Advent Sermon: Barrenness and Faithfulness

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and I kicked it off with a sermon at church this morning. I think it went well; people were very encouraging afterward. The only thing that I would change is that I would cut it down time-wise. I got to be over my time limit and had to rush things at the end. But people didn’t seem antsy, which was good.

The passage I spoke on was Luke 1:5-25, the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth. I wrote out the whole manuscript, then delivered it from a condensed outline. The manuscript is posted below, and I’ll post a link to the audio when the church puts it onlinethe church has posted the audio online here. Before jumping right into it, be warned: it is about 3500 words long.

zechariah-and-gabrielSince I’m still relatively new around here, I’m going to introduce myself, and this sermon, by talking about some of my favorite things about Advent.

One of my favorite things about Advent is tradition. I’m not just talking about things like Advent wreaths and Christmas pageants, although I love those. I’m talking about unusual, unique traditions. I encountered one of these traditions when I lived in the Czech Republic. Every year on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, people in the Czech Republic dress up as three people: St. Nicholas, an angel, and a devil. Now, when I say St. Nicholas, I don’t mean Santa Claus. There is no fuzzy red suit. They dress up as ST. NICHOLAS, which means they’re dressed like bishops. So St. Nicholas and his two escorts go around to the houses of various parents with small children, and St. Nicholas quizzes the children. In the old days, he used to quiz them about their Bible and catechism knowledge. Nowadays, he usually just quizzes them on whether they’ve been bad or good, and the angel writes down their responses in a book. If the children have been good, St. Nicholas gives them small presents, like candy. If they’ve been bad, they get coal from the devil. Or if they’ve been really bad, the devil has a sack. He puts them in the sack, throws it over his shoulder, and runs out the door. The people dressed up as devils are usually friends of the parents, so they usually only run around the block and return the kids home. But nothing makes a kid want to be good more than the threat of being stuffed in a sack by the devil. So if there are any parents of small children who are looking for new Advent traditions this year, I’d just like to remind you that St. Nicholas Day is this coming Saturday.

Another one of my favorite things about Advent is Christmas songs. I love Christmas songs, and I always start listening to them way too early every year. One thing that I love about Christmas songs is that many of them are about God’s faithfulness, and about God breaking in and changing everything. It’s as if there is a curtain being pulled back on the universe so that we can see what is really going on. One of my favorite songs that is like this is O Come O Come Emmanuel: “and ransom captive Israel / that mourns in lonely exile here / until the Son of God appear / Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel / Shall come to thee, O Israel.” Another one of my favorites is “O Holy Night” – “long lay the world in sin and error pining / ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth / a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices / for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

This passage is also about God’s faithfulness, about God breaking in and changing everything. There are three aspects of his faithfulness that we’re going to look at: first, he gives hope in hopeless situations. Second he fulfills his promises. Third, because he is faithful, and because he fulfills his promises, we can wait hopefully.

First, God gives hope in hopeless situations. In verses five and six, Zechariah and Elizabeth are introduced, and it looks like they have everything going for them. Zechariah is a priest. Not only is Zechariah a priest, but he is married to a descendant of Aaron. This was not required of priests. And not only is Zechariah a priest, and Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron as well, but they were blameless. To say that they were blameless does not mean that they were perfect. This is the same language that the Bible uses about Abraham and Noah. It just means that they obeyed the written commandments and generally lived good lives.

