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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Sing: Psalm 134: 1, 2, 3
Sing: Psalm 130; 2, 3
Read: Luke 1: 1-25
Sing: Psalm 132: 3, 6, 8, 10
Text: Luke 1: 5-25
Sing: Hymn 12: 1, 3, 5
Sing: Hymn 14: 1, 2, 4
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters,
How do you pray? What do you pray for? What kind of answer do you expect? Let me tell you about a young girl who once wrote a missionary to let him know that she was keeping him in her prayers. She had been told not to request a response to her letter because the missionary was very busy, so she began her letter with these words: “Dear Mr. Missionary, I am praying for you, but don’t worry, I am not expecting an answer.”
Isn't that how many of us pray? We pray that the Lord God help us in specific circumstances but we don’t really expect any answers. We are depressed because of the kinds of things that are happening around us and we want God to help us. We want him to give us a sense of well-being and security. We want him to allay our fears. We want to feel his presence. But, we don't really expect an answer. We expect things to keep on going the way they are, feeding our sense of helplessness.
In the text of this morning we see that God answers prayer. And that is why we have to rely on him. The theme is as follows:
The Lord God Hears the Priestly Prayer of Zachariah
1. A faithful priest;
2. A faithless priest;
3. A favoured priest.
It was a bleak time; first of all politically. The proud nation of Israel was a conquered nation. They were being controlled by foreigners. Rome had the nation in a tight grip. They had a king, King Herod the great, but as “friend and ally of the Romans” he was not a truly independent king. He was a puppet on a string. Rome did, however, allow him a domestic policy of his own. He had 10 wives, one of whom was executed for no apparent reason. Herod was ruthless and made the lives of the people miserable.
It was also a bleak time religiously. There had been no prophecy for at least 400 years. In the meantime, the leaders of the church had become steeped in tradition and were generally corrupt. They did not come with the comfort of God's word; they came only with the demand. The people did not live up to their expectations. And so their hearts were not into serving the Lord their God. They just went through the motions. They couldn’t do enough to please him anyway; things were not getting any better.
But there were some who continued to be faithful. Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth were among them. They were a devout couple who loved the Lord and who obediently served the Lord with heart and mind. The text says that they each belonged to the priestly class, and that Zachariah was a priest of the priestly division of Abijah. During biblical times, names were important. And so it is good to know the meaning of their names. The name Zachariah means: "The Lord remembers". The name has in view the covenant. The Lord God remembers his covenant. The name Elizabeth means literally: "My God is my oath". In other words, God is faithful. It is a name also mentioned in the Old Testament in Exodus 6:23, which was the name of the wife of Aaron.
We read that "Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." Other translations state that they were righteous before God. Something similar was said about Job. That does not mean that they were without sin. It only means that they were faithful to God's covenant laws. In spite of the lawlessness around them, they did their utmost to keep the laws of God. Zachariah and Elizabeth were pious people. They feared God. They took delight in the law of God.
But there was a great sorrow in their hearts. In the first place, they would have been sad about the political circumstances of their nation of Israel. It did not look good. They mourned the fact that Israel knew no influence in the world. They were waiting for the promised Messiah. They were waiting for the day that God would vindicate the nation Israel and make his promises come true.
There was also something in their personal lives that saddened them. Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. They had prayed about this many times when they were younger but now they were an older couple and they had given up hope. It was too late for them to conceive and bear children. Little did they know about the wonderful thing that was about to happen to them.
It was Zachariah's turn to serve in the Temple. The priestly class had been divided into 24 divisions. Abijah, one of those divisions, was the one that Zachariah belonged to. Each division took turns serving in the Temple. Each division would have had thousands and thousands of Levitical priests. The individual priests that belonged to each division, and the specific tasks and times that they would serve would therefore be decided by lot. A lot of them would never even get a turn. And only one of those priests would be allowed to burn incense. It was one of the holiest, and therefore also one of the most coveted, activities for it was done in front of the holy of holies. Only the high priest could go into the sanctuary itself, and then only on the Day of Atonement once a year. But an ordinary priest could burn incense in front of the holy of holies every day of the week. But such an honour would be given to you only once in a lifetime if you were blessed enough to have been chosen by lot. Zechariah was chosen, as an ordinary priest, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. At this time he was an old man, and so he would have been waiting for a long time to perform that wonderful task.
