Me and my big mouth!
Elizabeth has warned me many times. "Think before you speak, Zechariah. One day you're going to talk yourself into really big trouble."
I just laughed. Words are only words, right? Wish I had listened to her, and put a guard before my mouth. But who would have thought that the greatest day of my career would end in disaster.
I am Zechariah, a priest, a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Not that that means a lot these days - there are so many of us, most of us will never do more than slaughter and burn sacrifices. And clean the temple. Lots of cleaning, trust me!
We only get a week every six months to do duty at the temple, and every priest would like to do more, but changes are basically zero. They even have to cast the lot every day to decide who will burn incense! I had given up hope, being old, ready to retire to the hills, when the lot chose me. Me, Zechariah, the old childless priest! I was chosen to burn incense, to offer the prayers of His people to the Most High!
I spent weeks sanctifying myself in accordance with the Law. I purified myself. I prayed and confessed and executed the purification rituals meticulously. Going into the Holy Place was not something to be taken lightly. The God of Israel is the Holy One, the Lord of Hosts, who demanded holiness from His servants. All my life I have observed his commandments and regulations with my whole heart, and being chosen for this holy task raised the stakes even higher.
At last the great day came. I was as ready as I could be, yet I was shaking as I entered the Holy Place. I could hear the worshippers outside, raising their voices in prayer and song, but it sounded far off. There was a silence, a presence, intimidating but also inviting. In the dim light I raised my censer and laid the coals on the altar. I started dropping the incense slowly onto the coals, and then everything fell from my hands!
I almost screamed. Next to the altar stood someone, where there shouldn't be anybody. For a moment I thought that some foolish priest had followed me inside, but then I realized that this was no man. Superficially he looked human, but he was not one of us. I have never seen an angel before, but trust me, you know when you meet one of the heavenly host.
I started to fall to my knees, but he grabbed my hands and pulled me up. "Do not be afraid, Zechariah," he said. The voice was deep and resonant, somewhat lilting and, dare I say it, he sounded slightly amused. "Your prayer has been heard."
My prayer? "Too late for that", I wanted to say, but he gave me no time to speak.
"Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
I just couldn't hold it anymore. "How can I be sure of this?" I blurted out. "I am an old man and my wife is well on in years!" But even as the words left my mouth I knew that I was in trouble.
For a moment the silence was deafening. He seemed to pull himself to his full height. I could see and fell his indignation. I am Gabriel," he said. His voice was measured, cold as ice. "I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
And then I was alone, stunned, with incense lying around the altar.
Outside they were shouting my name. "Zechariah! Come out! What's wrong?" With shaking hands I picked up my censer, and slowly backed away from the altar, out the door, to the waiting masses.
It's been six months since that day. Six months with a tongue laying like lead in my mouth. Six months of scribbling on a tablet. Every day now I see the promise taking growing before my very eyes. In three months I'll tell the story to the world, and this time there will be no idle words ...
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