Elizabeth and Zechariah were both priests through and through. Zechariah had devoted his life to serving as a priest, as part of the order of Abijah. He had even served in the Temple of Jerusalem itself—no small honor. Elizabeth too was of the priestly caste, from a family with impeccable pedigree. She was a descendent of Aaron, Moses’ right hand man. Aaron who was the creator, founder, and progenitor of the priesthood in Israel.
Rev. John Edgerton
Their family life revolved around the priesthood—caring for the temple, maintaining the religious life of the people, learning and practicing the complex and arcane rituals of religious and cultural life. They were devoted to it, doing everything just right. But there was one thing that priests were supposed to do that Elizabeth and Zechariah could not do. Priests were supposed to have children and teach their children how to be priests too.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth, they had no children.
They had been married long years, and waited and hoped for a child. In the temple they helped maintain, they prayed for a child. They day dreamed and star gazed about the child they wanted, talking to family and friends and neighbors all about what they would do. Zechariah could take the child out on clear nights to read the stars to tell the times and seasons, so that where others saw fish or goats this child could see a map of years and months and ages yet to come. Elizabeth could give the child lessons in reading Hebrew and studying the cycle of festivals, so that where others saw musty incomprehensible scrolls this child could see the story of their people’s salvation. If it was a boy they would name him Zechariah after his father. They dreamed and dreamed. But dreams that stay dreams too long start to fray and come apart, and when hope stays merely hope for too long, in time it brings more pain than joy, and people give up hope just to be free from disappointment. Had Elizabeth and Zechariah given up hope for a child? Maybe. If they had no one could fault them. They had waited and waited and waited and waited.
Until one day, an otherwise ordinary day, when Zechariah was fulfilling his duties in the temple—lighting incense while people gathered to worship to pray. An angel appeared to him and spoke to him, the angel Gabriel who stands in the very presence of God. And the angel was there bearing the most welcome news. They were to have a child, a son. The family line would continue, the work would continue, Zechariah no doubt would rush home to tell Elizabeth, this was literally an answer to their prayers but…..
The angel wasn’t done yet.This child was not going to be a priest. The angel said that the child would not care for the temple, but would live out in the wilderness. The child would not wear a priest’s robes but camel’s hair. The child would not eat of the sacrificial bread, but would eat locusts and wild honey. The child would not care for the traditions and festivals of the faithful, the child would herald a new era for the faith, would announce the coming of someone both ancient of days and green as new grass. The child would not be named Zechariah, after his father. But John, John who was to be called the Baptizer, he would not live the life of a priest, would not live a life of peace, but come to a violent end at the hands of the corrupt.
This was the vision the Angel Gabriel, who stood in the presence of God gave to Zechariah. And bless him, Zechariah did not believe it, because who would want to?
Elizabeth and Zechariah, they lived out something true and hard about what it means to raise children and to love them. Elizabeth and Zechariah wanted a child in order that the child might continue the tradition of the priests, that the child might do with his life what they had done with theirs. This was a dream that was dear and precious to them. But it was not to be. They had to choose what they would value more: their dreams for who their child might be, or the person their child actually would become.
Zechariah and Elizabeth learned this lesson earlier than most, it is true. They were forced to choose when their child was 8 days old. What would they call him—Zechariah…or John.. They learned it early, that’s true, but the lesson they learned is a fundamental one to raising children. A child is not bound to follow their parent’s wishes. To raise a child is to be filled with hopes and dreams for what that child might be, hopes and dreams that are dear and precious. Yet to raise a child is to need to willingly discard dreams about a child, to discard dreams about who a child might be and treasure instead who that child actually becomes.
A parent hopes their child will be an athlete, the bookworm is who must be embraced. A parent hopes their child will a healthy outdoorsy rough-housing type, the sickly child perpetually in and out of hospitals is the one who needs to be reassured they aren’t a disappointment. A parent calls their child a boy and raises a boy and dreams of the man they’ll become, the girl afraid to tell a single living soul the name she has given herself, she is the one who must be kissed and swept up into a loving embrace as a daughter. To raise a child is to love the person they become more highly than any dreams for them.
Elizabeth and Zechariah learned this earlier than most, even before the child was born! But the lesson they learned is fundamental to raising children.
And it is fundamental not only to raising children. It is fundamental also to understanding God and the textures of God’s love for us. When we call God Mother, when we call God Father, when we call ourselves children of God, we are saying this, we are saying God is a father the way Zechariah is a father, God is a mother the way Elizabeth is a mother. God loves us as the people we really are, more than God loves us for who we might someday become.
This has got to be hard for God, because God knows better than I do what is good for me. And it is true that God has dear and precious hopes for how I might live my life, what the world might be like if I would only…. It must be hard for God, because I fall short every day. And God loves me all the more in my failures, because then I need it most. And God loves me all the more when I do not know which way to turn, because it is then that God’s loving counsel comes like a whisper. God has dreams for me AND God loves me more than those possibilities.
Like Elizabeth, like Zechariah, like a loving mother, like a doting father, God loves you for who you are, not merely who you might one day be, or who you might have been with a world of what ifs. God will not try to force you to be someone you are not, God would never. God will not discard you as of no worth if you do not live your whole life just so…
If it is with skinned knees and bruises, from falling flat on your face, if it is with pride on your heart from having accomplished something everyone told you you you weren’y cut out to do, if it is with tears on your face looking back on something you wish you had never done, If you just call out, God will sweep you up into her arms. There will not be any “I told you so”s or even a single “what did I tell you about” on Her lips. Instead the very first thing you’ll hear from God is—shh…shh….shhh. Tell me everything.