According to the Gospel of Luke, there once was a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth had longed for children, but that joy had not been granted to them, and now it was too late. They had sighed and put their hope aside many years ago.
They lived in a community which had cherished a similar hope for a child. But this was not just any child, this was to be a great prophet, someone as great as one of that community’s most famous and revered prophets, the prophet Elijah (see Malachi 4:5–6).
Yet he had been promised four centuries ago, and since then heaven had been silent. Not only had this promised prophet of prophets not been born, there had been no word from God at all. Imagine if that had been us, if the last evidence of God’s work on earth had been in the early 1600s and we had seen nothing since then. No Wesleys, Wilberforce or Welsh revival, no Billy Graham. Silence. I think we’d have given up hope.
And yet, God’s beloved people kept worshipping him. Week after week, year after year, they kept the Sabbaths and made the sacrifices, and hoped.
Then one day, as Zechariah was serving in the temple, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense (Luke 1:11).
I think we can miss the power of that moment. The way our Bibles are constructed, there are two other Gospels between Malachi and this passage, and we can forget that this was the first interaction between God and man for four hundred years. I’m not surprised Zechariah was ‘startled’ (v12).
The angel said, 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 (v13).
The angel didn’t stop there. In a connection that no one at the time would have missed, he went on to echo the last recorded words God had spoken. This child would come in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children (v17). The waiting was over – the hopes of God’s people were about to be fulfilled! And how wonderful that God chose to do it by also fulfilling the all-but-forgotten hopes of one elderly couple. He is a God of personal favour as well as cosmic wonder.
Throughout Advent, we will be looking at four gifts that God gives us, and that we can give to others. The first is this gift of hope.
Hope is essential to life, and is an incredibly powerful force. Studies like this one have shown that ‘hope plays a surprisingly potent role in giving people a measurable advantage in realms as diverse as academic achievement, bearing up in onerous jobs and coping with tragic illness’.
The same study found that hope is contagious, it is something we can learn, simply by being with hopeful people. As Christians, we can also receive this hope direct from God. I think one way the Jews managed to maintain their hope from generation to generation was by continuing to worship God together. As they sang the old songs and retold the old stories, they were constantly reminding one another that God is faithful, he loves his children, and he can be trusted to keep his promises. They were constantly renewing their hope.
Advent is a time of waiting, but it is not hopeless waiting; it is waiting in the full knowledge that our hopes will one day be fulfilled, because God has proved that even after 400 years of silence, he keeps his promises.
How can you pass on the gift of hope to others this Advent?
- To pass it on, you have to have it. Are you hopeful? Remind yourself of what it is that we hope for – Christ’s return and the coming of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). Then, Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).
- Express that hope with others. Speak positively about your hopes and dreams for the future, and encourage those who doubt and fear by reminding them of the promises God has kept in the past.