But not all was well. They didn’t have any children, and they were old. In modern times, this would be a disappointment. But in the ancient world, it was far worse. It was a disaster, and for two reasons: economic and social. It was an economic disaster because if a couple didn’t have children, they didn’t have anyone to take care of them in their old age. Today it would be as if Zechariah and Elizabeth had no insurance and no savings. Socially, it was a disaster because everyone thought that if you were barren, it must be your fault. You must have done something wrong. In the Old Testament, it is clear that God controls whether people have children. Rachel says to her husband Jacob, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob responds, “God has kept you from having children, not me!” (Gen. 30:1-2) When Rachel does have a son, she says, “God has taken away my humiliation.” (30:22-23). The Old Testament law says that if you are obedient to his commandments, God will bless your womb (Deut 28). Psalm 127 also makes clear that children are a blessing from the Lord. People that have lots of children are like warriors with their quivers full of arrows. The flip side of all this is that if God’s blessing shows itself in a lot of children, then the lack of children must mean that you have done something wrong. The Bible doesn’t say this, but many ancient Israelites inferred it. Even though we know that Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous, their neighbors didn’t. Their neighbors thought that Zechariah and Elizabeth had a terrible secret. This is why, at the end of the passage, Elizabeth says, “He has taken away my shame before the people.”

This wasn’t just a hopeless situation for Zechariah and Elizabeth; it was a hopeless situation for Israel. Why? There are two kinds of hints in this passage. One relates to the political situation. The first person mentioned in this passage is King Herod. Herod was Jewish by religion, but not by blood. It was scandalous for Jews to be ruled by someone who wasn’t part of their people. He also was a violent man, prone to suspect people of plotting against him. We remember him at this time every year because of his killing of all the baby boys in Bethlehem because of his paranoia. He also killed three of his sons and one of his wives because he suspected them of disloyalty. When he was ill and at the end of his life, he wanted to make sure that Judea would mourn at his death. So he rounded up several Jewish leaders in one spot and gave the order for them to be killed when he died (thankfully for them, this order was not carried out). Perhaps worse than anything else he did, he kept the Jews under Roman rule. They were occupied by a foreign military, and had to pay exorbitant taxes. We also find hints about the political situation from Zechariah. When Gabriel appears, he says to Zechariah that he will have a son, but Zechariah doesn’t believe. Why? Because Zechariah was probably not praying for a son anymore. It was more likely that his prayer was for the redemption of Israel. And later on, after his son is born, he sings a song. And the main theme of this song is not gratitude for having a son (although he was grateful). No, the main theme is, “God has saved us from our enemies.”

Another reason we can see that Israel was in a hopeless situation is that in the Bible, barren women represent the whole people of God. There are several barren women in the Bible: Sarah (Gen. 18), Rebekah (Gen. 25), Rachel, (Gen.30), Samson’s mother (Judges 13) and Hannah, Samuel’s mother (1 Sam. 1-2). You may say, “Well, barren women is definitely a theme in the Bible, but how do they represent the people of God?” Look closely. In the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, Hannah has just given birth to Samuel. In verse 5 she says, “The barren has borne seven,” but later, in verse 9, she says, “The LORD will guard the feet of his faithful ones.” And in verse 10, she talks about “his king” and “his anointed.” In another place in the Old Testament, Isaiah also draws a parallel between Israel and a barren woman. In chapter 54 he says, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!” and he is talking about Israel, the people of God. In this passage, Luke wants us to know that Israel was also in a hopeless situation. God sent John (and later, Jesus) not just to give hope to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but to give hope to his people as well.

God gives hope in the hopeless situations of an elderly couple, and Israel, and he gives hope in our hopeless situations too. Maybe you are barren physically, like Zechariah and Elizabeth. Maybe you’re also like them in that your economic future seems in danger. Maybe you’re barren emotionally: you’re so burned out that you could barely drag yourself to church this morning. Maybe you’re barren spiritually; you’re suffering and it seems to you that God doesn’t listen. I want you to know that God is a God of hope. But what kind of hope does God give?

In our culture, we tend to move toward two false kinds of hope. The first kind of hope is a vague sense that things will get better someday. “There’s a better day coming around the bend,” or “Your luck is bound to change.” I like to call this kind of hope “politician hope.” This is the kind of vague hope that politicians give us before the election. I used to go to a pizza place where my favorite thing on the menu was the “Pre-election Promise Pizza.” And what was on the Pre-election Promise Pizza? Anything you want. This isn’t the kind of hope that God gives. It’s not concrete, there’s nothing substantial to it, and there’s no guarantee that anything will happen.