What exactly did he have to do? Well, he went into the holy place together with two assisting priests. The one priest would remove the coals that had burned up, and the other one would replenish them. On his right was the table of the bread of presence, and on his left, the menorah, the seven-branched candleholder. The incense would then be placed in the midst of those hot coals resulting in a cloud of smoke which would envelop the priest and the altar. From Leviticus 16:13 it would appear that the smoke was meant to protect the priest. The smoke was to remind him that God is a holy God and that man cannot see God lest he die. The smoke was a barrier between him and God. The smoke of the incense also symbolizes the prayers of the people. That was the main symbolism. We read in Psalm 141:2, "May my prayer be set before you like incense." And we read in Revelation 5:8 that the 24 elders were holding "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."
As Zachariah performs his duty, suddenly an angel appears on his right. The position of the angel is significant. The right side is a place of honour. It is a place from which you expect good things. In Zachariah's case it is an answer to his prayer. The Lord God has heard him, and he sends his emissary to give them that message personally. He sent his angel Gabriel. And yet, as Zachariah sees the angel he is gripped with fear. He is startled. That's understandable. It's so unexpected. You do not expect God to break through into this sinful world in this way. He is in heaven and we are on earth. There are good reasons why there are such barriers between us and him. It is because of sin.
But right away the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zachariah; your prayer has been heard." Many commentators believe that the prayer referred to here is the prayer of Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth for a child of their own; his prayer to God that he would open the womb of his wife Elizabeth. However, it is highly unlikely that that was the case. Zechariah knew that the time for bearing children had passed him and his wife by. He had already resigned himself to that fact. It is much more likely that the angel referred to the prayer that he sent up as he burned the incense. For it was the duty of the priest to send up a prayer to God on behalf of the people to redeem his people Israel and to send them the Messiah. It was a prayer for God to fulfill the promise that he had made so long ago already concerning the redemption of Israel. It was a prayer for God to redeem them, and that the kingdom of the Messiah would finally be ushered in.
It is that prayer that, as the angel says, the Lord God has heard. But, of course, there is a double joy for Zachariah. The angel said to him that his wife Elizabeth will bear him a son. That is the prayer that he and his wife had sent up to God many times in the past. And that is finally going to happen. What a joy.
But the greatest thing is that somehow the son to be born will have an important role in ushering in the new age of the Messiah. These two are closely connected, for listen to the kinds of things that the angel says about him. He says that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. He will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah and he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord. He says that he will be a joy and a delight to his parents and that many will rejoice because of his birth. He even says that he will be great in the sight of the Lord. His whole life will be dedicated to the Lord God. He will not drink wine or any other fermented drink; instead he will be filled with the Holy Spirit all the days of his life.
The angel tells him to call his name John. In Greek that is Joannes, which is derived from the Hebrew name Jochanan, meaning "the Lord is merciful". The important point here is that Zachariah is commanded to give him that name. The Lord God has a very important task in mind for him. We have come to the second point.
2. These are wonderful words spoken by an angel who directly came from heaven. But Zachariah does not believe him. He says, "How can I be sure of this?" You would think that Zachariah would be quite impressed by the presence of an angel. You would think that that would strengthen him in his faith. But that doesn't happen. Instead he has his doubts. There is first of all the problem of his age and the age of his wife. They are beyond childbearing years. Furthermore, what the angel is proposing here is something momentous. It would shake the foundations of the heavens and the earth. It would be a tremendous breakthrough for mankind. The stakes are too great for them to ponder. And so he asks for a sign. He does not want the sign to strengthen his faith, but to replace it. His unbelief is shown in the way one modern translation renders his words. He says, "Do you expect me to believe this?"
