Photo by David Orsborne on

20221225 Simeon and Anna’s Story

Luke 2:22-40 NET

I’ve been sharing the Christmas stories from Luke’s Gospel this month. We started with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the angel’s announcement of the birth of their son John — whom we know as John the Baptist. Next, we looked at Mary’s story of how the same angel visited her and told her that she would have a son, and told her to name him Jesus. Next, we looked at the story of the shepherds who also were told of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. After hearing the message, the shepherds went to see Jesus themselves and left worshiping and praising God.

Luke’s final Christmas story is found in today’s text. It takes place in the temple in Jerusalem forty days after Jesus’ birth. We first learn of two rituals at the temple (22-24), then we learn of two prophets that Joseph and Mary meet at the temple (25-38) and then we learn that the two parents leave the temple (39-40).

The first ritual under the old covenant that involved Jesus was his circumcision. That took place when he was eight days old, and it took place in Bethlehem where he was born. That was when Jesus was officially named. Mary names him Jesus because that was the name they were instructed to give him. They had been told to name him Jesus because the name means Yahveh saves. Through Jesus Yahveh God will save his people from their sins.

Today’s passage does not mention circumcision. There are two other old covenant rituals that Joseph and Mary performed forty days after Jesus was born.

Two rituals at the Temple (22-24)

22 Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons.

Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem to participate in two rituals according to the Mosaic law. First, there was the ritual of purification. Here is how the scriptures describe that ritual:

1 The LORD spoke to Moses: 2 “Tell the Israelites, ‘When a woman produces offspring and bears a male child, she will be unclean seven days, as she is unclean during the days of her menstruation. 3 On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised. 4 Then she will remain thirty-three days in blood purity. She must not touch anything holy and she must not enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled. 5 If she bears a female child, she will be impure fourteen days as during her menstrual flow, and she will remain sixty-six days in blood purity. 6 “‘When the days of her purification are completed for a son or for a daughter, she must bring a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering to the entrance of the Meeting Tent, to the priest. 7 The priest is to present it before the LORD and make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law of the one who bears a child, for the male or the female child. 8 If she cannot afford a sheep, then she must take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering, and the priest is to make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean.'” (Leviticus 12:1-8).

Jesus had already been circumcised according to this law on the eighth day. Now it had been forty days and it was time to declare Mary’s purification. The fact that Joseph and Mary presented the birds indicates that they were not rich enough to afford sheep. Even the animals that shared their space at Jesus’ birth were not theirs.

When we told the Christmas story during our Christmas program on the 11th, we were not quite accurate. One of the ways we were inaccurate is that we had the wise men join Mary and Joseph at the stable. That’s not how it happened. Even the Christmas carols we sing and the cards we send each other this time of year get it wrong. The star did not appear until later. The shepherds didn’t follow the star. And the wise men did not show up until much later. One of the reasons we know this is that if Joseph and Mary had been given gold on the night of Jesus’ birth, they would have offered sheep for Mary’s purification ritual.

The second ritual that Mary and Joseph performed at the temple that day was the ritual of presentation. Not every child is involved in this ritual. It only applies to the firstborn male. Here is how the law describes that ritual:

12 … you must give over to the LORD the first offspring of every womb. Every firstling of a beast that you have — the males will be the LORD’s. 13 Every firstling of a donkey you must redeem with a lamb, and if you do not redeem it, then you must break its neck. Every firstborn of your sons you must redeem. 14 In the future, when your son asks you ‘What is this?’ you are to tell him, ‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the land of slavery. (Exodus 13:12-14).

Because Jesus was the firstborn male of Joseph and Mary’s family, he was to be formally presented to the Lord and redeemed according to this law. The ritual celebrated God’s deliverance of all the firstborn males from the destroying angel in Egypt. When the destroying angel saw the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the Hebrew slaves, he did not enter those houses and take the lives of the firstborn males within them. The ritual celebrated that deliverance.

What Mary and Joseph did that day was to ritually redeem the Redeemer. They paid the price for their son, who would one day pay the price for everyone’s sons and daughters. The angels in heaven were watching.

Oh, and there were two others in the temple that day who were watching. From the two rituals in the temple, we move to the two prophets in the temple.

