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A. Extra-long advent series: Why? Because there are 115 verses of the story in Luke.
B. I can’t tell you how much I love these stories, and what a joy it is to cover them in this series.
C. This is the very beginning of the NT story of the coming of Christ.
D. Luke 1:5–25 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. 8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” 18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
II. The characters of this first episode in our series were Zacharias & Elizabeth.
A. Zacharias was a priest and his wife Elizabeth was also from the family of Aaron.
B. “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” – Luke 1:6. The very kind of people God loves to bless.
1. In Deut.28:1-4, right before the Israelites go into the promised land, Moses tells them all the wonderful ways God will bless them if they faithfully obey His word, the very thing we’re told that Zacharias and Elizabeth were doing. And one of the first things God says He’ll do in that case is to bless them with fruit from their wombs.
2. And a few verses later Moses said that disobeying God’s commands would bring about curses, including the curse of barren wombs (Deut. 28:15-18).
C. And yet, here was a couple walking blamelessly in all God’s commandments, and God didn’t bless them with a child, though they longed for it and prayed for it for many years. Elizabeth was barren.
1. A woman both righteous and barren: not an expected combination in those days.
2. In a world where for a woman having and raising children was everything, she had nothing.
3. Think about all the times she had held a friend’s, or a sibling’s, or a neighbor’s baby and longed to have her own.
4. Think about the pain of being left out during many conversations of her peers about their children.
D. But the thing which was most difficult about this for Elizabeth was the way people treated her — because they perceived it as her fault somehow.
1. She had endured many years of reproach as a result of her barrenness.
2. Though she was righteous, she was treated as if she was unrighteous.
3. She had the life of a have-not, a life of internal pain. And her husband was her only comforter.
4. By now, of course, Elizabeth is beyond child-bearing age – not just a little bit beyond child-bearing age, but probably decades beyond child-bearing age.
5. But the pain had not gone away, nor the longing. Her aloneness was something she lived with every day. She lived with the disappointment & humiliation which many people have to live with.
E. How do we know all this about Elizabeth? From v.24-25, where we’re told what she did that after Zacharias came home and she became pregnant.
1. What would YOU expect a woman to do who had not been able to have children and now was amazingly, miraculously pregnant? She would run and tell everyone she knows, right? Wrong.
2. Instead, she runs away from people. And as she does so she says, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
3. Getting pregnant removed her reproach among people. Not her reproach before God, but her reproach among the people.
III. The location of this first episode is the temple in Jerusalem.
A. Isn’t it interesting that the story of God’s great work of salvation began in the temple of God in Jerusalem? The temple itself became the cradle of a new covenant.
B. This temple had been very recently built by Herod, about 10 years before this time.
1. It was a glorious temple. It took 46 years to build (John 2:20).
2. It was one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world. The wailing wall exists even today, 70 ft high. You can go underground & see some of the enormous & remarkable foundation stones.
C. This is the same place 34 years later that Jesus cleanses by driving out the money-changers Mt21:12
1. It’s the same place Jesus walked out of for the last time saying, “Your house is left to you desolate,” and “There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” (Matt.23:38-24:2)
2. So, the event taking place here in our story spelled the ultimate doom of this temple and the beginning of a far greater temple.
a. For what began here on this day with Zacharias would culminate just over 70 years later in the destruction of this magnificent building.
b. And also here was announced in the Jewish temple the coming of the One who was to build the new and eternal temple of the Lord.
D. And just a few feet away from where Zacharias stood, there was the great curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. In another 34 years that curtain would be ripped from top to bottom (Matt.27:51) by what was beginning right here and now.
IV. The plot of this first episode beings with Zacharias putting incense on the incense altar in the temple. All of a sudden an angel of the Lord appeared, and Zacharias was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
A. Zechariah was shocked — and with good reason. This was shocking for four gigantic reasons.
1. Seeing an angel is always a very shocking experience. Angels are fearsome!
a. In a single night one angel wiped out all the first-born of Egypt (Exod.12).
b. Another angel killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in a single night, outside Jerusalem (Isaiah 37).
c. You see sweet little baby angels on Christmas cards & Christmas trees. That’s not the way it is!
d. In the Bible, when angels appear, men's hearts melt in fear – like Zechariah.
e. When an angel appeared to the tough, fearless guards stationed at Christ's tomb, we’re told that they shook with fear and became like dead men (Matt.28:4).
f. "Do not be afraid" is the typical angel greeting (Lk.1:13, 2:10).
