Last summer my wife Becky and I were shopping for a used car for our daughters. We ended up purchasing a Toyota 4Runner. Then it dawned on me: what a perfect car for a preacher’s kid! Jesus had a 4Runner – a forerunner – named John the Baptist. This morning, as we begin our sermon series “The Many Moods of Christmas” with the mood of expectation, let’s look at the birth of John the Baptist, forerunner of the Messiah. Our Scripture passage is
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. [Now this was a huge moment for Zechariah. Of Israel’s 20,000 priests, only a tiny handful ever had their names drawn in a lifetime of service to go and burn incense in the Holy of Holies.] And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When time had passed and the baby was born, Zechariah regained his voice. Beginning in
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.
Lord Christ, send your angel to us this morning even as you did to Zechariah, and startle us with a fresh vision of your glory and majesty We pray that this Advent you would be greater for us than ever before, as we look expectantly to your coming in the flesh and bone of Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was the greatest moment of Zechariah’s life. There he stood inside the holy place of the Temple. Before him was the golden seven-branched lamp stand, to his left was the great candlestick, and on his right the table of shewbread. Just beyond was the veil of the Holy of Holies itself, where in a few moments he would enter and burn a pinch of incense. He had rehearsed this moment hundreds of times: how it would feel, what he would do, what prayers he would say. He was in his sixties when his name was finally drawn. So there he stood, reciting prayers he had waited a lifetime to offer. And Zechariah had a lot on his mind, many matters to lift to God in prayer.
First there was the feeling of hopelessness among his people. Since the days of Kings David and Solomon, Israel had been in decline. The current King, Herod, was a sad joke, a tyrant who abused his people while groveling before Rome. Oh yes, the Jews dimly remembered a promise tucked away in Scripture of one who would come to be King of Kings. But prayers so long unanswered were often now unsaid.
The sense of longing for a King who would never come was echoed by Zechariah’s personal tragedy: the longing for a baby that never arrived. His wife Elizabeth was “barren.” Barren: what an awful word. Childlessness – a condition couples often choose deliberately today – was understood in ancient Israel to be a disgrace and a curse, a punishment for sin. So mingled with his prayers for his people were Zechariah’s prayers for Zechariah.
He was deep in prayer when suddenly, with a great flash of light, an angel appeared before the altar – an angel in the holy place! Instinctively he threw up his hands to shield his face and turned to run. The angel cried out, “Fear not, Zechariah!” and dropped a bombshell: “Your wife Elizabeth is going to have a son.”
“A son? Did you say a son?”
“Yes, Zechariah! Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
The angel proceeded to launch into a poem extolling the virtues of Zechariah’s son. He would be a national hero, the pride of his nation. Not the Messiah, but a prophet on a par with Elijah himself, one who would turn the people’s hearts back to God, and yes, he would blaze a highway for the coming Messiah. Can’t you just imagine Gabriel crossing his great glistening wings as he spoke? He had been waiting millions of years to deliver this good news.
Only Zechariah wouldn’t believe it! “Yeah, right,” he replied skeptically. “How can I believe what you say? After all, I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Have you ever noticed that the best news is always the hardest to believe? Life teaches us early on that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you open your mailbox this week and come across an envelope that says, “You are a ten million dollar winner!” – what will you do? It would be nice to think that the proper response would be to throw your Christmas cards up in the air and run down the street screaming at the top of your lungs and weeping for joy; maybe you could promise to buy all your neighbors new Mercedes Benz convertibles for Christmas. When my kids when were small, they used to believe those envelopes. “Daddy!” they would cry, “We’re rich! We’re rich!” Now they toss ’em just like I do. Some people read the gospel the way we read the message on the outside of those envelopes. They are quick to respond, “Yeah, right.” And can we blame them? Our central Christmas story is this fabulous tale about a God who came to earth and was born as a helpless infant in order to woo and win our hearts. Out of love for us, he grew up and died so that we might spend eternity with him. You tell me – doesn’t that sound too good to be true?
