The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
5 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 descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 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. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 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.20 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.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 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.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “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.”
In the first year of their marriage, his wife was sick with a fever, her husband insists, “I’m taking you to the hospital for a complete checkup.” In the second year of their marriage, when his wife gets sick again, her husband announces, “I’ve called the doctor and he’s going to rush right over.” In the third year her husband says, “I’ll make you something to eat. Do we have any soup?” And in the fourth year of their marriage, when his wife is sick again, her husband says, “After you’ve fed the kids and washed the dishes, you’d better hit the sack.”
Family life. It can be the best of times. It can be the worst of times. On this, the first Wednesday of this new Advent season, we being our series called “Family Life.” There is much to learn from the families connected with the birth of Jesus. They faced things like infertility, rejection, frustration, loss, and so much more.
Luke 1:5 introduces us to two of these families. “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah.” Over the next few minutes, we are going to look at both of these families. First we will look at Herod’s family and then take a close look at Zechariah’s family.
When looking at King Herod … does anyone remember what his nickname was? The Herod listed here in Luke 1 is known as “Herod the Great.” This is the same Herod who, when Jesus was born, ordered the execution of all the boys under the age of two in and around the tiny little town of Bethlehem. In fact, to say that Herod was a monster is putting it mildly. You see, Herod was born into a politically connected family in 73 BC. Herod was destined for a life of political hardball. He was married ten times and of those ten wives he ordered the execution of two of them as well as the execution of three of his sons. When Herod’s father was poisoned by a political opponent, seething with revenge, Herod formed an ingenious plan. He invited his father’s killers over for a dinner party. After they all had arrived, he had them all murdered.
At the age of 69, Herod knew that he was dying and that no one would mourn his death. He longed for tears at his funeral, so he devised one final, desperate plan. He would bring together the top leaders of the land for a meeting in Jericho and after they all had arrived he would have his fortress gates locked. Just before the moment of his death, he would have all the leaders executed. One way or another, people would cry when Herod died.
In the late 1800s two paddleboats on the Mississippi River left Memphis, Tennessee on a race to New Orleans. As his boat fell behind, an enterprising sailor took some of the ship’s cargo and began throwing it into the ovens. When other sailors saw that the supplies burned just like coal, they threw more and more of it in. That boat ended up winning the race, but in the process that boat burned all its cargo.
That’s a tragic picture of Herod’s family. To win the race, eliminate every rival, and to be the top dog, Herod burned all the cargo. Herod destroyed his family.
With looking at Herod, I can hear us all saying, “Thank God I’m not like Herod! I never raise an angry hand against a child. I pay my taxes and every now and then I slip a little money into the offering plate. Once at a nursing home I even played bingo with my grandmother.”
But if we are honest with ourselves … we sometimes see in the mirror a little Herod staring back at us. There’s a part of us all that would rather rule than serve. There’s a part of us all that would rather dominate than submit. There’s a part of us that tries to get ahead and win even if it is at the expense of people in our own families.
If we admit it … we’ve all used words that slice and dice our spouses, we’ve all made selfish decisions that have hurt our children and we have all ignored clear warnings from God’s word. And the result? Though family can be the best of times, too often family is the worst of times. … So much for highlighting Herod’s family, let’s now turn our attention on Zechariah and his family.
Luke tells us “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years” (1:7). In Luke 1:25, Elizabeth describes her barrenness as “a disgrace among the people.” In those days, if you had children you had everything. But if you had no children … you had nothing. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for a child. But now it’s too late. They are both too old. There was no going back. “They were both well along in years.” The pain of regret, it hits us most frequently when it comes to our family.
Maybe you’re like Zechariah and Elizabeth, wanting a child but not able to conceive. Or maybe you’re single, desperately wanting to be married … but it just hasn’t happened yet. Maybe you’re married, but it hasn’t turned out like you had hoped. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth we can all feel disgrace and shame among the people. But is this the end of story for Zechariah and Elizabeth? No way! God intervened! God gave Elizabeth and Zechariah gifts … the gifts they received are the same gifts which God gives to your and my family. But what are these gifts? Well, there are three of them that I’m going to tell you about tonight.
The first gift is that God’s promises never end. Israel’s three matriarchs Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:31) and Rachel (Gen 29:31) were all barren at one time. And so was Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 2:5). All four women eventually had children. Elizabeth and Zechariah must have believed that if God could do it before, not once, but four times, God could do it again and give them a child.
Let me ask you this question … has family life ever left you frustrated and empty? If so, hear this. If God was faithful to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah … He will be faithful to you. God will be faithful to you because God loves you. His promises for you in Jesus Christ never, ever end! You may have given up on you … but God will never give up on you. He replaces barrenness and brokenness with goodness and grace.
God’s second gift to you is the gift that His presence never disappoints. Luke writes that “Zechariah was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense” (Lk 1:9). Zechariah was the only one at that time who had permission to go into the temple of the Lord. But Luke later records in chapter 23 about another time that someone has access to the temple. He writes, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two.” In Luke 1, Zechariah has access to God’s presence. In Luke 23, because of Christ’s death, we all have access to God’s presence. And this presence never disappoints!
God’s presence is most evident to us when we gather around the Holy Supper of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The body that suffered and was crucified on a cross … that true body is present for you. The blood that was shed, spilled, and splattered … that true blood is present for you. By the blood of Jesus you have access to the most holy presence of the most Holy God! And this real presence forgives all your family failures … every last one of them!
God’s third gift for you is the gift that God’s plan never fails. God gave Elizabeth and Zechariah a child. And God’s promise is that this child, John the Baptist, “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children” (Lk 1:17). God’s plan is to turn our hearts toward home, to replace vengeance and bitterness with forgiveness and love. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.
There is a story of a day when a mother came home from the grocery store. She looked in her living room and saw her four children sitting in a circle. As she got closer, the mother saw that her children were playing with four of the cutest little skunks you’ve ever seen. The mother yelled, “Run, children, run!” So each child grabbed a skunk and began to run. After that … let’s just say that things began to get really stinky.
Family life. It can be the best of times. It can be the worst of times.
The next time it gets really stinky in your family, don’t fly off the handle like Herod … if you do, you could very well lose it all. Instead, trust in God’s promises, trust in God’s presence, and trust in God’s plan. They are real. They are alive. And they work. Don’t believe me? Then just ask Zechariah and Elizabeth! Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.