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A. I’ve been preaching advent four or five advent sermons each year for 35 years. Counting Christmas Eve service sermons, that’s over 200 advent sermons. Am I tired of it? Not at all. This year, I’m preaching 10 instead of five. I’m preaching through the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel. Today #6.
B. Review of the story
1. God speaks to an elderly priest named Zacharias and tells him that his elderly and barren wife will bear a son who will be the one who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
2. When Zacharias questions this, the angel tells him his ability to speak will be removed until the day the things he told him take place. Soon his wife Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist.
3. And after five months of isolation and a three month visit from her relative Mary, pregnant with Jesus, she gives birth to a son.
4. Neighbors and relatives rejoicing with her come over on the eighth day when he’s circumcised.
5. They try to convince Mom to name the boy Zacharias after his father. But Elizabeth, knowing what the angel had said to her husband, says, “No, his name will be John.”
6. But losing the argument with Mom, they appeal to Dad, who was still mute.
7. Dad asks for a writing tablet, and on the tablet he writes, “His name is John.”
8. And immediately his voice returns. And the HS comes upon him and he prophesies. And his prophecy is what we are examining this morning.
C. Luke 1:67–80 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies & from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
1. 76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
II. Instead of going through verse by verse, I am going to discuss a few themes in Zechariah’s prophecy.
A. The advent of the redeemer – Zechariah’s first attention is focused on the coming of the One who would bring redemption.
1. 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.”
2. Visiting means that you come from somewhere else.
3. Verse 78 tells us where He came from: “The sunrise shall visit us from on high.”
4. The word visit here refers to God visiting us here on earth from heaven in the person of Jesus.
5. And why did He come? To redeem his people. “He has visited and redeemed His people.”
6. When Paul summarizes what Christ’s coming was all about in 1Timothy 1:15, he says the same thing in different words: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
7. If you examine this prophecy closely, you will see that it refers to two dimensions of redemption:
a. Spiritual (v.77 “salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins”)
b. Political – let’s talk more about this political redemption.
(1) Three times in this short passage it refers to be delivered from our enemies:
(a) 71a saved from our enemies,
(b) 71b saved...from the hand of all who hate us
(c) 74 delivered from the hand of our enemies
(2) And then, in v.74-75 it goes farther, talking about being granted the freedom to serve God and live righteous lives without having to be afraid of our enemies: “to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
(3) When we read about “being delivered from the hand of our enemies, that might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” it sounds like something the pilgrims would have said when they first came to America 400 years ago.
(4) But to understand this, we must remember the circumstances of the Jews in the first century.
(a) Israel had lived in freedom and prosperity under David and Solomon.
(b) But for the 700 years since then, Israel had been under the domination of enemy nations: first Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, and now Rome.
(c) And one of the main expectations of the messiah – and for some the MAIN expectation, was for him to come to free them from this oppression.
(d) Even the disciples were thinking this. That’s why they asked him, after the resurrection, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” – Acts 1:6
(e) You see, Israel’s religion was very intertwined with her national identity. Ours isn’t – or at least it shouldn’t be.
(f) God’s law for them didn’t just pertain to their individual lives or even to their gatherings, but the law of Moses could only be fully operational when they were a sovereign nation.
(g) It involved elders and kings, the temple in Jerusalem, their tribal lands, the responsibilities and privileges of the Levites, their Sabbaths and seasonal feasts.
(h) When they came to be ruled by foreign nations, like they were in Zechariah’s day, many of these practices were prohibited or threatened. And others were mocked.
(i) The first half of Zechariah’s life was filled with this kind of oppression from the Greeks, and the second half from the Romans. They didn’t treat everyone this way. All the other people groups had cooperated with Roman demands to worship Caesar. But the Jews, a small, politically insignificant sect, had refused to worship any man. And this singled them out for humiliation and harassment at the hands of the Romans, especially their religious practices.
(5) In light of all this, the idea of God “delivering them from the hand of their enemies, that they might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” makes a lot of sense.
