************ Sermon on Luke 1:11-13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 9, 2018
"Zechariah, A Fearful Priest"
Luke begins the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist. He begins the Christmas story with a revelation, an angel, and a miracle.
To understand and appreciate this, we need to be reminded of the Biblical timeline. How long has it been since God spoke through Malachi (the last prophet of the Old Testament)? The answer: 400 years. How long has it been since the appearance of an angel? The last heavenly appearance of an angel was in the days of Daniel and his three friends -- some 500 years earlier. And, how long has it been since a series of miracles has been done? We know about all the miracles done in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and all the miracles done when Israel wandered through the wilderness. But the last time there was a whole series of miracles was during the days of Elijah and Elisha -- and that was 800 years earlier. It has been a long time since God intervened in human history through revelation, angel, and miracle. We see all three in the Christmas story that begins with the birth of John the Baptist.
Now, liberals and humanists and deists don't like to hear this. They don't accept miracles. They don't believe that God intervenes in human history. They deny the existence of angels and the spirit world. They want to apply scientific laws to everything that happens. They want rational explanations. Since Luke is a man of faith, he has no problems with divine revelation, angels, and miracles.
I A Serving Priest
A Our Bible reading begins with: "Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God ..." (Lk 1:8). I explained last time that there were about 18,000 priests in Israel divided into 24 orders or divisions, each one named for one of the grandsons of Aaron. Zechariah was put in the order of Abijah. Each order served two separate weeks a year in the Temple.
"Zechariah's division was on duty." It was the turn of the division of Abijah to serve in the Temple. To do what? Mostly, it was the job of the priests to make sacrifices: burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, guilt offering. Most of these offerings involved the slaughter of animals. That's what they did all day in the Temple. They slaughtered the animals brought to them as offerings. The collected the blood. They offered up the sacrifices. Every morning and every evening they sacrificed the spotless lamb on the bronze altar.
"Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God ..." So Zechariah was one of the priests receiving the offerings of the people and sacrificing them to the Lord.
B Verse 9 tells us that Zechariah was also given a special privilege as priest: "he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense" (Lk 1:9).
Many priests were needed to do the sacrifices. Only one priest was needed to burn incense. Of all the priests serving, only one could walk into the Holy Place of the Temple and burn incense. The priest who burned incense was chosen by lot; in other words, his name was drawn. It was a very, very great privilege to have your name drawn because many priests never had their name drawn. If you weren't a priest, you would never have this privilege. And, if you were a priest, you might have this privilege. And, in order to spread the honor and privilege around, your name could only be picked once in your life. If you had ever done this, offered the burnt incense, you couldn't do it again.
Now, to burn incense Zechariah had to go from the outer court of the Gentiles, to the court of women, through the inner court of Israel, to the court of the priests, and from there into the sanctuary of the Temple. All the rest of the priests and, of course, the people stayed outside the sanctuary. The sanctuary, if you remember, was divided into two parts separated by a curtain: the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.
The only piece of furniture inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant -- the symbol of God's Presence. The Holy of Holies was accessible only to the Israelite high priest. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest was permitted to enter to burn incense and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed animal on the Mercy Seat of the Ark.
There were three pieces of furniture in the Holy Place. One was the golden lampstand, which was to be kept burning continually, giving light to the Holy Place. The second piece of furniture was the table of showbread. The bread on the table was baked fresh every day, and only the priests were allowed to eat of it. Both of these are symbols pointing to Jesus as the Light of the World (Jn 8:12) and the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35). The final piece of furniture was the altar of incense. Special incense was to be burned each morning and evening as an offering to the Lord.
The altar of incense stood just outside the Holy of Holies. It is associated with the Holy of Holies because it is from this altar that the high priest took the incense that he sprinkled on the Mercy Seat. To burn incense on this altar, then, was the closest any ordinary priest could get to the Holy of Holies and the presence of God. It was the holiest place for any ordinary priest to serve. This was, then, the greatest moment of Zechariah's career as priest. This was the highpoint of his lifetime of priestly service.
The big crowd tells us Zechariah was probably chosen by lot to burn incense after the evening sacrifice. There was also a morning sacrifice, but that crowd would not have been as big. So right after the evening sacrifice Zechariah gathers burning coals off the altar of burnt offering, the bronze altar. He places the glowing coals in a golden bowl. He carries the golden bowl with those hot coals and goes into the Holy Place. Don't forget, this is a new place for Zechariah; He has never been there in his life. He goes through the Holy Place, to the far end, right against the curtain, to the golden altar of incense. He pours the glowing coals out of the bowl. He puts incense on top of the burning coals. And immediately a big column of smoke rises and the fragrance of the incense fills the Temple. When he finishes this duty he leaves.
C The ascending, aroma-filled cloud of smoke represents the prayers of the people. Remember, Luke tells us the assembled worshipers were praying outside: prayers for salvation, prayers of repentance, prayers of confession, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, prayers for the coming of the Messiah, prayers for blessings, prayers for family, prayers for the nation, prayers for the Kingdom of God. All of these prayers were symbolized by the cloud of smoke going up, up, up into the presence of God. What the people were doing outside was being symbolized by the cloud of smoke inside.
