Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,
I’m not sure when it became popular, but prequels are all the rage these days. Its a good way for a franchise—like Star Wars—to stretch out the story and make more money, I suppose.
A prequel is essentially the story before the story. Its the events and circumstances that prepare the way for the main story.
In a way, the entire Old Testament is a giant prequel to the main attraction: the life death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. But if we were to identity one story within the story, that builds anticipation, and prepares the way for the birth of the Messiah, I can think of no better story to tell than that of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their miracle child, John.
God’s gracious work in their life is a sign that God is on the move. Preparing the world for the birth of his son.
Zechariah and Elizabeth. What do we know about these characters?
A few things.
1: Firstly, they lived during the reign of Herod the Great.
In 37 B.C. the Roman Senate installed Herod as ruler over Judea. Herod had been working towards this end for some time. And when they made him King, he wasted no time working to see his political dreams become reality.
Herod was called Herod the Great because he was a great builder. He built colosseums, temples, aqueducts, fortresses. Some of those things are still there!
Arguably Herod’s favourite building project was a fortress he built called the Herodian. The Herodian was a built on a hill in Southern Judah, just south of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Rumour has it that Herod had the hill moved, and built it up, just so he could have a better view of the city.
The man had vision. He also thought quite highly of himself. He wanted people to think of him as the greatest King in Israel since King David. But really, he was just a Roman pawn; concerned more with consolidating power than following the Lord’s decrees.
So, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t live in the best of times. Being residents of the hill country of Judea, they lived in the shadow of the hill that Herod moved.
Herod was everywhere. Signs of Roman occupation were everywhere.
But the work and presence of the Lord, at this time, was hard to see. These years, the intertestimental period. The period between the closing of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New are sometimes even referred to as the silent years.
“Where is the Lord?” The people were asking. “Will he remember his covenant with us? Will he come and be gracious too us again?
2: But even though the times were tough, Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t stray in their devotion.
Luke highlights their impeccable spiritual pedigree and moral standing. Zechariah was a priest in the division of Abijah. And Elizabeth was a descendent of Israel’s first high priest, Aaron. Together, they were blameless—observing all of the Lord’s commands.
3: But while Zechariah and Elizabeth were full of righteousness, there was still an emptiness in their life. They couldn’t get pregnant. And they were getting on in years.
I’m sure that they asked all the heart wrenching questions that are so common with couples that want children, but can’t have them. Why us? Why doesn’t God give us the reward of children? Did we do something wrong? Are we being punished in some way?
Some of you know, first hand, the sorrow that Elizabeth and Zechariah felt.
Childlessness in the O.T. was generally seen as a reproach. A sign that God’s favour wasn’t on a family. It was a situation that brought about shame. Elizabeth’s barren womb would have been the talk of the town.
But as Luke makes abundantly clear, this couple’s barrenness has nothing to do with punishment. Rather, God was setting them apart for his special purpose, incorporating their struggle into his drama of salvation.
It all happened one day, while Zechariah was at work with his division, fulfilling his priestly duties in the temple.
Lots were cast before the evening sacrifice, and Zechariah’s name was chosen to light incense on the Altar.
The Altar of incense was in the Holy Place in the temple. This was the room just outside the Holy of Holiess where the arc of the covenant resided. For a priest like Zechariah, in the lineage of Abijah, lighting the altar of incense was about as special a task as he could ever hope to perform. This might have been the only time in his ministry where he had the honour of entering the Holy Place.
The Altar of incense was an altar on which priests would light incense. (Obviously.) The aroma was pleasant and the smoke that ascended up to heaven was meant be a symbol of the prayers of the people, ascending from earth up to the presence of God.
In fact, what was happening inside the Holy place was reflected outside in the temple court. Worshippers often would gather for the evening sacrifice. And as Zechariah was lighting the incense, the gathered worshippers would be praying.
What were they praying for, I wonder? Personal matters, I’m sure. But most likely, they’d also be praying for the liberation of Israel. Praying for the long season of Israel’s barrenness would be filled up with the birth of an anointed King.
It’s likely that Zechariah was praying too as he carried out his duties.
And its there, in the midst of the prayer service, that God shows up.
This is the first instance of a larger motif found in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and the ministry of the early Church. All throughout Luke and Acts, prayer and God’s mission are joined together.
At his baptism, Jesus is found praying. Prior to choosing of the 12 disciples, Jesus prays. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, he is transfigured, as he is praying. And then in Acts, the Spirit descends upon the Apostles, while they are praying.
Prayer and the mission of God. As the incense goes up, the power comes down. Does one cause the other? Does prayer force God’s hand into action. No. Sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no”. And sometimes the timing isn’t right. But, the truth remains: when he does work, he always seems to work through his people, as they gather to pray.
While they were praying, the Angel Gabriel appeared at the right hand of the Altar.
Zechariah, of course, is petrified, as any normal human being would be when surprised by a visit from what is basically a general in the Lord’s heavenly army.
I’m not sure why we picture Angels as sweet little caucasian girls with halos and wings. Gabriel is no push over. In the battle over sin and death, he’s on the front lines.
But Gabriel has not come to pick a fight. He’s come to share good news. News that will bring big changes to Zecharaiah and Elizabeth’s lives. News that will change the nation.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel says to Zechariah. “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”
Gabriel then goes on to describe what kind of man John will be, and what he will do.
