A Long Awaited Promise
12/8/2017 4:35:52 AM
December 3, 2017
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
Have you ever had to wait a long time for something? I’m not talking about waiting in line to renew your passport or driver’s licence. I mean waiting a long time!
Megan, at age 4, is starting to realize it’s a long wait to Christmas! It’s another 22 days and she’s already getting impatient. She knows something good is happening soon. We started celebrating Advent with her on Friday, which she had been looking forward to, but she thought Advent was “right before” Christmas. When we told her on Saturday that Christmas was still 3 weeks away, she said, “I don’t like Advent any more. I just like Christmas… when I get stuff.”
Waiting a few weeks can feel like a long time. But have you ever had to wait for something for a really long time? I mean, like years?
Have you ever had to pray for something for a long time? Maybe you’ve been praying for a spouse for a long time. (Either praying your spouse would come to the Lord or praying to actually have a spouse!) Maybe you’ve been praying for a child (same prayers). Maybe you’ve been praying for healing. I know we have people in our congregation who have been praying for healing for a very long time. I can only imagine it gets really discouraging!
I’ve been the pastor at Priory for just about 14 years now. For pastors, that’s a long time! Average is only 3-5 years. So 14 is a long time to be at a church, waiting and watching as God works in the church and in the lives of the people there. But honestly, 14 years is not a long time in God’s terms.
At the time of our passage today, God had not spoken to Israel through a prophet or an angel for 400 years! [Norval Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 60] Most people in Israel still believed God was meeting people’s needs, and active in the land, but through other means. They didn’t believe God was still revealing himself through revelation. [Darrell, L. Bock, Luke, p. 34] After all, it had been 400 years! (Interestingly, this was also roughly the time Israel spent in Egypt before the Exodus!)
When we read the Bible, because it is a collection of the highlights of God’s activities in bringing his redemptive purpose to fruition, we get to see the prophets and angels all packed closer together. It is easy for us to miss the fact that decades and even centuries pass between these events! So imagine Zechariah’s surprise when he encountered an angel in the temple!
Please turn with me to our passage today taken from Luke 1:5-25.
What It Says
What does this passage say? What’s going on here? By this time, after returning from Exile, the number of priests in Israel had grown to over 18,000! [Bock, p. 35] Like the early days of worship in Israel, the priests were divided up into 24 divisions. Each division would serve 1 week in the temple, twice a year. Because each division was still so large, they would draw lots (like drawing numbers) to see who would perform which tasks each day. Burning incense as part of the morning or evening prayers each day was the most significant act of worship a priest could participate in! If you were lucky enough to have your name drawn for that task, you only got to do it once in your whole life! Many priests never had the opportunity to do so!
We are told that Zechariah’s name was drawn to offer incense one day. What a great privilege! Zechariah, we are told, was an old man at this point, so he had waited a very long time for this opportunity. We are also told that both he and his wife were righteous people, they were a faithful, obedient couple. But, sadly, they had never had any children.
Today, if a couple wants children and they are unable to have any, we consider it sad. In that culture, in that time, it was a disgrace! It was a sign of some sort of reproach from God.
So imagine Zechariah’s joy at being chosen to offer the incense as part of the worship service! This was a great honour and a great blessing to Zechariah. This was truly the highlight of his career! He would never be able to offer this sacrifice again. Honestly, it was probably the highlight of his life, not just his career!
Imagine him putting on his robes for the ceremony. Imagine him gathering up the incense and slowly walking into the temple. He, alone, was in the Holy Place, just outside the Most Holy Place where God himself dwelt! He walked up to the altar, which was filled with burning coals, and he spread the incense on the altar. The smoke from the incense would rise up and out of the temple, representing the people’s prayers. People all over Israel, and even in foreign lands, would time their morning and evening prayers to coincide with the incense being offered in the temple!
Then, Zechariah heard something! Then he saw a figure to the right of the altar! He was gripped with fear Who would dare enter the holy place of temple at a time like this?!? Perhaps the angel was bright and shining. We are not told. But the angel comforts Zechariah, “Do not fear.”
