Silence is Not Golden
Luke 1:5 – 25
Silence is Not Golden
Silence is not golden
How are you with silence? Are you one of those people who can’t handle more than a couple of seconds without someone speaking? Some of my friends, are so uncomfortable with silence, that any gap in conversation, they can’t help but say something, just to break the silence. Silence is something that the characters in this episode of the New Testament have got very very used to. Not silence in general, but silence from God.
Luke, the careful historian
This part of the Bible was written by a man named Luke. And we know that when Luke set about writing this account of Jesus’ life, he was very very careful in his research and his writing. One of the books about Luke on my bookshelf is called “Luke, Historian and Theologian.” Because that’s what Luke is. He’s a theologian, well, actually, we’re all theologians. A theologian is simply someone who has some thoughts about God, the question is whether or not we’re a good theologian! But Luke is also an historian. Now, some people are dubious about historians. Oscar Wilde once said that the role of the historian is “to give an accurate description, of what has never occurred”!
But if we look at those first 4 verses of Luke’s gospel, we can see just how careful Luke has been in researching and writing what he calls his orderly account of the life and ministry of Jesus.
And Luke shows us where these things fit into history, by linking them to other events, on the regional or the world stage.
See there in verse 5, In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah,
Instantly we know, where these events fit in world history.
If you were to write a biography of the author and scholar C S Lewis, you would mention that he died on November 22nd, 1963, but you’d also point out, that that was the day on which John F Kennedy was assassinated.
Some here, I’m sure, can remember that day, and now you can link C S Lewis’ death, to an historical event within your experience.
King Herod reigned from 37 BC to 4 BC, which makes these events, the very first events of the New Testament.
But more than simply giving us an historical timeline, in the same way that JFK’s assassination makes a statement about a culture, and expectations, and the hopes of a nation,
To remind us that Herod was king of Judea, is similarly to make a cultural statement.
It says these are dark times.
Herod was a nasty king;, violent and paranoid
This historical reference reminds us that God’s people are being oppressed,
That God’s people need to be rescued.
To say that Herod was king of Judea is to say God’s people desperately need their own king, they need God to send his Messiah.
Which takes us back to silence.
The book of Malachi, is the last book of the Old Testament, and the last book chronologically.
Malachi was a prophet who spoke a message from God in the 5th Century BC, which was to be the last revelation from God,
The last Word from God to his people Israel until these events in Luke 1.
That means for around 400 years, God had been silent.
In your Bible, after the last chapter of Malachi, there’s probably a page that reads “The New Testament.”
That page represents 400 years of silence,
400 years since God has spoken through his prophets,
400 years since the Spirit of God has inspired the writing down of any Scripture,
“Silence is Golden”, The Four Seasons sang in 1964, as some of you may well remember!, but this silence wasn’t golden for God’s people.
This silence signalled a problem.
The God of Israel was a God who spoke, a God who made promises,
God had made promises of restoration,
The promise of a king, the Messiah, who would rule God’s people, and shepherd them, and rescue them from their enemies.
Sometimes you hear someone say “The silence was deafening.”
What do they mean by that?
Don’t they mean that the very fact of the silence - spoke volumes!
Well the silence of these 400 years was deafening.
This silence shouted, loudly and clearly, that God’s people, Israel, were waiting.
Waiting for God to speak,
Waiting for God to act on his promises.
God’s promises can still be trusted.
But as soon as Luke introduces this couple, we should have a glimmer of hope; Perhaps things are about to change.
See there in verse 5, In the time of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah;
his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
In the Bible, when we’re told someone’s name, more often than not, it’s because the author thinks the person’s name communicates something about who they are.
The name Zechariah, means, Yahweh has remembered again,
And Elizabeth means God is my promise.
Waiting for God, for 400 years?
That was enough for many of God’s people to turn away, to stop trusting in God, and trusting that God’s way is always best.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth hadn’t forgotten God’s promise.
They trusted in God still. verse 6, Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.
It doesn’t mean they were perfect,
They weren’t sinless.