Zechariah, in spite of his piety, is still a child of his own world. He has lived a long time already on the earth. He has seen little change, except for the worse. He does not expect that things are going to change much. He has never seen that happen in his life. In spite of the fact that he prays to God on a regular basis; in spite of the fact that he keeps the laws of God as much as he can; in spite of the fact that he loves the Lord, he still cannot believe that God is going to bring about something as momentous as the angel is telling him.
Brothers and sisters, isn't that the way it often is with us as well? We too pray about many things. We regularly go to church. We try to keep God's laws. And we pray that the Lord God will help us in our specific circumstances. We pray for peace of mind. We pray that the Lord God will give us a godly partner, and that he will give us healthy children. We pray for many things. We also pray that the Lord Jesus may come again for the second time to claim his own. But, do we really expect an answer? Sometimes the answer is right in front of us, but we don't see it. We don't see how God can break through into this world of ours. But God does. He is constantly busy with you and with me. He constantly has his eye on us and helps us through life in our particular circumstances.
Look how he dealt with Zachariah. As is the case with any young man, when Zachariah was young he had all kinds of ambitions. He tried to picture what his life would be like. One thing that he really wanted was to serve in the temple and one day be chosen to serve in front of the holy of holies. No doubt he prayed regularly about this. But for the longest time it didn't happen. And then finally God answers his prayer. He is already an old man. By this time he had almost given up hope. But God remembers him.
Zachariah also wanted to have a child like everyone else. He desperately wanted to be a father. He also prayed about that, over and over. That didn't happen either. And, as far as he was concerned, it would never happen. And then the angel tells him that he is going to have a child after all.
Zechariah didn’t know it, but God had been planning these things from the very beginning. Zechariah and his family were going to be a part of God’s plan to offer salvation to the world. What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God’s work of preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for this incredible day.
Brothers and sisters, and that includes you young people, we are not any different from Zachariah. Did you know that God also has a very special and definite plan for each and every one of you? Especially you, young people, have many plans for your life. You want to have a partner. You want to make a family. You have many ambitions in life. At times it may seem that none of that is going to happen. And then you can become impatient. You want to make it happen yourself. You want to help God along. And so you start looking for a partner outside of the church. Or you go in a career direction that makes it hard for you to serve the Lord. You make compromises.
But what does the Lord God say to you and to me? He tells us to wait for him. He tells us that we are included as citizens of his kingdom and that he will also use us to further his kingdom, as long as we want to remain part of it. How do you wait for him? By being obedient, just like Zechariah and Elizabeth were. In spite of their disappointments, they continued to serve the Lord. They did not take things into their own hands. Zechariah continued to be busy with spiritual things. He continued to serve the Lord. He continued to be obedient.
However, Zachariah was human like the rest of us. He believed in the power of prayer, and yet, in spite of the fact that Zechariah was a godly man, he still did not believe when the angel told him that he was going to have a son. Even though the angel of the Lord came directly from God to tell him, Zechariah still wanted a sign.
Well, the angel gives him a sign all right. He gives the sign of silence. Zechariah will not be able to say a word until the day of his son's birth. The Lord God is merciful to him. He continues to favour him. We come to the third point.
3. The punishment that Zachariah received could have been much greater. For consider what just happened here. Zechariah is a priest of the Lord, serving in the temple. In the temple they make sacrifices every day. And they offer up incense. There are many ceremonies that they perform in the temple day in, day out. And what do these sacrifices and ceremonies point to? They all point to the coming of the Messiah. They are all designed to have the people focus on the coming Messiah. Zechariah at this moment is an integral part of those ceremonies. The Lord God uses him to have the people focus on that wonderful future reality of the coming of the Messianic Age. That is what the temple service was all about, that was the point of the temple service. And yet now, when it comes to the crunch, he doesn't believe. He doesn't believe that the Messianic Age is about to be ushered in, and that his son is going to have a very important part in all this.
