Luke 1:11-12, 18 NIV
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear… Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Fear and doubt. These are common human emotions, common responses. Zechariah’s fear comes from being confronted by something unexpected. His life followed a pattern which was totally familiar, the same day after day, year after year. It may not have been all he had hoped or dreamed life would be, but at least it was stable and secure, without surprises. He was old, past the time for dreaming, past the time for adventures and challenges, past the time for change. He was at peace with the life which God had given him and was content to serve faithfully for the days he had left on the earth.
Into the comfortable normality of Zechariah’s life a man appeared unbidden and unwelcome. The text says “an angel of the Lord appeared to him,” but It is unlikely that Zechariah’s immediate thought was, “O here’s an angel.” A person who had not been there, who should not be there, suddenly was there. Zechariah was gripped with fear as anxious thoughts raced through his mind. What could the stranger want? Where did he come from, how did he get in? Why here? Why now? The man no doubt had a strange look about him, a look of authority, of power, which Zechariah likely experienced as threatening.
The speech that this stranger then gave changed Zechariah’s fear to amazement and then disbelief. The man spoke straight into Zechariah’s heart, addressing his deepest longings, exposing his greatest disappointments, promising things for which Zechariah had long since given up hope. It was about a child, a son. Zechariah was old. His wife was old. The only future that they hoped for was in heaven. The thought that there could be another chapter to write in the story of their earthly life was one that they had long since abandoned.
He didn’t stop to ask himself the obvious questions – how did this man know all this, or where had he got his information? He didn’t reflect on the obvious, that there was something supernatural going on here. He responded instead in a way that we often do when confronted with the supernatural: with doubt. He asked for proof. The response he got was even more shocking. I’m not sure what he expected the man to do, but what he heard and saw struck him dumb, and he emerged from the altar room unable to speak.
Its easy to think that people in Biblical times were used to angels popping into their lives from time to time. We are so familiar with the Christmas stories of angels speaking and singing and filling the skies that its easy to think it was a normal occurrence around the year dot. But I suspect that angels were just as unusual in that day as they are now. Not a common part of daily life. People were just as surprised by their appearance, and possibly just as sceptical about their existence. Even the people waiting for Zechariah outside didn’t immediately think that he had seen an angel: their interpretation was that he had seen a vision.
How can we possibly know when we have met an angel, given that angels probably look for the most part just like ordinary people? How should we respond?
Perhaps we should not get preoccupied with angels in themselves. After all, angels are just servants of a supernatural God, the creator of the universe. Angels have captured the fascination of people down through the ages, but they are subordinate beings, messengers sent by One much greater. That is the one who should provoke our amazement. How do we respond when God steps unexpectedly into our lives and speaks into the deepest place in our hearts? Are we as sceptical as Zechariah? Do we turn away, unbelieving, more willing to believe natural realities than divine possibilities?
As doctors we are trained to question, we are schooled in unbelief. I remember the time God spoke directly to my unbelief for the first time, many years ago. It was not an angel I met, though it could have been. It was a man I had never spoken to, someone who knew nothing of me, a stranger. Without me saying a word, without me asking for his input, he spoke to me of my scepticism, my academic pride, my trust in my own education and background, and challenged me to let go of my unbelief and trust in God rather than myself. He challenged me about my unwillingness to let God do what he wanted to do in my life, unwillingness to be changed, unwillingness to move into a new and exciting chapter, because of my pride in my own achievements, my determination to be in control of my own life, my belief that I had it all together and that there was nothing more that I needed. I struggled internally against what he was saying, though I knew it was true. Eventually the psychological struggle was too much and I collapsed in a heap on the floor, sobbing. Not because I was hurt or angry or sad, but because I had met God. My life changed irreversibly after that.
I have forgotten that man’s name, forgotten what he looked like. I am fairly sure he was not an angel, he was a natural being. But he did the same thing as the angel did with Zechariah, speaking God’s words into my life, revealing the true state if my heart. It s those words that changed my whole way of seeing things. My unbelief left me, replaced by wonder and hope and joy.
Sometimes we need that kind of divine intervention in our lives if we are to move on to the next stage. It is hard to predict when or if or how it will come. Years of normality can pass. But we need to be ready to receive it when it comes, ready to accept the impossible, even if it seems to good to be true, even if it seems completely unbelievable. How can we be ready? Do what Zechariah did, keep serving the Lord in the way we know how, no matter how boring or normal it might seem. But perhaps we need to prepare our hearts and our minds to recognise and receive the words of the Lord when they come without questioning, without doubt, without unbelief. Learning to recognise his words is one of the greatest tasks of our lives. But if we do then we will experience wonders that we can only dream about. If we don’t, we might miss out.
Despite his initial response, and the immediate though thankfully temporary result of his unbelief, Zechariah came to see the promises come to pass, and he came to praise God for it, as we will see. It is always an amazing experience and an extraordinary transformation, to be lifted out of normality and into the glorious purposes of God.