************ Sermon on Luke 1:17 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 3, 2006
"A People Prepared for the Lord"
It is December 03. Only 22 more days before Christmas. CRC-TV sends out a reporter and cameraman to interview the man and woman on the street. Today's topic: How to get ready for Christmas. Let's listen in:
"Excuse me, ma'am, how do you get ready for Christmas?"
"My husband's family is coming. I've got a big dinner planned. I've got my grocery list here somewhere. The Christmas decorations are going up tonight ..."
"How about you, ma'am. How do you get ready for Christmas?"
"We exchange names. Any good ideas on what I can get for Uncle Harold? I bought a paintball gun for Sam; I was lucky enough to get a Playstation III ..."
"Sir, how do you get ready for Christmas?"
"I'm buying the tree on my way home from work. We're decorating it tonight. On Saturday I checked the Christmas lights around the house ..."
"How about you, miss. How do you get ready for Christmas?"
"Our youth group is carolling this coming Saturday. I bought a present for my sister."
"Let's try one more person. Excuse me. How do you get ready for Christmas?"
"Out of my way! Can't you tell how busy I am? How can I possibly get everything done: shopping, dinners, presents, parties, programs, choirs ..."
"Oops, we'd better try someone else. Ah, here is an old friend, John the Baptist. John, why don't you tell our CRC-TV viewing audience how you think they should get ready for Christmas?"
"That's easy. They should get themselves ready for the Lord."
"What do you mean, John?"
"Repent. Live at peace with each other."
John the Baptist hits the nail right on the head. To get ready for Christmas we must get ready for the Lord. When it comes to getting ready for Christmas, even God's people fall into the trap of thinking first of presents, parties, family get-togethers, lights, trees, and Santa.
I Before the Lord
A Our Scripture passage introduces Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, to us. This elderly couple had two dreams or wishes in life. Their first wish was that they could witness the coming of the Messiah.
The Messiah. The Christ. Every Jewish child of God was waiting for His appearance. For centuries they dreamed and spoke with longing of His coming. When the Messiah came all that is wrong in our world would be set right. God's people would be set free from oppressors. The rich would no longer tyrannize the poor. The lame would begin to leap and jump and dance. The blind would see a world of vivid color. The deaf would listen to the songs of birds and the music of harps. The deserts of Israel would be turned into fragrant gardens. Swords and spears would be hammered into plows and hoes. Enemies would become friends. Jerusalem would be at the center of the world, and all the kings and rulers of the earth would come there to worship Israel's God.
Can you imagine a perfect world? a world without crime, pollution, death, hardship? a world without war, struggle, injustice? a world without the threat of a nuclear holocaust? a world without mad dictators like Kim Il-sung? a world without floods, hurricanes, droughts, famines, earthquakes? a world of love, peace, joy, hope? That's the kind of world the Messiah would bring. His coming heralds the beginning of a glorious, wondrous, beautiful time for the people of the Lord. No wonder a devout, pious, upright couple like Zechariah and Elizabeth so looked forward to the Messiah's appearance.
Their second great wish was for a child, a son, of their own. You see, over the life of this elderly couple there hung a great sorrow: they were childless. To be childless in Israel was a great disgrace (cf Lk 1:25). In spite of their obvious and sincere piety, many of their neighbors undoubtedly saw their childlessness as a sign of God's punishment (cf Lev 20:20f; 2 Sam 6:23; Jer 22:30, 36:30). And, to have children was a sign of God's blessing (cf Gen 1:28; Ps 127; Ps 128). Zechariah and Elizabeth had, however, given up all hope of this blessing. After all, Elizabeth was barren and they were both well along in years (vs 7).
B One day, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and said to him,
(Lk 1:13) "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.
"Your prayer has been heard." What prayer is that? Zechariah was in the holy place of the temple burning incense to God on the golden altar. The offering of incense was symbolic of the prayers of God's people. When the signal was given, the chosen priest would offer the incense. As soon as the people saw the ascending smoke they would fall down before the Lord and spread out their hands in silent prayer. For several minutes there would follow a dead silence in the temple sanctuary and in the surrounding temple-building and courts. Can there be any doubt what a devout priest of God, like Zechariah, would pray for at such a moment? He would pray for the coming of the Messiah and the era of salvation. "Your prayer has been heard." In other words, the Messiah is coming.
"Your prayer has been heard." What prayer is that? Not only the prayer about the Messiah, but also "your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son." Zechariah was to be given a son.
No wonder Zechariah was disbelieving and incredulous: the two greatest dreams of his life were about to be fulfilled.
C There is, of course, a connection between the two events, between the appearance of the Messiah and the birth of a son. The angel says about Zechariah's son, "he will go on before the Lord."
The angel is speaking here of a forerunner. In the Ancient World, a forerunner was sent before a king to announce the king's coming so that people and towns could get ready. Among military forces, the term refers to that part of the army that rushes ahead to prepare for the arrival of the main force. Zechariah's son, John, was to be a forerunner for the Messiah. "He will go on before the Lord." He will tell people to get ready because the Messiah is coming.
