Background: Zechariah was resigned to the idea of being childless, but it had to hurt. He might have struggled with wanting to be enough for Elizabeth's happiness -- even without the blessing of children. Out of love for his wife he might not have mentioned his desire for children as much as he used to. Perhaps his yearning for children was voiced only in a habitual, silent prayer to God that he and his wife be blessed. Despite giving up hope long ago, he may have held on to his prayer simply out of habit or because dropping it meant admitting forever that he would never have the long desired son or daughter. Maybe he just couldn't admit that his dream would never be realized. Whatever the struggle, however, Zechariah had moved on with his life. He had a job to do. After all, he was a priest of the Most High God.
My thoughts: Zechariah was working for the Lord by burning incense in the temple. This was his moment to serve God and pray inside the temple. Remember that this was not like the modern Christian church where anyone and everyone has open access to the sanctuary. This was a great honor -- probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.
It was at this special moment in Zechariah's life that God moved. Luke 1 tells us that:
"There appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Imagine! God is giving Zechariah and Elizabeth their heart's desire. He is giving them a son! And instead of just allowing them to discover the miracle of Elizabeth's pregnancy on their own, He sends an angelic messenger to tell Zechariah in person and give him detailed instructions about what the child should be named and how he should be raised!
How did Zechariah respond?
Sadly, Zechariah had given up all hope of a child to the point that when a fear-inspiring angel stood before him in the temple of the Lord, looked him squarely in the face, and audibly told him, "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son." Zechariah could not believe it. He asked for proof. Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Before we are too hard on Zechariah, think about how you would respond if the same thing happened to you. How would I react if I had wanted something so badly that I had spent years praying for it even after all hope was gone? When was the last time I gave up hope with the epitaph, "I guess the Lord's ways are not our ways." Though often true, could it be too quickly spoken? Is it possible that we are dismissing God -- underestimating either His power or willingness to help us?
In this case, Zechariah was not without evidence that something special was happening in his life. An angel is standing there, and it is an awesome sight! What more proof did he need? But the doubt was there. He didn't want to be disappointed again. Perhaps he wanted to be absolutely sure before bringing back a flicker of hope to Elizabeth. To tell her some fantastical story and it not be true... it would be a crushing blow. It all comes down to one sad truth; Zechariah doubted God.
The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
This demonstrates that "blameless" does not mean perfect. And as always, there are consequences when we sin. Zechariah was given proof, but it wasn't the kind he was hoping for. He was denied the ability to speak until his son was born. Oh, the conversations he must have wanted with his wife as they rejoiced together when it became apparent that Elizabeth was indeed pregnant. His exclamations of delight were stifled when they first felt baby John kick or move in the womb. How he must have wished for some outlet for his joy -- to tell his wife in detail about the angelic visit or apologize for his lack of faith...
God's promises are sure. He doesn't act on a whim or give and take away randomly. I know this, but it helps to be reminded. I don't need to question God or ask for a surer sign. He is the Almighty God. He has a plan for my life bigger than the one I could think up myself. It just takes trust. And if God is anything, He is definitely trustworthy.
Zechariah and Elizabeth learned that God is awesome beyond anything they had imagined, and they also learned that God's timing was different than their own. We can learn the same things.
They had Someone that is worthy of both worship and trust, and so do we... but more on that later.