************ Advent Sermon on Luke 1:5-25 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 1, 2013
The Gospel writer, Luke, wants to give us an orderly account of the life and ministry of Christ (Lk 1:3). So, in chapter 1, he tells us four different responses to God's wonderful news of a Savior born for all the people. On this first week of Advent we will look at the response of Zechariah to the message of Christmas.
I Zechariah is Faithful
A Zechariah and Elizabeth lived during a dark time for the nation of Israel. It has been 400 long years without a prophetic Word from God. It has been 400 years since the prophet Malachi promised the coming of Elijah (Mal 4:5-6). Furthermore, the spiritual leaders of Israel were shackled by tradition. Their traditions were even more important to them than the intent of the Law. Finally, the nation of Israel was no longer independent. Their king was Herod the Great, a foreigner, and a deputy of Rome. He was a tyrant with nine wives, one of whom he executed for no apparent reason.
B Zechariah and Elizabeth were a godly couple living in this dark time. Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was also a descendant of Aaron (Lk 1:5). Their names say it all. Zechariah means "Jehovah has remembered." Elizabeth means "God is my oath." This was a couple who lived for the Lord and loved the Lord and served the Lord. They prayed for the coming of the Messiah (cf Lk 1:13). They worshiped. They fasted. They gave generously to the poor. They observed the Lord's feast days.
"Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Lk 1:6). Luke uses almost the same language for Zechariah and Elizabeth that is used for other righteous people, such as Noah (Gen 6:9), Abraham (Gen 17;1), and Job (Job 1:1). The description doesn't mean any of these saint were perfect. They were still sinners like you and I. Yet, they were blameless. That is, no one could charge them with any scandalous sin. They strived to live honestly before the Lord.
We have couples in our church who are like Zechariah and Elizabeth. It is a wonderful thing when those who are joined to each other in marriage are also joined to the Lord. These are the couples who pray for the elders and deacons and pastors. These are the couples who strive to answer God's call to worship. These are the couples who support and encourage and build up and love. Let me hasten to add that many of our widows are godly like this couple as well.
C There was one big sorrow in their life. Scripture tells us "they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren" (Lk 1:7). Not only were they childless but they expected to stay that way because, says Scripture, "they were both well along in years" (Lk 1:7).
This creates a problem. The Jews regarded childlessness as a sign of God's displeasure, and therefore as rebuke. After all, children are a heritage from the Lord and a reward from Him (Ps 127:3). How is it, then, that such a godly couple as Zechariah and Elizabeth have no children (Lk 1:7)? Is there some hidden sin in their life? Is there something lacking in their faith? Are they being punished by God? Yet, we all know that many of the leaders of Israel were born of mothers who had long been childless. I think of Isaac, Joseph, Samson, Samuel and here John the Baptist. Sometimes, God keeps His people waiting to better display His great power, glory, mercy, and grace. But through it all He advances His plan for our salvation.
How instructive! Often we think God must be displeased with us because things are not going the way we want; yet, in reality, He has more magnificent things in store for us. Elizabeth thought she was being rebuked by the Lord (Lk 1:25), but God declared her to be blameless (Lk 1:6) and has a unique blessing and privilege in store for her.
II Zechariah is Praying
A There were far more priests and Levites than necessary – perhaps as many as 18,000 of them. The priests were divided into 24 teams, each team given 2 weeks of temple service per year. Members of the team on duty drew lots to determine the tasks to be done by each person. Zechariah, we are told, was chosen by lot to offer incense in the holy place (Lk 1:9). This was a high honor that was given to a priest but once in a lifetime. The incense was offered daily before the morning sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice. The incense represents the prayers of the people so while the priest is burning incense inside the holy place, outside the congregants were praying.
B An angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah as he was serving in the temple. This is the only time in Scripture that an angel of the Lord appeared in the temple with a message from God. Usually, God spoke in the temple by a still small voice from between the cherubim. Other times, God made known His will by the Urim and Thummim. But this time He uses an angel. Telling us something important is being said.
Scripture tells us the Law was first given through the ministry of angels. Similarly, the first announcement of the Good News of Christmas is also given through the ministry of an angel.
The angel stood at the "right side" of the altar of incense. This is not an insignificant detail. First, it makes us think of Joshua the priest in Zechariah 3:1. There Satan stands at the right hand of Joshua to resist him. But Zechariah has no bad devil standing at his right hand; rather, he has an angel of the Lord who encourages him. Second, the position of the angel tell us he appeared out of the holy of holies. In other words, he came from the very presence of God – something only the high priest can do and only once a year after being washed and cleansed and making sacrifice for the sins of the people. The angel represents God.
Zechariah, of course, "was startled and was gripped with fear" (Lk 1:12). Why? Because often times in Scripture the appearance of an angel means divine judgment: think of the angel guarding the Garden of Eden, think of the angels at Sodom and Gomorrah, think of the angels used by God to punish the Egyptians as well as the Israelites, think of the angel seen by Balaam's donkey.
