Sermon: Zechariah

I’d like to invite the children forward at this time to take a seat in the first few rows. 

Christmas is coming soon, and at Christmas, Christian celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Right behind me, you might be able to see that we have a Nativity scene set up with many of the different characters in the Christmas story. This morning, I have with me Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest, and Elizabeth was his wife. 

The Bible says that Zechariah and Elizabeth are very old. How old do you think you need to be to be very old?

Zechariah and Elizabeth had wanted for a long time to have a baby, but they didn’t have one. They waited and they prayed to God for years – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, maybe more.

I wonder what it felt like to wait that long for something that important. 

Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, God’s people had waited a long time for something important – for God to come to judge and to rescue them. All their life, Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited and prayed for this. Their parents had waited and prayed. Their grandparents waited and prayed. Their great-grandparents. All the way back to Adam and Eve. They had been waiting and praying. That’s a long time to be waiting. 

But then, an angel appeared to Zechariah and told him God had heard their prayer. Not only would they have a baby, but that baby would grow up and get people ready for Jesus.

I wonder what it would have been like to be Zechariah. I wonder what it was like to hear from the angel after waiting for so long.

Before I let you head back to sit with your parents, I’d like to pray with you. So let’s bow our heads and close our ears and pray to God. Let’s pray.

God,

Thank you for this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Thank you for sending Jesus Christ into this world for us. We look forward to Jesus coming again. Amen. 

Sermon

The Word of the Lord comes to us today from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. Luke, chapter 1. Luke is in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you have a Bible with you this morning, I invite you to turn there with me and leave it open as we read and study God’s word this morning. Luke, chapter 1, verses 5 through 25. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me: 

Father, may Your Word be our rule,

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen. 

These are the very words of God.

In the time of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendent of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless, because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

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. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers 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 call him 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 before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents 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 said to him, “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 appointed 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 his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said, “in these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

These are the very words of God.

They had waited and they had prayed.

From those first few steps out of the Garden, Adam and Eve longed for restoration. The curse still fresh and feeling unnatural, like oil slick on the skin. God’s promise still ringing in their ears, the promise that the sin-producing deception of the snake would one day be reversed, “he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” Adam and Eve longed for restoration.

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

An elderly couple were promised a child, but so much more than a child. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Abraham & Sarah received the child, Isaac, but still waited for restoration – still waited for the day when blessing would pour out to every nation and cursing would be no more. 

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

450 years in slavery and the people of God groaned. They longed for freedom and restoration. For the whips to no longer crack over backs, for no more bricks to bake, for God to come with judgment on Egypt and liberation for God’s people, for the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled. The Lord came in power and overthrew the might of Egypt, led the people out through the parted water and into the wilderness. They were given a powerful taste of redemption, but Egypt still stood in its land and in their hearts. They longed to be truly free, to be truly whole. 

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

In the wilderness, the Lord took this people as his bride, sin and all. He loved them, cherished them, and provided for them. And he commanded them to sacrifice twice a day for their sins, and twice a day to offer prayers at the altar of incense. Prayers for deliverance, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for the coming of the Lord, prayers for the day when sacrifices would cease and the sin would be erased, prayers for the true mediator to come. Twice a day, every day, praying before the altar of incense. 

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

When the line of David fell into wickedness and brought the whole people down with it, the faithful cried out for deliverance. As Babylon descended upon Israel, uprooting its people and sending them into exile, the faithful longed for restoration. They longed for God to come again like he had done in Egypt, to come with judgment and liberation, to come to cleanse the people from their sin and turn them back to God. Seventy years in exile, and even after their return, the prayers for the day when the Lord would come rose with the incense at the altar.

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

As the wait grew, so did their longing. Nineveh became Babylon. Babylon became the Seleucids, The Seleucids became Rome. The oppression, the bloodshed, the pain only grew. And so did their cries. The people waited and hoped, clinging to the words of the prophet Malachi, “See I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” 

They longed for the day of the Lord to come, the day of fulfillment when all of God’s promises would be fulfilled. They longed for it, even in its terror. God’s judgment on the wicked, his unending grace and deliverance. They longed for the Lord himself to come and set the world aright that had gone so wrong.

For generations, they had waited and they had prayed.

All the way to an elderly couple, a priest and his wife, whose decades longing for the birth of a child echoed the generations of Israel’s longing for the coming of the Lord. Private and public prayer reverberated with the longing of God’s people for the Lord. 