The second kind of false hope that we sometimes have is the hope that our desires will be fulfilled. Some of you know that I am a substitute bus driver. I have been driving the same route for the last couple of weeks for a driver who has had surgery. A lot of the time, when I enforce the rules on the bus, I notice that some of the kids start talking about how they want the regular bus driver back. They think that when the regular driver comes back, they will be able to sit where they want, they can have candy on the bus, and they can play with as many toys as they like. But I know that I am not any more strict than the regular bus driver. If anything, I am less strict. But these kids are just taking their desires, extending them out into the future, and giving themselves false hope. A lot of the hope we have in our culture is just wish fulfillment, but we often don’t know that things would really be better if we got what we wanted. The problem is that often, our desires are not what they should be. There is no guarantee that we will get what we want, and even if we got it, we will be disappointed.

So what kind of hope does God give? The hope that God gives is based on his character and his promises. Christian hope is, as the author of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6:19). Later, he says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” The reason why our hope is sure is because God, who promised, is faithful. Hope in God is based on who he is, what he has done, and what he has said he will do. It is based on his faithfulness. Let’s return to the text and see how the hope he gives is related to his promises.

The second aspect of God’s faithfulness is that he keeps his promises. Zechariah is chosen by lot to go into the sanctuary to burn incense, probably the only time in his life he will be able to do that. There were thousands of priests in Israel at this time, but only one temple. So they were divided into 24 groups, and each one went up to the temple on two non-consecutive weeks a year. Even when there was only one group at the temple, there were still not enough priestly tasks for everyone to have a job. They cast lots for things like burning incense, and a priest probably only did it once in his life. In other words, this moment when Zechariah goes into the holy place is the high point of his life as a priest. The angel Gabriel appears to him, and tells him that he is going to have a son.

zechariah-and-gabriel-2God is doing two things here through his messenger Gabriel. He is making a promise, and he is fulfilling an earlier promise. The promise he makes is clear; you can see it in the text: “You’re going to have a son, he’s going to be great, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, he’s going to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

But what we need to look more closely to see is that this is a fulfillment of earlier promises. And Luke doesn’t want us to miss this, so he fills this passage with echoes from the Old Testament. When Gabriel says that John will have the spirit of Elijah, he is quoting the prophet Malachi. Malachi was the last prophet of the Old Testament, and his book is the last book of the Old Testament. The last two verses read like this:

“5 I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” God promised to Malachi that he would act. Gabriel is saying, and Luke is saying, that the day when God acts has come. God made a promise, and he is sticking by it.

Later in Luke’s gospel (chapter 3), John calls himself “the voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord” from Isaiah 40. The important point about Isaiah 40 is that it was calling the Israelites back from exile in Babylon. John saw his mission, and Luke saw John’s mission, to alert people to the fact that God was returning them from exile. Luke makes sure that we know that God is not just making promises, but he is fulfilling his earlier promises.

Zechariah didn’t get this at first. He heard the angel talk about joy and gladness, and it was so unlike what he had known in his life so far that he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t remember God’s promises. So he asked for a sign. “How will I know?” Gabriel sees his lack of faith in God’s promises, and tells Zechariah that he won’t be able to speak for a while. Gabriel essentially tells Zechariah, “Think about it and see whether this is true.” He got the sign he was asking for, but maybe not the one he was looking for. Zechariah has some time to think about it, and then when his son is born, he sees the fulfillment of God’s promise and he understands.

