Zechariah is stubborn. Sometimes that’s good. But only sometimes. It takes people forever to prove things to him. But once he believes, he’s solid. His mind is made up forever. It’s just getting him to that point.
For example, he’s convinced the Deliverer, the Messiah, will come during his lifetime. How does he know? It’s in the proof. Centuries ago Daniel, Hebrew regent of Babylon, told the exact era in which it would occur. Even announced each era by name. Everything has progressed on schedule.
Zechariah tells everyone who will listen to him. “Get ready. The Deliverer’s big day is coming soon. Mark my words. I’ve got the proof!”
In the meantime, Zechariah’s own big day is almost here. He has waited for it all his adult life. He will begin serving as priest of the month in the great national temple.
Zechariah likes being around people and is a natural-born leader, part of which is attributed to his stubbornness which people see as a virtue if he agrees with their point of view. A lot of people look up to him, though not everyone. He is still young.
He was born and raised in Jerusalem. Got his education at the temple. He likes city life and always knew that is where he would live his whole life. But, when his parents got with Elizabeth’s parents to agree on a marriage between them, that changed.
Elizabeth was a country girl but smart and educated. Her father had made sure she knew how to read. Zechariah respected that about her. But she didn’t like the big city. Her parents had been worried she’d not be able to make it there. So, they had struck a bargain. Zechariah could marry Elizabeth if he would consent to settle in their small village. To sweeten the deal, they offered Zechariah his future in-laws’ house they’d lived in when young.
- BC 40
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea, Palestine
“Zechariah, do you think I should make a new tapestry for our bedroom wall?” Elizabeth asks, pushing her long single braid over her shoulder.
“Sweetheart, you have made a dozen tapestries for that wall.” Zechariah smiles at his wife who is almost as tall as he is.
He peruses her rumpled clothes, wishing she’d take more interest in her attire, as he does. Even his beard is meticulous. She would be beautiful in more colorful clothes with her thin body. Alas, clothes mean little to her; but give her a good scroll, and she can be entertained for days. He chuckles thinking about that.
Zechariah is at least thankful she knows how he likes to keep things clean and tidy, even to the point of whitewashing the house every year. He admires the way the house is decorated with a few ornamental things here and there.
“I know, but you like to change things around sometimes,” Elizabeth replies. “You know, a different tapestry each year.” She inspects the tapestry already on the wall.
“Have we lived here that long?” Zechariah asks, looking up from the scroll of Malachi on his lap.
Elizabeth sits on a brown cushion across from her husband. “Well, I could always make another one for our guest room.”
He looks up from his scroll. “You mean the one that was supposed to be for our baby?” As soon as he says it, he wishes he hadn’t.
Elizabeth stares at her husband a moment, sighs audibly, tilts her head, and looks long at him without saying anything. She hugs herself, then looks down at the floor.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Zechariah says, putting a hand on her cheek. “God will give us children someday. So many, we’ll move into a bigger house with lots of bedrooms and you can make all the tapestries you want.”
“Huh,” she responds sharply, gathering her skirts around her. “With that many children, I won’t have time to make tapestries.” She playfully takes hold of his earlobe, twists it, and gets up from her cushion.
“Dinner will be in an hour,” she announces.
“When I reach the legal age to serve as priest in Jerusalem,” he calls after her, taking her cue to the subject, “I’m going to investigate all the interferences of King Herod with our religion.”
“Whatever you say, dear,” she says from the courtyard.
“When the Deliverer arrives, I’ll be able to tell him what’s going on. He’s coming, you know. Then he’ll take over for us.”
Elizabeth has heard it a hundred times. She is gathering up sticks from the wood pile to build a fire in her oven. Her husband’s door is open.
“Zechariah, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that,” she calls back to him.
“About the Deliverer?”
“No, about King Herod. It’s not safe. I want you around for a long time.”
“Yes, I know. Samuel was just telling me last week that I’d better not let one of Herod’s spies hear me say that.”
- BC 37
Dear Grandfather Matthat. Would you believe I’m finally thirty years old and eligible to serve in the temple? You’d be proud of me. By the way, we have a new high priest. Never again will King Herod allow the high priest to also be king; at least, not as long as he is in power. He has no business appointing the high priest.
