Text: Luke 1:8-25
We are fast approaching that time of year when many people celebrate Christmas. The passage in this article serves as something of a prequil to the birth of Jesus…and if possible, I would like for us to read it again as it were – for the first time.
When I last spent time in the gospel of Luke, I was struck by the tone of voice in which it is written. It is remarkably unremarkable. It is low-key, without hype or exaggeration. As it begins, nothing really seems out of the ordinary – for the person who believes in the God of the Bible. The God who shapes history and has written Himself into every page. As long as that is the God that you believe in, then the book is not remarkable even when accepted as a factual account. Luke starts out like Sergeant Friday with the facts…just the facts. But the facts that he relates are far from ordinary. They’re all about the amazing things that God has done and was doing in history, yet these come out in a matter-of-fact way.
I don’t think that Luke was trying to say that history is boring or everyday, though of course it is made up of a series of days. But his factual account conveys the idea that everyday is a day created by God. Every day is filled with his presence. And every day is made to order by the one who created order out of chaos and who holds the world together as he works in the lives of ordinary people. This is especially true as God has come to dwell within those who are His and whom he uses as agents for the spread of the gospel.
As we look at Chapter One, let’s recognize that the events in it took place on one such day , even though it chronicles the conception and birth of John the Baptist and the conception of Jesus. It is hard to read this story as if we don’t know it… because we do. We know that John and Jesus will change the course of history. We know that John will prepare Israel for the coming of God’s Son. And we know that Jesus will one day die for the sins of the world. The trajectory of history will be permanently altered, but you’d never guess that from the way that Luke starts.
Verse 5, sets the story within history, naming kings and governors before directing our attention to two ordinary people. He begins with a middle-aged couple who in the eyes of society are nothing special. Luke singles them out because they’re special to God. Both were righteous and blameless. It is not hard to see why God chose them to raise the prophet who would go before His son to announce his arrival and call for repentance.
Now it turns out that Zechariah and Elisabeth desperately wanted a son. They had wanted one for years. Zechariah had been praying for his wife and God had heard those prayers.
Zechariah was a priest. He served in the temple on a rotating schedule and that’s where we find him.
“Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. (VS. 8-12)
It seems that Zechariah was alone in the temple. It would have been dark in there…lit only by the lamp-stands. Suddenly a man appeared next to him. I don’t think that he was dressed like a priest, but for sure…he was a stranger. So Zechariah was afraid.
How this man had gotten past the temple police and into the holy place? After all, there were warning signs all around the perimeter . And where did he come from? He just seemed to appear out of nothing? No wonder Zechariah was afraid. And then, he’d have to report it, and depending on how desperate this man was, things could get ugly. So Zechariah had good reason to be afraid, perhaps especially when he learned that this one was not be a man at all.
Then the angel said to him.
“Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.”And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
- God has heard your prayers. I know what you’ve been praying for and the answer is yes. I’m telling you that the answer is yes so that when it happens you’ll know that it didn’t just happen. God made it so.
- But just to be clear about this, the boy’s name is John. You are to name him John.
- Let me tell you about your son. God has big plans for him. You’re going to be so proud, because God will make him great. What I mean is – that he will be great in the eyes of God.
- Your son will be filled with the Spirit of God – starting in the womb. So, don’t ever let him drink wine or alcohol. The boy belongs to God. His life is going to count for something and he has to live life on God’s terms.
- Do you remember the words of Malachi? The part about Elijah? Well, your son is the new Elijah. The same Spirit of God who worked in Elijah will work through John. He is going to turn a lot of people back to God to get them ready for the son of God
Imagine Zechariah trying to get his head around all of that!
- I am going to have a son
- I am going to have a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit
- My son will be, the Elijah to come
- My son will prepare the way for God’s Son. He will do what no other prophet has ever done or ever will…
With all that going on in his head, do you know what Zechariah heard? Do you know which part he got stuck on? What he heard loud and clear was – you and Elizabeth are going to have a son. He heard, that an old man and his equally old and barren wife were going to do what they could not do when they were young and fertile.
Zechariah heard about a son and about the salvation of the world but he got stuck on the physical. Why was that? And why is it that that not just true of Zechariah? Why do we all get stuck on physical things that we think are impossible? Why are the obstacles that we can see always bigger and tougher than the ones that belong to the unseen world?