This fulfills what various of the Old Testament prophets spoke of:
(Lk 3:4) As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (cf Is 40:3)According to God's eternal plan of salvation, the Messiah does not appear until His coming is first announced by a forerunner. Zechariah's son will be that forerunner.
(Mal 3:1) "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.
II In the Spirit and Power of Elijah
A John the Baptist, as forerunner, is to go on before the Lord, "in the spirit and power of Elijah." The prophet Malachi had spoken about this:
(Mal 4:5-6a) "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. (6) He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers ..."
"In the spirit and power of Elijah." With Moses, Elijah was one of the two greatest figures of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament dispensation no one had such power at his disposal as Elijah; the forces of God's Kingdom were bound to and with Elijah for a time. That's why Elijah could pronounce judgment on sinners whether they be king or subject, rich or poor. That's why at Elijah's word there was neither dew nor rain for 3.5 years. That's why the drought ended at Elijah's word after the 3.5 years. That's why Elijah could call down fire from the Lord on Mount Carmel. That's why Elijah could appear unafraid before the king who had been looking all over the world for him. That's why he could later call down fire from heaven to strike down those soldiers who came to arrest him. Strengthened in the power of the Lord, Elijah was a fearless prophet of old.
B John the Baptist will go on before the Lord, "in the spirit and power of Elijah."
Everything about John recalled the prophet Elijah: his clothing, his food, his home in the wilderness, and his message. The only difference is that John would be even greater than Elijah. Said Jesus:
(Lk 7:28) I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John ...John is so great because "he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth" (Lk 1:17. During Old Testament times the Holy Spirit descended upon people temporarily and equipped them for some task or another, and then departed. John, however, will be permanently and continuously filled with the Spirit from the very beginning of his life. It is clear that John was chosen by God; and, even before he was born, the hand of God was on him to prepare him for his work.
When we spend a few moments examining John's ministry and life, we see a man who proclaimed God's Word with the boldness of an Elijah. It becomes clear that John was no respecter of persons or offices. To the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, John said,
(Lk 3:7) "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? This is hardly designed to win friends among the people. He did not hesitate to set armed soldiers straight:
(Lk 3:14) "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely--be content with your pay." John even rebuked King Herod because of his incestuous relationship with his brother's wife and all the other evil he had done (Lk 3:19). To all who would listen, John preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Lk 2:3). "Repent," he said, "for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Mt 3:2).
John's message sounds a little harsh in this season of goodwill. The sermons of John the Baptist don't make good Christmas cards. But this is all part and parcel of John's calling to "go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah."
III To Make Ready a People
A John is a forerunner. He goes on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." John's job is to make people ready for Christmas.
"A people prepared for the Lord." A people ready for Christmas. What are they like? What is meant by this? The angel tells us:
(Lk 1:17) " ... to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous ..."
If we take the angel's message literally, a people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas are a people reconciled to each other: fathers to their sons, husbands to their wives, brothers and sisters to each other. A people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas, then, are a people who have learned to live in peace and righteousness with each other. They are a people who do not fight and quarrel. They are a people who don't gossip about each other and run each other down. They are a people who have learned to forgive and be forgiven.
We can and should also understand the angel's message symbolically. The "fathers" are the pious ancestors of Israel, the great men of faith – like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samson, Gideon, David, and so on. From their vantage-point in the next world they look at their descendants and are displeased by their ungodly and unrepentant attitude. Now John, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will lead many in Israel to turn from sin and to God (cf vs 16), so that the fathers will once again look with favor upon Israel. A people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas, then, are also a people who have come to God in repentance, obedience, and faith.
B Back to the question I started this sermon with: how do you get ready for Christmas? To get truly ready for Christmas, we must be a people prepared for the Lord. But are we? If we are, then we have learned to live in peace and righteousness with each other. If we are, then we have turned from sin and to God.
Are you and I a people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas? As I have said before, within this congregation of believers I find and experience and see love, forgiveness, and unity. Yet, there is always room for improvement, isn't there?! We do have our fights and quarrels; some believers delight in being critical and in running others down; there are some who find it difficult to forgive. Is there someone you are in conflict with. To get ready for Christmas you have to straighten out the relationship. A people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas live together in love and harmony.
Are you and I a people prepared for the Lord and ready for Christmas? If we are, then, we would turn from sin in repentance and turn to God in obedience and faith. This is something all of us have to do.
C In verse 19 the angel Gabriel says something I must have read a hundred times (or more) and yet I never read it or at least did not realize its importance. Gabriel says, "I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news" (Lk 1:19). What Gabriel says is "good news." This is the same phrase used to describe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The birth of John the Baptist is good news. It is part of the Gospel.
When we think of the Gospel we mostly think of Jesus dying for our sins. But, that is not all of the Gospel message, is it? Listen to what Mark says about the preaching of Jesus:
(Mk 1:14-15) After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. (15) "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"Did you hear that? Part of the good news, part of the Gospel, is the call to repent. Jesus came at Christmas so we would repent, believe, and be saved. John the Baptist came before Christmas so we would repent, believe, and be saved.
I ask you, are you ready for Christmas? Are you a people prepared for the Lord?
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