Two prophets at the temple (25-38)

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, 29 “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: 32 a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. 35 Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” 36 There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. 37 She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke had begun his Christmas stories with the story of two old people — Zechariah and Elizabeth. He concludes his Christmas stories by mentioning two more old people. Simeon and Anna. Note how Luke describes the character of these two prophets. Simeon is righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is upon him. Anna is a 91-year-old widow who never leaves the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.

It just so happens by God’s miraculous plan that these two old prophets meet up with this young couple and their newborn child that day. Both of them are in tune with what the Holy Spirit is doing, and both recognize that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Both of them give thanks to God and speak about the child Jesus, sharing what God had revealed to them with the others present in the temple that day. Both had been waiting for God to act, and this day was going to be the most important day in both their lives. In fact, Simeon’s prayer told the Lord that he was ready to depart in peace. He has seen the Savior as a child. The next time he sees him it will be at the resurrection.

But it’s not all good news. Simeon reveals to Mary that Jesus would not be accepted by all. The newborn king will bring peace on earth — but not to everyone. In fact, there will be terrible sorrow for Mary herself. No doubt Simeon was prophesying of the horrible day on which Mary watched her son die on the cross.

But the events of this day at the temple ended, and so the two parents got ready to go home.

Two parents leave the temple (39-40).

39 So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.

Luke does not tell us of the wise men’s visit, the star, or the gifts. He fast-forwards to Jesus being raised in Nazareth because the next story he wants to tell is of Jesus as a twelve-year-old returning to the same temple. But Luke’s message about Mary and Joseph is that they remained faithful to God and they got to be witnesses of their son — God’s Son — growing and becoming strong and wise. The same favor that God had blessed Mary with, he now imparts to her son.

As parents, that is what we want of our children. They won’t grow up to be the savior of the world — that job is taken. We only need one. But every parent wants to see their children blessed with wisdom and strength. It is also important that we end the Christmas story here. Christ is no longer a babe in a manger. He is now — and will forever be — God’s Son and our Savior and coming king.

We should all be thankful that God gave us his Son in such a precious and peaceful way. But we should also never forget that the next time we see him, it will not be as a helpless child, but as a warrior on a white horse, doing battle against all God’s enemies, and restoring order to his universe. The road that started in Bethlehem led to the cross in Jerusalem, but it didn’t stop there. He rose from the dead victorious and glorious. The glorious King is coming, and he is going to make all things new.

That’s when we will sing as we never have before – “Joy to the World, The Lord is Come.”


Photo by ArtHouse Studio on

20221218 The Shepherds’ Story

Luke 2:8-21 NET

Last week, we put on our congregation’s annual Christmas play. While we were observing the spectacle of all the angels, sheep, shepherds, wise men, and the odd King Herod, I was struck by the reality that this story has been told so often by so many. This is not a story that will die unnoticed. If the Lord gives us another thousand years to testify of his grace and to share his gospel, we will be telling the story of the Bethlehem shepherds even then.

Why do we tell this story? What is the significance of the fact that angels visited shepherds that night, and that the shepherds visited Mary and Joseph and saw a little boy asleep in a manger? Those are the questions that I want to address this morning.

Dr. Luke himself told us part of the answer when he introduced his biography. He told his friend Theophilus that “many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:1-3). He did this so that Theophilus would “know for certain” the things he was taught (1:4). All of the stories in the Bible are there for us to read, to listen to, to study — so that we can understand what God wants us to know.

God chose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on the good news (8-10).

8 Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people:

Suppose you were living in the town of Bethlem back then. What if you had a letter with important news in it. Would you give that letter to a shepherd? No, you would not. You have to understand something about shepherds in first-century Palestine. The shepherds were considered the lowest of the low. Because they had to keep watch over their sheep 24/7, they did not participate in any religious activities. They didn’t attend worship in the local synagogues. Because they did not participate in religious activities, they were considered unholy. Shepherding was not considered a noble profession — far from it.

Luke tells us that this group of shepherds was nearby — that is, nearby the town of Bethlehem. They were not in the town, they lived out in the field where the sheep were. They camped out with the animals. If they had business in town, people could see them coming a mile away. They could probably smell them coming two miles away.

