8 One day Zechariah’s group of priests were on duty, and he was serving God as a priest. 9 According to the custom of the priests, he had been chosen to go into the Lord’s temple that day and to burn incense,10 while the people stood outside praying.
How Our Experience Of Religion Shapes Our Reality
This short section is going to serve as an introduction for us into the religious reality in which our story begins. It introduces us to Zechariah’s world as a priest in the Temple system: a system with clear, distinct divisions between those who can enter in, and those who must stay out. To be part of this system, you have to have been born in to the right family, be male, be physically ‘without blemish’, and have had the right schooling and education. This system creates a world where there are clearly those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. In fact, in the temple system, the divisions were so important, and so rigidly enforced, that we can actually draw a picture of who could go where: Gentiles (non-Jews) outside the walls; Women inside the first wall; Priests beyond the second wall; special priests doing special things in the Holy Place; and the High Priest, doing High Priestly things, on a specially appointed single day of the year can enter the Holy of Holies.
Set Times of Service
From the time of David, the priestly groups were divided into teams that were on duty at set times on a schedule (see 1 Chronicles 24.) But way back in Exodus 30 we read about how they are to burn incense for God:
34-35 Mix equal amounts of the costly spices stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, then add salt to make the mixture pure and holy. 36 Pound some of it into powder and sprinkle it in front of the sacred chest, where I meet with you. Be sure to treat this incense as something very holy. 37 It is truly holy because it is dedicated to me, so don’t ever make any for yourselves. 38 If you ever make any of it to use as perfume, you will no longer belong to my people.
So this is kind of the ‘big deal’. To get chosen by lots to burn the incense is like being made blackboard monitor at school, people. Only better! The priests could already enter further into the Temple than anyone else, but to be able to enter into the Holy Place to burn incense on the alter and intercede for the people was as close to God as anyone other than the high priest would ever go.
This was Zechariah’s religious reality. He was privileged because he was a Levite. He was privileged because it was his turn to serve at the temple (which, among other things, meant he was going to eat some really good bar-b-q!) And he was incredibly privileged because he won the lottery to get to go into the Holy Place to burn incense.
Each of our encounters with God take place in the midst of a religious reality of our own. Some people’s religious realities include great spiritual families who have been missionaries and pastors and evangelists for generations. Some people’s religious realities look a bit more like someone who isn’t quite sure why they call Vox part of their life … but they just haven’t been able to shake it, yet! Some of us have realities that include people using religion as a form of power or oppression over us. Some of us have realities that include a freedom found when God broke in to the midst of something we thought we could never survive. It’s important, as we begin this journey, to be honest about the religious reality we find ourselves in today. Because this is the reality God is waiting to break in to.
- What are your religious realities?
- What assumptions do you currently have about God, faith, Jesus, the church or religion?
- In what ways do those assumptions make it harder or easier to think about hearing from God?