The Promised Messenger
Luke 1:5 – 25
The Promised Messenger
Waiting, Waiting, Waiting
Did you know that the average adults spends over 12 hours and 25 minutes each month, waiting?
Waiting on hold on the phone is the biggest single contributor to that, accounting for over 5 hours on average every month.
Waiting in the queue at the supermarket, robs you of nearly another hour,
And waiting at traffic lights sucks a further hour and 40 minutes out of your month, but waiting in the queue for a public toilet was also included in that category with traffic lights, I’m not really sure why!
All of this means, that over your lifetime, if you’re an average adult, you’ll spend 11 months, 1 week and 5 days, waiting!
Which, if you think about it, is exactly the length of time, from the first of January this year, until yesterday!
If you’ve thought that this whole year has been entirely wasted! Well, there is some evidence to suggest you may be right!
In addition, I did read that the average woman will spend 136 days of her life getting ready to go out;, putting on make-up, etc, etc, so perhaps some would suggest that implies more waiting for some other people! But we won’t go there!
But waiting, we’re all familiar with it,
Sometimes we’re frustrated by it,
Sometimes it’s hard,
But imagine waiting , not for 11 months, one week and 5 days, but for 400 years!
That would try even the most patient among us, wouldn’t it?!
But at the moment Luke chapter 1 verse 5 opens, God’s people Israel, have been waiting for 400 years.
Not waiting on hold on the phone of course,
Or waiting at the supermarket,
Waiting for something much more significant;,
Waiting for God,
Waiting for God to act,
Waiting for God to fulfil his plans and promises of salvation.
And it’s been a long wait!
Finding our place in history
We saw last week in the very beginning of Luke’s gospel, just how careful, Luke, our historian and theologian has been, in investigating and writing down his account of Jesus’ life.
Here he pinpoints this event in history, See there in verse 5, In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, So instantly, we know, where we are on the timeline of world history.
King Herod reigned from 37 BC to 4 BC, which makes these events, the very first events of the New Testament.
But giving us the historical detail actually tells us more than simply when this unfolds.
I was reading one of C S Lewis’ books recently, and I know that numbers of you enjoy reading Lewis, so imagine that you were to write a biography of C S Lewis, author, university professor, you would no doubt mention in your history of his life, that he died on November 22nd, 1963.
Now, you might also point out, that that was also the day on which US President John F Kennedy was assassinated.
Plenty of people remember that event, and so you can place Lewis’s death within their already established framework.
The Kennedy assassination, for some people, conjures up, particular feelings, emotions, memories they have regarding that time in history.
Of course, especially for Americans, to talk of JFK’s death isn’t just about a day on the calendar, but to make a statement about a whole culture, even, you could say, the expectations and hopes of a nation,
So too, the reminder that Herod was king of Judea, is to make a cultural statement.
It says these are dark times,
Herod was a violent, paranoid, and ruthless king.
His reign was marked by incredible atrocities, not least the removal, that is the murder, of anyone who could possibly become a rival ruler, his wife and children included.
And the people who lived under his reign fared little better.
To say that Herod was king of Judea, is to remind 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 that the wrong king is ruling of God’s people. Herod wasn’t from the dynasty of Israel’s great king David,
He wasn’t an Israelite,
God’s people are subjugated to a violent, pagan, king.
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 waiting.
The book of Malachi, is both the last book in the order of the Old Testament, and also the last book chronologically.
Malachi was a prophet who spoke God’s plan of salvation to his people in the 5th Century BC, which was the last word from God to his people written down until these events in Luke 1.
That’s the 400 years of waiting.
400 years, with no new word from God on how he’s going to rescue his people.
In your Bible, after the last chapter of Malachi, there’s probably a page that reads “The New Testament.”
If your Bible is a typical Bible, printed on typical freesheet Bible paper, then that page is 0.0431 of a millimetre thick.
Which is, not very thick at all!
But that 0.0431 of a millimetre, stands for 400 years, of waiting.
400 years since the Spirit of God has inspired the writing down of any Scripture,
400 years since God had appeared to his people,
400 years since there’s any record of God sending an angel to someone.
People sometimes say, don’t they, “The silence was deafening.”
And what do we think people mean by that?
Don’t they mean, that the very fact of the silence itself speaks 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.
Kind of appropriate to where we find ourselves in the story of God’s people, don’t you think?!
Waiting for God, for 400 years?
That was enough for many of God’s people to turn away, to stop trusting in God,
To stop trusting that God’s way is always best.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth hadn’t forgotten God’s promise.
They trusted in God still, despite the 400 years of waiting. See what Luke tells us about them in verse 6? , Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly
Now, righteous, and blameless, doesn’t mean they were perfect,
They weren’t without sin.
But they trusted in God’s word, trusted that God would keep his promises, even when it was hard,
Even when their people had been waiting for centuries,
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 were childless,
because Elizabeth was not able to conceive; literally, “barren”,
and they were both very old.
Three times, driving it home. No chance of children.