But they trusted in God’s word, trusted that God would keep his promises, even when it was hard,
And even, well, even in the face of what can be one of the most bitter disappointments a couple can endure.
They were childless.
Luke, for a doctor, has a pretty bad bedside manner!
Notice how clinically he repeats the cold hard facts.
Verse 7. they had no children,
because Elizabeth was barren;,
and they were both well along in years.
Three times, driving it home. No chance of children.
See Zechariah and Elizabeth don’t trust in God because everything is rosy in their life.
They trust in God, even though life hasn’t turned out the way they had hoped.
There are some in our community here who have known, or still know the heartache of desperately wanting to have children, but being unable to.
And every time one Elizabeth and Zechariah’s friends had a baby,
Each time they saw another ultrasound photo posted to Facebook, no doubt their hearts would have sunk a little further,
And no doubt, they would have been tempted to doubt that God is trustworthy,
To doubt that God can be trusted in all circumstances.
And yet, in God’s kindness, these 2 are able to cling to his promises.
It’s a good reminder to us, that God isn’t trustworthy, only when things are going well.
God’s purposes aren’t good, just when life turns out the way we want it to.
God isn’t right and good, only when his plans, line up with our plans.
God can be trusted, in the midst of disappointment.
We can cling to God’s promises, even when we’re not seeing them fulfilled, or not fulfilled as we would like them to be.
God breaks his silence
But God has a particular plan in store for these two.
Look with me from verse 8, Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside
There were around 18,000 priests in Judea, grouped into 24 divisions.
For most of the year each division would serve in the various villages and towns, but for 2 weeks a year, a division would serve in the temple.
And out of the 700 or so priests in each division, lots were cast 4 times, to choose 56 priests to serve each day, and then to narrow down that list, until one priest was chosen to burn incense.
They did it by casting lots, because that was seen as a way of allowing God to determine the outcome.
If you were the priest selected to burn incense, you knew that god had chosen you to be there on that particular day.
Luke wants us to understand, that God’s hand is behind all this.
Only God, could have brought Zechariah to this point,
Standing here, in front of the Most Holy Place,
On this particular day, when God breaks his silence.
God makes a promise in answer to prayer
I find it really quite remarkable,
There’s been 400 years of silence, and when God finally speaks, what are his first words?
The announcement of his great rescue plan to save all of humanity?
No! He’ll get to that! But God’s first words, after 400 years of silence, are to this one man, to say “I’ve heard your prayers.
Do you not find that astounding!
an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “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.
Like, I’m sure, any couple who long to have children and cannot, Elizabeth and Zechariah would have been praying for a child, even if, by this stage in their lives, perhaps they’ve given up praying that prayer.
But it would have been unusual for a priest to have been praying for his own needs and desires while burning the incense.
Almost certainly, he’s been praying here, on behalf of the nation;
Praying for the restoration of Israel,
Praying that God would act for his people.
In fact, the evening sacrifice, the burning of incense in the temple, the whole point of that was to focus people’s attention on the well-being and the future of the nation.
And what does God say? Your prayer has been heard.
God is answering this man’s prayers, and in doing so, is putting into motion, the final, climactic stage of his plans for all creation.
Even the incense that Zechariah is burning, reminds us that everything that follows as God’s great rescue plan unfolds, it all comes about in answer to prayer, see the incense symbolised, the prayers of the people rising up to God.
It was a visible, smellable, symbol of prayer.
See, the plans and purposes of God, which the Apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians, God has been working out since before he laid the foundation of the world,
The fulfilment of what God had been promising for centuries,
The centrepiece of God’s plan to restore the relationship between sinful, rebellious humanity and himself, comes about, through God answering the prayers of his people.
I don’t know about you, but I find that amazing!
And it’s not just in the little details, that God decides “Oh well, I’ll sort out that little problem, in that tiny insignificant corner of the world, in answer to the prayers of that Clayton Fopp guy.”
This is the very heart of God’s plan for humanity, and he sets it in motion, by answering the prayer of this man, Zechariah.
If you have you ever asked yourself, “Why bother praying?”
If your life, has ever reflected something of the disappointment of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s life, something that you long for, something that you have prayed for, that never seems to come, and you’ve wondered, “Is there any point in praying?”