Zechariah is afraid so the angel says, "Do not be afraid" (Lk 1:13). The angel has to say the same words when he appears to Mary (Lk 1:30), to the shepherds (Lk 2:10), and to the ladies who come to the empty tomb (Mt 28:5). "Do not be afraid."
C "Your prayer has been heard" (Lk 1:13). What prayer? In that time, that place, while offering incense, Zechariah was praying for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. He was praying for the coming of the Messiah. "O come, O come, Emmanuel" were the words on his lips. "Come, Thou long expected Jesus."
Don't forget, Zechariah and Elizabeth were a godly couple. So every day they prayed for the Kingdom of God to come in all its glory. Their prayers were not just about themselves, their needs, their sorrows.
We can learn from this godly couple. How many times aren't our prayers all about me and my needs: give me, bless me, help me, and my children, and my grand-children. But this godly couple see beyond themselves.
The prophet Malachi spoke of a coming prophet, someone like Elijah, who would go before the Lord (Mal 4:5). The angel announces to Zechariah that his son is that prophet. That he would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk 1:17). In other words, the Messiah was coming.
D "Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son" (Lk 1:13). So Zechariah was praying for his wife as well. He knew her pain, her sorrow, her shame as a childless woman. Here was a husband who thought about his wife and prayed for his wife and felt for his wife. So he prayed that his wife's disgrace would be taken away. Isn't this sweet, that he loves her so, that he prays for her, that he strives to encourage her?
"Your prayer has been heard." Imagine the joy and the excitement. "He will be a joy and delight to you" (Lk 1:14). Every new parent and grand-parent can relate to this. Good news brings joy. The Good News of Christmas brings joy for all the people (Lk 2:10).
III Zechariah Does Not Believe
A You would think that the presence of the angel and the announcement of God's Word would encourage Zechariah. But notice Zechariah's response: "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years" (Lk 1:18).
Where was Zechariah looking when he said this? He was not looking at God in faith. Rather, Zechariah was looking at himself and at his wife. He had all sorts of practical arguments. We are old. We are past the age of bearing children. We no longer have the energy and stamina to raise a child. Elizabeth has gone through menopause. So, Zechariah decided that the birth of a son was impossible.
Zechariah was a godly man. He prayed for the coming of the Messiah. He prayed about his wife's disgrace. And, he didn't believe the answer. Doesn't this sound familiar? Didn't this happen when the early church gathered together to pray for Peter in prison? And, when an angel released Peter and Peter stood at the door and knocked, the church did not believe the answer (Acts 12).
How many times aren't we the same way? Our payers are like uncashed checks. As one commentator puts it, we make out checks through the window of prayer and never cash them on the bank of heaven. God hears, God answers, but we don't believe or don't accept the answer.
B Zechariah is guilty of unbelief. And, unbelief is something God will not accept. Zechariah was actually questioning God's ability to fulfill His own Word! He forgot what God did for Abraham and Sarah, another aged couple without children (Gen 18:9-15; Rom 4:18-25). He thought their physical limitations would hinder Almighty God. But before we criticize Zechariah too much we should examine ourselves and see how strong our own faith is.
C Faith is blessed by God, but unbelief is judged. So Zechariah was struck silent for 9 months. When he left the holy place, he was unable to give the priestly benediction to the people (Num 6:22-27) or even tell them what he had seen.
During this season of Advent we are looking at reactions to God's Good News. We are looking at reactions to the Good News of Christmas.
On this first Sunday of Advent we see a godly man who simply cannot accept the Good News. It appears to him to be too incredible. It leaves him astonished and speechless.
I want to warn you, congregation, to avoid the sin of Zechariah. I want to encourage you, congregation, to accept God's Good News.
As people who live and work in a broken world, God's Gospel promises appear to be simply astounding. Yes, they are beyond our doing. Nation takes up sword against nation, but we are preparing ourselves for the time when He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isa 2:4). What an incredible promise!
We live in a world of violence and blood-shed. But God promises a time when the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them (Is 11:6). What an incredible promise!
We live a world that is again experiencing climate change. But God promises a time when the desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom (Is 35:1). What an incredible promise!
We live in an age that has continued for over 2000 years. But Jesus promises that He is coming soon (Rev 3:11). What an incredible promise!
We are a people filled with sin. But the promise of the Gospel is forgiveness and reconciliation. What an incredible promise! We have learned to accept this promise for ourselves; we have problem accepting this promise for the sins of others.
What is our response to all of these Gospel promises and many more? Many times we live and act like none of these promises will ever happen. We are like Zechariah, a godly man who failed to take God at His Word.
Take God at His Word, congregation. Accept and believe His Good News.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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