Advent is here. Christmas is just around the corner. However, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, there is an aspect of the Christmas story we tend to overlook or underemphasize. While flipping through the pages of Luke one and two and Matthew chapter one, we forget the lengthy gap that’s represented in the page that reads “The New Testament.” For us, the span between the Old Testament and New is merely a couple of pages, but for the Israelites it was 400 years.
Four hundred years of silence. Four hundred years of God’s presence withdrawn from His people. Four hundred years of no word from God. The temple was empty, the prophets silent, and the Lord no longer dwelt among His people. But, all that was about to change.
The stage was set. Israel was experiencing the worst oppression since their defeat and captivity into Babylon. The people were ready and looking for a savior. The fullness of time had come, and God was ready to break the silence.
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.”
God broke His 400 years of silence in the temple--in the Holy Place. The temple was built by Herod to appease the Jewish leaders, a mere building where faithful Jews brought sacrifices and offerings as in days of old. However, the Almighty God was not there. The Holy of Holies did not hold His presence, for God had departed from His people 400 years before. Nevertheless, the place where God first makes His presence known again is in the temple, to a faithful priest.
I wonder what Zechariah was expecting when he got chosen by lot to enter that Holy Place? It was the experience of a lifetime and one that he would never again repeat, for each priest was only allowed into the Holy Place once. Was he nervous? Excited? We’ll never know, but I’m sure that Zechariah wasn’t expecting to see an angel!
And what about the people gathered outside? After 400 years of God’s absence, what must have it been like to see Zechariah come out mute? Were the people astonished? Did they have a healthier fear of God? Were they glad that God’s presence was among them again?
I would imagine that they were struck with fear. Nothing like this had happened before! They were probably reminded of the stories of old that told of men dying for inappropriately entering God’s presence. So I’m sure the bystanders were struck with fear and a healthy dose of renewed respect for the Lord.
And this should be our take-away. When God made His presence re-known that fateful day over two thousand years ago, the people were filled with fear and a new found respect for His name. To them, God was just a concept, oral tradition, and distant memory. They had not seen His presence or witnessed His mighty acts, but had only heard of them. He had been silent for over 400 years! But that silence was broken. And the same God who appeared to Zechariah through an angel that ordinary day is the same God at work in our lives today. He is not dead. He is not distant. And He is not silent.
So this Christmas, as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, let us not forget to reverently fear and respect the God who is still at work today in the 21st century, and who can make the unbelieving mute.
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