Here’s your answer.
God, in his wisdom, in his kindness, brings his plans and purposes to fruition, through answering the prayers of his people.
John is significant child in salvation history
So the answer to Zechariah’s prayer, is the promise of a child, but this is no ordinary child.
A family precedent
And we’re given a hint of that, if we’re familiar with our Old Testament, simply through the circumstances of this birth.
There have been a number of other times in Israel’s history, where we’ve met similar couples, godly, trusting in God,
There’s Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16,
Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 25,
Jacob and Rachel, Genesis 30,
And Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Samuel chapter 1.
Each time we meet a couple who are described like this, when God answers their prayers, God’s plans for salvation are driven forward, through the life of the child that he gives.
That’s not to say, that every godly childless couple who prays earnestly to God, will be given a child, either in Old Testament times, or today.
But when we meet these particular couples in the Scriptures, God drives forward his plans for salvation, through the child he gives them.
It’s a sign of God’s mercy, of God reversing the judgments and assessments of the world, in choosing people for his purposes, who in Elizabeth’s words in verse 26, are covered in disgrace.
And so if we know our Bibles, we should at this point in Luke 1, be tingling in nervous anticipation, jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas Eve, because all the signs are there, something great is about to happen.
God’s plan for salvation is about to take a big step forward.
A naming precedent
The second reason we know John is special in salvation history, is because God gives him his name.
According to something I read recently, the trend for baby names for 2014, is going to be spices. As in, yes, what you have at home in your spice rack!
Brace yourselves in 2014,
Parsley, and Pepper!
If some of those are what parents are going to be choosing in 2014, perhaps we should be getting God to name more babies!
I would just like to point out, that the same article highlighted that the coolest names of 2014, are all going to start with C!
But whenever God names someone or changes someone’s name, that person ends up having a unique role in God’s plans.
Abram, becomes Abraham,
Jacob, becomes Israel.
Simon, is called Peter,
Hosea’s children, Isaiah’s son, became little walking sermon illustrations, because of the names that God gave them: “Not my people”, and “Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil.”
So what great thing is about to unfold?
A joyful precedent
Well, at first glance, I’m pretty sure that verse 14 would be true of just about any baby! He will be a joy and delight to you,
But it’s more than that, isn’t it?
This isn’t just “You’ll be really pleased to have a child”
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
I’m pretty sure that my parents were joyful and delighted when I came into the world, 36 years ago this week, but I don’t think we could say that many rejoiced at my birth.
But this joy, isn’t just that happy feeling you get when you hold a cute baby! These are the words used throughout the Bible, for the joy that comes from seeing God at work.
So sometimes, on Sundays, when we confess our sin together, we say words from Psalm 51, written by King David, where he prays to God, Restore to me, the joy of your salvation
He’s talking about the joy that comes from experiencing God’s work.
This baby, is going to evoke that sense of “Wow! God has done good things!
God’s salvation is something worth getting excited about!”
The arrival of a baby usually means things like no sleep, dirty nappies, endless loads of washing, but the arrival of this baby means that God’s salvation is coming.
John prepares people for God
And it’s all to do with what this child will do when he grows up.
Read from verse 16 with me, if you will, Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready, a people prepared for the Lord.”
John’s job will be to prepare people for God’s arrival.
The great work of salvation that will bring this joy, the great work of salvation put in motion by John’s birth, is not just a great rescue, it’s the arrival of God himself.
And this angel, Gabriel, quotes almost the very last words from the Old Testament, from that book of Malachi, when God promises that he himself will come to be with his people.
But he’s not going to just turn up, unannounced. He says “There’ll be a forerunner, someone to get you ready for my arrival.”
Malachi 4 verses 5 and 6, 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;
This week we saw the state memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, which was attended by nearly 100 foreign heads of state.
Four US presidents,
Four Canadian prime ministers
Four British prime ministers, and countless others, politicians and royalty from around the world.
How do you manage security and logistics for all those people?
