Series: The Christmas Story
Read Luke 1:5-25
Luke presents the Christmas story by announcing both the births of John the Baptist as well as Jesus. Luke is the only gospel writer who recounts the birth of John the Baptist. He places the two babies side by side so you will compare them closely. He begins in Luke 1:5-25 with the announcement of John’s birth to Zechariah, his father. Then in Luke 1:26-38 comes the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary, his mother. Then in Luke 1:39-56 a connection between the two is made as Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and magnifies the Lord. Then in Luke 1:57-80 comes the birth of John and his father’s song of praise. Lastly, this is followed in Luke 2:1-20 by the birth of Jesus and the song of the angels. So there is clearly a pattern in Luke’s presentation. Announcement of John – Announcement of Jesus; Birth of John – Birth of Jesus; A link between the two pairs as Mary and Elizabeth, pregnant with these two unexpected children, meet each other. Again, Luke wants the reader to compare and contrast Jesus and John the Baptist. Both children are announced in advance by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:11, 28), both births are miraculous, and in both cases the angel tells what the name should be (Luke 1:13, 31).
But the Luke doesn’t simply wish to show us the similarities between the two, he also wants to show us the differences. Where John will be something in the days to come, Jesus is already someone at His birth. The first two chapters then form a section within Luke, as both tell us of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. This is a story about an old man in the Temple while Luke will later tell us about a young man in the Temple in Luke 2:41-51, the twelve-year old Jesus. And the narrative of Luke’s story of these two babies’ birth begins in the Temple and it will end in the Temple. Luke records for us the reactions of Zechariah, his wife Elizabeth, and Mary (while Matthew’s gospel tells us about the reaction of Joseph, Mary’s soon-to-be husband). And while we will see their reactions in the days to come, it is Zechariah’s reaction that is in front of us today.
1. Meaningless Details
There’s hidden value underneath what many modern readers would think is nothing more than meaningless details. Let me show you.
Luke’s story doesn’t begin with the words, ”Once upon a time.” Instead, he gives a marker where we can date the story:”In the days of Herod, king of Judea,” (Luke 1:5a). Herod the Great reigned as a Jewish ruler from 37-4 BC and he was granted authority to rule by the Roman Senate and Mac Anthony in 40 BC. Today’s story happened near the end of Herod’s rule when you bring Matthew’s gospel into play. So the events of today would have occurred around 4 BC.
1.2 Once in a Lifetime
”Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Luke 1:8-9). The twenty-four divisions of priests alternated by performing their duties in the temple for one week twice a year. Zechariah belonged to the eighth division of the twenty-four, or the division of ”the division of Abijah” (Luke 1:5). Zechariah was one of some 18,000 priests. And while burning incense was a daily ritual at the Temple in the morning and evening, because there were so many priests, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. He had a one in 18,000 chance to be selected. You have a one in one million chance of being struck by lightning. You have a one in 12,300 chance of dying in an automobile accident. And a one in 18,000 chance of being murdered. You have one chance in over 11,000 of bowling a perfect score. And you have one chance in 5,000 of getting a hole in one.
Yet, there is a second meaningless detail that will occur in Luke’s story. Mary and Joseph will go to Bethlehem because none other than Caesar Augustus feels that all the world should be registered. God had made a prediction that His Son, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5) but the Messiah’s parents were in Nazareth. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary are all little people. Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus are the ”movers and shakers” of their day. ”The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). God moves giant industrial complexes and mammoth political forces all without them even knowing it.
Every year, Zechariah goes to Jerusalem, they roll the dice: loser, loser, loser, loser, never gets picked. ”The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33). How many times did they roll those dice before the lot fell on Zechariah? How many years did he go to Jerusalem before he was selected? I marvel at this the Meaningless Details.
2. How Will I Know This?
2.1 A Long Time in Coming
When you read this story, Luke intends you to hear the echo of some of the most familiar Old Testament stories such as Abraham and Sarah. At the time of our story, it had been four hundred years since anything significant had happened in Israel. The last book of your Old Testament says these words of one who was to come: ”Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). John the Baptist is the Elijah who was to come.
2.2 Zechariah Didn’t Believe
During the afternoon sacrifice, burning the incense was the last thing Zechariah did. Zechariah would bring burning coals from the altar into the chamber of the Holy Place. He would bring the incense to a wooden altar that was three feet high and 1.5 feet in width and length. This altar would have been just directly in front of the veil that separated the inner most room, known as the Most Holy place. He would have placed the incense on the heated altar and then prostrated himself in prayer. And while this is going on inside, the people were praying outside. It was then that an angel appears to him. And Zechariah said to the angel, ”How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Not believing God is always sin. Zechariah did not believe. But he was a believer: ”And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Like Abraham before him, his faith temporarily wavered.