Growing up, Zechariah, the oldest grandson, used to be close to his maternal grandfather of the Judah tribe (his paternal grandfather was of the Levite tribe). How Zechariah wishes he hadn’t moved from Judea so far away up north. Matthat is still his hero, though.
- Jerusalem, Province of Judea
“My name is Anna,” she tells him as he proudly walks through the front gate in his required priestly white linen robe. “Welcome to the temple. Is this your first time to serve?”
“Yes, it is,” Zechariah replies. “By the way, have you worked here at the temple long?” he unabashedly probes, noting that she is quite elderly.
“Yes, I guess I have. I’ve been here over forty years.”
“I’ll bet you’ve got some stories to tell,” he responds. Indeed, she does.
He settles in to the apartments set aside for rotating priests as they take their turn serving at the temple. Too much multiplying through the generations for a priest to serve full time as in centuries gone by. He has a roommate, a priest named Josiah who is not yet married.
“Is this your first year?” Josiah asks, sitting in one corner watching Zechariah unpack his tote.
“No, I was here last year. I’ll introduce you around and show you where everything is.”
The month passes quickly. He hadn’t taken Elizabeth with him. He never will. His wife never liked to travel far from home. So shy out in public. Well, he talks enough for them both. Just a country girl, she calls herself. How he loves her. How he hopes they can finally have that son they have longed for.
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
Zechariah is sitting in the village square. The town is too small to have a wall around it. So, instead of gathering at the city gate, the men gather at the square.
“You know the Deliverer is due to come in our lifetime,” he says, throwing out a few crumbs from the bread Elizabeth had packed for him.
Little birds fly down and fight each other for a morsel of the bread.
“No one knows that, Zechariah,” Samuel replies.
“We’ve got proof,” Zechariah continues. “Daniel explained it five centuries ago, and everything has happened just as sure as we can predict our yearly seasons. Those three world empires he named—Babylon, Persia and Greece—have come and gone just like he predicted. We’re in the fourth—Rome. He’s coming soon.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Can anyone really know?”
“He’s coming, I tell you. I have the proof. And there will be no crumbs of power left for King Herod.”
- BC 35
Zechariah is in the inner circle at the temple, he’s got proof of what he’s been suspecting about King Herod’s political interferences with the national religion and his hypocrisy.
Elizabeth tries to tell him to not be so vocal about it, even if he does have proof. He could be arrested for it someday. He tries to hold back, though it is hard. Writing his grandfather helps.
- BC 34
Dear Grandfather Matthat: Our latest high priest was assassinated. King Herod denies it, but he was too good of a swimmer to have drowned. The Deliverer will rescue us soon.”
- BC 30
Dear Grandfather Matthat: With Cleopatra’s death, maybe our taxes will go down. How much longer must we wait for our Deliverer? Heard Sarah is engaged to some man named Heli. Do you approve of him? I can’t be used to the fact that Sarah, who is younger than me, is my aunt. With much affection, Zechariah.
- BC 27
Dear Grandfather Matthat: King Herod just had his wife executed. Claimed she wanted to take over. My tenth anniversary serving at the national temple is next year. Heard Sarah and Heli just got married. Congratulations. We keep praying for the Deliverer, and a son too. Your loving grandson, Zechariah.
- BC 20
Dear Grandfather Matthat: Congratulations on your new granddaughter, Mary. Hard to believe we now have a cousin so young. I hope she influences the world a lot better than our new Augustus Caesar. When is God going to send us the Deliverer? We’re still praying for a son. Grandfather, it’s about to kill us. Everyone else has children. Your obedient Zechariah.
- BC 8
“Life has been pretty good to us, Elizabeth,” Zechariah says, watching his wife fold their clothes after drying them on pegs.
“You’re right. At least mostly good.”
“I have a steady job, we have a decent house to live in, and we are in relatively good health.”
“Considering other people our age, yes our health is pretty good.”
Elizabeth has grown thinner, though Zechariah had not thought it possible. Her hair has a white streak from her forehead back toward her crown. She’s a little stooped, but not as bad as some of her friends.
Zechariah smooths his beard that is now completely gray, though only a little complimentary gray grows at his temples. He notices the wrinkles in his hands. After all, he is five years older than Elizabeth and beginning to grow a little rounder in the middle, though one could never call him really fat.
“I guess you could say we had the perfect life except for that one thing,” Elizabeth sighs. “Well, I’ve long ago accepted it. Nothing we can do to change that. Life is too short for regrets. What will be, will be.”