God makes promises to us as well. Jesus promised that we would receive the Holy Spirit. He promised that he would be with us always. He promised that we could receive forgiveness through him.
One thing that he has not promised us is that we will not suffer. It is important to remember this, because we sometimes think that if we’re good, nothing bad will happen to us. But there is no correlation between being good and not suffering. In John 9, Jesus’ disciples see a man born blind and ask him: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responds that this didn’t happen because of sin, but so that God’s works might be revealed – and Jesus heals him. In Luke 13, Jesus mentions a group of people who had been killed when a tower fell on them. The conventional wisdom of the day said that they must have died because they had sinned. But Jesus says the lesson is that all people need to repent, because if they don’t, they will also die. Another example is Job, who was a good man, but who suffered. His friends came to him and said, “Look, Job, we know you did something wrong to deserve this punishment. Confess, and everything will be all right.” Job says, “If I knew of anything to confess, I would! But I don’t know why this happened.” The ultimate example of a good person who suffered, though, is Jesus. Because we live after Jesus came, we have a resource for dealing with our suffering that Zechariah didn’t: we know how much God himself has suffered. Are you alone? Jesus died alone, abandoned by those he loved. Do you feel rejected? Jesus was rejected. Are you in pain? Jesus died an agonizingly painful death. We don’t know why we suffer. But the cross tells us that our suffering is not because God doesn’t care. God suffered for us, and God suffers with us. When Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9, does he ask: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute my followers?” No, he asks why Saul is persecuting him. Jesus suffered for us, and Jesus suffers with us.

It is all right to pray for relief from suffering, though, as Paul prayed for relief from his thorn. Sometimes God heals. But other times, his response to us is the same as his response to Paul: “my grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Suffering is not the end for us, though. Another promise that Jesus has made is that he will come again, and wipe every tear from our eyes. He has promised that there will be a resurrection from the dead, and that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “Death will be swallowed up in victory.”

Finally, because God is faithful, and because God always keeps his promises, we wait with hope. Waiting is a necessary part of life. This is an unpopular thing to say in our day and age, because control is one of our biggest idols. Money gives us control over our future. Technology gives us control over our environment. Medicine gives us control over our bodies. Money, technology and medicine are not bad things in themselves. But we often use them to convince ourselves that we are the ones in control. Unfortunately for us, though, we will all run into our limits. We will all have a crisis of control, whether it is big or small. Why do we get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic? I don’t know whether you do, but I sure do. Why is that? Because I control most of the things in my life, but one thing I can’t control is the behavior of other drivers. And that makes me mad. Others of us may get angry when we have bigger crises of control, like if we get sick, or a loved one gets sick or dies, or when the economy goes bad. I don’t know why these things happen, but I do know that when they do happen, God is being merciful to us. When we have a crisis of control, God is showing us the way things really are. And the way things really are is that we are utterly dependent.

So waiting is unavoidable in this life. Will we wait without hope, as Zechariah did? Will we get angry and try to maintain control? Or will we wait with hope? If you are suffering from some kind of barrenness – whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual – or if you’re tempted to give up hope and stop believing that God keeps his promises, take heart. Be encouraged, because God says to us the same thing that Gabriel said to Zechariah: Don’t be afraid. Jesus says to us in Luke 12:6-7:

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Again, he says in Revelation 1:17:

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.”

That is what the season of Advent is all about. It’s about remembering that we are still waiting, but also remembering that we have hope because of what God has done in the past and what he has promised for the future.

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5 thoughts on “Advent Sermon: Barrenness and Faithfulness

  1. Neal November 30, 2008 / 7:37 pm

    Dude. That’s cool. I preached on that same passage in our church this morning too. Good choice.

  2. elliot December 1, 2008 / 5:24 am

    That’s great, Neal! Will yours be online sometime soon, so I can read it or listen to it?

  3. Neal December 1, 2008 / 6:39 pm

    I broke my website and haven’t gotten around to fixing it yet and our church doesn’t post sermons, So I’ll give it to you as an extra-long comment.

