Advent Series Day 16: when prayers seem unanswered

How did you get your name? It seems like most names today are chosen because of how they sound. Parents know they will say their child’s name thousands of times, so they pick a name that sounds good rolling off their tongue. There is not much weight placed on what names mean.

My name fits that trend. My parents picked Stephanie because they liked the sound, not because it meant “crowned one.” (After all, isn’t a name like that just asking for a daughter who expects the family to revolve around her? Not that I grew into my name…)

My husband and I continued this trend by naming our first son Cameron, because we liked the sound, not because we liked the meaning of “bent nose.” (Though, that meaning was more fitting than we knew.)

In ancient days, the meaning of names was important.

In the beginning of Luke, after hundreds of years of silence between the Old and New Testament, we meet a priest named Zechariah.

Zechariah means “Yahweh remembers.”

Though there has been silence, Yahweh remembers Israel.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are introduced as people who are blameless. Yet, they do not have children. Though they are faithful to Yahweh, He has not answered their deepest prayer.

On the day Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense in the Temple, he learns that though there has been silence, Yahweh remembers him.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 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. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:11-17

The answer to Zechariah’s prayer is beyond what he could have imagined. His son will be a great prophet, akin to one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history. A prophet whose role it will be to prepare the way for the Lord.

It is not only Zechariah’s prayers that are being answered- it is the prayers of the nation. The one who will prepare the way will be born. That means the Messiah will be coming next. And though it was tradition to name sons after relatives, the angel instructs Zechariah to name his son John. Why? Because names have meaning. John means “Yahweh is gracious.”

God answers prayers. And He answers with the words Yahweh is gracious.

But Zechariah has been waiting a long time. Years of silence. Years of pain. Years of loneliness. Years of wondering why. Zechariah doesn’t think that Yahweh remembers him.  And so, he doubts the words of the angel.

If I were him, I bet I would have doubted, too.

Our lives are filled with pain, loneliness, questions, and worry. We pray, and we think God is not responding. That God does not remember us. But God does remember. And He responds with “Yahweh is gracious.”

Sometimes grace comes in the form of relief. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes grace comes in the form of deepening our dependence on God. Sometimes grace comes in the form of not getting what we want so we can discover what we need. Sometimes grace comes in the form of waiting until it is the right time. Sometimes grace comes in the form of finding community and learning to be vulnerable. Sometimes grace comes in ways we understand only in hindsight. But it does come.

God answers prayers. Yahweh is gracious. John will be born.