To be honest, fear is the appropriate response in the presence of God or one of his holy angelic messengers. Even for an obedient, righteous man like Zechariah, fear and awed reverence is the appropriate reaction to being found in the presence of someone who is holy. We, who are sinful and unholy ourselves, are rightly struck with fear when confronted with the holiness of God.
The angel tells Zechariah not to be afraid and then follows up telling him that his prayer has been answered. Which prayer? Zechariah is so old that he is not likely still praying for a child. His reaction later shows this. So what was Zechariah praying? Usually, the priest who offered the incense on the altar prayed for the deliverance of Israel. That is what Zechariah was praying for as he sprinkled the incense on the altar of the Lord.
But it turns out that God was answering both prayers! God was answering Zechariah’s prayer for the deliverance of Israel (through Jesus) as well as his old, stale, no longer prayed prayers for a child! And not just a child, but a son. And not just a son, but an amazing son who would be a great man! He would be a source of joy for Zechariah and Elizabeth, naturally, but also a source of great joy for many people in Israel. Why? Because he will be great in the sight of the Lord! And he would be the forerunner of the Messiah!
What does the angel say about John? John will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth (from the womb actually) which is significant. Most prophets received the Spirit as adults and for the duration of the task they had been given by God. But John would be filled with the Spirit from his birth! To go along with that, as a sign of his being dedicated to God, of being consecrated to the Lord, he would never drink alcohol.
There is a reference to Elijah and turning the hearts of fathers to their children. That is a reference to Malachi 4:5,6 in which God speaks through the prophet Malachi to say the he will send a prophet in the spirit of Elijah before the day of the Lord. This prophet will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and vice versa. So it came to be believed that God was going to send Elijah back before the Messiah came. (Remember, Elijah didn’t die, he was taken to heaven in the fiery chariot!)
There is a message of reconciliation in here on a couple levels. First, when we are reconciled to God, our human relationships find reconciliation as well. So in one sense, John was going to bring reconciliation within broken families as they find reconciliation with God. That is definitely there. However, in the OT, the faithful ancestors of Israel are also referred to as “fathers.” When Gabriel (and Malachi) say that John the Baptist will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, they are also talking about the faithful ancestors who are disgusted at Israel’s sin being reconciled to Israel because of Israel’s repentance. [Geldenhuys, p. 66]
What we see in John the Baptist is an escalation of God’s work. John will have the Spirit from birth, making him greater than all previous prophets, and he will prepare the way for the Messiah! He will prepare the hearts of the people of Israel, calling them to repentance in preparation for the Saviour.
Zechariah can’t believe it! His response is not just a puzzled response, but one of disbelief. It’s not just that he is confused as to how this can happen in his old age, but a response of “that’s impossible!” He says, “I am an old man.” Gabriel’s parallel response is, “[You may be old, but] I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God and I am giving you this triumphal good news with earth shattering consequences!”
We first encounter Gabriel in the book of Daniel! There he is a messenger from God sent to help Daniel interpret his dreams. He is one of only 2 angels named in the Bible. He’s kind of a big deal.
As a result of not believing, Zechariah is struck both deaf and mute. The word in Greek rendered “unable to speak” is used for both deaf and mute. [Leon Morris, Luke, p. 87] We see this later when the people around Zechariah have to make signs to him asking what the baby’s name is to be. This is both a punishment for unbelief, but it is also a sign that what the angel said is true! It is to teach Zechariah to have faith in God. I think it is also a sign to the other priests and the broader community in Israel that Zechariah had a vision or encounter with God. Imagine if he just came out normally and tried to tell the people what happened. I don’t think they’d have believed him!
Zechariah finishes out his week of service with his priestly division. Then he goes home and we are told that Elizabeth conceives! She then goes into seclusion for 5 months, likely to ponder what has happened, what the angel told her husband and the future of her son. When she is 6 months along, and there can be no doubt as to her condition, she returns.