2. What’s the second shocking thing? Receiving a word from the Lord was not something people were accustomed to receiving. This word from the Lord came after 400 years of utter silence from the heavens. With no real warning, suddenly the silence is broken as God speaks to a quiet, humble priest...and begins something which turned the world on its head.
3. But there is a third stunning thing about what the angel said to Zechariah, for the angel went on to say, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Who wouldn’t love to hear that about his child?) 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (14-17) This statement contains several astounding things.
a. When WE hear v.16-17, it might not ring a bell, but it rang a very loud bell for Zechariah.
b. I mentioned that 400 years had passed without direct communication from God. And yet in the last book of the OT, the last word of God before the 400 years, the prophet Malachi talks of the day of the Lord’s coming, and of a messenger would be sent to prepare the way (Mal.3:1).
c. And then the very final words of the OT tell us more about this messenger who would come before the Lord, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come & strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Mal4:5-6
(1) And these are the very words the angel quotes to Zechariah, meaning that Zechariah’ son was to be the promised messenger to prepare the way for the messiah.
4. And yet none of these four things was the hardest thing for Zechariah to believe. The thing which he couldn’t get past was the statement, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” You can see this from Zechariah’s response to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (18)
a. Most of their peers had a career of child-bearing and child-rearing, then of giving their children in marriage and welcoming children-in-law and grandchildren into the family.
b. Zechariah and Elizabeth, on the other hand, had a career of praying for a child.
c. Many times they pleaded with God on their knees for a child.
d. Many sleepless nights they had spent crying out to God to open her womb.
e. Many times they wept in each other’s arms over her barrenness, wondering why God wasn’t answering their prayer.
f. And yet, these prayers were all a distant memory now. There comes a time in a couple’s life when it becomes obvious that the answer to your prayers for a child is no, as you move past the time of life when you’re able to bear children, and you retire from a career of praying to have a child. And that moment had long since passed for Zechariah and Elizabeth.
g. And now, not only does an angel appear, but he says, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
B. Needless to say, all this was little much for Zechariah to take in all at once. You can’t blame the old priest for being flabbergasted. And that’s where he got himself in a little bit of trouble, when he said, “How do I know this is going to happen?” and the angel responded, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you’ll be unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you didn’t believe my words.” (19-20)
1. Zechariah’s punishment fit his crime, and yet how gracious and gentle was God’s discipline!
2. God does not smash him or reject him, but gives him miraculous silence, a sign of the great thing God has announced, and an answer to his very question: “How shall I know this?”
3. Behold the patience and lovingkindness of the Lord!
C. Meanwhile, the worshipers outside the temple were waiting for Zechariah to finish his priestly functions and come back out to bless them. And they began to be concerned because of how long it was taking. And when he finally came out, he seemed shaken and was unable to speak to them, trying to make signs to them. So, they figured that he must have seen a vision in the temple.
1. When his time of service at the temple finally came to an end, Zechariah hurried to Elizabeth, who had been, for the 10,000th time, left at home alone.
D. So, here’s Elizabeth at home, eagerly expecting her husband to return, when she hears noise at the door. “Zechariah?” No response. “Zechariah, is that you?” Again no response. So she walked out to the door and there was Zechariah, looking both shell-shocked & overcome with joy. Something clearly had happened to him, but he just looks at her with tears in his eyes and says nothing.
E. Maybe he eventually wrote it down, or maybe they played twenty questions, but eventually she came to understand that an angel had appeared to Zechariah to tell him that they were going to have a son in their old age, and that he was to be the promised messenger who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. And his silence confirmed his story.
F. Well, if there was any doubt in her mind, it was dispelled when Elizabeth found herself pregnant. That may be when it really hit her, for that’s when we’re told that she hid herself for five months.
