“I long to accomplish a great and noble task” declared the remarkable Helen Keller, “but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble”
This last week I was privileged to attend an awards ceremony in Cambridge with one of my daughters, although not as you would expect an academic gathering. The aim for this large national public body was to honour those who do their job each day, often mundane, sometimes in difficult circumstances and always unappreciated.
I recall one person singled out for a particular award being deeply moved. For once – it would seem – his daily efforts were being acknowledged; nothing spectacular but a simple commitment to do his taxing job well, day after day. Someone had noticed and the top brass went out of their way to honour him. We all need affirmation.
I was thinking about this this morning in my Bible reading of Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist. Here we read how God chooses an ageing couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth to produce this forerunner of the Messiah.
By all accounts they were unexceptional. “Together they lived honourably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God.” (Luke 1:6 the Message translation).
Tom Wright in his commentary writes: “Luke indicates that through this all-too-human story of puzzlement, half-faith, and dogged devotion to duty, God’s saving purposes are going to be dramatically advanced.” The phrase “dogged devotion to duty” somehow caught my eye, reminding me of the award ceremony earlier this week.
Luke tells us that Zechariah was a priest, belonging to the priestly division of Abijah. There were some 24 such divisions (or clans) of priests, serving on a rota basis in the Jerusalem temple for a one-week stint. So this meant going to Jerusalem about once every six months, staying in lodgings on the temple site.
However, priests had other duties in their local communities, which we glimpse when Jesus tells the lepers about to be healed to present themselves to the priest. No doubt they did a lot of pastoral work on top of their public health duties. Luke paints a picture of competence for Zechariah, steadfast and reliable.
And I guess this is what Tom Wright was referring to when referring to Zechariah’s “dogged devotion.” His refusal to simply go through the motions as a priest, his commitment to serve well, to offer his best (even though he didn’t feel like it). This was how he lived his life with Elizabeth, quietly honouring God in his daily tasks, not seeking attention nor courting applause.
For this is where most of us live our lives, whatever God has called us to. And he calls us to a life of “dogged devotion to duty” in an era in which as a word, duty is devalued. Sadly many would echo Soviet writer, Maxim Gorky who concluded: “When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is slavery.”
But most work is simply doing your duty each day whether appreciated or not, “accomplishing small tasks as if they were great and noble,” This was certainly the experience of Zechariah. “Sometimes regular duty provides the context for extraordinary visions,” comments Tom Wright.
Luke gives us the important detail that Zechariah was “very old.” So he must have been approaching 50 years, given that this was the statutory retirement age for priests. We know that priestly service started at the age of 25 and so we can assume that Zechariah must have been a priest for just under 25 years.
So once again he made this particular journey to Jerusalem, quite possibly for the 45th time (even 49th), I’m sure this was his settled routine. But this was to be no ordinary visit, no way. To begin with, this time he was chosen by lot to enter the temple sanctuary alone to offer incense, a task to be done only once in a priest’s lifetime. Years of faithful service were at last being rewarded.
But more, within the sacred sanctuary he meets up with the angel Gabriel no less, an altogether unique event. “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Luke 1:12). God usually turns up when you least expect him, a most unusual awards ceremony!
Not that Zechariah, the priest with years of experience behind him, comes out of the encounter very well. Nevertheless, God proceeds with his plan even though Zechariah loses his power of speech until his son is born.
But again, this is how God works. Clearly God could have chosen any number of couples to produce John the Baptist but it seems that Zechariah and Elizabeth was his settled choice – competent, reliable and diligent. Ordinary folk.
So whatever God has called us to do we need to be diligent in our daily duties. As pastor James Sole writes: “It is perfectly fine to have daily routines. Human beings are creatures of habit. Nothing wrong with having routines. In fact, they are part of a disciplined life. Christians, too, have daily routines to keep life in order, but Christians are called to something else – not be routine in the spiritual things of the Lord.”
And this is to extend to every area of our lives. Whatever we do, especially in the workplace, we need to show “a dogged devotion to duty,” whether our contribution is recognised or not.
Amazingly in the New Testament, this applies even to those Christians who are in slavery. So the apostle Paul can write: “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:6)
He could have added: “Do your dogged duty.”