What It Means
So what does this passage mean? If we read it in isolation, if all we had of the Bible was the NT, this passage would be profound! But we don’t just have this passage. We have the entire OT too. And there are a lot of ties between what is happening here and what has happened before in the life of Israel. Luke knows about these connections and he draws them out. God knows about these connections too because he is the one at work!
One of the major connections between John the Baptist’s birth and the OT is that of a barren woman conceiving a son. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s wives, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, all struggled to conceive the sons God had promised them in order to uphold the covenant God made with Abraham to make him a great nation! All of these couples had to wait, and wait, and wait for a long time to have a son to carry on the family name.
Also, Samson’s mother first conceived in her old age too. So, too, did the Prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah. In fact, the wording in Luke is very similar to the wording in 1 Samuel describing how the husband went home and his wife conceived in due time.
Here’s the pattern we see. When God gives a faithful, but barren woman a son, that son has a big future ahead of him! Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were all patriarchs of Israel. They were “The” forefathers of the nation. Samson was a judge of Israel who saved them from the Philistines. Samuel was the first prophet in Israel and he anointed David to be king. David was the king by which all other kings of Israel were judged. David’s reign was considered the “golden age” of Israel. David’s story began with the story of Samuel, and Samuel’s story began with the story of Hannah, the barren, but faithful woman who was granted a son.
And John the Baptist was going to be greater than all of these men! The Spirit was going to be on John from in the womb. The other prophets, and Samson the judge, received the Spirit as adults and for the duration of the tasks that God had given them. John, by contrast, was always filled with the Spirit. He was not only a great prophet, but he was the forerunner of the Messiah. He was the one preparing the way for the Saviour by turning the people’s hearts back to God in repentance.
As we take a step back from our passage and look at the connections between John and the OT, remember why Luke is writing. What is Luke’s goal? Luke wrote 2 books, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Ostensibly, one could call Acts “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Luke has his literary goals in mind: Jesus and the resurrection in Luke, and the spread of the Holy Spirit and the founding of Christianity in Acts. He has these goals, these end points in mind when he is beginning his story with Zechariah in the temple.
For the Greeks, history was just a collection of events. There was no “meaning” behind them. For Jews, though, history was not just a collection of events, but rather the story of God’s mighty acts. In the Hebrew minds, history revealed God’s character and nature because history revealed God’s activity in the world.
God often worked in repeated patterns in the OT to show his faithfulness and to reveal to his people that it was Him at work. We already considered the pattern of barren women giving birth to men whom God used mightily. The miraculous births of these men served to demonstrate, time and again, that it was God who was at work in them and that God fulfils his promises in his own time.
Another connection with the OT and John the Baptist is Elijah, the great prophet we read about in 1 Kings. Both John and Elijah lived in the desert and boldly challenged evil kings of Israel to repent and turn back to God! John even dressed like Elijah! (We are told in Matthew of John’s camel skin shirt and leather belt. Elijah was known for wearing a belt and that was how he was sometimes identified.) No two figures in Scripture are more similar than John the Baptist and Elijah. [Geldenhuys, p. 66]
That was the pattern that God was following in John. Look, now, at how Luke is using these comparisons and shaping his narrative, both in the Gospel of Luke but also looking down the road to Acts. Luke’s Gospel opens with a priest offering a sacrifice in the temple. Acts describes the overflow of the Holy Spirit throughout the Roman Empire describing people worshipping Jesus without a priest at all! In the Old Testament, prophets have the Spirit for a time. John the Baptist, the ultimate prophet, is filled with the Spirit all the time. In Acts, the Spirit fills even ordinary people! The filling of the Spirit is the nature of the church!
Hannah, a faithful woman who had no children, had her prayers answered and was granted a son. That son, a great prophet, ushered in the reign of King David, who ruled the greatest kingdom in Israel’s history. Elizabeth, a faithful woman who had no children, had her prayers answered and was granted a son. That son, a great prophet, ushered in the reign of King Jesus, who rules over the kingdom of God, the greatest kingdom of all history. This is how Luke it shaping his narrative. This is how Luke is formulating the story of Jesus.