8. So, Zechariah’s prophecy includes both spiritual redemption and political redemption. In this prophecy, the spiritual and the political are presented as one package, with no indication that there are actually two parts, no indication that the Christ will actually come twice, not just once, no indication that His first coming would produce spiritual redemption, and His second coming political redemption, and this on a cosmic scale, overthrowing once and for all the enemies of God and His people. That is not clear at this point in Luke’s story, but it does become clear later.
9. Of course, there is a sense in which we are able even now to serve and worship the Lord without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
a. The salvation of Christ is a salvation which can’t be held back by a political tyrant. Even prisoners and slaves, even the sick and the oppressed can serve the Lord without fear.
b. In a sense, He has already conquered His foes, and reigns over the world as king.
c. Jesus did get rid of our enemies, our real enemies, like sin and guilt and death and hell and Satan (John 12:31; Colossians 2:15; 1John 3:8).
B. Fulfillment of the promises of God – The redeemer’s coming was the fulfillment of prophecies re: the coming messiah.
1. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,”
2. There had been a long succession of prophets over the centuries, not saying the same thing, but saying different things about the same person, not contradictory things, but different things, often overlapping, but sometimes not. And now, in the coming of Christ, it was all being fulfilled.
3. This theme is found also in v.72-73: “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham.”
4. People like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Mary and Joseph , like Simeon and Anna, these people had based their lives on the covenant of God: like His promise to Abraham that His descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, that He would give them a great land, and that He would bless the whole world through the seed of Abraham.
a. Most of the Jews were not basing their lives on the covenant. They were living for today. The old covenants and promises of God seemed far away, and their fulfillment even farther.
b. But now God had indeed remembered His holy covenant, the oath He swore to Abraham. And the ones who were still waiting, who were basing their lives on the hope of His coming, Oh! they were so thrilled. They had invested everything they had in a stock everyone else thought was worthless. And now it was being shown as supremely more valuable than everything else.
C. The tender mercy of God sending light into our darkness
1. Here we see the motive/heart behind this visit to bring redemption: 78 “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
a. Here is the driving force behind God’s intervention: “the tender mercy of our God.”
b. This is what John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”
2. Tender mercy = compassionate mercy. Compassion = bowels = Jesus’ most common emotion.
a. This is the only place in the NT where the two words are put together.
3. This is why the message of Christ is called the good news. If you don’t understand that the salvation of Christ begins and ends with the mercy of God, then you don’t understand salvation.
a. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. – John 3:17
4. The image used to describe this is the morning sunrise.
a. Each morning, as the sunrise gloriously introduces the light of day & dispels the darkness of night, it is a glorious picture God paints upon the sky of what Christ's coming did, when He gloriously introduced the light of hope & salvation into the dark despair of this world!
D. John’s role
1. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the prophetic rejoicing of Zechariah, though, is not in what he says, but in what he doesn’t say. What is he rejoicing in?
a. On this occasion, wouldn’t it seem natural to focus his attention on the newborn baby, and his miraculous birth, or thanking God for his son?
b. But in his prophecy, Zechariah is praising God not for his son but for the coming of the savior and the salvation of God's people. At his own son's birth, he focuses more on Jesus!
c. First, in verses 68 through 75 Zechariah praises God for the salvation He has sent.
d. Only then in v.76 does he turn to his own son. And you expect that he will finally praise God for this long-sought-after gift. But no. He rejoices not in John’s birth or in his size or hair color, or who he looks like, or even in the Lord’s answer to his prayers, but in his role in Christ’s coming.
e. And then, after two short verses directed to his son he quickly reverts back to rejoicing in the salvation itself in v.78-79.
f. And we have to remember how much Zechariah and his wife had wanted a son, how much he had prayed for a son, how much he had wept with his wife Elizabeth over her barrenness.
g. And yet now that they are given a son, he hardly has anything to say about it.
h. How can you explain it?
2. A few years ago, Buck Showalter, the wise and seasoned manager of the Baltimore Orioles was asked at a press conference after a game about a player who missed this important game because his wife was giving birth, as if he was delinquent in his duties.
a. He scoffed at the question as if he couldn’t believe someone would ask that, and said something like, “That’s ridiculous! Baseball games come and go. Your children are the most important things in your life.”
3. Well, that’s similar to Zechariah’s attitude here, except that in this case, his child’s birth, instead of overshadowing everything else, is overshadowed itself by an even greater thing: the coming of salvation to mankind in the promised messiah.
a. It’s not that he wasn’t delighted with having a son. It was that there was something else, even more important to him, something that he had prayed for and longed for and wept for – and needed – even more than a child.
b. It was the coming of the Messiah. It was the coming of salvation to the world. It was the forgiveness of God.
4. What if a person years later had come to Zechariah and said, “I heard the story of the birth of your son and how you blessed the Christ child instead of your own son when you were given your voice back. That was so righteous of you.” What do you think he would have said?
a. I think he would have said, “What? Are you kidding? That wasn’t because of anything in me. Don’t you realize what was happening there? People have sons all the time. But only once has a savior been born. Only once has God’s promise of the Messiah been fulfilled. Praising God for Jesus was the only thing to be done. How could I do anything else?”
b. You see, Zechariah didn’t do this because he was so good, but because of what he knew.
5. Zechariah rejoicing in his son’s role in the coming of the messiah is brought into even greater focus in light of v.80, where we’re told that “the child (John the Baptist) grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
a. This tells us that John’s earthly life wasn’t a pleasant one. He grew up in the country, but it likely wasn’t long before his parents died (remember, they were very elderly already at his birth) and he was living alone in the wilderness, dressed in camel skins, eating locusts and wild honey (Mt.3:4).
6. Now, in light of this, let’s go back and think about Zechariah rejoicing for his son.
a. He knew that his son would grow up without any parents.
b. He probably knew his son would live all alone in the desert.
c. It wouldn’t have surprised to hear that his son would dress like a wild man and eat locusts and honey from a bee hive. That was par for the course with prophets.
d. He knew what the life of a prophet was like: they proclaimed God’s message to rebellious people who didn’t want to hear it, so they were mistreated and rejected and imprisoned. It wouldn’t have surprised him to know that John would end up in Herod’s prison.
e. And it wouldn’t have surprised him to know that his son would have his head cut off and displayed it on a platter at a birthday party.
7. Would Zechariah have rejoiced if he had known what God had in store for his little son?
a. I think he would have. His joy was not in the ease or affluence his son would enjoy.
b. His joy was in the privilege that his son would have in participating in the saving ministry of the Christ, the Messiah.
c. He didn’t know all that would entail. But it didn’t matter. Being involved with Him was so precious that nothing else mattered. Participating in the work of the Savior was worth all the isolation, all the danger, all the ridicule, all the locust-eating, even the decapitation.
8. Beloved, what is this life for anyway? It’s not for establishing a secure little place for yourself and having a couple of happy kids and some good times and carving out a little niche and making a name for yourself until you die. This life is about doing the business of heaven.
a. We are not on earth for the earth. We are on earth for heaven.
9. Do you see what a lie it is to think that our happiness is dependent on comfort and security?
10. My friends, there is something very true here, and very profound. Christmas is the celebration of something that happened that is so significant, so weighty, so momentous that it doesn’t just change the world. It changes everything.
a. People who once cried for a child, then given a child of their own, nevertheless pour their affection out upon someone else’s child.
b. People who were once violent and insane are sitting at the feet of a man like a student at the feet of a teacher (Mark 5:1-20).
c. Criminals are turned into productive citizens who devote their lives to helping others.
d. Addicts are freed from their addictions.
e. Those who were once miserable live lives of hope and joy.
f. People who have great potential to be big successes in the world give it all up for lives of obscurity telling others about a Jewish carpenter’s son.
11. My friends, put on the glasses of Christmas and everything looks different!