11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. (Luke 1:11-15a, NIV)
Zechariah is performing his priestly duties inside the temple, but then the unexpected happens: he sees an angel of the Lord. Interestingly, Luke notes that the angel was on the “right side of the altar” (v.11), which was generally a favourable sign in the ancient world – as opposed to being on the left. Understandably, however, Zechariah is terrified; literally, in the Greek, it says: “fear fell upon him” (v.12). But the angel speaks tenderly to Zechariah. The words “do not be afraid” (v.13) appear hundreds of times in the Bible in a variety of circumstances. I know I can be a fearful person and this often comforts me; God knows that we are bound to feel fearful and anxious at times. When gripped with fear or anxiety, it can be hard to pray. It often helps to ask others to pray for us as well, but we can still communicate with God, knowing that he hears every petition that we make (cf. Philippians 4:6) even if we don’t feel that is the case. He knows us better than we do. Yet, sometimes the way in which God answers our prayers is unexpected, as is the case here: the angel informs Zechariah that barren Elizabeth will have a son (v.13). This son, who turns out to be John the Baptist, will not only bring joy to Zechariah and Elizabeth but to many (v.14). No one could have expected this! This son will be special: “great in the sight of the Lord” (v.15). But he will also be the same man, who according to John’s account, has the joy of being like Christ’s best man, causing Christ to be made greater, and himself lesser (John 3:29-30). John’s identity and value comes from God, and that is true of us as well. In his sight, we are significant and loved.