5 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. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. 8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside. (Luke 1:5-10, NIV)
Following an opening which conforms to literary convention but speaks of certainty, we come to more of a narrative. We meet some of the protagonists of the early years of Christ’s life, although still nothing of Christ or his earthly immediate family-to-be. Instead, we meet a couple Zechariah and Elizabeth: a priest and his wife. The writer makes it clear that, before anything else, they are righteous and godly; they are said, literally, to be “walking in all the precepts … and statutes of the Lord” (v.6). They exhibit a rhythm of reverence and worship. But just as both of them are godly, both of them are very old, and because Elizabeth has been barren, they have not had a child, which would have led to their being scorned by the community. Yet, God’s concern is with their righteousness; this is deliberately promoted in the account. Here is a clear message that Elizabeth’s barrenness does not equal sinfulness. We would always do well to remember that adversity is never linked to lack of godliness – contrary to what proponents of the prosperity gospel might tell us. We ought to pray for and remember those who we know to be experiencing adversity.
For the original readers and hearers, alarm bells would have been ringing. There was a tradition in the Old Testament of God providing babies for older couples, most notably Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17 and 21). This is not to say God always intervenes in matters of barrenness, but in Scripture, he occasionally provides unlikely children in accordance with his plans. Zechariah, however, has probably banished such a possibility from his mind and simply carries on in his ministry and service for the Lord. A fine example to be imitated by those of us who follow Christ: carrying on in faithful service, sometimes despite difficult circumstances.