I’ve been crying out to you, my Lord, my Father, my King, over and over and over, my prayers like waves rolling in to crash and humbly recede into the mass of other currents, a myriad of prayers. This one overwhelming longing keeps roiling in, longing, hoping. I bring it before you, daily, begging for an answer-- not just any answer, Lord, I’m longing for you to come through and do what you can do! Remember: I am the Shepherd, and I love all my sheep! So just hang on! Trust my goodness, my infinite wisdom, my ingenuity! Know that I will answer you when the right time has come, and you will be amazed!
I’ve been meditating on the angel Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah, written in Luke 1:13 (NIV): “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. What prayer had been heard? Right then Zechariah was representing all the Hebrew worshipers of Yahweh. The burning of incense in the temple and had to be done twice daily, and symbolized the prayers of the entire nation. The incense altar stood before the curtain to the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant was placed, so the smoke entered there beyond the curtain like prayers rising to Yahweh, the Lord.
This offering in the temple preceded the morning sacrifice and followed the evening sacrifice. It is said that the officer who ministered regularly in the temple signaled the time to begin the offering and then withdrew; the priest cast incense on this altar, prostrated himself and then withdrew himself—normally immediately (cf. 1:21).
This responsibility was extremely significant. There were so many priests eligible to have the privilege of burning the incense at that time in history that the Levites were divided into 24 divisions, each division serving and allotment of two weeks at the temple. Of that group, just one priest was chosen by lot to burn the incense at one of those daily times. A priest could only be chosen once in his lifetime, to give others the same opportunity. Many never would have the chance to be chosen at all. 
So when Zechariah entered the Holy Place to do this precious service, he had waited his whole life for this moment. He was representing all of his people, and was probably prostrate in prayer when suddenly the angel appeared right there by the altar of incense. Of course he was startled; he should have been the only person there. And this was obviously a messenger from the Lord. He needed the calming words: “Don’t be afraid!” But what did the angel mean by saying that his prayer had been heard?
Maybe Zechariah had been praying for the son that he and his wife had longed for. She had never had a child at all, and they were old. Everyone thought it impossible in that phase of life, although the Lord had done such miracles for the aged in the Old Testament. Perhaps his prayer was also for the suffering nation, which was being ruled by a heathen empire and longed for liberty and justice. God had promised them a Messiah, a Chosen One who would deliver them and usher in a whole new era in which he would rule. Was it even possible for either of those requests to be granted?
What the angel told Zechariah was an answer to both those prayers! He and his wife were going to have a baby. After all the shame of those years of no children, Elizabeth was going to be pregnant and have a son. Not only that: he was going to be the one sent to get the people ready for the Lord’s coming!
Zechariah had prayed as a true follower of his Lord. He and his wife were righteous, devoutly obeying all the Lord’s commands (1:6). Part of his priestly duty was prayer, interceding for the people as well as worshiping God. But now he was stunned. He needed proof. It was not enough for him that this message from God was being delivered to him by Gabriel, this outstanding and astonishing messenger from heaven. He did not really believe that his prayer could be answered! As a result, Gabriel told him he would not be able to talk until his son was born.
This consequence of nine months of silence definitely gave him time to reflect on his lack of faith, especially as it became clear that Elizabeth was pregnant after all, and when John was born, that he was already filled with the Holy Spirit. As he grew, everyone was astonished at his gifting (Luke 1:66). Zechariah’s song, his prophecy (Luke 1:67-69), shows that he had realized that God’s promises over the centuries were actually happening, right before his eyes. He truly believed it all, now!
I’ve been in that same place of crying out to the Lord to answer a certain prayer for years and years, growing less than confident that it would be answered. Maybe you have been there, too. When the waiting is so long, it is easy for faith to become feeble. In fact, the prayer might become just a rote repetition of words with no expectation of result, whether we realize it or not.
Israel had had to wait during 400 years of slavery in Egypt before being delivered. Hundreds of years had continued to pass, with all sorts of ups and downs as the people gave up on God and turned to other sources of what they thought would be help. He kept calling them back, even though they were so recalcitrant. Now, finally, Zechariah knew that the critical moment of change was coming, and that his son was going to play a part in it. That was worth the wait!
Contemplating on Zechariah’s situation has underlined the real danger we face of not trusting our completely good, loving and sovereign Father to accomplish his purposes. His way of acting is often way beyond our imagination, and it usually takes time. Waiting is tough, and we may not see all the answers to our prayers in our lifetimes. God is not a puppet to be manipulated. The prophets had prayed for his deliverance for centuries, urging the people to be faithful to God and trust his plan. Only a few of them actually saw the Messiah enter the world – and what joy that brought, even though they understood little of how he would actually bring about deliverance!
Let’s burn that incense of prayer in our hearts, we who are now in the priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:5,9) worshiping the Almighty One, and interceding and pleading with him with actual trust in his wisdom!
 Keener, C. S. (2014). The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Second Edition, p. 179). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.
 Marshall, I. H. (1994). Luke. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 982). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.