“I can’t agree with you, Elizabeth. We’ll never be too old until we are in our grave.”
As always, Zechariah is at his spot at the village square. Samuel meets him there. Samuel is grayer too. Blames it on his twelve children and three grandchildren, though he chuckles whenever he says it.
Zechariah still throws his few bread crumbs for the birds to scramble for, and the birds still fight over them.
“Someday!” Zechariah says to Samuel. “I don’t care what you say.”
“About which thing, Zechariah?” Samuel asks.
“About a son. I know I don’t have proof. But that doesn’t change my wanting a son so badly I can hardly stand it. Just one son to carry on my name. That’s all. Just one son, like that bird that just flew away with one crumb. That’s all I ask for: just one.”
“At your age?”
Sitting at their breakfast table, Zechariah once more reminds his wife, “I’m priest of the month starting next week, sweetheart.”
Then, staring into nothingness, he adds, “You know, if we had had a son in our first year of marriage, he’d be nearly old enough to serve in the temple himself. He’d make me proud. Who knows, he might have had a grandson for us by now too.”
Elizabeth, used to this conversation along the years, does not respond.
He looks up at the ceiling, with his teeth clenched, and hits his fist on the table.
Elizabeth is startled at his outburst.
“Zechariah! What’s gotten in to you?”
Her husband stands, and calls out, “How long, God? How long?”
He clears his throat to fight back an unexpected and unwanted onslaught of tears.
“I know, sweetheart. I know.” She rises and takes the few steps to her husband. They embrace. Their tears mingle into dew drops of hope that eventually must melt away into a vapor of what might have been.
“Did you realize,” Elizabeth whispers, looking up at her husband, “how many baby welcomings I have avoided all these years?”
“Probably as many child dedications as I’ve avoided,” he responds.
“It’s gotten so hard to smile when another baby is born to someone else,” she adds.
“Yes. But we must keep doing it, Elizabeth. We must keep smiling. We’re part of some plan of God we don’t understand.”
“Maybe his plan is to not grow bitter,” she replies. “I find myself always fighting the bitterness. But maybe we’re supposed to be an example to others who have had life disappointments.” She looks up at him and pushes a strand of hair off his forehead.
Zechariah gently pulls away from his wife, walks out to the courtyard, and looks up toward the sky. “I will not give up!” he adds with forced enthusiasm. “I keep asking God. I will never stop asking. Never.”
“At our age?” Elizabeth’s laugh is melancholy. “You’re always wanting proof of things. Don’t you see? We’ve got our proof. We’re too old. Our dream is dead.”
Dear Heli: I wish grandfather Matthat were alive. I miss him. King Herod has just had two of his sons executed. Afraid they’d take away his kingdom. I go to the national temple to serve again next month. It will be my fortieth year. Where is the Deliverer to carry on God’s name? Where is my son to carry on my name? I cannot give up. Am I being irrational? Zechariah.
- Jerusalem, Province of Judea
“All right, everyone. Clear out.” the high priest announces to the priests inside the temple. “Time for the incense ceremony.” No one is allowed in the Holy Place but Priest Zechariah. “Clear out, everyone!”
Indeed, this year Zechariah has received the honor of offering the incense by the curtain hiding the Most Holy Place behind it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is awed by it.
Now Zechariah is left alone in the golden Holy Place. He lights the incense, then prays.
“Almighty, God. Send us your Deliverer. Please, God. The people need your Deliverer to control Herod and set up your eternal government. We need him, God.
“Oh, and uh…and God, I need a personal miracle too. I know Elizabeth and I are old and all. But we can’t let go of our dream to have a child. Please, God. So, send us your Deliverer, and while you’re at it, send us a baby of our own. Would you God? Please?”
From nowhere, a man stands by the altar. Zechariah sees it happen. The stranger just appears out of thin air.
“Zechariah!” His voice booms.
“Who are you?” the old man responds. “How did you get in here? Everyone’s supposed to be outside in the courtyard.”
The stranger’s stature grows. Imposing like a giant. His demeanor is intimidating, like a warrior. Zechariah stops talking and backs away from the incense altar, trembling.
“Zechariah!” the voice repeats. It echoes from the walls and resounds between floor and ceiling, earth and heaven.