Because of the nature of their work, and how they had to perform it, shepherds were not the most trusted. Even though king David himself had been a shepherd, there were no shepherd politicians in Bethlehem in the first century. So, my question is, why would God choose to reveal his good news to these shepherds. Why did he choose lowly shepherds for the important ministry of passing on that good news?

He chose them because they were lowly. He chose Zechariah and Elizabeth because they were old. He chose Mary because she was a virgin. He chose Joseph because he was a mere builder. God chooses to bless the poor to show us that his gospel is for everyone.

The angel who appears to the shepherds tells them that he has good news that can bring great joy to all the people. I want you to stop and think about that phrase “all the people.” Notice how comprehensive that phrase is. It includes everyone you will ever meet. It includes millions and billions of people you will never meet. You will not be able to reach all the people. But you can reach some. The shepherds were not able to reach all the people. But they tried to reach as many as they could.

Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves (11-16).

11 Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.”
16 So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger.

The shepherds did not immediately begin telling the inhabitants of Bethlehem about the presence of the newborn king. Notice the three things the angels said about this infant. They said he was the Savior. They said he was the Christ. They said he was the Lord.

Two of those terms were very familiar to everyone living in Bethlehem — in fact, everyone in the whole Roman empire. Caesar Augustus used the title Savior (Greek, Soter) of himself. He also used the title, Lord. People were used to saying “Caesar is Lord.” So, the titles Savior and Lord were political statements. They were slogans that identified the people who said them as political rebels, and traitors against the established government.

But these titles were even worse than that. Each of these titles was a religious designation.

Listen to Psalm 65:5. “You answer our prayers by performing awesome acts of deliverance, O God, our savior. All the ends of the earth trust in you, as well as those living across the wide seas.” This angel did not use the name, Jesus. That had been revealed by Gabriel earlier. Jesus in Hebrew is Yeshua — short for Yehoshua — and means Yahveh is salvation. Established religion had taught that God alone is the savior. So, to call this baby the Savior is to say that he had a unique standing before God.

The title Christ was even more specific. It was the Greek term that corresponded to the Hebrew Messiah, which means anointed one. It was a political term as well, but one that specifically identified the hope of a Jewish deliverer who would overthrow God’s enemies and rescue the Jews.

The title Lord was so specifically religious that when the Jews translated their Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, they used the term Lord (Greek Kurios) in place of the name of God.

What I am saying is that before these shepherds go spouting off all these things about a newborn, they had to see if it was true themselves. Is this child all that the angel had said about him? They went to see him. Before the shepherds could serve, they had to see Jesus for themselves. They saw him, and just seeing him was enough.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to tell the world about who Jesus really is. Don’t try to do this without coming to Jesus yourself. You need an experience with Jesus before you can tell anyone about who he is. You need a relationship before you can be a witness.

The shepherds’ ministry was testimony and worship (17-21).

17 When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child,
18 and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said.
19 But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.
20 So the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.
21 At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Once they saw that baby in the manger, they believed everything that they had been told about him. Their experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They did not have to go to Sunday School for twenty years in order to share their faith in Christ. They didn’t need to go to Bible college and seminary. All it took was one look.

As a result of their experience with Christ, they set out to share the good news of his existence with everyone in the town. It did not matter that they were low on the totem pole. Their status as lowly shepherds was irrelevant. They were not in Bethlehem to draw attention to themselves. Their message was all about that boy. That boy in the manger was the Savior. He is the Christ. He is the Lord.

The shepherds’ job was to get the message out. They related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. Luke does not say that everyone in Bethlehem believed what the shepherds told them. No doubt, some did believe. But the mission of the shepherds was to get the word out. The same is true of you and me. Our mission is to get the word out. Some will believe because of what we say. Others will not. Our task is to testify.

Notice that the shepherds ministered to Mary. They shared their testimony about Christ with her, and she pondered their words and added them to her own experience. Their testimony helped her to understand what the Lord was doing in her life.

The shepherds testified but they also did something else. On their way back to the fields, they were glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. These lowly shepherds, who could not participate in worship in the synagogues because of their job — were now worshiping God. They not only got the message of the gospel out to others, but that message changed them.

The message of the gospel is designed to change us as well. We come to Jesus because of something someone else has said about him. We meet Jesus and discover that what the witness has said is true. But when we return to our fields, we discover that we are different people. We might keep on watching our flocks by night, but we do so with a praise song that wasn’t there before.

