While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. … And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.” — Luke 1:11-13, 16-17, NLT
Does God pay any attention to our prayers? Do they bounce off the clouds and rattle around the atmosphere in futility? Or is God a listening God, an attentive God, a God who hears, remembers and responds to our requests?
Luke begins his account of the Advent story with what seems at first to be a superfluous historical detail, the account of an angelic visitation to the husband of Elizabeth, who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless and old. They had prayed for a son, but their prayers, apparently, had not been heard. I would imagine they had long since stopped praying for a child and had come to accept their situation, with regret.
But the first words out of the angel’s mouth that morning were “God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son…”
Advent is a season of anticipation, of awaiting the coming of Jesus. But before getting to anticipation, we have to deal with prayer. Advent is also a time to acknowledge prayers spoken, prayers heard, and prayers answered. The coming of the Messiah was an answer to the continuing prayers of a devoted people to be rescued from bondage and restored to greatness, and intimate fellowship with the Lord.
In other words, Advent tells us something significant about the Christian view of God: he is a God who hears, he is a God who remembers, and he is a God who answers the prayers of his people. Our prayers never fall on deaf ears. God is always attentive. God is active and at work in history, and also in the minute, gritty details of our lives.
Zechariah’s initial and very human reaction was to doubt this messenger.
Are you on drugs, Sir? Do you have any clue about the realities of human reproduction? My wife and I are old! Yes, we prayed for a child long, long ago, but it’s too late now. God missed his chance. That ship has sailed.
Months later, when this same angel appeared to Mary to explain that she, a virgin, would become the mother of Jesus, he seems to have decided to nip her own astonishment in the bud:
“Your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” — Luke 1:36-37, NLT
Nothing is impossible with God. There’s another lesson from Advent.
God does the impossible. Can a woman past her child-bearing years conceive? Nothing is impossible with God. Can a virgin have a son? Nothing is impossible with God. Can a historically insignificant people, conquered and humbled, poor and without political clout, birth the Savior of mankind and the world’s most influential religion? Nothing is impossible with God.
Generations of Israelites prayed for the Messiah to come in their generation. God heard; God remembered; God answered those prayers in his own time by sending his son to be born of a virgin, in a stable, in an insignificant corner of the world. History was shaken and irrevocably altered, because nothing is impossible with God.
The central historical fact of Advent is the coming of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. But supporting that event, moving underneath and behind and through that amazing event is a God who hears our prayers, remembers our prayers, and answers our prayers. Even the ones that would seem impossible.
Illustration credit: Woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, from Wels.net