“How do you know my name?” he asks bravely. “Who are you? What are you?”
“My name is Gabriel.”
“Gabriel?” Zechariah repeats. “You couldn’t be…”
“Yes, I appeared to Daniel long ago to tell him about…”
“…about when the Deliverer will be born.” Zechariah finishes for him, forgetting his fright for a moment.
“Exactly,” Gabriel responds.
“He’s coming soon, isn’t he?”
“You read the scriptures well, Zechariah.” Then Gabriel smiles warmly. “But that is only part of what God has sent me to tell you.”
“God has heard your prayers over the years about a child,” the angel goes on, a grin forming. “Your wife, Elizabeth, will indeed give you a son. You will name him John.”
“A son, Gabriel? You said a son? Really?” Zechariah is cautiously elated.
The angel grins broadly. “He will cheer your heart and fill you with happiness. Multitudes will rejoice with you!”
“Well, we know a lot of people. But multitudes?”
“He will be a great man someday. Therefore, he is never to drink alcohol.” The angel is more somber. “The Holy Spirit of God will be in him from his birth.”
“God’s Spirit? Like the prophets in the Bible?” Zechariah’s momentary smile transforms into wonder.
“He will turn multitudes of people in the nation back to God,” Gabriel explains forcefully. “He will make fathers pay attention to their children, and make the children of God pay attention to their heavenly Father. Then everyone will be ready for the Deliverer.”
“The Deliverer? I’m really going to have a son? And he’s going to announce the Deliverer? But that’s what I’ve been doing all along. You want him to announce him too? That’s great, Gabriel!”
Zechariah pauses. He takes a handkerchief out of his sleeve and wipes his sweating brow. No. I’m just imagining this. Control yourself, Zechariah. You’re hallucinating.
Regardless, the stranger remains.
“Well, we’re pretty old, Elizabeth and I.” He clears his throat. “Uh, how about some proof?”
“I am Gabriel!”
Zechariah is unsure, but trying to believe.
“I’ve been sent to tell you this good news,” Gabriel continues. “You’ve been talking about it for years. Well now, you’re not going to be able to talk at all. You will be speechless until John is born.”
Zechariah tries to respond but he cannot. No sound comes out. As hard as he tries, the words will not form. He stands mute.
The two things he has wanted to announce in reality all his life: The coming of the Deliverer, and the coming of his very own son. Now he cannot tell anyone.
Then, as he stares stupefied, Gabriel disappears. With the blink of an eye. Gone.
Zechariah stands still. Staring at the empty place next to the pure gold altar of incense. Silence. Trying to grasp his illusive dream. His head reels. He tries once more to talk. Once more he cannot. His proof is solid.
Zechariah’s heart slows, and he walks into the will of God. His soul bows in the silence of submission.
Outside of the Holy Place, the other priests, the Levites and the congregation of men are growing restless.
“It shouldn’t take him so long,” one priest says.
“Do you think he collapsed?” another priest questions.
“Someone should go check on him. He’s old, you know.” A priest looks toward the door.
“We’re not allowed in. We’ll have to wait.”
Eventually, the great door from the Holy Place to the courtyard opens.
“How did it go, sir?” asks an elderly priest.
“Did the incense not burn well?” asks another.
“You okay?” A priest comes up and puts his hand on Zechariah’s shoulder.
Zechariah spreads both arms out and up toward the sky, then brings them down. He stretches his arms out to the side like they are wings, then dips and swings around as though in flight. He touches his lips, then touches the lips of someone near him. He folds his arms and rocks them back and forth.
Everyone looks harder at him, eyes squinting, eyebrows pushed together, crevices between them. They look from Zechariah to each other. No one has an answer. Zechariah remains standing in front of the great doors.
“Someone cut out your tongue, Zechariah?” a younger Levite finally calls out, immediately embarrassed he said anything.
Zechariah starts over. He tries to get across what has just happened. They do not understand.
An older priest, Zechariah’s old friend, Josiah, walks up to him and says something the others cannot hear. They see Zechariah nod.
Priest Josiah turns to the group of men. “Zechariah cannot talk. We’re going to our apartment now so he can write down what has happened.”
The others walk away, wondering.
“Do you think his mind left him in there?” one asks his friend. “Or was stricken with a demon?”
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
During the following three weeks, Elizabeth hears rumors, but she does not understand them.