2.3 Zechariah Prayed for a Child
We are told Zechariah was actually praying for a child: ”…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…”’ (Luke 1:13). Think of it: The angel in front of him was actually there in response to the prayers Zechariah had prayed. I marvel at this: How can a man pray for so long and then fail to believe when his answer arrives?
2.4 Adding Insult to Injury – Three Factors
The man in front of us was not an atheist but a priest. And he wasn’t a new priest but an old priest – he was experienced. When he wasn’t working in the Temple the two weeks a year and on major religious holidays, he would have instructed people on God’s Word.
Teaching people to believe in God was his job. And he was a trusted friend and servant of God. Why else would God Himself dispatch His angel other than Zechariah was close to God? If a stranger doubts us, we pass it off by saying to ourselves, ”They don’t know us.” But if a close friend or our spouses doubt us, it cuts all the more deeply. Surely, Zechariah grieved the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). Evidently, an angel wasn’t sufficient evidence for him. If he didn’t believe God would give him a child, why did he pray to God for a child? Maybe Zechariah had quit praying for a child? Perhaps he simply stopped praying after his wife and him had reached a certain age when he thought having children was no longer possible.
Nothing would surprise some of us more than for God to answer our prayers. We pray with so little confidence that when God shows up, we are amazed. Surely the fact that he prayed and then failed to belief, added to the weight of his sin.
2.5 Can I Ask God for a Sign?
Zachariah was a much better man than most of us and yet, he sinned by asking for a sign. Is it wrong to ask God for a sign? Not in every case. ”Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’ But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’ And he said, ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”’ (Isaiah 7:10-14). For Zechariah – it was sinful to ask but for Ahaz – it was sinful not to ask. Abraham asked God, ”O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it” (Genesis 15:8)? Why did God answer Abraham’s request and not Zechariah’s? Abraham had already believed and waited for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Before you ask, ”Lord, show me a sign,” you must believe first. To believe the Lord first and then ask for confirmation is different that to demand for a sign. An official came to Jesus once to ask the Master than his son would be healed. Jesus said to the official: ”Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48). Jesus refused to go with the man but said, ”Go; your son will live” (John 4:50). The Bible says that the man believed Jesus right then and there and he went on his way (John 4:50).
2.6. Zechariah Goes Silent
Zechariah unbelief was met by the angel’s words: ”…you will be silent and unable to speak…” (Luke 1:20b). Zechariah was to leave the Temple in a just a few minutes and pronounce a blessing on the people. But in the wisdom of God, the angel made his tongue and lips useless for a time. A priest who doesn’t believe God doesn’t have any business telling God’s people that God will bless them. After all, if God couldn’t do what the angel promised wasn’t Zechariah’s blessing nothing more than an empty promise?
2.7 Elizabeth Believes
It’s noteworthy to notice that while Zechariah fails to believe, his wife promptly believes: ”After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people”’ (Luke 1:24-25). This is the reverse of Abraham and Sarah. It was there that Abraham, the husband, believed and Sarah, the wife, doubted. Only here, it is the wife who believes and the husband who doubts. And this will be the case with Mary and Joseph. She will believe and say, ”Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While Joseph doubts.
3. God’s Delay Isn’t His Denial
The Bible is filled with examples of how God uses a long process to bring about His purposes. A prophet named Habakkuk tells us to be patient with these words: ”If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3b).
3.1 God is Merciful to Us
Zechariah asks for a sign and God gives him a sign. Zechariah’s silence is his punishment but it’s also the very thing he asked for. You see, oftentimes God causes us to go outside to get limb that He will spank us with. As we will see in the weeks to come, God’s punishment will be for Zechariah’s benefit. Instead of striking Zechariah silent, God could have struck him dead. God could have said, ”Zechariah, because you don’t believe, your wife will not have a son. John will be born but he will come to another’s house.” ”if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
3.2 How Should We Respond?
Do you remember when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in the position before King Nebuchadnezzar, and about to be thrown into the fire? Here their words: ”If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king” (Daniel 3:17). This is the spirit of how we should walk before our God. If our cattle are destroyed and my children are cut down in their prime, if all your stuff is swept away, and if your wife taunts your naïve belief in God. If you are covered with boil and you sit down on a dunghill to but scrape yourself with pottery scraps. If your best friends turn out to be miserable friends and counselors. Then you are to say: ”Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” (Job 13:15a). Will you denounce your allegiance to God Himself if your business ceases to thrive? What if He delays when your health fails? What happens if your children are ravaged by a fatal epidemic? What will you say? ”For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27a). ”Unbelief will destroy the best of us; faith will save the worst of us.”
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