************ Sermon on Luke 1:18 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 14, 2003
I Zechariah Introduced to Us
A We are looking this morning at Zechariah. His name means, "The Lord remembers His covenant." This is a reminder that the Lord would do special things through Zechariah; that in and through Zechariah the Lord would remember His covenant promises.
Zechariah was a priest during the reign of Herod the Great. This was a dark time in Israel's history. She was under foreign domination. And, for 400 years there had been no revelation from the Lord.
B We read that Zechariah was a very godly priest. Both he and his wife Elizabeth "were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly" (Lk 1:6). Among other things, this meant they were receptive to Jesus and not opposed to Him and the Good News of the Gospel (vs 19). Combining priestly origins and blameless observance of the Law, Zechariah and Elizabeth were representatives of the best of the religion of Israel.
Sad to say, but this made them unusual. Not all the priests were godly. Instead of keeping the hope of the Messiah alive, the bulk of the priests had made an agreement with Rome: they kept the people quiet and happy in exchange for Rome giving them a lot of authority and autonomy. Zechariah was one of the few who did not walk down this road.
That was the Lord's doing. Don't forget, in Zechariah the Lord remembered His covenant promises. So He preserved for Himself a faithful priest from Aaron's house who would make the final preparations for welcoming the Christ.
C We are also told that Elizabeth was barren. According to Elizabeth, the lack of children was a disgrace among the people (vs 25), deemed to be a sign of sin or guilt. But this was not the judgment of God. "Both of them were upright in the sight of God" (vs 6).
We are also told that Zechariah and Elizabeth were aged; they were "both well along in years" (vs 7). This tells us that not only did they not have children but they were also not likely to have children. Luke is stressing the human impossibility of having children.
D We are supposed to see a connection, a parallel, between Zechariah and Elizabeth and two Old Testament couples: first, with Elkanah and Hannah, the parents of Samuel; second, with Abraham and Sarah.
First, we are to see a connection with Elkanah and Hannah. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was barren. Furthermore, the angel told Zechariah that his son, John the Baptist, would be a Nazarite, drinking no wine or strong drink (vs 15); one of the most famous Nazarites of the Old Testament was Samuel. Not only are both couples introduced to the reader in about the same way (compare 1 Sam 1:1 with Lk 1:5) but both are promised a miracle child when they are in the sanctuary of the Lord.
Second, we are to see a parallel with Abraham and Sarah. While there are several examples of barren women who are made capable of childbearing through divine intervention (Rebekah, Rachel, mother of Samson, Hannah), only Abraham and Sarah – like Zechariah and Elizabeth – were incapacitated by age as well. And, both couples are described as righteous.
So, we are to see the birth story of John the Baptist in continuity with the birth of famous figures in the salvation history of Israel – namely, Samuel and Isaac.
II The Angel Gabriel
A According to 1 Chronicles 24 there were 24 divisions of priests. Each division served in the Temple one week every half year. During a division's term of office, lots decided who did the various tasks. There were four lots in the morning: to determine who offered the burnt animal offering, the meal offering, the incense, and who maintained the candlestick in the Holy Place. The only afternoon lot was for incense. With over 18,000 priests and Levites in Palestine in Jesus' time, offering incense was a high privilege that came only once in a lifetime, since the priest who won it was ineligible for future lots until all the other priests of his division also had this privilege.
We are told that Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Because of the large number of people who were gathered for worship it is supposed that Zechariah was chosen by lot for the afternoon sacrifice (vs 10, 21). We can further assume that it was the Lord Who arranged for Zechariah to be in the Temple that day and at that time.
The priest who offered the incense would enter the Holy Place, not the Holy of Holies (entered only by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement). He would take the incense from a bowl, put it on the burning coals, and scatter it.. The smoke of the incense going up from the Holy Place was a signal for the worshipers to pray.
B The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he was offering the incense and said "your prayer has been heard." What prayer is that? Prayer for a child for him and Elizabeth. Prayer for the coming of the Messiah. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him some marvelous, exciting news – that God remembered His covenant and covenant promises about the Messiah, that God was continuing His plan of salvation. And, that a son to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth would prepare the way for the Messiah's coming.
More than once throughout the Bible we see an angel of God announcing the birth of someone who would advance God's plan of salvation. I think of the birth announcements about Isaac (Gen 17 & 18), Samson (Judges 13), John the Baptist (Luke 1), and Jesus (Luke 1). Each time we see the same five steps:
-the appearance of an angel of the Lord
-a response of fear on the part of the person seeing the angel
-a divine message promising a miraculous birth as well as the name and accomplishments of the child to be born
-an objection by the person as to how this can possibly happen
-the giving of a sign to reassure the person
Gabriel's appearance and message once again reminds us of the parallels between Zechariah and Elizabeth on the one hand, and godly couples of the Old Testament on the other hand. The announcement of John the Baptist's birth was clearly in continuity with the births of famous figures in the salvation history of Israel.