Something about her husband not being able to talk. “That’ll be the day,” she always replies.
“What’s going on in my house,” she demands teasingly upon hearing footsteps and knowing it is Zechariah just returned home.
Before getting to her, he picks up a wooden spoon and empty jar.
Elizabeth looks at him curiously, wondering what he is going to pour into it as a home-coming gift.
Instead, he rattles the spoon around in the jar as he walks toward her. Zechariah is laughing and crying all at the same time.
Elizabeth drops her sewing to greet him, not knowing whether to laugh or cry with him.
He drops the spoon and jar on the floor and embraces his wife as he has never embraced her before.
“Hey, that’s too tight! What’s gotten into you?” She pushes loose, and holds her outstretched arms between them.
Zechariah backs up a step, enthusiastically rocks an imaginary baby in his arms, and points to her. He stands still, hoping she can comprehend what he is trying to tell her. But her face shifts to sympathy or annoyance. He is not yet sure which.
“What’s wrong with your voice? Sore again?” she asks. “Talk to me!”
He leads her over to some cushions, makes her sit down, then hands her a small scroll. Tears form freely in his aging eyes, then slip down to caress his smile.
She unrolls the scroll and reads. He gently brushes her hair away from her eyes.
My loving wife, Elizabeth. I cannot talk. It is because of the angel.
She looks at her husband of nearly fifty years in utter confusion. He motions for her to keep reading.
His name was Gabriel, the same one who appeared to Daniel five centuries ago. If you believe what happened to the prophet-regent Daniel, you must believe what has happened to me. It’s the only other proof I have besides my speech-lessness.
She looks up at him. Her eyes question him. She goes back to the scroll.
God, help her believe.
Gabriel told Daniel that exactly 483 years after the order went out to rebuild Jerusalem the Deliverer will come to Jerusalem to be anointed high priest and king.
Elizabeth once more stops reading and looks up at her husband.
The thoughts of them both intertwine in hope beyond hope. Tears slip down her cheek. He takes out a handkerchief from his sleeve and gently touches them. How he loves her.
“The Deliverer?” she says guardedly. “God’s using you to break the news?” A smile reappears on her face. “Well, he sure picked the right one, to do the job,” she adds sheepishly. “I’d love to see King Herod’s face when you tell him he’s about to be replaced,” she adds with a touch of humor that does not often show itself in this quiet woman.
Zechariah then picks up the clay pot he has used earlier, puts it on his head like a crown, then knocks it off, breaking it in the process.
“King Herod? He’s going to lose his crown?” she asks.
Zechariah nods. Then he picks up a scripture scroll, and respectfully holds it over his head.
“He is going to be replaced by God?”
Next, he picks up Elizabeth’s shawl. He wraps it around his head like a turban. He picks up the scripture scroll and marches ceremonially. Then he knocks the turban off his head and onto the ground.
He waits as Elizabeth thinks it through.
“God is going to replace the high priest too?” she finally asks.
Her husband nods. Then he takes from her hands the scroll he had written to her, and replaces it with the scripture scroll. It is the prophecies of Isaiah. He turns it in her lap until he finds the place he wants to show her. It does not take him long. He points for Elizabeth to read.
As she reads, her hands begin to tremble.
A child is coming into the world. He will be both Son and Father, and he will rule. Forever.
When she looks up from her reading, he takes the scripture scroll away and returns the one he wrote to her, indicating for her to resume reading.
Dearest Elizabeth. The angel Gabriel said that you have been chosen to bear the messenger who will announce the Deliverer’s arrival. My beautiful sweetheart, nine months from now, you will give me a son.
She pauses. This cannot be true. This is a cruel joke. Zechariah has gone too far. They are never going to have a child of their own. The last hint of bitterness and dismay before she breaks free of doubt.
She looks at her husband once more. Gentle, soft diamonds appear in the eyes of them both and wash their souls with expectation. The seed of faith rises and unfolds like a flower of spring after the long winter of barrenness.
She presses trembling lips together in a desperate attempt to control feelings she has long-ago imprisoned but which are now attempting to escape. Feelings of motherhood.
Zechariah reaches over and gently puts each aging hand on her cheeks, then moves a little wisp of hair away from her eyes and nods for her to continue reading.
Elizabeth picks up the scroll and reads.