So when the angel said: God is going to make your son into a spiritual giant and play a pivotal role in saving the world….Zechariah thought …Are we talking about a baby? “Did you say that Elizabeth and I are going to have a baby?”
Perhaps, not knowing what to say…he came out with: “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Can you give me a sign?
Imagine that – a sign. An angel appeared out of nowhere – smack dab in the temple. The angel had called him and his wife by name and announced that God had answered their prayers for a son. Yes, but, can you give me a sign? I guess it’s just human nature…I’m not going to believe unless you make an exception just for me and give me a sign.
For 40 years in the wilderness, Israel demanded one sign after another. They doubted, complained and rebelled, all the while demanding signs. And when the 40 years were over God said ‘you’re it”. You are the sign. For 40 years you didn’t get sick, your clothes didn’t wear out, your wives did not miscarry, the manna never failed, you drank water out of a rock and and you still want a sign? (Deut 8:1-3)
Just open your eyes…you are the sign.
God’s people have not stopped asking for signs. Its so easy to miss the fact that God has made us into a sign to the world. The church is God’s kingdom come to earth. It is a refuge from sin and God’s kingdom of light. It is the place on earth where God has taken up residence. This is the reason that God expects the church to be a community of truth and love, of forgiveness and righteousness. The church is God’s sign to a world lost in sin…that there is salvation in Jesus and a better way to live. It’s time to stop asking for a sign and to start being God’s sign to the world
The angel answered Zechariah…and said to him
“I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
You want a sign? Okay, I’ll give you two. First of all, you need to know who you’re talking to. I’m the angel Gabriel. I serve in the very presence of almighty God. I have come from God with this message for you…and I’m not used to being doubted. So, from now until John is born, you’ll not be able to say a word. Because you didn’t believe my words, you won’t be saying any, for as long as it takes for my words to come to pass.
How’s that for sign? So, for the better part of a year, Zechariah lived the sign and was the sign. It humbled him, muzzled him and put him in his place. Those who ask for signs ought to very sure that they are ready for whatever God might send.
What if God simply shut the mouths of those who refuse to believe in Him? Our world would be a much quiter place…wouldn’t it?
Well, imagine the frustration – to have the most amazing news to tell and not be able to say a word. It seems to me that the only thing worse than that, is to have the most amazing news to tell and not be willing to say a word. To be embarrassed to speak a good word for the one who has saved us. That’s us, if we are unwilling to share the gospel of Jesus. A weak faith silences us in much the same way that it did Zechariah.
Zechariah finally did come out of the temple and by that time people were getting worried. And wouldn’t you know it, the first thing that he did was to try to talk. When nothing came out, he made signs and gestures with his hands. The people concluded that he’d seen a vision – but didn’t know what it was.
Zechariah finished his tenure at the temple in silence. When they arrived back home, Elizabeth conceived, but she kept that knowledge to herself for five months. I don’t know why she did that. Maybe she didn’t want to get her hopes up about carrying the child to term. But she did feel vindicated. All of her life, men and women had looked down on her. Perhaps they wondered what she had done – why God was punishing her? But from now on, things were going to be different.
Luke tells us what she thought. “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”
In other words…I’ve been waiting for this all of my life….thank you lord. It’s interesting isn’t it – how each of us personalizes the work of God. God was sending John into the world – to help save it from sin. But his mother thought first of all, about what a baby meant to her. It was vindication and satisfaction at last. God was righting of a long-standing wrong.
Maybe that’s just natural. That while the salvation of the world hangs in the balance, each of us tends to think about about ourselves first. It’s hard to see our lives and to live them in the full context of God’s eternal plan of salvation.
In time, it happened as Gabriel had promised. God really did send a second Elijah. He used a set of godly parents to raise that boy and to shape his character. And God did that despite their doubts. That same plan of God to save the world is still being worked out. God is still using imperfect men and women, because there are no other kind.
The question is, are we willing for God to use us? Are we willing for Him to use our children? Are we willing to give them back to God so that we might keep them forever?
That’s a tough question. So few Christians pray that God will use their children to minister and serve. Fewer still pray that they will become missionaries. Children and grandchildren in a distant land is a price that few are willing to pay.
On our very best day we are not so different from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Yet may God still use us for the progress of the Gospel and the salvation of the world.