The Hope of Zechariah
Passage: Luke 1:3–1:60
Good morning, please open your Bibles to Luke chapter 1. Today we begin our Advent sermon series entitled “The Hope of Christmas,” and this morning we are going to begin with the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and look closely at his own wrestling with hope, as we wrestle with ours in 2020. We have many reasons to cling to hope in these times of distress, and in such times it can be very easy to cling to false hope, false messiahs and false saviors. The first Advent of Christ reminds us where our hope must lie. In today’s sermon, we are going to look at the very first Christmas story: that of Zechariah, Elizabeth and the birth of their son, John the Baptist. But before we dive in, we must briefly construct the historical circumstances that this story takes place in to properly understand its impact.
The year is around 3 B.C. It’s been 400 years since anyone has heard anything from God. He was far from silent – he was working in some of the most dramatic manners you could ever fathom concerning world empires and the shifting of world powers – but no one in Israel had seen or heard him or an angel in 400 years. Rome ruled Israel, Herod’s huge and wonderous Temple stood in Jerusalem, and the Jews were in peace beneath the Romans, albeit a strained peace, one that was almost constantly challenged by radical groups in Israel trying to overthrow the Romans.
Now in these days there were estimated between 10-20,000 Levitical priests in Israel who not only served in the temple from time to time, but served almost as local teachers and expounders of the law. Having seen or heard nothing in centuries, no prophet having arisen, or angelic visitation, or inspired scripture written – things seemed quiet, but hope was high that all of God’s prophecies would come true one day, especially in their times of distress. It is here that we begin with the story of one of these many thousands of priests and his family – Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let’s begin in Luke 1: 5
 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.  But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. (ESV)
So here we are introduced to a man and his wife who were zealous for God, of priestly lineage, but had one major problem: no children. To understand the crisis this would have been, we must take a minute to explain the reality of a couple advancing the later years in life with no children during this time in history.
To begin with, you worked until you physically gave out, and then you looked to your children for help. There was no government assistance. And if you were old and you simply could no longer work, you look to your children to provide for you.
But what happened if you had no child? Your future was cloudy and grey indeed, and uncertain, especially for this priestly family who lived off the meager tithes and offerings from the Israelites.
There also is the inability for your own family to continue, fathers passing down their father’s name to the next child, and so forth. It was an honor and shame culture, and it was immensely important for your family to pass the family name down to your children, and especially your son, unless your family was shamed – it is difficult for us Americans to feel the weight of such shame, but in these days, your honor was more important than wealth, than vocational standing – it was more important than anything else. And this couple was facing a life ended with shame. This is their dark situation.
Now how many of you have ever prayed the same prayer for decades on end? Over and over and over again? Have you ever prayed something so many times that you feel utterly exhausted from the prayer, numb to it, at a loss for any expectation for it to ever be answered? We could only imagine the hundreds of prayers made by this couple for a child, often holding one another and weeping in prayer, and yet they approach old age with the lingering unanswered prayer. However, Zechariah suddenly finds himself in an unusual circumstance.
Our narrative continues:
 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.  And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. (ESV)
At this part in our story, Zechariah’s priestly division was on duty. This took place rarely, and even more rarely was the chance that, while on this duty to be chosen to actually enter the Temple itself to light the altar of incense inside the inner sanctuary of the Temple.
To be chosen for this duty was equivalent to winning the lottery. It was a once in a lifetime change, and even at that, unlikely to ever happen in your lifetime. But here is Zechariah, chosen to enter the Temple, pray and light incense.
Now the Temple served as the holy place where heaven met earth – God’s presence dwelt inside the Temple. Zechariah found himself in the inner sanctuary of the Temple, just feet away from the massive five inch thick sixty foot high veil that divided God’s presence, the holy of holies, and in a complete silence the priestly mass of many thousands awaited outside as Zechariah performed his temple duty. And as he strolled in this holy sanctuary, it is here that we see some evidence that Zechariah reached back in the vault of his mind and heart and said, “Here I am, just feet from the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies. I’m going to pray one more time for a son.” It was a hail-Mary prayer, a scattershot prayer, as his wife was far past child rearing years. But the hope lingered within, and we can ascertain that he probably prayed not only for a son, but also for the hope of Israel, for its consummation. Let’s read on:
 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.  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, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,  and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (ESV)
As he was praying, to his right, an angel appears. To feel the magnitude of this, remember, it’s been four-hundred years since any sort of vision has occurred, any sort of angelic visitation, anything audible from God, any prophetic announcement – nothing. But suddenly, he finds himself talking with an angel.