The God of the universe has come to set us free. You and I, the nation and everyone free of our shame. He has set the virile power of delivery right in the middle of our lives!
“In nine months, you and I will be parents. We will have a miracle baby. I love you now and always. I have not loved you less because you could not bear children. But from now on, we will have a different kind of love, a love engulfed in the design of God.
She rolls up the little scroll.
“But why can’t you talk?” Elizabeth asks.
Zechariah points at the scroll then himself, then shakes his head back and forth.
“You said an angel appeared to you.”
Her husband nods his head.
“You did believe him, didn’t you? After all, he was an angel. Or, at least that’s what you said he was.”
Zechariah shakes his head no.
“You didn’t believe? Why?”
Zechariah bends over and walks as though he is a crippled old man.
“You thought you were too old?”
He nods his head.
She stands and steps over to her husband. They embrace. As they do, they gently rock back and forth.
After several moments, they sit on cushions and hold hands in silence.
Elizabeth is quiet, then breaks out into laughter. “You know, to grab the nation’s attention, especially King Herod’s, our baby’s going to have to be just like you. Brash, talking all the time, stubborn… Oh, I hope he isn’t like me. He’d never get his first words out of his mouth.”
They laugh. With new freedom, new hope, new power they laugh. Just as Sarah had laughed so long along. And Abraham.
- BC 7
Nine months later Elizabeth with the wide gray streak in her hair and wrinkled hands gives birth to their only begotten son. Their miracle baby. He will give his life for the Deliverer—the other miracle baby—someday.
The news spreads through the country village like wildfire. Then to other villages and other towns. Even to Jerusalem. “Some woman in her sixties gave birth to a baby.” everyone is saying. “I heard she is seventy.” The story is on everyone’s lips.
- Jerusalem, Province of Judea
A week after his birth, the elderly parents take their first-born son to the temple to dedicate him to God. Friends and neighbors come for the ceremony. So do strangers.
They have a celebration first. They’ve arranged for a dinner at a relative’s home in Jerusalem.
“Oh, let me hold your baby, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth reluctantly gives him up to a cousin.
“It’s my turn to hold little Zechariah awhile.” He is passed on to a neighbor.
“But his name is John, not Zechariah,” Elizabeth objects.
“Hey, don’t I have a chance? Isn’t Zechariah just the cutest little baby you ever saw?” He is passed on to another woman.
Elizabeth says once again, “His name is John.”
Finally, Elizabeth takes her son back and holds him close to her breast. She coos to him. “Your name is John”
She looks up at them.
“John was the closest friend of King David long ago. King David’s descendant will be the Deliverer, and John will be his closest friend. John is the name he must have.”
“John?” people repeat to whoever is sitting next to them. “There’s no one in your family named John.”
Zechariah walks over to where his son is and looks down at him with a father’s pride.
“You’re not going along with this, are you?” they ask. “He’s going to be named after you. Right?” one of the women asks.
He pulls out the small clay writing tablet he carries with him whenever he leaves home. He etches on it with large letters, then holds it up over his head for everyone to see.
HIS NAME IS JOHN.
Immediately, Zechariah knows something has changed. He instinctively motions for his wife to stand, and they walk to the middle of the courtyard. Everyone follows, wondering what is going on. Zechariah is acting strange again. When everyone arrives, Zechariah raises his hands in a grand gesture toward them all as though he is going to give a speech. Of course, that is impossible.
People look at each other confused. Some whisper, “He can’t say anything. What is he doing?”
“Brothers and sisters!” he shouts.
Zechariah can talk? Everyone stares at him in shock.
“God is coming through the Deliverer,” he announces loudly to everyone’s amazement. “He is coming through a descendant of David to save us from our enemies.”
“But Zechariah, David is not your ancestor. Who are you talking about?” the people ask.
“God is finally keeping the promise he made centuries ago. In our lifetime we will finally be able to worship God in peace.
Then he takes his baby in his arms and blesses his baby in everyone’s hearing. The audience remains silent.
“You, my son, will be a prophet of God. You will announce the coming of the Deliverer who will save us from our enemies. You will prepare everyone for his arrival by making them admit their sins and turn from them.”
The Deliverer? The audience stirs. The Deliverer is coming soon? The audience is shocked with hope. Do they dare believe? Zechariah never tells them anything without providing evidence.