It is a good thing that the Lord our God is such a merciful God; that he does not punish us according to our unbelief. For by rights, Zachariah should have been consumed by fire at that moment. The Lord nevertheless continues to favour him.
Brothers and sisters, that is the way it is for all of us. We also have a hard time believing, don't we? We have such a hard time putting our trust in God, and believing that he will fulfill his promises. We have a hard time believing that he will fulfill his promises in our own lives. And therefore God continues to call you and me to faith, to believe and to be obedient to him to the end of our days, for God will fulfill his plans for us.
When Zachariah left the altar of incense and went into the general temple area where the people were waiting for him, he was unable to give the priestly benediction. He was even unable to tell them what he had seen. The people were wondering why he had stayed so long in the temple area. They were concerned. The priest was not allowed to be any longer than necessary in front of the holy of holies. That was even the case on the Day of Atonement. The high priest could only spend very little time inside that sanctuary for that is where God symbolically dwells.
When Zachariah finally comes out, the people realize that he must have had a vision, for he was unable to speak. And so they leave without receiving the blessing. But, according to verse 23, Zechariah continued to serve in the temple until the time of his service was completed.
It would have been difficult for him to complete his week of ministry, in the first place because of his inability to communicate through the spoken word with the other priests, but also because of the excitement that he experienced. Because as soon as the angel introduced himself, and after he had given him the sign, the sign of silence, Zechariah was fully convinced that the miracle would take place. Not only is he going to have a son, but the Messiah is coming.
After that he goes home to Elizabeth. Luke does not tell us exactly what took place in the home of Zechariah as he told his wife what was going to happen. We do know that she too is full of joy, and that she recognizes that this is the Lord's doing. Also for her the joy is twofold. In the first place she realizes that the messianic age is about to be ushered in. That will have been her greatest joy. But it was also great joy for her to know that she is going to bear a child. In those days it was considered a punishment if you remained barren. The Bible does not say whether or not Elizabeth and Zachariah shared that belief, I somehow doubt it, but they would have felt the disdain of the people. The fact that she was barren was a shameful thing in the society of that day.
For that reason Elizabeth will have been all the more eager to share the good news with their neighbours. To tell them that she is pregnant. However we are told that she remains silent for five months. She voluntarily shuts herself in. Why? There are those who say that it was the custom in those days that pregnant women would not show themselves in public for the first five months of pregnancy. There is no real evidence of that however. Others say that she did not want to go out in public because she wanted to be sure that she was indeed pregnant. Maybe that’s true but we can't be certain. The most reliable commentators believe that she remained silent in order to share the silence and therefore the punishment with her husband. They are both very respectful of what God has done in making those promises to them and also in punishing unbelief.
The Lord God has favoured both her and her husband. The favour shown to them is the favour shown to all of us as well. At this time of the year we see the merchants preparing themselves for the Christmas season. There are all kinds of signs all around us: the decorations, the music, the Santa Clauses. It's all done for economic reasons. They want us to be prepared to open up our wallets.
Well, the Lord God also wants to prepare you. Not in order to open up your wallet for presents and all kinds of goodies, but in order to open up your hearts for the Messiah. He wants to prepare you by creating faith in your heart. He wants you to believe that that Messiah came to save the world and that he is coming again. He does not want us to be found without faith when he does come again. He wants you to believe that the Almighty God can and will break through into this sinful world. He will come to claim his own. He will come to claim those who believe in him. For those who do not believe in him will perish.
And so, let us pray for the coming of the Messiah. Let us pray in full confidence that he will answer our prayer, in one way or the other, in his time. "Come, O Lord Jesus, come!" Amen
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: www.edmontonimmanuel.ca
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. W.B. Slomp
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