C Notice what Gabriel all said about John the Baptist. First, he talked of joy:
(Luke 1:14) He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth ...Of course there was joy and gladness. There was joy and gladness that the disgrace of Elizabeth was being removed. And, there was joy and gladness because the boy to be born had a role in salvation history – he was preparing for the coming of the Messiah.
When we look through the Gospels, we see that the joy attached to the resurrection of Christ was also attached to His conception and birth. For instance, we are told that "joy" greeted the risen Lord (Lk 24:41). So, when Mary visited Elizabeth, baby John "leaped for joy" in Elizabeth's womb (Lk 1:44). Later, we are told that Mary "rejoices" in God her Savior (Lk 1:47). The angels of Christmas Day told the shepherds they had "good news of great joy" about a Savior (Lk 2:10).
The same kind of joy, said the angel, will be found at the birth of John the Baptist. What does this tell us about John's birth? This tells us that the same power of God that was at work in the resurrection of Christ was also at work in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth to bring about John's birth. God was at work. God was bringing forward His plan of salvation. God was being faithful to His covenant promises.
The angel Gabriel also talked of John's greatness, the absence of alcoholic beverages, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the power of Elijah. All of this "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk 1:17). In other words, the Messiah was coming; in fact, He was almost here; and, John the Baptist's ministry would prepare the way for Messiah's coming.
III Zechariah's Question
A Zechariah listened to all of this and he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
(Lk 1:18) "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."Do you remember Abraham's response when he was told he and Sarah would have a child?
(Gen 17:17) Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"Do you remember what Mary said when she was told she would give birth to Jesus?
(Luke 1:34) "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
Do you hear the common refrain? What God promises is so much beyond human ability that it is almost unbelievable.
God has many promises like this, my brothers and sisters. He promises life after death and life everlasting. He promises the resurrection of the body. He promises a new heaven and new earth. He promises grace for people who have done nothing to deserve it. He promises things that are beyond human ability. He promises things that stretches our faith to the limit, things that seem impossible to carry out. So, we wonder and we ask with Zechariah, "How can I be sure of this?"
B When Abraham asked his question he was given a sign: "by this time next year" Sarah will bear a son (Gen 17:21). When Mary asked her question she was given a sign:
(Lk 1:36) "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."When Zechariah asked his question, he was also given a sign. Gabriel promised Zechariah something positive – that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son – and something negative – that he would be struck mute, unable to hear or to talk (Lk 1:20,62). The first sign took 9 of our months, or 10 of the biblical lunar months before it came to be. The second sign happened immediately. Quite literally, Zechariah was turned speechless before the might and majesty and power and grace of God.
Now, this created a problem. The priest who burned the incense at the afternoon's hour of prayer was expected to quickly do his tasks and then go outside and bless the waiting people. But Zechariah was busy talking with the angel so he was held up. And, when he did appear outside the Holy Place he was unable to talk or to bless. However, the blessing that Zechariah was unable to give at the beginning of the Gospel we see that Jesus did give at the end of the Gospel (Lk 24:50-52). In other words, in Jesus the Lord remembered His covenant!
C As we look at all that God did to craft the first Christmas, the way He fashioned the Christmas events, the care with which He guided people to participate in them, the way in which He provided for and through those people, we cannot help but be awestruck by the might and majesty and power and grace of God.
Our God is an awesome God. As Mary was told by the angel, "nothing is impossible with God" (Lk 1:37). He can make an old couple like Abraham and Sarah conceive and carry on the covenant line. He can make a barren woman like Hannah conceive. He can make an elderly couple like Zechariah and Elizabeth have a son. He can make a virgin conceive and bear a child. There is nothing He cannot do to carry out His plan for our salvation. There is no one who can stop Him or His purposes. There is nothing that is beyond Him.
Over and over again Scripture testifies to the greatness of God. To Abraham, after the laughter of an unbelieving Sarah, God could say, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen 18:14). And, Jesus could say, "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (Lk 18:27).
In the Book of Job, God speaks for four chapters about His greatness and power and the wonders done by His almighty hand (chapters 38-41). Let me quote from what the Lord said to Job:
Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations?The Lord goes on this way for four whole chapters. Job listened to all of this and then he responded with this confession of faith: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions?
Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone --
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, "This far you may come and no farther; here is where you proud waves halt"?
Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place ..."
The prophet Jeremiah came to the same conclusion when he said to the Lord, "Nothing is too hard for you" (Jer 32:17). And the Lord replied to Jeremiah, "I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?" (Jer 32:27).
We see that, don't we, in the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" No!
Though we have been looking at Zechariah, the real star of the story is God. He is the Mover and the Shaker behind everything that happened that first Christmas. He is an awesome God!
Now get this: He continues to be an awesome God as He remembers His covenant promises and carries out His plan of salvation. Today, He replaces stony hearts with tender hearts. He replaces hardened spirits with His Holy Spirit. He washes away past sins, makes His chosen ones new and holy, and is preparing a place for them.
He is an awesome God!
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