************ Sermon on Luke 1:25 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 23, 2018
"God has Shown His Favor"
In this season of Advent we are still in the Temple with Zechariah. So far we have seen him as a righteous priest -- righteous because God has covered his sin. We have seen him as a chosen priest -- chosen by lot to enter the Holy Place and burn incense in the incense altar right against the Holy of Holies. We have seen him as a fearful priest -- when the Angel Gabriel appears to him with good news. We have seen him as a faithless priest -- as he has trouble believing he will father a child; and, don't forget, this child will prepare the way for the Messiah's coming; this child will prepare the way for Christmas. We have seen him as a punished priest -- as God took away his ability to talk and to hear. Today, we see he is also a favored priest -- as his wife finally becomes pregnant. The connection to today is that anyone who confesses Christ has also been shown God's favor.
I A Waiting People
A Our Bible reading begins with a waiting people. "Meanwhile," we are told, "the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple" (Lk 1:21).
What is taking Zechariah so long? Maybe it is because he is old, not as fast as someone younger. All that he has to do is carry the burning coals from the altar to the incense burner. Once that is done he throws the incense on the altar and watches the smoke go up. And then he leaves. Priests have been doing this every morning and every evening ever since there was a Tabernacle and Temple. How long does all this take? Surely no more than a few minutes.
B "Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple" (Lk 1:21). When the priest is delayed, when the priest doesn't come out, the first conclusion is that he has been judged by God. Maybe he stumbled and fell into the Holy of Holies and was struck down by God. Maybe he couldn't resist lifting the curtain and taking a peek into the Holy of Holies and was struck down by God. Maybe he did something else that was not permitted and God struck him down.
You need to realize that among the people of Israel there was a fear of God and the presence of God in the Holy of Holies. After all, the people all knew the story of Uzzah. The Ark was being moved. God had instructed that the Ark was to be carried on the shoulders of the priests holding poles going through rings on the side. But instead they put the Ark on a cart and the cart hit a pothole and it looked like the Ark was going to fall. Uzzah wanted to protect it from hitting the ground. He made the mistake of touching the Ark and instantly died (cf 2 Sam 6).
Or, think of the story of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. These two priests put coals and incense in their pans and offered unauthorized fire. We aren't told exactly what they did. But fire came from the presence of God and consumed them (cf Lev 10).
Or, think of the outer garment worn by the High Priest. Alternating golden bells and pomegranates were sown to the bottom hem. Those dangling bells were much more than decorative jewelry. There is a story that while the High Priest was engaged in his purification rituals, the common priests who were standing outside the Sanctuary would be on high alert always listening for the steady jingling of the golden bells. If that jingling stopped, they would assume the Lord had probably killed the High Priest due to something offensive or blasphemous. The problem with this story is that on the Day of Atonement the High Priest changed into a white linen garment. And there weren’t any jingling or jangling bells attached to this garment! But it does show us the popular viewpoint, the people's viewpoint, of the presence of God as they waited for Zechariah.
This mindset is further emphasized by something else recorded in Jewish literature. According to this literature, a rope was tied to the ankle of the High Priest when he went into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Then, if the High Priest died or was struck down by God, he could be pulled out of the Holy of Holies with the rope that was attached to his foot. The logic behind this was simple. Only the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies. Anybody else who tried to enter would be instantly killed by the Lord. Hence, if the High Priest died while he was inside the Holy of Holies, there was no way to remove the corpse! Even a makeshift appointing of a new High Priest wouldn’t work. Because under no circumstances is a High Priest allowed to touch or handle a dead body. Not even a member of a High Priest’s own family is allowed to handle a dead body. Having said all this, there are no records, Biblical or otherwise, of a High Priest being struck dead by the Lord, and his body dragged out of the Holiest Place by the rope attached to his ankle. But it does show the mindset of the people as they waited for Zechariah.
"Where is Zechariah? What has happened to him?" As the people waited and waited their first thought would be that something bad must have happened. Somehow, in someway, Zechariah must have done something offensive or blasphemous to God.
C According to verse 22, when Zechariah finally comes out he cannot speak. We know the reason: he is being punished because he does not believe the Angel Gabriel which means he does not believe God.
Last Sunday night I asked the Sunday School kids if they were better than Zechariah. Most of them thought they would believe if they were in Zechariah's place. This morning, three people stood before God and His people and announced that they believe. Realize this: the only reason any of us believe is because God's Spirit has led us to believe. The Spirit of God has not yet led Zechariah to this point.
So Zechariah comes out from the Holy Place. He crosses the Court of the Priests. He enters the Court of Israel. At this point he is supposed to say something. At this point he is supposed to bless the people with the same blessing first said by Aaron:
(Num 6:24-26) The LORD bless you and keep you; (25) the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; (26) the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.This was Zechariah's final responsibility as the priest chosen to burn incense. His final responsibility is to put God's name on the Israelites so God will bless them.