The shepherds’ story is our story.


Photo by JINU JOSEPH on

Mary’s Story

Luke 1:26-55; 2:1-7

It had been five months since Zechariah had been interrupted at work by the angel Gabriel. He had not been able to speak since then.

The same angel who had visited Zechariah, also visited Mary (26-27).

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

The engagement of Mary and Joseph was a legally binding contract. If Joseph had died that year, Mary would have been a widow. God had a wonderful surprise in store for this young woman.

Mary’s first response was fear (28-29).

28 The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!”
29 But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting.

Many today are confused about the meaning of this greeting as well. They think it is a statement about Mary’s unique qualification to give birth to God’s Son. In fact, it was God’s favor — his grace that qualified Mary. It is that same grace that God offers to us. We have no reason to fear this good news.

Mary had not asked the same question that Zechariah had. She asked how what was predicted was going to happen since she was not in a physical relationship with Joseph yet. The angel’s answer: the Holy Spirit will do this. Mary (in essence) said, “sign me up.” If God is in this, I will sell myself to him to do his will. That is what faith sounds like.

Let’s compare the two angelic announcement stories. Look at what the angel had told Joseph:

“But as he thought about these things, see, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what has happened to her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21 JDV)

Joseph was told that Jesus would be a savior, but Mary was told that he would be a king. Joseph was encouraged to stay engaged to Mary because the Holy Spirit had been the source of her pregnancy. Mary was encouraged to not fear her situation because her pregnancy was not a disgrace, but a result of her being a recipient of God’s favor. Both had been told to name him Jesus, because he is the one who can rescue, and the one who will reign. He can deliver those who look to him for rescue, and his kingdom is the only one that will last forever.

But Gabriel’s explained that he had good news about Jesus (30-33).

30 So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God!
31 Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.
32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.
33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.”

The good news of Christmas is Christ himself. He is God’s gift to all of us. Have you opened that present?

Gabriel answered her question and gave evidence for his prophecy (34-37).

34 Mary said to the angel, “How will this be since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.
36 “And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age — although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month!
37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Elizabeth was the evidence Gabriel gave to verify his promise. The Jews said that it takes three people to have a baby: the mother, the father, and the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age was proof that the Holy Spirit was present in her life. Now, Mary needs to only recognize that the Holy Spirit is all she needs for the miracle to happen.

Mary accepted his word and investigated further (38-45)

38 So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah,
40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb!
43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me?
44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

John the Baptist’s first testimony of Christ took place while he was still in the uterus. Mary had gone to investigate the evidence that the angel had put forth. She found his words to have been true. The angel had told Zechariah that his son would be filled from the Holy Spirit from his mother’s uterus. Now, Elizabeth proclaims a prophecy coming from him while he is still en utero. She passes on a prophecy that John communicated via a kick.

Mary prophesied and praised God for his blessing (46-55).

46 And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord,
47 and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
48 because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
50 from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
55 as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This Magnificat of Mary was a prophetic word from the LORD about what he has done and is doing. Mary could have chosen to be a criticizing soul or a lamenting soul. She had lots of reasons to be those things. But she chose to be a celebrating soul. She looked beyond the temporary inconvenience and potential shame, and confusion. She chose to believe that God was calling her to a status of permanent blessedness and joy. She took hold of that joy and started celebrating.

Mary blessed the world by giving birth to its Savior (2:1-7)

1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes.
2 This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 Everyone went to his own town to be registered.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him, and who was expecting a child.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.

The census was politics at work, but God used it as a means to accomplish his will. She who had been blessed brought forth the blessing. God did not ask her to save the world. He simply called on her to do her part and let him do the rest.

God moved the mind of the emperor to make a royal command, and that was why Joseph went to Bethlehem. And, God sent an angel. And, God moved a prophet to predict it. And, God enabled Joseph and Mary to travel. Many circumstances conspired to bring that young couple to Bethlehem so that Mary could give birth to Jesus at that place, on that day.

As we look back on our lives, we also can see the hand of God at work in the commands of men, and the coincidences of life. He is sovereign and active.


Photo by Candis Hidalgo on


Zechariah’s Story

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.