For those of you who’ve been with us throughout the fall, one of the interesting things said about John is that the Holy Spirit will fill him from birth, and that “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah…” Luke 1:16
Last week, Pastor Brittney talked about the passing on of the prophetic mantle. Elijah was anointed for ministry. The Spirit came upon him. And when his work on earth was done, his mantle remained. And the anointing was passed on to Elisha.
So basically, what the Angel is saying here is that Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child will continuance of that great tradition of anointed servants. He will carry the prophetic call. He will call people to return their God and make ready the way for his return.
I don’t want to spend too much time on John today. He’s going to get his own Sunday in a few weeks. But what I do want you to see about him today, other than this connection to Elijah, is that John’s birth and coming is the fulfillment of a promise.
In the last book of the Bible—Malachai—we read:
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…. Malachai 3:1
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 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.” Malachai 4:5-6
That’s how the Old Testament closes.
And then, roughly 400 years later, the Angel Gabriel appears before Zechariah with a message that contains the fulfillment of that promise.
Clearly, God is on the move.
By this time, Zechariah’s fears have subsided. He’s perhaps even a little elated by the news he’s just heard. But he’s not quite ready to accept this word as fact. “How can I be sure of this,” he asks. “Look at me, I’m an old guy and my wife is well along in years.”
Gabriel’s response to Zechariah’s request for assurance is a little humorous. I like to imagine him “shushing” Zechariah by putting a finger to Zechariah’s lips. “Shhhh. You foolish mortals. Always looking for assurances. I have come from the presence of God. This word is a message from God himself. You want a sign? This will be your sign: from this time on, you will not have the capacity to ask any more foolish questions until the day this good news comes to pass.”
When Zechariah finally emerges, everyone knows that something special has taken place. But Zechariah can’t speak of it. All he can do is make signs.
When his week of service was complete, Zechariah returned home to Elizabeth. And there, without words, he tried to explain to his wife, all that had happened. In time, Elizabeth conceived and became pregnant with John. And for five months she kept to herself, admiring that growing baby bump and quietly praising God for the favour that he has bestowed upon her.
Then the time came for John is born. On the 8th day, they brought him to the temple to be circumcised. Everyone had an opinion on what he should be named. Most thought that Zechariah would be a good name for Zechariah’s son.
But Elizabeth was emphatic. “He is to be called John.”
Those surrounding Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t think that John was the right name, so they asked Zechariah. And in big bold letters on a stone tablet, Zechariah wrote: HIS NAME IS JOHN.
And then, suddenly, Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and he began praising God, saying: “Praise be the Lord God of Israel. Because he has come to redeem his people.”
“His Name is John.” The name John means… “The Lord has been Gracious”. What a fitting name for a boy born to a barren elderly couple. The Lord had indeed been gracious to them.
But of course, John’s mission will be much bigger than bringing joy to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s household. Their gracious gift will also be a gracious gift to the people. For he will prepare them to meet their God. And he himself is a sign that God has remembered his covenant, and is soon coming to deliver.
Speaking of remembering the covenant… Do you know what Zechariah’s name means? It means, “The Lord has remembered.”
The Lord has remembered. And the Lord has been gracious.
In a way, the meaning of this little prequel is nicely summarized by the meaning of the names given to the main characters. The Lord has remembered, and the Lord has been gracious.
Elizabeth’s name is a little more difficult to dicipher. Their are two options. “The Lord is my Oath” and “the Lord is abundance.” Both, in a way highlight trust.
And that, I suppose is a fitting human response to the reality that God is gracious, and God does not forget.
And what I love so much about this text, is that the Lord is revealing both his covenant faithfulness and graciousness on a macro and a micro level at the same time.
Just like he did with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac. And with Hannah and Samuel too. As the Lord shows his faithfulness and graciousness to a particular family, he does so in such a way that the family becomes a blessing to the world.
Its just amazing.
The barren Elizabeth becomes the recipient of abundance. And at the same time, the barren world receives the one who will point towards the one who brings hope.
And all this happens quietly, in the shadow of the Herodian. As Herod labours to move a mountain and so build up a name for himself, the Almighty quietly moves the womb of a poor, pious elderly woman. Her son will prepare the way for the true King. The labour pains of the new creation are here. Let earth receive her King.
You know, our times aren’t all that different from the times of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The Prequel may be over. But the sequel is still playing at local theatres.
That’s us. We’re the main characters in the on going drama of salvation.
As the world once waited for the birth of the Messiah. So the Church of Jesus the messiah, on the far side of the resurrection, awaits the return of our Lord and King.
And like it was then, so it is today. These are confusing times. Trump has his name on towers all over the world. The Chinese government is extending its reach into Hong Kong. And a few years ago Putin annexed Crimea, and you know he’s not going to stop there.
But Jesus, where is his Kingdom advancing? Does he see? When will the rightful King of heaven and earth come to finally and forever establish his justice and peace.
We don’t know.
So what do we do in these times between the times. Well, as characters written into play, we wait, we work, and we gather for prayer. And we do so trusting that God is gracious and that he will not forget. That is our hope.
And who knows, he may even choose to work through our prayers and our emptiness to bring about his Kingdom joy and so transform the world.
Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.