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Advent #4: Luke 1:5-25; 57-80
Bear with me a few moments while I explain what we call “The Church Year.” After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, Christian churches began to have more contact with one another, and it wasn’t long before “the church” was also an institution with an organizational structure and a hierarchy. There were, of course, a lot of negatives about this. However, one of the positives was a sense of unity that extended among virtually all Christians. One way that unity was preserved was through having all churches reading the same scriptures as other churches each week; this later became known as “the lectionary.” The lectionary was organized around “church seasons.” There are some small variations, but in general the seasons are: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and “after Pentecost,” (sometimes call “ordinary time”). Each season has a kind “character” to it. For instance, Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus and the significance of His incarnation. Lent is a time many Christians use to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, and to engage in personal repentance. Easter is about the resurrection, and so on.
I want to emphasize that these church seasons are not given to us by the bible; they are traditions, and no true Christian would say that it is necessary to observe them in order to be a follower of Jesus. One of the negatives of the church year is that it means that huge portions of the bible will never be read in churches which strictly observe it, since those churches focus only on the lectionaries given for each season. Even so, I think we can benefit at times from the traditions associated with the church year.
For me particularly, Advent is one of the seasons that I find very helpful. Advent actually marks the beginning of the church year, and starts four Sundays prior to Christmas. I sometimes use the season of Advent, with its traditional readings, to help me get the most out of what the rest of the world calls “the holiday season.”
The focus of Advent is helpful to me, because it takes my eyes off of the commercial aspects of Christmas and the holidays. It even takes me out of simply sentimentally reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ. The theme and scriptures of Advent remind me that Jesus has promised to return. They encourage me to focus on what Jesus is still doing, and will do in the future. It keeps my hope focused on eternity, and my work focused on how God would use me here and now.
Now, I am going to go ahead and show the weakness of the church year by using some scripture that is not in any of the traditional Advent readings. I think, however, that these verses can help us get our focus in order for this season.
One of the overlooked figures surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is the father of Jesus’ cousin John. John’s father was Zechariah, a priest. In the year when both Jesus and John were born, Zechariah was chosen for the rare honor of offering incense during the sacrifice. Priesthood was determined by birth – they had to be descended from the first priest, Aaron. Each priest served with others in his division for two weeks every year; Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. Duties were assigned by random lot. Jewish documents suggest that at that time, a priest would have such an honor only once in his entire lifetime, and many priests never had the chance. To be chosen for this duty would be the highlight of Zechariah’s life.
One interesting note is that from all this we might take a stab at finding out what time of year Jesus was actually born. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year (their calendar was based on the moon), but the best guess is that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if Elizabeth conceived as soon as Zechariah went back home, and Mary went to their house immediately after hearing from the angel about her own conception, that would mean John was born in April of the following year, and Jesus in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a lag time of just two months total in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it. In fact, in the summer of 2022, I met a man whose Ph.D. thesis was to claim that the exact date of Jesus’ birth was December 25. He successfully defended the thesis, which means he has significant evidence in favor of it.
Back to Zechariah. The innermost part of the temple was called “the holy of holies,” or, “most holy place.” In it (originally, before they were lost) was the ark of the covenant, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. This was where the Hebrews believed that God’s presence remained. A thick curtain separated the “most holy place” from the “holy place.” In this second, larger space stood a table with bread, which was renewed every seven days. Also here was a seven branched golden lampstand (something like a Menorah) and finally, the altar of incense. Zechariah would have been accompanied into the Holy Place by two assistants carrying coals and incense, whom would withdraw and leave Zechariah alone in the sanctuary to complete the ceremony. Meanwhile, a large gathering was worshipping out in the courtyard, which means it may have been a Sabbath day.
