When we read about the nativity story this time of year, we often glaze over the conception and birth of John the Baptist. We jump right into the big-ticket story—the immaculate conception of the Messiah. We acknowledge that John’s birth is the prologue to the nativity story, but we may not give his conception the attention it deserves. The conception of John the Baptist to a pious couple is one of God's many miracles. It is just one examples of how God’s tapestry weaves our lives together for His purpose. Roughly a year and a half before the birth of Christ, God was making a way for His Son on earth. The Story was about to begin, but first God was going to use one righteous couple.

In the Gospel of Luke 1:1-25, we find Elizabeth and Zechariah in the hill country of Judah. Zechariah came from a long line of priests and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the first priest (v. 5). Both grew up in the synagogue, and knew the laws of Moses. Of all gifts to give her husband, Elizabeth dreamed of a son to pass on not only the family name but also the profession. Months and years passed, but Elizabeth and Zechariah still did not have a child let alone a son.

Elizabeth and Zechariah followed all the laws, and they atoned for their sins according to the law. They were righteous and blameless in the sight of the Lord, yet Elizabeth was a disgrace in the sight of society, because she was barren (v. 6-7). In ancient times, the highest calling for a wife was to be able to give her husband a son, and Elizabeth had failed. It did not matter to the people of the little mountain village how well she followed the law—to them she was a divine disgrace and a humiliation. Barrenness was even grounds for divorce, but Zechariah remained faithful to his wife and the LORD.

Time continued to tick for Elizabeth. Every young woman in the village was able to pass on their husband’s name but not Elizabeth. The pain stung. She grew older and wiser in her grief and sorrow. She aged with grace and dignity. Middle aged and both past child bearing years, Elizabeth’s dream for her and her husband’s life did not come to pass. Grief and pain may have followed her all her days, yet she served the LORD well.

As a priest, Zechariah went to the temple one week each six month to serve as priest before God (v. 8-9). It was customary to cast lots—throwing of dice—to determine the roles the priests would play in the temple. On this occasion, Zechariah was chosen to enter the holy temple and burn incense on the alter every morning and evening.  This was a high point in Zechariah’s priesthood, because this position was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it was at this point in Zechariah’s life that Sovereign God chose for him to have the assignment.

Picture from "The Garden the Curtain and the Cross" by Carl Laferton

Zechariah placed the coals from the alter of the sacrifice on the alter of incense, and then he placed the incense atop the coals. The smoke from the incense wafted through the curtain that separated him from the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God resided. In the ancient world, the practice of burning incense was a custom in the presence of Kings to cover up the stench of the city. In the same way, the smoke of the incense, rising from the coals of the sacrifice to God, represented the prayers of the righteous for salvation to cover their sin. The scriptures tell us that the prayers of the righteous are like sweet smelling incense (Psalm 141:2; Rev. 5:8). As we recall, Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God. As the incense was burning, Zechariah prayed for the salvation of Israel as did the multitude of people surrounding the temple.

Picture from "The Garden the Curtain and the Cross" by Carl Laferton

It was in this moment, after 400 years of silence, the LORD sent the angel Gabrielle to proclaim to Zechariah that his prayers had been answered (v. 11-13). What prayers? Zechariah must have thought. The prayers for the salvation of Israel? The prayers for Elizabeth to have a child? The answer was yes—to both. The angel continued to tell Zechariah of God’s magnificent plan for Elizabeth—his barren wife—to give birth to the messenger of the Messiah.  Their son would be filled with the Holy Spirit within the womb, and he would prepare the people’s hearts for the prophesied Savior (v. 14-17). Salvation for Israel was coming, and the messenger to pave the way would be their son. God had heard their prayers. All those years of pain and grief and suffering, and all the prayers they both prayed month after month, year after year—God heard them all. All those years, God knew when their child would come and what a gift he would be not only to them but to all of creation. Your son was coming, Zechariah, but so was My Son—the Salvation of the world. Salvation is coming, but I need your son to ready the people for My Son.

Out of all of history, God knew when Jesus needed to be born. The prophets proclaimed the Savior’s birth, but only God knew the day and the hour. The prophets also declared there would be a messenger to clear the way for the Messiah (Isa. 40:3-5; Mal. 3:1, 4:5). Just as God knew the day, time, and place of Christ’s birth, He also knew when and to whom John the Baptist would be born. God chose Zechariah and Elizabeth to be the parents of John the Baptist, but they had to wait. For John to fulfill the prophecies and be the messenger who clears the way, he needed to be born at that exact period in time. If Zechariah and Elizabeth had had John any sooner or tried to do life their own way, his purpose would not have fulfilled the prophecies.

Like Elizabeth you may also be in a season of waiting. Maybe you are wondering if God hears your prayers let alone if He will ever answer them. Pain, grief, and sorrow may be in the waiting, but so is God. God is in the waiting, working bigger and better stories than we could ever imagine. Like a parent itching to give a child a present, God is also waiting eagerly to reveal to us His plan for our lives and all the glory for His kingdom it entails. We wait not alone but with God, trusting His will and His timing are perfect.