St. Luke doesn’t tell us specifically whether it was in the morning or the evening when Zacharias was chosen by lot to offer incense in the Temple — probably the only time in his long lifetime that he had the privilege to do so. But it seems as likely as not that it was at the time of the evening sacrifice, since there were evidently crowds of people gathered outside the Temple in this case.
Among the people of God in those days, both every morning and every evening, there was first of all a sacrifice that was offered on the bronze altar in the Temple courtyard. On the basis of that sacrifice, the priest on duty would enter the Holy Place on behalf of all the people, and there he would offer incense on the golden altar that sat before the veil, in front of the Most Holy Place where the Lord God caused His Glory to dwell in the midst of Israel.
So the sacrifice outside enabled the priest to enter in, but the incense offering was the high point. The incense accompanied — but it also embodied — the prayers of God’s people. You’ve sung that tonight in one of the ancient Psalms of Israel, Psalm 141, which has always been associated with evening prayer, especially because of the verse, “Let my prayer rise before You as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” That is what Zacharias was doing here.
In offering the incense according to the Word of the Lord, Zacharias was offering up the prayers of Israel to God. In his person, by virtue of his priestly office, all of Israel was gathered together before the Lord to pray. And those who gathered outside the Temple to pray at the same time as the incense offering, they also prayed on behalf of Israel — much as you are gathered here in the House of the Lord to pray and intercede for the blessings of God on behalf of His entire Church.
The daily prayer of Israel, by the priest and by the people with him, was praise and thanksgiving to God for who He is, for all that He has done, and for all that He has promised. It was thus a confession of His Word, a confession of the great deeds He had done for His people Israel in the past, and a confession of those good things that He had promised to do for the Seed of Abraham.
It was therefore also a petition that God would redeem His people from their enemies and gather them together to Himself from all the places to which they had been scattered among the nations. It was a prayer that He would bring them to repentance, that He would restore and strengthen their faith in His Word, and that He would grant to them the way of life in righteousness before Him, that they should live and walk before Him blameless all their days, unto the life everlasting.
Among the specific prayers that we still have from the time of Zacharias, from the first century, one of them asks that God would restore the oracle to the service of His House. That was a prayer and petition for the faithful preaching of His Word, such as the Prophets had spoken in the past. It was a prayer that His Word would return to His House and be proclaimed to His people.
Another of the prayers petitioned the Lord to preserve and keep and gather the people, as I have said; that He would gather those who were scattered, that He would keep His people in the faith and sustain them by His Word, and that they would be able to serve Him with their whole heart.
Now, the situation when Zacharias offered incense in the Temple was similar to that in the days when the Prophet Samuel was conceived and born of Hannah. She was not so old as Elizabeth at that time, but she was likewise barren, unable to have children, much to her great sadness.
Remember, then, how Hannah prayed that God would give her a son. Not for the privilege and joy of having a little boy for herself, but that she might entrust him to the Lord and to the service of His House and His people. And, of course, that is exactly what Hannah did when the Lord opened her womb and she gave birth to Samuel. As soon as he was weaned — at maybe three years old — she brought him to the House of the Lord at Shiloh, and she left him there with Eli the priest. For the remainder of his childhood, he served there before the Altar of the Lord, dressed in priestly garments, in the linen ephods that Hannah would make and bring for him each year as he grew.
As an adult, Samuel served not only as a priest, from a priestly family, but as a prophet and a judge of Israel. He spoke the Word of the Lord, which had previously been silenced among the people. For the Lord spoke to Samuel, and Samuel preached His Word to Israel. As a judge he also led the people in victory against the Philistines, thus beginning the restoration of Israel in those days. And it was Samuel who anointed, not only Saul, but also young David to become the king of Israel — the same David to whom the Lord promised a Son, who would be the Christ, the Messiah.
There are many parallels between the Prophet Samuel and the son who is promised to Zacharias and his barren wife, Elizabeth — St. John the Forerunner, who goes before the face of the Lord. Born into a priestly family, he is also a Prophet of the Lord who will speak the Word of the Lord. He is the oracle who preaches the Word of God to the people of God. And with the Baptism he is given to administer in the Name of the Lord, he is the one to anoint great David’s greater Son, Christ Jesus, who is anointed by the Spirit of God to be the Redeemer and the true King of Israel.
St. John the Baptist is therefore a new and greater Samuel, a prophet, priest, and judge, if you will, who goes before the Lord to prepare His way. By this child God begins to answer the very prayer of Israel that Zacharias offered there in the Temple as he offered up the incense — the prayer that God, the Lord, would redeem His people and restore them to faith and life, that He would gather them from wherever they had been scattered and renew them in their life before Him.
It is by his preaching and Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that St. John serves that calling and purpose of God. He speaks the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Gospel, whereby the wicked are slain and the righteous are raised up. For so it is, by His Word and Holy Spirit, that the Lord kills and makes alive, He wounds in order to heal. And so it is that St. John preaches, not only the Law, the condemnation of sin and the correction of sinners, but also the beautiful and life-giving Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
It is by this preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins that the Lord gathers you to Himself. He works repentance and faith in your heart and life, that you might live in and with Him forever.