    He is coming

    This is the first Sunday of Advent. It seems that at Christmas, we often tell and retell the Christmas stories. We tell the story of the The Angel coming to Mary, the story of the birth. The story of the wise men. My folks also had many books of Christmas stories that weren’t from the bible; Rudolph, Frosty, The Grinch. So in that spirit of Christmas, I’d like to tell you another story. This story is from the bible. It’s about the pronouncement and birth of John the Baptist and his parents. It’s in the book of Luke; 1:5-25. Then the story pauses for the story of the Mary and Joseph and the angel that came to Mary and the miraculous conception of Christ, and then the story resumes in verse 57 and continues until the end of the chapter. You can read along if you want, but I’m not going to read the passage word for word, instead, I’m going to tell it to you as as story.
    First, I’d like to introduce you to the two main characters in our story. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth.
    Zechariah is a priest in the temple. This means he is part of the family of Aaron who have been the priests in the temple since the time of Moses. You may remember that during the exodus, Moses divided up the families of Israel to do certain tasks. The family of Aaron was chosen to be the priests of the temple of Yahweh the Lord.
    Zechariah is a remarkable man. Not only does he fulfill the spirit of the law, sincerely worshiping God in his heart. But he also fulfills the letter of the law (and there were 613 laws). He obeys all of the commandments, all of the priestly rules, all of the law on that are part of the daily life of Israel.
    He is married to a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth is also from the priestly family of Aaron. So this is a very well respected couple. Though women were not allowed to be priests. Elizabeth was equally righteous and obedient. But they don’t have any children. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a child. In the time that they lived it was seen as a curse not to have a child. It was important to have children to pass on the family name, and also to take care of you when you were old. There was no social security, no retirement investments, and no nursing homes, Children were necessary. Children were also considered to be a blessing from God. Not having children was interpreted a God’s disfavor. A sign of God’s punishment for disobedience. But though they had been faithful and obedient, still Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have any children. Not only had they not had any children, but now both Zechariah and Elizabeth are over 80 and are well past the years when they could hope to have children.
    This was a turbulent time for Israel too. Herod was the king of Judea he was not a great king. He had rebuilt the temple, and the people were grateful for a place to worship. But there was a lot of political tension and unrest. The land was under Roman rule. Israel was not free. The Romans let them practice their religion but didn’t really like it. The just let the Israelites do it to try to placate them. It was always a political compromise to the Romans and no one really liked it. More than ever, Israel was desperate for a savior. They prayed fervently for the promised messiah who would liberate them.

    The descendants of Aaron were numerous. They had a big family. There were around 18,000 priests that served at the temple. Because they couldn’t have all the priests at the temple at once, they were split up into 24 groups and rotated through service throughout the year. Every group of priests got to spend two weeks of service at the temple every year. So twice a year, Zechariah’s group would go to the temple and take up their duties. They would offer sacrifices, perform all the rituals and pray to God. Every day they would fill the huge 12,000 gallon washing basin, and light the fire on the 15 ft tall altar in front of the temple. Here they would offer the burnt offerings and sin offerings to God.
    Additionally, a few lucky priests got to go into the temple to offer incense to God. This was a high honor, to be able to go into the temple. The temple was not like our church here. It was not a gathering building. It housed the presence of God. So common people never went into the temple. God was far too holy. Only a few priests ever got to do it. A priest only got to go into the temple once in their life and many priests never got to. It was possible that someone could serve at the temple there whole life, and never actually get to go inside. Because it was such a high honor, and the priest didn’t want to allow favoritism or allow human greed to interfere with service to God, they chose the priests that got to go into the temple by drawing lots by drawing straws. And this time was Zechariah’s lucky time. he served a temple many many decades, He’s been a priest his whole life and he’s over 80 now and never been into the temple, but finally he gets to go in. You can imagine how you felt finally to have this honor. To be so close to the presence of God.
    You can picture the scene after a long day of offering sacrifices and prayers the courtyard around the temple is full of faithful Israelites praying, smell of burnt offering and smoke is in the air. As the sun begins to move toward the horizon, Zechariah pulls tight the belts on his priestly robe. This special robe that had tassels on the bottom and embroidery that marked him as a priest of Yahweh. He gathered the incense he would need, the coals that would keep the incense burning and I imagine he looks up at the temple. Toward the house of God. The huge white marble edifice, far and away the largest and most impressive building anywhere around. The gold covered doors that sat at the back of the porch flanked by two gigantic columns. The doors were nearly 100 feet tall and the building almost twice that. (as tall as a 16 story building) The top edge of the temple was covered in gold, you can imagine it glinting in the afternoon sun as Zechariah made his way up the stairs, and through the doors inside.
    Inside the temple, Zechariah made his way across the spacious room. The walls were paneled in cedar and it was lit by windows high up on the wall. Walking across the room, he passed the golden menorah on one side and the golden table for bread offering on the other side. The table for the incense offering was just in front of the large curtain that separated him from the holy of holies. As he was performing the priestly rituals, the other priests were just outside the temple and the crowd of Israelites waited and prayed just a bit farther away.

