“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.’” (Luke 1:13)
Up until this time Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. Prior to this incident they had prayed for many long years for a child. They were “old” now, according to Zechariah’s description (verse 18), so that had essentially given up. Zechariah did not really see much way they could have a child.
Then came Zechariah’s turn to burn incense in the sanctuary before the Lord, a rare opportunity for priests. These moments did not happen often.
When we look back on this from today’s perspective, we tend to read through this section somewhat glassy-eyed. We don’t really get it. This does not seem to be such a big deal to us, since most of us don’t burn incense before God anymore. So, what is the big deal?
Burning incense was a symbol of prayer. The fire and the rising smoke symbolized prayers going up to the Lord. The sweet aroma of burning incense was also pervasive. People smelled it everywhere, and it was an intentional reminder to the people to pray.
When Gabriel appeared, he stood at the right side of the altar of incense. In Scripture, the right side was always the side of power. With all of these symbols at work, he told Zechariah that his prayer had been heard, and it was about to be answered.
But wait a minute. Zechariah’s prayer that Gabriel was talking about was not so much the one he was praying on that day, but a prayer that began several decades earlier and continued with intensity over those several decades. On that sanctuary day, Zechariah was likely just praying a typical prayer that a priest would pray when burning incense. His prayer for a child was one of days gone by already, and very likely one he had not prayed in years.
Maybe there is a truth here we may not have considered before: Prayer does not have an expiration date. Maybe we need to be reminded that a prayer once prayed is prayed, and it is “registered with God,” so to speak. If God says “yes” and answers right away, wonderful! If He says “no” right away, then we accept it. But if He says nothing, we know that could mean maybe or that we are to wait. We just don’t know.
The suggestion that comes from this is that we should pray and never give up. If God does not clearly say “no,” then there is always hope, even when it may not appear to be so. Sometimes God’s intentions are simply delayed by His timing concerns.
Lord, Help us to pray and never give up. Amen.