Well, as it turns out, several of those countries have had advance teams in South Africa in recent weeks and months, getting ready. Mandela’s death was increasingly imminent, and so these countries had representatives there in advance, getting ready for their leader’s arrival.
The advance team had to book accommodation,
Set up meetings,
Secure perimeters, all that kind of thing.
Well John, who we know today as John the Baptist, he’s the advance guy!
It’s his job to get people ready!
He doesn’t book hotels and hire cars, but his job is to get people ready for God!
His role is to prepare people, so they can respond, when God himself turns up in the person of Jesus Christ.
We see that his ministry is likened to that of Elijah, the famous Old Testament prophet,
And there are echoes here in Luke’s description, of the birth of Samuel, one of those children born to childless parents I mentioned before. Samuel was considered the first prophet of Israel.
And John is the last in that series of prophets, because after John, God himself comes.
And so John has a foot in both camps. He stands in the Old Testament era, as one who speaks God’s Word to Israel, calls for repentance and trust in God like the other Old Testament prophets. And we read elsewhere of John’s ministry habits, even his dress and his food, They identify him with that category.
But John also stands in the new era, when God himself comes to be with his people.
I remember once talking to someone who lived in London, and they discovered that the line of zero longitude ran right through their house.
And so they put a sign in their front yard, so that people standing on the footpath outside, could stand in the right spot, and literally have, a foot in 2 different hemispheres.
A foot in 2 worlds.
He’s got a foot in the world of promise, And a foot in the world of fulfillment.
In fact Jesus calls him the greatest of all the prophets, because unlike any of the others, he not only speaks of the great day of God’s coming to be with his people, but he sees that day with his own eyes.
When John is born Luke tells us that Zechariah is filled with the Spirit and prophesied, and we didn’t read these words, but look down at verse 68 of Luke 1, if you have your Bible there.
Zechariah offers this great song of praise, but actually his son, John, doesn’t really get much of a mention in it!
Most of the song is given over to celebrating another child.
Verse 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us etc etc.
It’s Like Zechariah’s gone to put the birth notice in the paper, but announced the birth of the wrong baby!
Actually, I don’t know whether you’re aware, that we’re expecting a Christmas baby in our church family. Jon and Ashleigh Allon are expecting their first child, who is due on Christmas Eve! Which is very exciting!
And I said to them last week, “Make sure you let us know when he or she is born”, and Jon said “Yep, I’ll send out a mass text message to let everyone know.”
But imagine the baby’s born, and Jon sends out a text message, “Baby Jane Smith has been born in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. Mother and baby doing well.”
We’d think, hang on!
You’re getting excited about the wrong baby!
You’re supposed to be letting us know about your baby, not someone else’s baby!
But Zechariah knows, real significance of his child, is because fo the one he will prepare people for;
This descendent of King David,
The one through whose life and ministry, God can, verse 74 rescue us from the hand of our enemies.
Verse 77, the one who, through his death in the place of sinful, rebellious humanity, can give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins
Zechariah’s song is about Jesus.
God’s promise to Zechariah, is a son, who will prepare people, for the life and ministry of Jesus.
God’s promises can be hard to believe
But sometimes God’s promises can be hard to believe,
Even if you’re a priest in Israel,
Even if you’ve just had a face to face conversation with an angel,
See verse 18, Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Now I had a bit of an experience of this, last week. Not a message from an angel, and not a promise from God that Kathy is going to have a baby!
But I lost my voice completely, I couldn’t speak, and to make matters worse, I was at a conference in Sydney with some of our Leadership Team, and Darren Russ joined us as well.
At dinner Monday night, I got to sit next to the keynote speaker at the conference, a man named Ed Stetzer, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on church planting.
I had a million questions for him, but I had no voice!
I resorted to writing questions on a serviette and passing them over!
So I had some tiny sense of what Zechariah was going through!
But even more than that, it is easy to feel a bit of sympathy for Zechariah. Elizabeth having a baby, does seem unlikely at this point!
And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words
See Zechariah’s failure to believe, is a lack of faith that would undermine the whole gospel!
If Zechariah is correct, and God can’t actually create a life in Elizabeth’s womb, then what kind of creator God is he?