G. Why did she go into isolation? I wouldn’t want to be an old lady trying to convince people I was pregnant – especially if I had already spent my life being shamed for not being able to get pregnant.
1. The only thing we’re actually told was what she herself said in v.25, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
2. To me, this implies that her isolation wasn’t just to avoid people. She went off to be with God.
H. Think of all she had bottled up inside her which needed to come bursting out.
1. As a faithful Jew, she had longed for the promised messiah and the consolation of Israel (Is.40:1). And that was reason enough to break down and weep with tears of joy.
2. But after a lifetime of unfulfilled dreams and the crucifixion of her desires, of thinking she was destined for deprivation, and then finding out that all during those years God had something very different in mind, not just the things she’d always longed for, but so much more.
3. And not only was it all coming true for her now, but it was coming all together, for God had called her to fulfill a role of such high honor that it involves ushering in the Messiah Himself and the salvation of mankind.
4. It was overwhelming, and she had a lot of crying to do before the Lord, and a lot of worshiping, and a lot of reorienting herself to a new life and a new future.
V. In Zechariah and Elizabeth we have two genuine heroes of the faith, who labored on in spite of darkness, in spite of difficulties, in spite of looking like failures to the world around them.
A. They never denied the God who would not give them a child.
1. They refused the natural human impulse to grow bitter.
2. They resisted the inclination to stop trusting in the One who seemed deaf to their requests.
3. They refused to listen to the voices from within that kept crying, “Your God has forgotten you.”
B. And through these two we learn important lessons about faith, about waiting, and about prayer.
C. The first lesson is about suffering and faith.
1. Though their inability to have children was acutely distressing for Zechariah and Elizabeth, it was an important part of their powerful story.
2. In this we see the beautiful/powerful purpose God has in the sufferings/hardships of His people.
3. You see, these two faithful saints got a greater reward for having been faithful though NOT blessed by God with children than another couple who were righteous WITH children.
4. So we can see that in the end their barrenness was actually God’s blessing.
5. When the Lord deprives His children of some earthly joy or success, it is only because He has something better in store. Every suffering is the opening of a door to a treasure of grace.
6. God does not want His people unhappy. But He did allow these two to be unhappy for a time, in order to prepare them for a happiness greater than they could have without it. A season of unhappiness is often needed to make us truly happy.
7. Imagine what it was like for Elizabeth to finally see the Lord bless her after she faithfully served Him all those years without seeing the fruit of her faithfulness. That’s what it’s going to be like for all who faithfully honor the Lord even in the midst of trials. When? When the time is right, when the story comes to fruition. It could be in this life or it could be in the next. But it’s coming.
8. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart (Ps.37:4).
9. He withholds no good thing from those who love and trust Him (Ps.84:11)!
10. Satan loves to use our troubles and unanswered prayers to shake our confidence in God.
11. But, if you trust Christ, you will one day be given everything you ever hoped for and dreamed of, and much more. You may have to wait, but as sure as the promise of God, it will come.
D. And that brings us to closing lesson about prayer.
1. Even though the prayers of these two had not been uttered for years, God had not forgotten.
2. Yet, think how long the answer came after the request, all those long years of waiting in silence.
3. And all that time God was storing it up, waiting for the right moment to answer.
4. Our prayers from long ago are just as fresh to Him today as they were the day they were uttered.
5. It is easy to conclude that God isn’t hearing our prayers or doing anything for us. But how wrong!
6. Unanswered prayers are not unheard, nor forgotten.
7. He keeps our prayers in His book & our tears in His bottle (Ps.56:8). He’ll respond in due time.
8. So many times while God's people are praying, God is preparing marvelous things far beyond their requests or even their wildest dreams, even though the people praying feel nothing special.
9. For God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think. (Eph.3:20)
10. And that’s exactly what we see here with Zechariah and Elizabeth. They prayed for a child. God gave them a great prophet, the first to point to the Lord, and the promised messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord. This is so more than just an answer to their prayer. This is like praying for a nickel and receiving a gold mine. And that’s the way it is when we pray and trust.