He was troubled and full of fear, as any person would. But pay close attention to how it begins: “Don’t be Afraid! God has heard your prayer, your wife will bear a son, and you will call him John"– but then he says "and you will have joy and gladness at his birth.” It is apparent that through the whole pronouncement, that God is about to do something big and dramatic on the scale of world history. Yet, even though he is working on such a massive scale, He is not so busy that he has forgotten just how much a sixty year old man who could never have children was mourning over the despair of his childless circumstance. This child was important, but first, says the Angel, you, Zechariah, will be full of joy and gladness. God is a God of compassion and mercy, caring for people like you and me.
It is here that we must take note: no prayer, even lifted up for decades, should ever be deemed as hopeless, as if we should simply quit and give up on it. We always have reason to hope, even in the times where our souls are cast down. As the psalmist said, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him.”
Returning to our story, this child as announced by the angel will be specially devoted to God, he will not drink wine or strong drink, reminiscent of a potentially life-long Nazarite vow that you see in Numbers chapter 6, just like Samson and Samuel in the stories of old.
The angel said that the Holy Spirit will fill this boy even from his womb – which is unprecedented in all of Scripture. And he will have a prophetic role in the turning of the hearts of Israel back to God, in order that he may prepare the way for someone much greater than himself, to carve out a path for another child that will supersede himself.
Now it is hard to imagine what Zechariah was thinking at this point. I am sure that his mind was racing to comprehend the extraordinary news. But first, he thinks of a very natural and expected question: “how shall I know it? I’m an old man, my wife is advanced in years.” Historically speaking, this couple was past sixty years of age. So how could his wife bear a child in such a time of life?
But if you read closely, what he really is asking for is a sign. In the likes of Moses, Gideon and others, he is not the first person to ask for a sign that can serve as a kind of stamp of proof of God’s plans. So far, all of this can be expected.
Now, if you see the angel’s response, we can gather that Zechariah not only prayed for a son, but also prayed for Israel, acting as a priestly intercessor on their behalf. The angel’s response is to both prayers, but both are responded to with only one answer. As it turns out, the coming child is part of the salvation of his people, for the clearing of the paths for it to arrive.
But Zechariah is found doubting these things. How could a prayer be uttered in one minute, only to be apparently doubted the very next minute, even if an angel was standing before you? Because he is a human being. He’s like you and me, and we can relate. His question revealing his doubts brought about a stern response from the angel. And now he should be trembling, because he learns that this is no common angel. The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God, I was sent to you to speak to you and bring you this Good News, and behold you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in due time.”
The people were waiting for Zechariah, they wondered at his delay in the Temple. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vison in the Temple. He kept making signs to them and remained mute, and when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. His prayer for a sign was answered. However, the prophetic silence of God would continue for just a few more months with Zechariah’s silence. It was not yet time for this coming Good News to go out, as Zechariah had something to learn in this process. Our story continues:
 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.” (ESV)
He communicates it to Elizabeth, and eventually in miraculous fashion, conceives. But what does she do? She also is silent about her pregnancy, she actually hides her pregnancy, apparently taking the lead from Zechariah’s silence. For five months she had kept her mouth silent and hidden. “For thus the Lord has done to me, to take away my reproach from among the people.”
Now at this part of our story, we are interrupted with a story from Mary and her visit from Gabriel, which we will hear about in a coming sermon. But after this interjection of Mary’s story, we arrive at the birth of this new miracle son named John, and we see the prophetic silence officially broken. The Word of the Lord:
 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father,  but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”  And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”  And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. (ESV)
The baby was born! And by now the town had heard the news. As was tradition, everyone came for the circumcision and the naming of the child. Usually what would be tradition as well, especially in this unusual case of this child being born so late in life, and this child being the only son and probably forever the only son, he must assuredly be named after his father, who was also named after his father. In this way, the family honor and legacy would continue. And in a way, the fathers of the family would continue their heritage and legacy through this son.
But to everyone’s other shock, Elizabeth, standing before her neighbors, unconventionally responds when asked what his name will be. It was a tradition to ask the question, almost rhetorical, as you know what the answer will be. He will be named after his father. Yet, Elizabeth responds with shock to all, “No, he will be called John.”
Here we see evidence of Elizabeth’s own faith. We don’t have a record of her wrestling with Zechariah’s vision and the words from Gabriel concerning this child, but somewhere throughout her pregnancy, she accepted the difficulty of God’s will for her coming son.