Now, I encounter lots of people today, whose trust in God and acknowledgment of God seems to be, dependent on things going well for them,
Movie stars thanking God when they receive an award, but seemingly wanting nothing to do with God the rest of the time,
Or sportsmen acknowledging God when they win, but behaving in a completely ungodly manner when the results don’t go their way.
And of course, lest we point the finger at others, it’s all too easy for our own relationship with God to fall into this kind of pattern isn’t it? “I’ll trust God when things are going well for me, but I’ll start to doubt that God’s way is best, when he doesn’t give me what I want.
That health outcome”,
Whatever it is,
That’s an easy path to walk
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 family here who have known, or still know the heartache of desperately wanting to have children, but being unable to.
And every time one of 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 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.
They’re a great example for us, a reminder, 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 hoped.
God isn’t right and good, only when his plans, line up with our plans.
Zechariah, Yahweh has remembered again,
Elizabeth, God is my promise.
Friends, if we need the reminder, let’s take it; 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 these 2 aren’t just an example, God has a particular plan in store for Zechariah and Elizabeth.
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.
There were around 18,000 priests scattered across the towns and villages of Judea. And they were grouped into these 24 divisions.
For most of the year, a division of priests would serve in their local area, but for 2 weeks a year, a division would travel up to Jerusalem and serve in the temple.
And out of the 700 or so priests in each division, they narrowed that down to 56 priests who would serve each day,
And then from those, they chose just one priest whose job it was to burn incense, in what was called the Holy Place in the temple.
The way they first narrowed down the field, to this one man, was by casting lots, because by doing that they believed that God was deciding who would serve.
If you were a priest, and you were the one selected to burn incense, you understood that God had chosen you, to be there in the temple, at that particular moment.
Luke wants us to understand.
God has orchestrated this event.
God makes a promise in answer to prayer
After 400 years of waiting, God breaks his silence and puts his plan into motion,
But actually, what God says, I find fascinating!
The people have been waiting for 400 years, waiting for God to break his silence, and speak something new about his plans for salvation,
And when God eventually speaks, what are his first words?
“Here’s how salvation’s going to happen”?
It’s not is it?
He’ll get to that in a moment, but the first thing God says, is to this man;,
“I’ve heard your prayers”
The first word of God recorded for centuries, and it’s “I’ve heard your prayers.”
an angel of the Lord appeared to , Zechariah, 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 call him John.
I’m sure that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a child,
Although maybe by this stage of their lives, they’ve given up praying that prayer.
But it would have been highly unusual for a priest to have been working through his own personal prayer list, while burning incense in the temple.
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 in the religion of Israel, was to focus people’s attention on the well-being and the future of the nation.
And God says, 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 unfolds his great rescue plan, it all happens 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.
Just, reflect on that with me for a moment.
We turn to somewhere, say, like Ephesians 1, which tells us that God has been working on his plans and purposes for all of creation since before the creation of the world,
And here we are, on the cusp of their fulfilment, and the centrepiece of God’s plan to restore the relationship between sinful, rebellious humanity and himself, it comes about, through God answering the prayers of his people.
I find that just , amazing!
And it’s not just in the little details,
This is the very heart of God’s plan for humanity, and he sets it in motion, in answer to the prayers of this man, Zechariah.
Lots of us, I’m sure, have, at one time or another, asked ourselves, “Why do I bother praying?
What’s the point of asking God to be at work?,
To do the things that only he can do?”
If there has ever been a moment in your life, in which it’s reflected something of the disappointment of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s life, Something that you’ve longed for,
Something that you’ve prayed for, over and over and over, that just never ever seems to come, and you’ve wondered, “Why keep going?
Is there any point in praying?”
Here’s your answer.
God, in his wisdom, in his kindness, brings his plans and purposes to fruition, by answering the prayers of people offered in faith.
Even the very central acts of his plans for his creation, here he realises, through answering the prayers of his people.
John is unique child in salvation history
So the answer to Zechariah’s prayer, is the promise of a child, but this is no ordinary child.
There is historical precedent
And if we’re familiar with our Old Testament, the circumstances of this child’s birth give us a hint about his uniqueness.
See, there have been a number of other occasions in Israel’s history, where we’ve been introduced to couples like this;,
Trusting in God’s promises,
There’s Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16,
Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 25,
Jacob and Rachel, Genesis 30,
Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.
Each time we meet a couple who are described like this, when God answers their prayers, God’s great plan of salvation leaps forward, through the life of the child that he gives.
Now, that’s not to say, that every godly childless couple who prays earnestly to God, will be given a child,
But this is just one little example of God’s mercy, as he reverses human judgements and assessments, by choosing people for his purposes, who as Elizabeth herself says in verse 26, in the eyes of the world, are covered in disgrace.
And so if we know our Bibles, we should be at this point in Luke chapter 1 , tingling with excitement and anticipation, like a little child on Christmas Eve,
All the signs are here;, something great is about to happen.
God’s plan for salvation is about to take a great leap forward.
There’s yet another reason, we can tell already that John is going to be special in salvation history, and that is, that God gives him his name.
Just this past week I read the predictions for baby names in 2016. Here’s a few out of the top 10.
I kid you not!