Zechariah looks at his son, born to parents who should not have been able to have a son. He is the proof. Then he looks back at all the neighbors and relatives gathered for the celebration. He is ecstatic. He can hardly contain himself.
“God is merciful after all,” Zechariah continues with a shout and a grin. “Just as the sun rises each morning from out of the heavens to shine in our darkness, we will no longer live in the valley of the shadow of death.”
What is he talking about?
“Light is sprung up, brothers and sisters. Light in the shadow of death. Make ready!” Now Zechariah is laughing. His neighbors and relatives laugh with him. Then they begin to cheer. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom!
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
Zechariah and Elizabeth return home. Life is back to normal. But not really. Will their life ever be normal again? Zechariah is disappointed that his grandfather did not live long enough to see such unbelievable things happening to his very own family.
Dear Heli. If Grandfather Matthat were alive, he would now have a great grandson. His name is John. By the time you receive this letter, Mary will be back home. The three months she has been here have given her strength. She is good. Listen to her. She is telling you the truth. Help her fiancé, Joseph, through this too. They both need your strength. And pray for them. They are so young.
Six months later they receive a message on a little scroll delivered by merchants from Bethlehem just a few milles to the south.
Cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth. May I introduce myself. I am Joseph, your new cousin. Mary and I have married. The baby was born. Our Deliverer. We think we should stay here in Bethlehem. If this is where King David was born and grew up. Maybe we should raise Jesus here too.
Indeed, the young family does settle in the same town where their baby was born and where Joseph had grown up. He turns the little compound he had left behind as a sheep corral back to a one-room house and courtyard.
In the meantime, Zechariah reads the scriptures to his infant son, knowing deep down he doesn’t really understand them. But hoping perhaps he does.
“Listen now, son. You’ll have to tell the people. They won’t always like it, but you must tell them. Be strong. You can do it. You’ll have the proof.”
- Bethlehem, Province of Judea
As soon as Joseph and Mary find a house to live in, Zechariah, Elizabeth and baby John come to visit.
“John, this is Jesus. Jesus, this is John.” The two fathers hold their babies up so they can see each other and make a curious introduction. Curious because they do not really expect the babies to understand. Curious because the babies smile and wiggle excitedly.
On their visits over the next two years, the fathers talk about strategies they think their sons should follow when grown. The mothers warn the men that their sons will have a mind of their own, and they will choose their own strategies.
These are good times. Happy times.
- BC 4
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
One morning during breakfast, Zechariah and Elizabeth hear loud shouting out in the street. “A massacre in Bethlehem! A massacre in Bethlehem!”
“Mary and the baby!” Elizabeth cries in a sudden panic.
Zechariah runs out his gate to find more information.
“King Herod’s troops arrived during the night, searched every home, and killed all the babies under age two.” the messenger explains to the crowd gathering around him. “They’re all dead. All the babies and toddlers are dead.”
The streets fill with people exchanging speculations on what was going through the mind of their madman king to carry out such an atrocity.
“Oh, no! Not Mary and Joseph. Their baby was killed?” Elizabeth wails.
Then they hear another shout. “It wasn’t all the babies.” Their hearts fill with hope.
Then, “Just the boys were killed!”
Elizabeth grabs John, now nearly three years old, and locks herself in her house. “What if they come here next?”
“I’ll stay out on the street to keep up with the latest news,” her husband tells her.
“Don’t go far, Zechariah! Please, don’t go far. Oh, poor Mary and Joseph. And Jesus. How could God allow his Deliverer, his Messiah to die?”
The morning is spent with neighbors visiting each other in an effort to learn more and to comfort the comfortless.
“Didn’t you have a relative there?” some would ask.
The night is spent with the men in the city guarding their own houses and their own families. If the soldiers come here, the fathers will fight the soldiers to the death. They sit leaning against their family gate, sword across their laps.
The next morning, Zechariah, tired from sitting by his barricaded gate all night, is back out on the street. He arrives just as soldiers do. Patrols have been dispatched to all the surrounding towns. One of them goes to the center of the country village and the people follow him. He has a scroll. He unrolls it. Will he declare a death sentence on their village too?
King Herod regrets the extreme measures that had to be taken, but his concerns are only with the nation. If the boy king had been allowed to live long enough to be put into power, he could have destroyed the entire country.
A few days later, things are quieter. Zechariah decides it is safe to leave town. “I’ve got to go there. What if they got Jesus?”
