In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendent of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, a multitude of the people was praying outside.
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. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him 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 strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
Where does the Advent story begin? Does it begin with Mary and Joseph? Or perhaps with Zechariah and Elizabeth? No. The story begins with God's people; the ones praying to God for liberation; the ones crying, "How long, O Lord?"
Luke's opening scene reveals a Levite priest named Zechariah carrying out his duty in the Jerusalem Temple. This was a special moment for Zechariah. Why? Because there were probably over 20,000 active priests in his day, all awaiting their turn to serve God and God's people. He had spent the majority of his life away from the temple but the day had finally come for Zechariah! And not only did Zechariah get to serve, but he had now received the unique privilege to burn incense inside on the temple altar. This minor detail is where the Advent story truly begins.
Ever since the return from exile in 538 B.C.E. Zechariah's people - Israel - longed for liberation and justice. It was a dismal time as Israel strived to live faithfully despite foreign subjugation. This discomfort led many Jews to look forward to a future when God would bring an end to exile and restore the community of Israel. Just how this might happen no one knew; but they longed for it with a deep hope.
The Advent story (which both Matthew and Luke rightly present as beginning ultimately with Abraham) begins in this dismal period, in "the days of Herod." This refers to the days when Herod the Great ruled over Judea. After almost 200 years of disorder, Herod had besieged Jerusalem in 37 B.C.E. and appointed a new high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. Judea had become like a police state and Herod the Great was the Roman "client king." The despair of God's people at this time was matched only by their hope in a new future. And much of Israel's hope revolved around the Jerusalem Temple and its culture. This is why the story begins not with Zechariah but with the people of God.
Though Zechariah is certainly unique, he is one of thousands of priests! This could have happened on any other day to any other priest. We too often view the biblical characters as especially deserving of their roles in the Great Story - as if they are chosen because of their abilities. But Zechariah's encounter with the messenger is a grace event; an event that is sown by the prayers of God's people. In that intimate room of the temple, Zechariah burns incense - a symbol of the people's prayers rising to God (Psalm 141:2). And outside a multitude of people are praying, longing, hoping - "How long, O Lord, until you make things right?" It is at this moment that the messenger of God appears with good news:
And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
This is not news for Zechariah only. It is news for all the people who have been waiting and praying for God's justice. It is not an answer to prayer for only Zechariah; it is an answer to the prayers of God's people.
And who knows who is among that multitude of people praying? Or whose prayers were rising to God in the symbol of that incense? Perhaps the sons and daughters of Israel. Perhaps also some Gentiles for whom the pax Romana was not so favorable. Perhaps a few widows who had been estranged by their families. And maybe some lonely tax collectors. Who really knows? It may just be that the people of God includes all of those who hope and pray for God's justice (Isaiah 56:7).
What is clear, however, is that the sweet story does not begin with one righteous priest. Rather, it begins with an oppressed people, crying out to the God of Justice. The story begins with the prayers of God's people.
Spend ten minutes listening to a song and thinking about the things you long for. Imagine a better world and ask yourself, "What are my sisters and brothers longing for as well?"