So when an angel appears to Zach as he offers incense at the altar and tells him he is going to be a dad, he is no doubt stunned, but there's a question worth pondering. Read the extract below and ask yourself, what was the "prayer that had been heard?"
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
As painful as the childlessness must have been and no doubt prayers had gone up for that, that wasn't the primary prayer of Zach that the angel had come to announce the answer for. It was that God was finally fulfilling his promise to the world after thousands of years to come to us as one of us.
And yet, in that answer to the prayer of the righteous, the prayer of the ages, the prayer of prayers, God also, in this case, fulfills the very natural desire of a heart for children. Zach and Liz's joy at becoming parents is overtaken by the greater joy that God is faithful to his ancient promise and will fulfill it in their lifetime. This is clear by what Zach says after John is born:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zach doesn't burst into song about the handsomeness of his son like many parents would, but about the grace of God coming. Putting it bluntly, Zach waxes much more lyrically about "Mary's son" than he does his own. Little John only gets a look in at the last bit, and he is only the warm up act!!
Whilst their personal, temporal joy is no doubt very great, it is caught up in an eternal, universal joy of what God is doing by uniting himself to us for ever.
So whatever joy (or indeed sadness) you have this Christmas, and I hope you have much deep and profound joy in being with those you love and sharing precious moments with them, there is a greater joy to be swept up into, one that goes deeper, wider, higher and longer than the deep pleasures and sorrows of this life can ever know.
The Incarnation - God becoming like us, is an invitation, for us to become like God for ever.