There’s a scene in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus appears to the disciples after his death. Scripture says, “They disbelieved for joy.” The best news is always the hardest to believe. Why is that? Zechariah and Elizabeth provide us with insight into that question. Over the years, they had found ways of coping with the pain and disappointment of not being able to have a child of their own. But they were not willing to reopen that wound by allowing their hopes to be raised one last time, only to be dashed again. That last disappointment would be a blow from which they could never recover. The fear of disappointed expectation was so great that Zechariah basically told an angel, God’s special messenger sent to sing tidings of wonderful good news especially to him: “Go away. Get out of my life.”
Some of us have suffered great disappointments in life: in love, in our careers, in our family relations, in our health. Long ago, we may have believed that God really would give us the desires of our heart. Then when the prize-winning envelope from God arrived and we tore it open, it was empty, or so we thought. And like Zechariah, we still come to church, but our expectations of God are a lot lower than they once were.
My friend, I am here to deliver some news that may jolt you: Gabriel has landed. The angel of God, mighty and terrible, is here among us today. He is here to raise our expectations higher than they’ve ever been before. And if you choose to disbelieve him, he may say to you what he said to Zechariah: “Shut up.” Believe me, it is an awful thing to tell a clergyman to “be silent.” Zechariah was struck with laryngitis for nine months. (Of course, I didn’t say much either when my wife was pregnant; and what I did say didn’t seem to matter much.) The angel tells Zechariah, “Because you did not believe, you will be unable to speak until the baby is born. Zechariah, I am rendering you speechless so that you may at last hear what God is saying to you.”
This morning let us be silent enough to hear what God is saying to us. And let us try to understand what God was saying to Zechariah.
First, God was saying to Zechariah, my timing is perfect. As the angel says in verse 20, “my words . . . will come true at their proper time.”
Jay Kesler writes
Most people, when they think of Christmas, think of camels, swaddling clothes and a manger. But I think of a Ford motor plant. One year I toured the plant and watched them assemble cars. It was an eye-opener. I’d always had the idea Ford would guess how many cars they needed and make that many. They’d decide to make green cars one day and they’d make two or three thousand. Then they’d switch to some other color But of course that’s not the way they do it. All over America, people walk into Ford dealerships, look around, kick a few tires and then order a car, a certain model with specific equipment, color, roof, transmission. The dealer fills out a computer card, and then an order is placed with Ford. In one city they make the correct transmission. In another city they make vinyl roofs. And in another mirrors. All these places start feeding their products toward the Ford plant. The Ford plant has a man who puts on steering wheels. The cars come down the lines, and when the green cars come, you can bet he doesn’t get a red steering wheel to put on. At exactly the right time the green steering wheels are there. He reaches out and grabs one and sticks it on. That’s what happens with each part. The mirror, the roof, the seat covers – every part shows up at precisely the right instant.
Now if man is capable of designing such an ingenious system to bring thousands of events and people together with precision timing just to make a car, well, imagine what God can do in preparing his visit to earth! That’s what I think of at Christmas. The number of things God brought together at one time in one place are so incredible, it makes the Ford plant look like the corner gas station.
Zechariah was one piece in God’s big plan. And so are you. And if you want to be a part of God’s plan, the price is this: you have to give up control and let God guide events.
Do you sometimes feel like life is a movie, and you arrived at the theatre twenty minutes late? And nothing around you makes any sense at all? Well, my friend, all I can say is . . . get used to it. We are Christians, and our faith teaches us that a terrible, bloody crucifixion turned out to be the high watermark of love on this planet, the key to God’s plan for the ages. After that, what could ever possibly make sense? What we have to do is to entrust our entire being to the care of a loving God, and live in the faith that he knows what he’s doing, even when he leaves us in the dark, without a clue.