Why were the people praying? Because they were dependent upon God. Because God is sovereign. Because God is the only source of everything good. Because neither their work and worry nor God's gifts can do them any good without His blessing.
II A Fearful Priest
A Ordinarily, the priest who burns incense doesn't stay very long in the Holy Place. More to the point, the priest ordinarily tries to do his job as quickly as possible. Why? Because there was fear, tremendous fear, as they got close to the curtain, close to the Holy of Holies, close to the presence of God. There was fear that somehow, in someway, they might do something to dishonor God, something blasphemous, something that makes light of God. So, from one point-of-view, it was a dangerous place to be. Think of Isaiah. He saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of God's robe filled the temple. He heard angels singing "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." And he said,
(Isa 6:5) "Woe to me! ... I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."Think of what happened to Korah and his followers when they rebelled; they were commanded to appear before the presence of the Lord and the earth swallowed them. So, yes, it was scary to be in the presence of the Lord.
B As I said, normally the priest who burns incense tries to be in and out as quickly as possible. But this time sometime happened. Something happened that kept Zechariah in the Temple. It took so long, says verse 21, that "the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple."
What happened is that "an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense" (Lk 1:11). We can guess that the angel suddenly appeared just as Zechariah was about to leave. Zechariah saw the angel. He saw an actual, live angel standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
C How did Zechariah react? His reaction was fear, panic, even terror. That's the proper response of a sinful man in the presence of a holy visitor from heaven. That was the response of Gideon in Judges 6 when a heavenly visitor came to him. That was the response of Manoah, the father of Samson, in Judges 13. Ezekiel and Daniel both responded this way when they met an angel. Consider Mary; she was afraid when an angel appeared to her (Lk 1:30). And, the same thing can be said about the shepherds on Christmas Day (Lk 2:10). When the apostles saw the transfigured Christ, they fell into a coma (Mt 17). And, when John sees the glorious Lord he fell at His feet as though dead (Rev 1:17). Telling us what? Telling us all sinners feel the tremendous weight of their guilt in the presence of a heavenly visitor.
D Zechariah was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel does not want that response. So, he gives a greeting that angels throughout the Bible have been giving: "Do not be afraid" (Lk 1:13). This is the greeting an angel gave to Hagar, to Gideon, to Joseph, to Mary, to the shepherds, to the women at the tomb (Gen 21:17; Judges 6:23; Mt 1:20; Mt 28:5; Lk 1:30; Lk 2:10). "Do not be afraid." Why not? Because this is not a judgment visit. We know angels visited in judgment at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). An angel killed Egypt's firstborn (Ex 12). An angel went through the camp of the Assyrians and struck down 185,000 men (Is 37). But not this time, not this place. This was not a judgment visit. Rather, it was the start of the Christmas story.
III Answered Prayer
"Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard" (Lk 1:13). What prayer? Don't forget, this is a godly couple, a pious couple, a couple declared righteous in the sight of God, a couple who walked the Christian life. So, like the Israelites outside the Temple, they prayed for the coming of the Messiah, for forgiveness, for repentance, for the nation of Israel, for salvation, for the Kingdom of God. Yet, for a good part of their married life, Zechariah and Elizabeth have also had another prayer: "O God, give us a son." Year after year, they prayed: "O God, give us a son." This was a priestly family. Generation after generation of priests have preceded them. He can trace his descent all the way back to Aaron. She can trace her descent all the way back to Aaron too. They want a son so their family continues the line of priests serving God.
Now, scripture tells us Elizabeth was barren and they were both well along in years (Lk 1:7). Telling us what? Telling us that humanly speaking Zechariah and Elizabeth have given up all hope of a son. Yes, it was still at the back of their mind, but at their age and in their condition do you think this was something they prayed for anymore?
"Your prayer has been heard" (Lk 1:13). And then Zechariah hears what he never expected to hear: "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son ..." (Lk 1:13). Just like that, 400 years of silence on the part of God has been broken, 500 years without an angel visitant has ended, and 800 years without miraculous signs and wonders has ceased. That's what happens at the start of the Christmas story.
We know, of course, that in rest of the Christmas story God continues to speak, angels continue to appear, and greater and greater signs and wonders invade human history.
We end by looking at the names of the three people at the start of the Christmas story. They all show us God's character.
"Zechariah" means "the LORD has remembered." The Lord remembered the prayers of this godly couple. The Lord remembered what was written at the back of their prayer journal (or maybe we should say tablet). The Lord remembered, He never forgot, what they started praying for some 40-60 years earlier.
"Elizabeth" means "God is faithful."
"John" means "God is gracious." God is gracious. God is about to explode upon the world with His grace and love and mercy. As Paul puts it, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15).
At the start of the Christmas story God speaks, angels appear, and miracles happen. At the start of the Christmas story God remembers, God is faithful, God is gracious.
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