    Zechariah knew what to do. He had prepared his whole life for this. He placed the incense on the alter then laid prostrate in front of the alter to pray. But as he was finishing. He saw something he had not prepared for. There, to the right of the table of incense, was an angel. Zechariah, though he’d been a priest his whole life was afraid.
    You can understand; I’m pretty sure I’d be afraid. We often see this when an angel appears in the Bible. Their first word is, “don’t be afraid.” Here again it happens. “Zechariah, don’t be afraid.” Then he continued. “Your prayer has been heard and your wife will have a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness at his birth and may will rejoice at his birth. He will be great before God. He cannot drink any alcohol, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even in his mother’s womb. He will turn many Israelites back to God. He will have power and inspiration like Elijah. He will soften the hearts of parents toward their children and make the disobedient return to the wisdom of righteousness. To make the people ready for the Lord.”
    Zechariah has been faithful his whole life, but he knows that he and Elizabeth have tried for their whole lives to have children. So he says, “It’s impossible. Both my wife and I are too old. Give me a sign that it will happen.”
    I have not been faithful to God my whole life. I cannot claim, like Zechariah, that I am blameless before God, but I know that when an angel speaks to me, I shouldn’t argue.
    The angel, responding to Zechariah’s disbelief, says, “I am Gabriel. I sit in the presence of God. I was sent by him to bring you this news. Because you didn’t believe that my message was true, here is a sign that will make you believe. You will be unable to speak or hear until the boy is born.” Then the angel left.
    The people waiting outside sensed that something was happening inside. The incense ritual should not have taken long to perform. Zechariah had been in there longer than normal. When he finally came out. You can imagine the look that must have been on his face, having just seen the angel Gabriel. So the people asked him if he had seen a vision, but he could only wave his hands and make signs. I imagine they tried for a while to understand what had happened. Hoping that his inability to speak was just because he was stunned, but after much trying, Zechariah was still unable to communicate.
    The week of his service at the temple ended just a few days later and he returned home to his wife. Soon after this, Elizabeth became pregnant. She rejoiced, and withdrew in seclusion to relish the gift of God. Unlike her husband, she did not doubt the gift they were given. She gave God thanks and credit, and said, “God has seen my problem and taken away the curse of childlessness.” A child is coming.