Sometimes the dark can be scary, and sometimes frustrating. We want to protest against events that seem arbitrary and unfair. We can begin to feel like the college sophomore who was enrolled in a class on ornithology, the study of birds. His professor was notoriously difficult, so the sophomore studied his brains out for the final. He came into the classroom on exam day feeling well prepared. But instead of finding a normal test on his desk, he looked up on the wall and saw pictures of 25 different pairs of birds’ feet. For the exam, the students were supposed to identify the birds’ species by their feet! The kid went nuts, exclaiming to the professor, “This is crazy! Nobody could pass this test.” The professor responded, “Nevertheless, you have to take it.” The kid insisted, “I’m not going to take it.” And the professor, equally insistent, said, “You have to take it, or you fail.” Defiantly, the kid said, “Go ahead and fail me. I’m not going to take this test.” And the professor lost control, “All right. That’s it. You’ve failed. Tell me your name.” So the kid kicked off his shoes, rolled his pants up to his knees, and said, “You tell me.”
From our limited perspective, life can seem very confusing. But God sees the whole picture. He says, “Zechariah, this is what I have in store for your son. Now you see why I’ve waited so long.” His timing is perfect.
The second thing God was communicating to Zechariah was the opportunity to get his sense of expectation back. By being forced to listen in silence to God over those nine months, Zechariah was able to renew his hopeful spirit. Human beings cannot live without hope, and we need two kinds: “inside hope” and “outside hope.” The promise of both kinds of hope can be found in the Bible. Our “inside hope” is the confident expectation within us that keeps us going; the Bible says this type of hope is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But our inside hope will die unless it is pinned to an outside reality, and by definition, the reality you hope for is a future reality. As Paul says in Romans 8:24: “Who hopes for what he already has?” If you have it, hope isn’t necessary.
Zechariah pins his inner longings to the outward promise of the coming of the Messiah. And by the end of Luke chapter 1, this formerly dejected man, whose hopes were once as low as his shoe tops, is sitting on cloud nine with his toes dangling in stardust, singing his own song of expectation, the song of Zechariah: “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Friends, you and I can pin our hope to the same high place Zechariah did, on the power of God to fulfill his promises and bring in his kingdom: a kingdom that will turn this world into the place God intended at its creation, where the graves will open and we get our friends back, and you and I will at last look in the mirror and see the very people we were created to be. Our interior longing is pinned to an exterior promise, and so, as Paul says in Romans 5:4, “hope does not disappoint us.”
You may ask, what evidence do we have that the kingdom will come? Well friend, our evidence is the very reason we celebrate Christmas. We know the Kingdom will come because our King has already come. One day Jesus will reign as King and Lord over this earth in the Kingdom of God. We don’t see the kingdom, but we see the King. Jesus is our hope.
Let me tell you a wonderful true story. In a suburban community in America, there was a growing church. It was always full of activity and noise: lots of people and blaring music and traffic and teenagers and mission trips. A group of people in the neighborhood surrounding the church put together a petition, which would require the church to keep quieter, and they went door-to-door gathering signatures. They knocked on the door of a Jewish man and asked him to sign their petition. The Jewish man said, “What’s the problem?” They told him, “These Christians over here are noisy.” The Jewish man said, “I won’t sign that.” They asked him, “Why not? You’re Jewish. You don’t believe in Jesus Christ.” He said, “I know. But if I believed what those Christians believe, that the Messiah has come, I’d be a lot noisier than they are.”
My friend, whatever your struggle this morning, whatever your disappointment, I want you to be quiet for a moment, long enough for my words to sink in. I have news so good that if it isn’t true, it will break our hearts. But if it is true . . . nothing we dreamed of or hoped for is beyond our grasp. God came to earth as a human infant. Today we know his heart is a heart of love. We have his Word that just around the corner a whole new world awaits us, where Jesus is King. Is that too good to be true? Or could it be too good not to be true?
Lord, make us bold enough to believe your wondrous good news this morning. Help us to forget our defense mechanisms, our fear of disappointed expectations, and our skeptical questions. Let us pin our inside hopes on your outside promises of a future in which your son Jesus Christ is King of Kings in our world. Help us to be silent and to give control to you, to trust your timing in our lives. Lord, as we sit here in your temple, surprise us with a Gabriel. Let there be wonders and miracles the likes of which we’ve never seen, and let our hearts be bold enough to respond to your good news with songs of joy and praise. We ask these things with hearts full of hope and expectation, in the name of your precious son, as we await his coming. Amen.
Victor D. Pentz is Senior Minister of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.