, and again after the evening one. This priest was chosen by lot, and ordinarily, a priest would have this privilege only rarely, and sometimes never.
In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, we read about two amazing and miraculous births, firstly that of John the Baptist, and then later that of Jesus. Zachariah and Elizabeth, were both of priestly descent, from the line of Aaron, in the priestly division of Abijah, when in one of those prescribed weeks, Zachariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy of Holies, and burn the incense at the hour of the incense offering To his amazement, the soon-to-be-very-busy Angel Gabriel appeared to him there, unannounced, to say that as old as he and his childless wife Elizabeth were, they would have a baby within the year. He responds with complete unbelief, and as a result, leaves the sanctuary rendered completely dumb and speechless, unable to pronounce the Aaronic Blessing over the restlessly waiting people outside the heavy curtain, wondering what on earth was going on.
Completely humbled before them all, Zachariah then returned to his home town, where he was unable to preach, teach or fulfil his priestly duties. We talk about being speechless in some situation or other, or struck dumb, but that’s only for a moment or two – for Zachariah, this went on for nearly a year, in fact until the baby’s circumcision ceremony, when he wrote on a tablet “His name is to be John”, as Gabriel had instructed. And immediately, his tongue was loosed into a torrent of song and praise, prophesying the birth of the Messiah (Ch.1 verse 79).
I don’t know about you, but I often respond to what God says or promises with unbelief. And that leads me to ponder whether that’s why sometimes the cat has got my tongue, and I don’t speak out with faith and belief when people are waiting for words of blessing and hope.
I read a moving Blog this week by a young woman called Grace who lives in Bethlehem, and she says “There are some who live and work, some who live and still look for work, and some have no idea why they live…” And I thought, that could be said of Old Town too, and with so many wasted young lives recently….. I really need to put my belief – about how and why Jesus was born – into word and action!