If anyone knew well the story of God’s promising and providing a child to Abraham and Sarah it was Zechariah. He was, after all, a priest whose life calling it was to know the story of God’s relationship and interaction with Israel through the years. Not only would he have known the story, it seems reasonable to suspect he might have held the story close in hopes that what God did for Abraham and Sarah, God might also do for Zechariah and Elizabeth. The two couples were quite alike. Just as Abraham and Sarah were faithful and righteous people, so Luke tells us both Zechariah and Elizabeth “were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” But the more obvious commonality that makes me think Zechariah might have prized this story is the fact both couples, though faithful, were unable to conceive and give birth to a child.
It is not difficult to imagine that month after month, perhaps for several years, each time Zechariah and Elizabeth came face to face with the reality it would at least be another month until she could get pregnant, they would pray hopeful prayers: “God of Abraham and Sarah, who can create life even in the midst of lifeless wombs, grant us the blessing of raising a child to whom we might pass on our faith.”
But there’s only so much hope that can be drawn from a thousand year old story. And there’s only so many times one can pray the same desperate, pleading prayer, without growing tired and weary. So which of us can fault Zechariah for being rather skeptical when an angel appears and tells him Elizabeth will bear him a son? And yet, just as the angel declares, Elizabeth does indeed give birth to a son we know as John the Baptist.
I have occasionally heard well-meaning Christians respond to others’ doubts by suggesting greater familiarity with the stories of Scripture would prevent such doubts. The story of Zechariah, however, testifies to the fact that doubts will arise in the life of faith no matter how well one knows the story. Thankfully, what Scripture calls us to is not a doubt-free life, but a faithful life of growth toward maturity. Which is why I love the story of Zechariah. Because if a knowledgeable but skeptical priest can question God’s honesty only to sing a beautiful song of praise and raise a child who would prepare the way for the Lord, surely that gives us hope that our moments of greatest doubt are not discouraging signs of the death of our faith but reassuring signs of the life of our faith.