“Not without John and me. We’re going with you. Mary will need me.”
“What if the troops are still there?” Zechariah objects. “You’ll put John in danger!”
We must go. It’s our job. We must teach little John never to be afraid.”
- Bethlehem, Province of Judea
Early that evening Zechariah, Elizabeth, and little John ease into town, trying not to attract any attention. They have told John they are playing a game and have put him in a basket hanging from their donkey. They arrive at Joseph’s and Mary’s house. Their donkey is gone.
The front gate has been broken down. They rush in. Empty Shelves. No clothes. And no sign of blood.
“They got away, Zechariah! They got away,” Elizabeth says.
“How could they have known?”
- BC 2
- Obscure Village in Province of Judea
Returning home. Zechariah sends a letter by courier to Nazareth up north.
Dear Heli. We think they’re safe. We’re not sure. But we can’t find them.
Then they wait. Wait for a letter to let them know the Messiah, the Deliverer, little Jesus is safe. Two months later it arrives by courier from Egypt.
Dear Cousin Zechariah and Elizabeth. We did not write before for fear the government was watching your house. We are safe in Egypt.
We heard the news when we arrived. Those poor families. Babies killed on our account. We knew most of them. Mary hasn’t stopped crying. We know those babies are now safely being rocked in the arms of God, but their parents must be grieved out of their minds.
How are we ever going to keep Jesus safe if we have to spend the next thirty years on the run? Please write us. We need your encouragement now more than ever. Your cousin, Joseph.
Zechariah writes back.
Dear Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Be brave. Do not lose hope. You will come home someday. Your baby will grow up. Jesus will deliver us. Read the prophet, Hosea, in your scripture scroll. The answer is there. You are in our prayers, Zechariah.
- AD 1 – AD 15
Zechariah continues to train John, even though he is only four years old now.
“Be strong, my son. Stand up for truth and for God. Never give in. Stand with the power of God. Now, son, who is going to give you power? Say it with me. God will give me power.”
Dear Joseph, Mary and Jesus. King Herod had 40 rebels executed. Stay where you are. Our sons will grow up and will overcome with the power of God. Your old cousin, Zechariah.
The training continues. “John, people will not believe you. But show them the proofs in the Holy Scriptures and keep talking. Don’t let them shut you up. Make them listen to you.”
Dear Joseph, Mary and Jesus. His last act was more unthinkable than the others. Knowing he would die any day, King Herod had another son executed anyway so he wouldn’t take the kingdom from him. Five days later, Herod himself died a horrible death. I have to fight the desire to rejoice at his suffering. It is safe to come back. Stay with us until you are settled again. As always, cousin Zechariah.
It’s two months before Zechariah and Elizabeth hear back from Joseph and Mary. They worry.
Dear Zechariah, Elizabeth and John. Mary, Jesus, and I are back in Nazareth, Galilee. God warned us not to settle near Jerusalem. King Herod’s son, Archelaus Herod, is apparently worse than his father. We will be safe here where Antipas Herod, Archelaus’ saner brother, is tetrarch. We’ll be fine. Your cousin, Joseph.
Year after year, Zechariah continues teaching and preparing his son for the job ahead.
“Father,” John complains one day, “the kids at the synagogue school are teasing me because you keep telling their fathers I’m going to announce the Messiah, the Deliverer. That really embarrasses me.”
“You’re too much like your mother. Don’t let them get to you like that.” Zechariah smooths John’s hair.
“But are you sure, Father? I know I was a miracle baby and all. But I need more proof than that. Help me, Father. I’m just not sure.”
“God will give you strength. Everyone will try to prove to you that you are not to announce the Deliverer. But you are, Son. Never forget that. Never forget who you are!”
John is now a teenager. But something is not right. Zechariah is sick. He knows he will not recover.
“You’ll be on your own now, Son. Remember who you are.” Zechariah instructs him.
“Father, I can’t do it alone. You always said I was too much like Mother.”
“Son, listen to me. You can, and you will. Be brave!” Zechariah coughs, sips some water and continues. “Speak out. Show them the proof.” His voice is gravelly. “Don’t be afraid. Never be afraid. Stand up for truth and right and justice. No matter what the cost.”
John clings to his father’s last words. “You’ve got proof. It’s iron clad. Be brave… Be brave…”