What we see behind all of this, what Luke’s mentality is, is that God is the Lord of all of history and Christ is its central figure. All of the OT was pointing to this moment, leading up to this moment- the arrival of Jesus. The OT points to the arrival even in terms of patterns, like women who could not conceive children being granted great sons, and those sons being agents in God’s plan of redemption.
This is why we celebrate Christmas. The arrival of Jesus is the central event of all of history. God is the Lord of history and Christ is its central figure. All of history leading up to this point was pointing towards this event. All of history since the arrival of Jesus finds its meaning in him.
Even the details of John’s birth point to the arrival of Jesus. It all points to Him. And the shift that comes from his arrival is what is played out in the rest of Luke and Acts (along with the rest of the NT).
Advent means arrival. The Advent season is when we focus on and prepare for the arrival of Christ on that first Christmas, which we celebrate on Dec 25.
As we prepare for Christmas this year, as we celebrate Advent, celebrate the arrival of Jesus, don’t let yourself just focus on the arrival of the holiday in 2017. Don’t just think in terms of arrival this year. Think in terms of the entire Old Testament! Think of the anticipation for centuries upon centuries. Think of God’s people waiting for hundreds, upon hundreds of years for the arrival of the Messiah.
Think of Luke’s big picture. The details of Luke’s narrative, the details around Zechariah, Elizabeth and John are not just there to be interesting. There is a reason Luke bothered to include them, especially considering none of the other Gospel writers bothered to. Luke includes them in order to tie in the anticipation in the OT leading up to Jesus’ arrival. So as you celebrate Advent, think of the hope of Israel, through centuries, leading up to that first Christmas.
The first Sunday in Advent is about hope. It is about the hope of Israel being fulfilled. It is about the hope for salvation. It is about the hope of Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a child. For us, looking to the future, it is about our hope for the return of Christ, at which point all the wrongs of the world will be put right. It is about our hope in the future of being reunited with Jesus at our resurrection and our hope to spend eternity in the presence of God!
And our hope for ultimate things shapes our hope for big things. Our hope for ultimate things shapes our hope for big things in this life. What have you been hoping and praying for for a long time? Perhaps something like a spouse or a child; like a loved one coming to know Jesus; like finding a job; like being healed. Our hope for ultimate things, shapes and informs our hope for big things. Our hope for big things we are praying for is based on how God has fulfilled his promises for ultimate things. God always fulfils his promises, but in his time and in his manner. Seeing how God has fulfilled his promises in the past teaches us to be patient. God has his own timing, but when he does act, it is often in a spectacular way!
Learn from Zechariah. Can you imagine: he waited his whole life to have a child, and then the last 9 months he had to wait for his son without being able to hear or speak! But instead of becoming bitter, Zechariah’s first words were words of praise to God! And imagine how sweet to his ears was the sound of little John crying! How many parents love the sound of their infant’s cries? Patience waiting for that child will teach you to enjoy even their crying.
Affliction, painful or difficult things that happen to us, can teach us patience and God’s faithfulness, if we let it. If, in our affliction, our difficulties, we cling to God and remain faithful to him, we will learn to be patient and we will learn about God’s faithfulness to us in return.
What affliction are you experiencing? What are you praying for? What have you been waiting for? Will you let it teach you patience? Will you allow it to teach you about God’s faithfulness? Or will you let it drive a wedge between you and God?
Whether you are waiting for something big or something small, God is faithful in his timing. His character does not change, and we see that character at work throughout the OT. Zechariah and Elizabeth waited a lifetime. Israel waited 400 years to hear from God. Abraham and his descendants waited 2,000 years for the arrival of Jesus!
Be patient. Keep putting your hope in Jesus. Based on God’s faithfulness in ultimate things in the past, have faith that he will be faithful with big things in your own future. Amen and Merry Christmas.
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