The top girls’ names of 2016 are going to follow a floral theme:
So if you’re expecting a baby next year, I hope you’re having a girl!
But over and over in the Bible, when God gives a person a name, or changes their name, he does it because that persons going to have a unique role in his plans.
Abram, becomes Abraham, Father of many nations
Jacob, becomes Israel, wrestled with God and prevailed,
Simon, is called Peter, Rocky
So what great thing is about to unfold?
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
So 38 years ago this week, I came into the world.
Any my parents tell me that they were joyful and delighted! I choose to believe them!
But I don’t really think there’s any way I could say that many rejoiced at my birth.
But even more than that, we saw last week, just how carefully Luke our historian chooses which words to record.
The angel’s language of rejoicing here, 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 pray a prayer of confession 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 make people say, “Wow! God is at work!
God’s salvation is wonderful!”
John prepares people for God
Many people will rejoice, because when he grows up, this baby is going to prepare people for God’s arrival.
Read from verse 16 with me, if you will, He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready, a people prepared for the Lord.
Here’s John’s job description: Prepare people for God’s arrival.
The great salvation that people are going to see, and rejoice at, is nothing less than the arrival of God himself.
This angel, Gabriel, quotes almost the very last words, from that very last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, where God promised that he himself would come to be with his people.
But he wasn’t going to just turn up unannounced. He promised a forerunner, someone who would get the people ready.
You’ll see on the leaflet, some of Malachi 4 verses 5 and 6, See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents;, Malachi 4:5 - 6
The work of this forerunner, this messenger, is painted in terms of the ministry of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who called on people to return to God.
But there also similarities with the birth of Samuel, one of those children born to childless parents I mentioned. Samuel who 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 authoritative Word to Israel, calls for repentance and trust in God like all those other Old Testament prophets. And the gospel writers tell us that even John’s ministry habits , his dress and his food, evoke the ministry of those old prophets.
But John also stands in the new era, when God himself comes to be with his people.
Some of you might remember me talking about someone I met once, who lived in London, and 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, knew where to stand so they could 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.
John will prepare people for God.
Little wonder that Zechariah responds with such joy and celebration when his son comes to be born.
Have a look down at verse 68 with me.
Zechariah offers this great song of praise, but actually his son, doesn’t really get much attention, does he?!
Most of this the song is given over to celebrating another child.
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
salvation from our enemies etc etc.
That’s actually all about what somebody else achieves.
I married a couple recently, and when it came to doing the legal paperwork, there were some minor complications, because their parents had made mistakes when submitting their birth certificates.
And they discovered their name wasn’t actually what they thought it was!
It looks like Zechariah has submitted the wrong birth details!
He’s getting excited about some other baby!
But Zechariah knows, the real significance of his child, is because of the one who’s coming after him;
This descendent of King David,
The one who 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.
Because God’s promise to Zechariah, is a son, who will prepare people, for the life and ministry of Jesus.
God’s word can be hard to believe
But sometimes God’s word 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,
Sometimes, what God says can be hard to believe.
Come back up to 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 said to him, “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,
I imagine that most of us feel at least a little bit sympathetic for Zechariah here,
I think we’d have trouble believing Gabriel.
But Zechariah’s problem is not just with the biology.
His failure to believe God’s word, is a lack of faith that would undermine the whole gospel!
If Zechariah is right in his lack of belief, and God’ really can’t 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 give life to 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, beyond 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 God’s word, but that his picture of God, his trust in God, in this moment, falls short.
Which I reckon ought to make us think about our picture of God.
This should 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 your 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.
Maybe our picture of God needs to be adjusted, in the light of this.
But why else does Luke include this?
No doubt the story would have been told at John’s 21st, but does it really need to be included here?
Why include the bit of the story where Zechariah says to God, “actually, I don’t really trust you!”?
Perhaps most tellingly, it’s not just the promise of the child that he seems to struggle with.
At the end of verse 19 when Gabriel says this good news. Literally, he says, “these good newses”! , except that’s not a word in English!
But he’s referring to his whole message, a son and a saviour.
And Zechariah, a man who trusts in God,
A man who obviously believes that God hears and answers prayer,
He obviously believes in and speaks with angels, no less!
Yet, he finds it hard to believe God’s promises.
Do you know I think at least 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.
The promise that his pattern for life is good for you, and best for you, even though it might not feel like that.
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 this is a rebuke for his lack of belief, but also it’s a kindness, it’s a reminder, an assurance of the promise.
Sure, it’s a hard way to learn that lesson,
9 months of being reminded that you didn’t believe God’s promises!
Friends, let me close with a question.
What’s better than learning from your mistakes?
, Learning from someone else’s mistakes!
We can learn from Zechariah.
God’s promises come true.
God’s word can be trusted.
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.
Those of you doing the family Advent activities, will, in the last week, have made a craft Zechariah with a Band-Aid stuck over his mouth, symbolising his silence.
Let’s remember the Band-Aid.
Let’s learn from Zechariah.
God’s promises come true,
We can throw our lot in with God, even when our view of our personal circumstances might lead us to doubt his goodness or power.
God’s word can be trusted in all circumstances.