If God can’t bring this life into existence, then how could God bring to life his Son, Jesus, and raise him from the dead?
If God can’t be trusted to breathe life into this human, then what hope do we humans have, for life from God, the other side of the grave.
This lack of belief cuts to the very heart of who God is, and what he’s able to do.
It’s not just that Zechariah was surprised at the angel’s words but that his picture of God, his trust in God, in this moment, falls short.
Which casts the spotlight onto our picture of God, doesn’t?
Doesn’t this make us assess our understanding of who God is and how he acts, what he’s capable of?
Do you think that God is able to intervene in life?
Do you picture God as capable, willing,
To break into the world,
To answer the prayers of his people,
To act for the good of his people.
There’s good reason here for us to stop and consider our picture of God, and to adjust it, if necessary.
But why else does Luke include this?
It is a bit embarrassing.
Luke’s told us that Zechariah was upright . and righteous. Why then include the bit of the story where Zechariah says to God, “actually, I don’t really believe you!”?
And it’s not just the promise of the child that he seems to struggle with. At the end of verse 19 Gabriel says this good news. Literally, he says, “these good newses”!, except that’s not a word! But he’s speaking in plurals about the different parts of his message.
We’ve had a heap of deliveries in the office this last week as various bits and pieces arrived for Carols.
And sometimes we’d open one box, and there were a number of different things in it.
God sent Gabriel, to deliver a package deal:
A son, and a king,
A child for Elizabeth and Zechariah, a saviour for the world.
A prophet, and one who would prepare for God’s arrival.
And Zechariah, a man who trusts in God,
Who believes that God hears and answers prayer,
A man who believes in and speaks with angels, no less!, struggles to believe God’s promises.
Do you know I think part of the reason that Luke includes this somewhat embarrassing detail in his book, is because he knows, that the people who read it, will be people who sometimes find it hard to believe God’s promises.
Maybe the promises that God has made, sound to you, just too good to be true.
Forgiveness, for every sin, and word, and thought.
Peace with God, whom you have ignored,
Hope, for this life, which maybe seems hopeless, and for the life to come.
Salvation, rescue, restoration, wholeness.
Maybe Zechariah’s question is your question
How can I be sure of this?
Well, the moment Zechariah opened his mouth and tried to speak, he would have known what God says, comes true.
And so being unable to speak is a rebuke for his lack of belief, but also it’s a kindness, an assurance of the promise.
Sure, that’s a hard way to learn that lesson,
9 months of being reminded that you didn’t believe God’s promises!
But what’s better than learning from your mistakes?
Learning from someone else’s mistakes!
We can learn from Zechariah.
God’s promises come true.
And as those later verses, and the rest of Luke’s gospel show us, Gabriel’s good newses did come true, and John completed the ministry for which he was set apart from before birth, preparing people for the arrival of their God, Jesus Christ.
You might have seen President Obama on the news, speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service,
Or Prince Charles,
David Cameron, UK Prime Minster.
Most of the footage that I saw, seemed to focus on world leaders like that.
Do you know who the newscasts didn’t focus on?
The advance team?
Those men and women who were there, days, weeks, months before, getting ready for the arrival of their presidents and kings.
There was no headline story about the guy who booked Prince Charles’ hotel room.
There was no special feature, on the family history of the man who installed the bullet-proof glass in President Obama’s hotel windows.
And the news directors didn’t not focus on these people because they’re unimportant. On the contrary, they were vitally important. Those world leaders wouldn’t have been there, if their advance teams hadn’t come first.
No, the focus was on the world leaders, because that’s the role of the advance team;,
To get ready for them.
To prepare people for their arrival,
To point people, to the one who comes after.
If John is the advance team.
If his task was to prepare people for the arrival of God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, we owe it to ourselves, to direct our attention to the one John prepares Israel to welcome.
We cannot make sense of John, his miraculous conception, his celebrated birth, we cannot make sense of his life, without looking at the one who comes after him.
In fact John would say to us, we can’t make sense of what God is doing in the world, we can’t make sense of life, without coming to an understanding of who Jesus is, and what he came to do.