So Zechariah comes out. Do you suppose he opened his mouth? Do you think he tried to talk? Do you imagine he tried to bless the people? If he didn't believe the promise of Gabriel, I can't imagine he believed the punishment either. So Zechariah comes out and finds he is unable to speak. He kept making signs to the people. Was he flapping his arms up and down, trying to imitate angel's wings? Was he pointing to the fire of the altar? Whatever he did, Zechariah tried to let the people know what had happened. And, he must have been successful because the people realize he was delayed because he saw a vision in the Temple.
So Zechariah comes out and is unable to speak. We aren't told if another priest steps in and blesses the people in his place. Or, if Zechariah lifted his hands while another priest says the words. Or, if the people were sent home without a blessing.
D "When his time of service was completed, he returned home" (Lk 1:23). So the incense and the angel did not happen at the end of Zechariah's week of priestly service. It happened at the start of the week or perhaps in the middle of the week. He spent the rest of the week doing his priestly duties, preparing animals for sacrifice and offering them to God. And, don't forget, he was deaf and mute, unable to hear and to talk, as he did his duties the rest of the week. This is how the biggest, the most important, the most memorable week of Zechariah's life ends. He did his duties and then returned home.
II A Pregnant Wife
A The Zechariah who returned home was not the same Zechariah who left home a week earlier. The Zechariah who returned received the first revelation from God in 400 years, encountered the first angel visitant in 500 years, and was promised the first series of miracles in 800 years. Put yourself there. Try to tell me this would not change you -- probably for the rest of your life.
Furthermore, the Zechariah who left was able to talk and to hear and the Zechariah who returned was mute and deaf. In the towns and villages of Israel, it was the job of the priests to instruct the people in the Law. Obviously, Zechariah can't do any of that.
I don't know about you, but I tried to imagine what happened when Zechariah got home. When he got home to his wife Elizabeth. He couldn't talk. He couldn't hear. How does he let her know what happened? Does he right away use the writing tablet? Or, does he first try the same sign language he used with the people? Does he flap his arms like they are wings? Does he point to the coals in the fire place?
And what was Elizabeth's response? "Why aren't you talking to me? You've been gone for a week so what happened? Come on, man, speak up!" Does she wave her arms to get his attention?
I would love to be a fly on their wall.
B Now, notice what happens next: "After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion" (Lk 1:24). "After this." That is, after Zechariah came back home. In other words, she didn't get pregnant when the angel first talked to Zechariah. Her pregnancy was not like Mary's -- without male participation. It was still a miracle of course. Because she was barren. Because she was past the age of bearing children. God opened her womb. God turned back the clock. It was the first of a series of miracles in 800 years.
She "remained in seclusion." Was she scared she was going to lose the baby if she was out and about? Was she confined to bed rest for the five months? You know why? Because quite often it takes until the fifth month to see a pregnancy. Elizabeth hid herself until it was obvious to everyone that a miracle had happened. Elizabeth hid herself until it was obvious to even the blind that she and Zechariah were going to have a baby.
Elizabeth remained in seclusion. Even Mary, her relative, didn't know she was pregnant. The angel had to tell Mary this news (Lk 1:36).
You see the connection, I am sure, between the two women. The God Who allowed an old, barren woman to have a child is more than able to make a virgin conceive and also bear a child. As the angel said to Mary, "Nothing is impossible with God" (Lk 1:37).
Elizabeth knows her pregnancy is of God and from God: "The Lord has done this for me," she said (Lk 1:25).
To be barren was a kind of shame in Jewish society. It was a sign of disgrace. According to 1 Samuel 1, Hannah experienced this disgrace. She cried and she wept and she couldn't eat because she didn't have a child. Elizabeth admits she too felt and experienced disgrace. Maybe it was self-inflicted. Or, maybe the other women poked fun of her like Peninnah provoked Hannah.
But now a miracle has happened. She was pregnant. She was pregnant with the Messiah's forerunner. She was going to have a baby and the Messiah was going to come. Not only was she to have a son, but the birth of her son was evidence that the Messiah was coming! These were exciting days indeed! Wow.
We end with the words of Elizabeth. She says the Lord "has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace" (Lk 1:25). Favor has been shown. Disgrace has been taken away.
What happened to Elizabeth happens to everyone who believes in Jesus, to everyone who confesses Christ. Disgrace is taken away. And favor is added.
Keep in mind what the Bible says about disgrace: namely, sin is a disgrace to any people (Prov 14:34). It is a disgrace that we who have been created for the glory of God, instead sin against the Lord. It is a disgrace that we who have been created for life, instead experience death and what leads to death. It is a disgrace that we who have been created to love, instead show hate.
If you believe in Jesus, if you confess Christ as Savior and Lord, then God has taken away your disgrace, He has covered your sin, He has redeemed you and saved you. And in its place He has shown favor. Favor because of Christ. Favor because of Christmas.
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