    Now fast-forward 9 months. By now word had spread to the neighbors, friends, and family of Elizabeth and Zechariah about their miraculous pregnancy. So when she give birth to the baby boy, everyone rejoiced with her. Everyone could see that this was a miracle. Only God could have given the old, childless couple the answer to their prayer.
    Since Zechariah and Elizabeth were obedient and righteous Israelites, they gathered with neighbors and relatives when their son was 8 days old to circumcise him. The community gathered in their small mud brick home and probably by the light of a few small oil lamps, they performed the ritual of circumcision. And they gave the newborn boy the sign of being part of God’s chosen people. They bound him to the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham.
    At this ceremony, Zechariah and Elizabeth had not yet named their son. So the group of people gathered began to chime in with their suggestions. You know how people can be when it’s time to name a baby. They began to push for naming him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth did not even consider the idea. She said, with a strong assurance that surprised everyone, “His name is John.” The group didn’t accept it though. “What a weird name.” “No one else in your family has that name.” “Why would you choose that name?” Since the mother didn’t buy their idea, the friends and family tried to go around her and ask the father. Zechariah was still mute and deaf though, so he hadn’t heard their conversation, or Elizabeth’s declaration. So they made signs to him, and asked him about the name. They gave him a piece of wood coated with soft wax on it and a stylus to carve letters into the wax. On this tablet he wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was amazed that they would both chose the same name without talking about it.
    As soon as he finished writing the name of his son, Zechariah’s voice and hearing came back to him. And his first word were praise to God.
    All of this together was too much for people to ignore. Soon everyone who lived nearby knew of the elderly couple with the baby boy and the mystery and miracle that surrounded it all. It was obvious to everyone that God was involved, but no one understood what it all meant. People understood that this child was special, but didn’t understand what his birth meant or what he might do with his life. People wondered if, maybe, this miraculous child was the Messiah. Could he be the one that would set them free. And rumors about John spread through the country.
    His father Zechariah, was awestruck by the power and goodness of God. The doubt he felt in the presence of Gabriel was gone. He had seen the The Lord work. and the Holy Spirit gave Zechariah a prophesy. And he, full of the knowledge and understanding that only comes from God, said this prayer to God.

    Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he came and set his people free.
    He has come to us and redeemed us, giving us the promise of salvation
    and from the family of King David his servant, Just as he promised long ago through the preaching of his holy prophets:
    He will deliver us from our enemies and everyone who tries to harm us;
    He will give mercy to our fathers, as he does what he promised to do,
    The things he swore to our father Abraham he would do—
    rescue us from our enemies so we can worship him without any fear, and be holy and righteous our whole lives. 

    Finished with his prayer to God, he turns to his newborn son. Can you see him, this old priest, holding the swaddled baby, this gift of God, gently in the crook of his arm. Comforting him and blessing him, the prayer continues:

    And you, my child, you will be called “Prophet of the most high,” you will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give the knowledge of salvation to his people, for the forgiveness of their sins.
    Because of the tender mercies of our God, His light will break in upon us,
    Shining on those in the darkness, those who are sitting in the shadow of death,
    To show us the way to peace

    Zechariah had no more doubts. He and Elizabeth, righteous and obedient still, understood who their son was. And they raised John to fulfill his role as, “the prophet of the most high.” He grew strong in his faith and lived in the wilderness preparing for the ministry that God created him for. He was to be the one, “to prepare the way for the Lord.”

    I love this story because God has the most beautiful way of orchestrating his plans. When Gabriel came to Zechariah in the temple and announced that his prayer had been heard, he wasn’t just talking about Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a son. He was also talking about the prayers of the whole people of Israel. Their prayers for a savior. Their prayers for the messiah. And God, working as he so often does, answers both at the same time in a miraculous way. He selects Zechariah and Elizabeth, who can’t have children, and he gives them a child. Simultaneously answering their prayer, and doing it in a way what is undeniably miraculous. And this child is preparing the way for the Messiah. With the coming of John, we all know, and soon all of Israel should know that their prayer is being answered. The savior who will take away the sin of the world is coming. So just as Zechariah and Elizabeth rejoiced with the birth of John. We all can rejoice this Christmas season because the birth of Jesus, the savior, is coming soon.
    He is coming.
    Amen.

  4. Dawn December 2, 2008 / 10:15 am

    Wow, congratulations to you both for your preaching. It’s a true accomplishment and it’s inspiring to me. I love that you both preached on the same passage on the same day on opposite ends of the country. What a great way to start the season!

  5. timothycairns December 3, 2008 / 12:04 pm

    I am speaking on this passage this Sunday – I just finished and was browsing for a break and came upon this! thanks!

    I am going for the Malachi 4-Luke 1 silence motif. Silence in Israel, silence now in the temple – but God is breaking in the silence will soon be over – its a lead in to Zechariah’s song

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