Such repentance is, of course, a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith and life at all times and in all places. But repentance is a special emphasis at night, at the end of each day, as the sun goes down and darkness covers the face of the earth. In laying yourself down to sleep, in looking back at all that you have done wrong and all that you have failed to do right, you are called to repent of your sins in the fear of the Lord. For you know that, at your best, you are an unworthy servant.
For all of that, you do not despair, but you call upon the Lord for the forgiveness of your sins; and in the confidence of faith in His forgiveness, you pray that He would also guard and keep you in safety through the night, that the wicked foe should not be permitted any power over you. You know how dangerous the nighttime is, and how vulnerable your body is while you are sleeping. So you approach the ending of each day with renewed reliance on the Lord and His providence.
In repentance you turn away from your sins in the hope of His mercy, and trusting Him you pray that He would preserve your faith and life, your body and soul, through the midst of the dark night.
So do you and all God’s people pray in the evening of each day, that the Lord would deliver you from all evil and grant you His Peace and Sabbath Rest. And this indeed He does for you in Christ Jesus, whom He has raised up on the Cross as a Standard for the nations. Even the far islands and all the ends of the earth are called and gathered to Him by the preaching of His Cross.
It is by the Sacrifice of His Cross that Jesus the Christ, the Lamb of God, bears in His body and takes away the sins of the whole world, as St. John preaches, and as St. John inaugurates by means of his Baptism of repentance. So is the Lamb first offered up in the waters of the Jordan, unto His innocent suffering and death on Good Friday. So does He make full Atonement for all your sins. And it is by virtue of His Sacrifice that you are able to draw near and enter into the Holy Place, and that your prayers are heard and answered by God the Father in heaven. Indeed, your prayers rise before Him as a sweet-smelling incense, because He delights in you in Christ Jesus.
It is by the Cross of your Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Resurrection from the dead, that repentance is worked in you, both the dying of the old man and the rising of the new man. It is worked in you by the Word of the Cross, by the Word of the Gospel, by the Word of forgiveness, unto faith and righteousness and the life everlasting. So that now, each night, you lie down with Christ in peace.
And every morning you rise up with Him in the newness of His mercies. You rise up in Christ to live the new life that is yours in Him. He raises you up to walk in His way by faith in His Word.
It is to that way of faith and life that St. John calls you, no less than he called the people of his own day when he went out preaching. That you should live and walk by faith in Christ wherever God has placed you in this world, not only in the works of your body, but in the words of your mouth.
To give lip service only, when your heart is far from God and your actions contradict your words, that is surely useless and a hypocritical lie. But when your heart is right with God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and when you are living by faith in accordance with His Word, then shall your mouth also be opened and your lips moved to confess the Lord your God, to call upon His Name, to praise and give thanks to Him, and to speak His Word in the world, as He has spoken to you.
And do not suppose that such words that you speak in faith, in the Name of the Lord, are a small or pointless thing. As God Himself does everything by and with His Word, so does He also speak His Word in you and through you. And it is not an empty Word when He speaks with your voice, though He must call you daily to repentance and restore you to faith by His Word and Spirit.
In the case of Zacharias — a man who was righteous by faith and lived according to the Word of the Lord, as the Spirit has testified through St. Luke — he faltered and fell short when he was faced with the Angel Gabriel, who stood there in the presence of God, before the Holy of Holies, between the altar of incense and the table of showbread, and spoke to him the Word of the Lord. In response to that Word, Zacharias asked, “How can I be sure what you’re telling me is true?”
He spoke then, at first, with the same kind of doubts and fears that reside in your own sinful heart, in your own sinful mind. He did not speak from his heart of faith but from his sinful unbelief, such as remains in your flesh, as well. But in mercy God did for Zacharias what both he and you have prayed with the Psalmist: “O Lord, set a watch over my mouth, and guard the door of my lips.”
That is exactly what the Lord did in response to Zacharias’ words of doubt and incredulity. It was the sign of the promise, as well as the discipline of the Lord, that God set a watch over Zacharias’ lips and guarded the doors of his mouth for the next nine or ten months, so that he was unable to speak, lest by his words of doubt and unbelief his heart also would be led into sin and every evil.
It was during those nine or ten months of silence that he learned to wait upon the Lord. He learned patience. He learned to listen to the promises of God, to rely upon those promises and rest himself in them. So that, when the time had fully come, and the Word that God had spoken was fulfilled, Zacharias was able to pray, praise, and give thanks, and to speak words of life concerning his son.
Those who wait upon the Lord shall not be put to shame. As the Lord removed the reproach that Elizabeth suffered in her barrenness for all those many years, so does He remove your shame and disgrace through the forgiveness of your sins and by the redemption that He has accomplished in Christ Jesus, whose way St. John the Baptist prepared. By His Word He delivers you, and with His Word He opens your lips to speak rightly, to confess His Holy Name, to pray, praise, and give thanks. And as you speak His Word and call upon His Name, so does He save you by His grace.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.