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. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.

Zechariah and Elizabeth. It was finally Zechariah’s turn. With the number of priests and the pattern of rotation, it would have been rare for Zechariah to have the chance to enter the Holy Place in prayer. But it was finally his turn. As he sprinkled the incense on the alter and the sweet smell rose, what did he pray for? He certainly offered prayers for the people. His prayers before the Lord, lifted up like that incense, would have gathered the prayers of the people waiting and praying. 

Prayers for deliverance, prayers for wholeness, prayers for judgment and grace, prayers for redemption and the coming of God. 

Prayers of thanksgiving and repentance, prayers of longing and hope for Israel, for God’s people. 

Yet, as he spoke aloud these prayers for the people, would his heart have wandered to his own prayers, his own desires? For decades, Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Israel itself, had been waiting, hoping, and praying. Praying for new life, for a baby. But so far, there had been nothing but barrenness, nothing but emptiness. They had prayed for life, but found only the slow death of years passing by. 

For days and months and years they would have prayed for a child, only to still be empty, and even if Zechariah did not name those prayers there before the altar, they could not have been far from his heart. 

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.”

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

They had waited and they had prayed. 

Then the angel appeared and spoke: your prayer has been heard.

The prayers of an elderly couple for a baby, yes, but this is about so much more than a baby. Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard – not just the prayers he had spoken while out among the congregation, but the very prayers he had spoken before the altar – the prayers of the people – 

prayers for deliverance, prayers for God’s promises to be fulfilled, prayers for justice and liberation, prayers for God to send Elijah to prepare the way for his coming, prayers that God himself would come in power to redeem. 

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

Advent is the season of answered prayer. It is the season of longing and waiting for Jesus that joins with Israel’s longing and waiting. The Christmas story, the advent story, begins with longing and waiting, it begins with emptiness and the cry of prayer. I don’t know exactly how you are feeling entering into this advent season. Perhaps personally you are weary, you are empty, you are crying out and waiting for God to answer. Perhaps you can sympathize deeply this year with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Israel in Egypt, or Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

If you are entering this season of Advent groaning, you are not alone. You are not alone in this sanctuary, but you are also not alone among the people of God, for advent begins with longing and hoping and praying. Yet, Advent is a season of answered prayer. 

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.

God hears the prayers of Zechariah. His personal prayer for a child, yes, but much more than that. God hears the prayers of the ages, all the way back to just east of Eden, where the longing for redemption began. God hears and God has promised to answer. The beginning of that answer will be in a child named John. 

The time of fulfillment has come. If Jesus is the light of the world, John is the dawn. The first glimmer of light breaking in upon the darkness. 

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 before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel 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 parents toward their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. 

The day of the Lord has dawned, the Lord himself is coming. Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. The Lord himself is coming to bring justice and salvation. The time we have longed for, the time we have groaned for since those first few steps out of the garden has finally come. 

At this point in the gospel, there is no mention of the Messiah, no mention of the earthly figure who is God’s chosen. That will come later, he will come quite soon. John is called to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. John is tasked and filled with the Holy Spirit to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Jesus the Messiah will come, but John is called to make us ready. 

Zechariah utters in disbelief and then is silent for nine months. Silent before what the Lord will do.

Advent is a time of preparation. to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. John’s task was unique in the history of salvation, and yet the call is for all of us. To prepare the way of the Lord. 

Advent is a time of preparation. Prepare the way. The Lord himself has come, and the Lord himself is coming. In Advent, we enact the same passionate, active, patient waiting of Israel as we anticipate Christ’s return. We, like Israel, wait and we pray. We prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ by actively waiting and praying for this hurting and broken world. We join our prayers with Israel for redemption, for healing, for the light to dawn. We also prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ by considering our own lives before God. Advent is a time to unclutter, to reprioritize, to return to the Lord, not solely for the value of peace and simplicity, but to prepare for the coming of the Lord. 

If Jesus Christ is the light of the world, then John is the dawn. May we prepare our hearts, our minds, and our bodies for the Lord’s coming. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Please pray with me:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord, 

I have no good apart from you.”

Holy Spirit, prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ this Advent season, make us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and shape our lives to glorify the Father. 

Lord, may our hearts long for you with the passion of Israel, and may we rejoice evermore that you have come with justice and salvation, and may our hearts continue to yearn for your return. We pray all this in the name of Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: