Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
During this month I plan to share the Chrismas stories — not the ones written by Charles Dickens or sung by Gene Autry. No, I want us to go back to the Christmas stories written by Dr. Luke. When the Holy Spirit moved him to write his Gospel, he consulted a number of witnesses to the events of Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Today’s story is that of Zechariah. We don’t know whether Luke interviewed Zechariah himself. He probably got his information about Zechariah from Mary, who was related to Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth. Zechariah’s story is not directly about the birth of Christ. It’s about the birth of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist. But when we tell our children and grandchildren about Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds, the angels, the wise men, and the baby in the manger, we often include this story, and rightfully so.
Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because it was one of unfulfilled faithfulness(5-7).
5 During the reign of Herod king of Judea, there lived a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and he had a wife named Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 7 But they did not have a child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both very old.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old together, faithfully doing the work assigned to them, but Christmas had never come for them. As a priest, Zechariah served many families with many children, but he never had the happiness of raising a child himself. He and Elizabeth went year after year watching other families enjoy the wonderful process of physical and spiritual growth in their children. But they always watched others, never experiencing the joy themselves.
No doubt some people wondered if Zechariah of Elizabeth had been guilty of some secret sin that kept her barren and them both unfulfilled. But they knew that they had been faithful, “both righteous in the sight of God, following all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” But they were old now, and well past their “use by” date.
Politically, it didn’t seem like God was doing much for Israel. They were still under the domination of the Roman empire, and Caesar insulted Judea by making a foreigner their king. Herod was an Idumean. He was a puppet of Rome — a man so cruel he had to order a large group killed on the day of his death so that there would be mourning. It had been a long time since Judea had been ruled by one of David’s descendants. It didn’t seem like Christmas was coming for the nation either. But it was.
Zechariah’s story belongs to the Christmas story because his date with destiny finally came (8-11).
8 Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense. 10 Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him.
There were so many priests at that time that they had divided themselves into 24 groups and took turns officiating at the temple. Zechariah had probably made the trip to Jerusalem many times. He had no reason to believe that this time was going to be any different than the others. He had never seen Gabriel before.
Incense was a symbol of prayer. We are told that outside there was a crowd of people interceding as Zechariah presented the incense inside. Everybody was praying, but we don’t know how many were actually expecting anything to happen. Zechariah was probably praying for his nation. After all, he was a priest, and that was part of his job. He was busy at work, and he liked being busy at work because it took his mind off his personal sadness. It is just at that very point in time — “too late” — when God chose to bless old Zechariah.
But Zechariah’s blessing came with tremendous responsibility (12-17).
12 And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, was seized with fear. 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; you will name him John. 14 Joy and gladness will come to you, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go as forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”
The name Gabriel is a lot scarier in Hebrew than it is in English. A Geber is a young, strong man, the kind of man who is fit for battle. Gabriel was God’s soldier, who stands guard in the presence of Almighty God. Anyone who saw this angel would naturally be visibly shaken and seized with fear.
But thankfully, the news Gabriel comes to share that day was good news. His prayers would be answered, and he was going to have a son. Finally, he would have the chance to experience the joy and gladness that he had only witnessed in others in the past. Elizabeth was going to bear a son — and not just a son. He would be a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord. He would be one of the few — the proud — the Nazarites. They take a vow never to drink alcohol, and he would take that vow.
John would be his name because he would be a sign to everyone that Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The phrase in Greek is ek kolias — from the uterus. This was fulfilled literally because when Elizabeth met Mary, John jumped inside her. So, if anybody wants to argue with you about what the initial evidence of being filled with the Spirit is, just take them to Luke 1:41.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”
John recognized his Savior even before he was born. He gave his mother a kick, and She was filled with the Spirit too. He dedicated his life to turning many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He served as “forerunner before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared for him.”
It was Zechariah’s responsibility to raise that young man for that tremendous task. To whom much is given, much is required. That’s how God’s gifts work. When Christmas comes for us, we are blessed. Then we are responsible for blessing others.
Even though he was blessed, Zechariah struggled with unbelief (18-25).
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is old as well.” 19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.” 21 Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place. 22 When he came out, he was not able to speak to them. They realized that he had seen a vision in the holy place because he was making signs to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was over, he went to his home. 24 After some time his wife Elizabeth became pregnant, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me at the time when he has been gracious to me, to take away my disgrace among people.”
Zechariah was tempted to do what Gideon did — to test God to see whether or not he would be faithful to his promise. He misunderstood the story of Gideon. God did allow Gideon to ask for proof, and he gave him the proof. But Zechariah did not need any more proof than what he was going to be given — the child himself.
Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be silent until his words would be fulfilled.
Zechariah overcame the consequences of his unbelief (57-66).
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to have her baby, and she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother replied, “No! He must be named John.” 61 They said to her, “But none of your relatives bears this name.” 62 So they made signs to the baby’s father, inquiring what he wanted to name his son. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 64 Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 All their neighbors were filled with fear, and throughout the entire hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. 66 All who heard these things kept them in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the Lord’s hand was indeed with him.
When the time finally came, Zechariah and Elizabeth were both able to proclaim that God had been gracious to them. They did it by naming their son Yochanan — Yahveh has been gracious. Zechariah’s unbelief had resulted in his being temporarily unable to speak. He had lost the opportunity to brag about the boy. You better believe that they both made up for that lost time after he was born.
Zechariah’s experience led to praise for God (67-75).
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. 69 For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 He has done this to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant — 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants 74 that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.
Zechariah understood that whatever role John would have, it was just the beginning. The Messiah was coming, and God’s salvation was coming with him. He praised God not just for what he had done, but also for what he was going to do. You and I need to learn the same lesson. It is one thing to praise God for our personal salvation, bought by the blood of Christ. But we also need to catch a glimpse of the fact that our story is just part of the bigger story. Our blessing is part of the bigger blessing of a people redeemed for eternity and a new creation.
This section is also remarkable in that it mirrors many of the kinds of prayers that Zechariah and the other priests would have prayed in the temple. But with one difference. These words are prayers turned into praises. It is not “God, come help” but “God has come to help.” It is not “God raise up a leader from the house of David” but “he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
Zechariah’s experience also led to prophecy about his son (76-80).
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 his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon 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 kept growing and becoming strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.
All those months while Zechariah was unable to speak, he was preparing to announce this prophecy that the Lord gave him about John. The dawn of a new day was coming, and John was to prepare his people for that dawn.
John the Evangelist wrote about this in his Gospel. He said “A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light. The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:6-9).
When I read the story of Zechariah, it comforts me by reminding me that no matter how long I have waited for God to answer my prayers, he has not forgotten them. Even if I have had moments of unbelief, I know that one day I will testify that God has been gracious. No matter how long we wait, it is never too late. Christmas is coming. The dawn of a new age has come, and someday Christ himself will come. He will right every wrong, and answer every prayer. He will make all things new. Until that happens, our only job is to remain faithful, even if our desires are not yet fulfilled. We learn to do that from Zechariah’s story.