Now, I want to set the stage a little bit. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “blameless.” I don’t think Luke means they never sinned, but rather, they conducted themselves in faith and integrity for their whole lives. This is significant when we learn that they don’t have any children. In the first chapter of Genesis, God blessed the first human beings and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” For thousands of years, Jewish culture saw this as a sign that children are God’s blessing; they also believed that when people could not have children, it was because God was somehow displeased with them. Many people felt that such couples must have sinned in some way, so that God prevented them from having this blessing. It is true that Abraham and Sarah did not have children until old age, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel also was barren for a long time before Samuel. Even so, it is virtually certain that their childlessness was a source of very real emotional pain for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They must have wondered what they had done wrong. It is quite possible that others in their community thought that they had been particularly sinful, for God to withhold children from them. Zechariah and Elizabeth may even have felt angry with God – after all, they had lived in faith and integrity, but still, God withheld this blessing from them. By the time Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple, both of them were obviously older than normal child-bearing age. In fact, a fair description of them would be “old.”
In temple alone, Zechariah would have been praying for the worshipers and for the nation of Israel. At this point, an angel appears to him. I think it is interesting to note that Luke records that it appears “to the right” of the altar of incense. There is nothing particularly significant about the position of the angel, and that reinforces the authenticity of this scripture. Luke is carefully recording a story that had been told and remembered in detail, even unimportant details. For me, it is one of those hundreds of little things that rings true in the biblical accounts of history.
As recorded elsewhere in scripture, the appearance of the angel was awe-inspiring, provoking a kind of fear. Like so many angels before, this one begins by saying: “Do not fear.” The angel goes on, telling Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard,” and then explaining that he is about to become a father. One thing that isn’t clear is what Zechariah’s prayer actually was. As a priest, it was his duty to pray for the people. He might also have been praying for himself and his wife. The fact is, God’s answer, foretold through the angel, addresses both Zechariah’s personal desires, and his prayers for people of God. On the personal level, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have the joy of parenthood. On the larger level, their child will be used by God to do significant spiritual things for the people of Israel. By the way, this follows a familiar pattern from the Old Testament. Sarah and Abraham longed for a child of their own, and in finally fulfilling their desires, God began the nation of Israel. Samson’s parents were also childless until an angel announced to his parents that he would be born; but Samson wasn’t just for his parents – he would also be used by God to deliver Israel. Hannah was full of grief because she could not have children, and finally God answered her prayers and gave her a child, Samuel. But Samuel was not just a blessing to his mother – he became one of the greatest prophet-leaders in history.
In light of all the people in Israel’s history who had famous babies after long barrenness, Zechariah’s response might seem surprising. He questions how it can happen, since both he and Elizabeth are getting along in years. But at another level, I think it is entirely understandable. First, there is the issue of age. In ancient Israel, older people were given respect, and yet, at another level no one expected much of them. Healthcare then was not anything like it is today, and people then could not expect to remain active as long as they do today. So, Zechariah knows that he is nearing the twilight of his life. Since that is the case, why would God possibly choose him, not only to be a father, but to be the father of someone that God was going to use in great ways? It just didn’t seem likely. In his response to the angel, he mentions Elizabeth. It is clear that he thinks of her in the same way as he thinks of himself: too old.
Second, and I am reading into the text a little bit here, I wonder if Zechariah, at some level, thought that God was being too good to him. Here he was, in the holy place of the temple, standing where very few Israelites would ever get to stand in their lifetimes. He is been blessed with this great honor, and now God is coming along saying “I’m going to bless you even more.” It just seemed too good to be true.
Third, in spite of the fact that in the past God granted previously barren women the ability to have children, he certainly did not do that for every barren woman in history. In addition, all of that happened a very long time before Zechariah was born. The latest incident that I mentioned above was that of Hannah and Samuel, and that occurred about 1000 years before Zechariah stood in the temple that day. In other words, though I’m sure Zechariah believed that God had done this sort of thing in the past, and he probably even believed that theoretically, God could do it now, it was a whole different thing to believe that God was actually going to do it now, and for him. I mean, I have a hard enough time believing that God will repeat miracles that I have seen with my own eyes in my own lifetime, so I can’t blame Zechariah for saying “How can I know this will happen?”
