Meditations on Luke
“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 descendant 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’s division 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, all the assembled. worshipers were 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 fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 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.” Luke 1:5-17, NIV
An angel of the Lord appeared before Zachariah. He appeared to the right of the altar of incense. When I first read this, I stopped in my tracks. Several questions ran through my mind. Why did Gabriel appear to the right side of the altar of incense and why did he choose to appear to Zachariah at this altar? In doing a little research, I found several interesting answers. First, throughout the Bible, blessing and favor is associated with the right side. We find this all the way back in Genesis when Joseph desired Jacob to bless Manasseh, the older of the two, over Ephraim. Joseph intentionally placed his favored son on Jacob’s right side to receive the blessing. Imagine Joseph’s surprise when Jacob did not follow tradition but blessed the younger instead.
We read in the Psalms many references made to “God’s right hand” or the “right hand of God.” Moreover, in Exodus, when priests offer sacrifices before the Lord, they have been instructed by God through Moses to sprinkle their offerings on the right side of the altar. Clearly, this reference to the right hand of favor extends beyond that of earthly blessing but to God’s as well.
Another note of interest which I could not resist sharing is where the altar of incense resides. Overlaid in gold, the altar of incense was to be placed directly before the curtain separating the Holy Place in the temple from the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant sat. In Exodus 30, we even hear God refer to the altar of incense as “most holy.” Scholars believe that although the altar of incense sat outside the veil, it was still a part of the Most Holy Place where atonement was made once a year.
Only the High Priest who followed strict guidelines for purification, could enter the Most Holy Place – and even then, it was just one time a year. Furthermore, if the priest did not properly observe the cleansing ritual or entered in an unworthy manner, he would incur the wrath of God and be struck dead. This might sound harsh to your ears but remember that we serve a holy God. Sin and the unclean cannot stand in the presence of God. Even Moses could not tread with sandals before God and the burning bush because the ground was holy.
What also strikes me about the altar of incense is the incense itself. I recently learned the symbolism behind burning incense. It represents prayer, especially intercessory prayer whether made corporately for the people who sinned in ignorance or individual matters of the heart. One heartfelt prayer which we can assume Zachariah and Elizabeth made, was to someday become parents. How fitting then, that here, in this holy place where incense is lofting up to heaven for the prayers of God’s people, an angel appears to Zechariah? What a perfect place for an angel to share the good news of the birth of their first child and the for coming of Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Angel says, do not be afraid, your prayers have been heard.” Isn’t it just like God to choose an altar where we lay down our requests before the Lord, to tell Zachariah that his long-suffering prayer has been granted? And not just any altar, but an altar with the specific purpose of intercessory prayer.
But notice, Gabriel first leads with, “Do not be afraid…” The Lord to address our fears first. He knows our earthly proclivity to miss the thrust of a message when we are distracted by strong emotions. How kind it is for God to speak to the fear in Zachariah’s heart when he suddenly found himself in the presence of an angel! It is almost like Gabriel is saying, “Don’t shoot! I bear good news!”
Now go with me one step further. This next thought excites me! Have any of you noticed the significance of Jesus’s forthcoming first being announced by an altar? Historically, an altar is associated with sacrifice. As many of us already know, Jesus came as the ultimate sacrifice for all mankind. Am I the only one getting goosebumps? How even from the beginning Jesus’s birth was tied to that of sacrifice? Moreover, the news of this forerunner’s birth to Jesus is happened right in front of the veil that will be ripped into 2 after Jesus’s crucifixion. Do not miss the significance here. It is symbolic of Gabriel to announce the birth of John the Baptist, the one who has come to prepare the way of the Lord, before the very curtain which Jesus came to tear open. Now because of Jesus’s sacrifice, we can enter in to the Holy of Holies into the presence of God. In other words, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice for us that we may be cleansed of our sins. Because of Jesus, we may now have a personal relationship with God. Praise the Lord!
Once Gabriel appears, he launches into telling Zachariah about his future son. Although right now, I will not expound upon the deeper points of the characteristics and qualities Gabriel lists about John the Baptist, I think it is still important to list them out one by one. So, here we go! Gabriel tells Zechariah…
Wow, I just have to stop here. Even if we did not go one step further, what is told here is incredible. We see this list of fantastic qualities of John the Baptist and hear the great things that he will do. We haven’t even gotten to Jesus yet. As I read through what was foretold about John the Baptist, I could not help but ask myself, what about me? Could these things be said of me? My own heart was crying out to also be counted. It pled and cried out to the Lord, “may it be so of me too, Lord!” May it be so!”
Just as John the Baptist was to come to help prepare people’s hearts to receive Jesus, I think we should also ask God to prepare our own hearts to receive what the Spirit would have us learn. Now is the perfect time for us to pray that God will open our eyes to new truths. Moreover, we should take this time to pause and pray these qualities and characteristics of John the Baptist be ours as well? That we would be a joy and delight to others, that we would be great in the sight of the Lord, that the Holy Spirit would fill us, and that we could go in the power and strength of Jesus Christ?
I also think we need to take this opportunity to pray that God would use us cultivate the soil of people’s hearts to receive Jesus. We can ask that God would use us in a manner that directs others to Jesus…just like John the Baptist. Dear friends in the Lord, will you join me to pray?
Oh Lord, may You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Oh God, help me be a delight and joy to all those around me, but especially You. Father, may I be great in Your sight. Fill me with the power and spirit of Jesus Christ our Savior so that You might use me to preach Your Name and spread Your Word. Oh God, I ask that You go before me and prepare each person’s heart to receive the word that You want me to share. May they receive the gift of Your salvation. In Jesus Name, Amen.