The firelight flickered off the faces of the three kings. "Three kings" was Zechariah's affectionate term for the three priests with whom he had been friends since they were quite young; and that was a long time ago. Zechariah had received his name, meaning "memory of the Lord", because his family line included the Old Testament prophet. His three friends, instead of being given traditional names popular in the lineage of Aaron, were all named for former kings of Judah. Josiah, Asa, and Hezekiah were quick to point out that they were named after some of the few good kings in the nation's pock-marked history.
Two of the three, Asa and Hezekiah, had received the sacred lot for burning incense many years earlier. Josiah and Zechariah were still hoping. As they sat near the fire pot, all of them waited in anticipation for the announcement of those whom The Eternal would mysteriously choose. Every week of duty at the Temple was preceded by this evening of friendly reunions and anxious murmurings; who would be selected this time? Zechariah's stomach was rolling.
"I overheard an argument tonight, Zechariah." Asa leaned in as he spoke in a low voice. "Two young brothers from the north looked ready to fight. One said, 'It is The Eternal who decides the outcome of the lot.' The other angrily pointed to the soldiers nearby. 'Do you believe that The Eternal decides their lot, too? Of course not! If He avoids the lots of the Romans, why would He be concerned about our lots?'"
Hezekiah, obviously listening, turned with a laugh as he burped up his wine. "Remember when we were just like them? We spent many evenings in this very courtyard thinking we could prove our argument once and for all."
"Our arguments mean little now," mused Josiah, "but for Zechariah and me the chances of selection are growing dim."
"Listen," called the court crier, "The lots have been cast and the High Priest will announce the chosen ones!" As one, the entire order rose and crowded near the steps. Each man's eyes and ears were attuned to the solemn announcement. With almost a thousand priests in their order, the four lots per day seemed so few when the priests' service lasted but a week. They only served two weeks a year, meaning that many of them never received the call to burn the incense.
"The first day," recited the High Priest, "the cleansing of the altars and preparation of the fires will be done by Daniel, Uriah from Joppa, Joshua the younger and Eli from Beersheba. The sacrifice, the cleansing of the Menorah and the preparation of the altar of incense will be done by Meshach of Nazareth. The incense burning privilege goes to Nathan the Elder. The altar offerings will be done by Elihu the Bethlehemite."
Day by day the names were read. As each was called out, Josiah's and Zechariah's shoulders slumped even more. Zechariah began to dream of home. At least he could offer his companionship and comfort to Elizabeth.
"On the sixth day, the incense burning belongs to Josiah from Jericho." Zechariah's heart pounded as he watched his old friend began to shake with laughter that quickly turned to deep sobs. At least he could rejoice in the story of Josiah's experience.
"On the Sabbath..." A hush fell over them as they all strained to hear. Every day their ministry was important, but the Sabbath was the holiest day of the week. Selection on that day would be the deepest honor of a priest's lifetime. "And the Sabbath incense burning goes to Zechariah of Hebron." The High Priest paused and look at him. "Our hearts rejoice with you, Zechariah."
The three kings surrounded him, laughing, crying and shouting for joy! Could it be? Did he finally receive The Eternal's favor?
To my readers: the events surrounding the birth of Christ are given extensive coverage in Scripture. The parts we don't always know about are the human elements, especially from the viewpoint of Jesus' participants. My attempt this Christmas is to stay true to the Biblical text, while shading in what it may have been like "between the lines." Please distinguish my ruminations from God's Word by reading the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. My hope is that reading my words impacts you even a tiny percentage as much as writing them has impacted me.