Now I want to really try to put this before you for what it was, as they stand there looking at this newborn child, and what really was before them. We’ve talked about their family honor, and how important it was for this son to continue the legacy of receiving the father’s name in this ancient culture. It must also be said that, knowing the financial insecurity of their future, that the office of prophet that John would fulfill would not be a stable future. In Israel’s past, prophets were commonly driven from the people, pushed away to the outskirts of society, were constantly in danger, and had shorter life spans than most, as many were killed for their office. If Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a secure future from their son, this was not very promising. Elizabeth seems to have accepted all of this with great and tremendous faith.
And now we come back to Zechariah. We don’t have much information on exactly what Zechariah was feeling at this moment, but apparently at this moment when the naming of his son was brought to him, to confirm or not affirm the words of Elizabeth, he lingered. Everyone wondered in amazement, staring at Zechariah, wondering what his response would be.
The tension was felt that just maybe Zechariah and Elizabeth were not on the same page. They all looked to Zechariah, still mute, trying to get a response from him. And here, through Zechariah’s lingering, we can say this: he was being confronted with Christ. In this moment, two paths lay before him. Right now, this man could reject it all. He could say, “no, I am not naming him John. He is not to be a prophet. I am going to stick to the honor of my family, and ensure that I can secure my future as any father would have the right to do by their son. This son is my own.” Or, Zechariah could take heed to Gabriel’s words. Either way, before Christ was even born, Zechariah was confronted with his coming, and Zechariah’s ultimate hopes were being challenged in this very moment.
May we pause right now, and recognize that Jesus, right now, wants to confront you. His first Advent was just that, and he still does this today. And when he confronts you, like Zechariah, your hopes and fears and doubts are surfaced and challenged. The dark places in your heart may be exposed. Jesus wants all of you, and he may ask you to give up even the things you hold nearest and dearest to your own heart – as often we hope in these more than God himself – by his Spirit he wants to draw out a faith and trust that ultimately belongs to God and God alone. Faith is just that: it is the self-denying, abandonment of self and the laying up of your entire lives to God. It is you losing rights over your own life and your own future, and the ultimate submission of it all to God’s will. He has a plan to work out through you – how will you respond? How are you responding? Will you kick against him until, like Paul, you are literally knocked off your high horse and blinded before you accept it? Will you kick against him like Zechariah and lose your ability to speak before you accept it? Jesus is in the business of confronting you, he will never leave you alone until he gets all of you, all of your devotion, all of your submission. And this is the wrestling match we see Zechariah having in this crucial moment in his life.
And here you can catch the suspense, you can see that a change is happening in Zechariah, a potential alteration in his heart. Zechariah, probably a broken man over the weight of his own doubts, knows what he must do. Therefore, Zechariah takes action.
 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.  And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.  And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea,  and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. (ESV)
This is a divine moment, everyone recognizing that they are witnessing God act right before their eyes. And God is not done, for unexpected to everyone, the ordinary man Zechariah enters the office of prophet. When his tongue is loosened, he prophesies.
“And after his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesized, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his Holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us, to show the mercy promised to our fathers to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to his father Abraham, to grant us that we would be delivered from the hand of our enemies, and might serve him without fear, and with holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
And now you can imagine him holding up his new child as he continues, saying
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide out feet into the way of peace.”
 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
As we bring this sermon to a close, what we find in Zechariah’s prophecy is a summary of all the hopes and longings that a trampled and heavily trodden people have. From the covenant given to Abraham to bless all families of the earth, to the promise of a new and better King David to sit on the throne forever and ever, that not only would God reestablish his Kingdom, but he would do something even bigger: he would offer forgiveness of sins, he would light up the dark places of humanity, and would guide our feet into ways of peace. Zechariah’s own plans for his life decreased and vanished as he joyfully embraced God’s will for his life. In summary, it was Zechariah and his own will that decreased, and God and his will that increased.
And now, Zechariah and Elizabeth vanish from the pages of history. Their precious son does indeed become a strong prophet, the mightiest prophet who ever lived, said Jesus. He does indeed prepare the pathways for Jesus to arrive. And like his father Zechariah, he one day is also confronted with Jesus. As Jesus’ ministry began some thirty years later, he began eclipsing the ministry of John, and even John’s own disciples were leaving him to follow Jesus. The story goes like this:
John 3  And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” (ESV)
John was confronted with Jesus, and he uttered those famous words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Living out our hope in the Good News of Jesus Christ can rightly be summed up in that statement. May you, like Zechariah, Elizabeth and John, once again be confronted with the coming of Christ, and may your hopes be aligned to his salvation, his paths, and may you have the boldness to utter the same prayer: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Let’s pray.