Now, I want us to see how God responds to Zachariah’s weakness. First, of course, Zechariah is rebuked for his lack of faith. Then, as now, the Lord is seeking people who will trust him wholeheartedly, and he makes it clear that Zachariah failed in this. This is an important message for us: all the Lord wants from us is trust. He wants us to trust his promises, to trust his goodness, to trust his word.
But I want us to see the incredible grace that God gives to this old man. First, we need to understand, it was not that Zachariah had no faith at all, but his faith was weak. I’m sure he wanted to believe it. He did not say “I don’t believe a word of it.” Instead, his question was: “how can I know for sure?” God’s response is both a rebuke for Zachariah’s failure to trust wholeheartedly and at the same time a gracious answer to Zachariah’s desire to know for sure that God was going to do this:
20Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20, HCSB)
Do you see what is going on here? His lack of faith is both disciplined, and answered. The angel made it so he couldn’t talk. Certainly, this must have involved some hardship for Zachariah, but it was not, after all a very terrible thing, and it was temporary. I think most of us could learn a lot, and even perhaps find some unexpected peace, if we were forced into nine months of silence. [Spouses, insert your jokes at each other’s expense here] At the same time, the fact that he couldn’t talk would have been a constant reminder to him that the words of God were true and trustworthy. Even while disciplining Zachariah, God gave him the answer that he desired.
Afterwards, when the child was born Zachariah demonstrated his faith by naming him what the angel told him to name him. At this point, he was released from his silence. Luke records that Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to praise God. I think this is very important. When Zachariah was focused on what he wanted, and upon his own unworthiness and unfitness, his faith was weak. But now his focus is all on God; his focus is not on the gift of his son John, but on the giver of the gift: God himself. The words he spoke at this point have lived on for 2000 years in Luke’s gospel.
So, what is all this have to do with us? What would the Holy Spirit say to you through the Scriptures?
The first and most obvious one to me is that God can use anyone. Think about what God was doing at this point in history. He used an Emperor to take a census which ultimately caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy. He used an unwed teenage girl to become the mother of his own Son. He used a humble carpenter to become the stepfather of the son of God. And he used an old man and an old woman who had already had a full and blessed life to bring even greater blessing into the world: John the Baptist, who in turn prepared the way for the Messiah.
Not too long ago, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, died. One of his famous sayings was: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” For a guy who said a lot of silly things, that one is very profound. If you are alive enough to read or listen to this sermon, it ain’t over for you, not yet. The Lord still wants to bless the world through you. Before you say, “But how can he possibly use me?” I want to remind you that that is more or less what Zachariah was asking. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how he will use every single person. However, I do have a suggestion: pray. Prayer, in and of itself, is a powerful force for God’s work in the world. When you pray, you invite God into the things you are praying for, and he shows up where he’s invited, and where he shows up, he does his work and accomplishes his purposes. When you pray you are partnering with God to release his power into the world. Every single one of us can pray, which means that God can use every single one of us in amazing ways. In addition, it was as Zachariah prayed that the Lord showed him what else he wanted to do in and through his life.
Another thing I get from the story of Zachariah is that God is good; so very, very good. Zachariah had already received the honor of burning incense in the holy place. He lived a long and full life. Then he was promised a son, and when he doubted the promise he was given a sign to show him that it was true, and to help his faith. This is one blessing after another heaped upon Zachariah and Elizabeth, even towards the end of a blessed life. This encourages me to trust the goodness of God.
Finally, Zachariah reminds me to focus more on the giver then on the gift. John was a tremendous gift for Zachariah and Elizabeth. But by the time he was born, Zachariah had learned that the greatest gift he would ever have was the grace and love of God, and nothing could ever take that away. I hope and pray that you and I can also have that same perspective.
As we consider that Jesus not only came 2000 years ago, but also promised to return, let’s try to learn from Zechariah. God is still working in the world. He wants to involve you in what he is doing, no matter how unqualified you might feel.
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.