You all got to meet my niece, Darby, this past Wednesday. I have had lots of pretend nieces and nephews, but it was very cool to spend some time with my only real one. Incidentally, I had the same effect holding her that I do preaching to you – I put her right to sleep!
You all know that I have joked that my sister-in-law Kelli and her husband Ryan timed having Darby just to steal the spotlight away from Kristi and me, since she was born just a few weeks after we were married. But they had waited a long time to have a child, so it just made that time of year even more special for all of us.
If you are a parent, do you remember when you first discovered you were going to have a child? How did you feel? Were you exhilarated? Were you surprised? Did you cry tears of joy? Did you cry another other sort of tears?!
Today we are going to study about a person who got the same sort of unexpected message Mary did – you are going to have a child. But Zechariah’s reaction in Luke 1 could not have been more different than Mary’s. By the end of the story, though, he will be singing a very similar tune.
Though Mary’s song is the first one recorded, the events leading to Zechariah’s song come before the story of Mary.
A godly couple, unable to have children. This has a familiar ring to it. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah, as well as the other matriarchs of Israel introduced to us as barren, like Rebekah and Rachel. So the very introduction of Elizabeth and Zechariah is couched in language that calls to mind key characters of Israel’s past and predisposes us to think that God is once more going to miraculously enable an Israelite family to have a child.
There were thousands of priests like Zechariah in the first century, organized into the 24 ancient divisions established by King David. Only a few priests got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to actually serve in the temple, and Luke tells us that the lot of divine providence chose Zechariah for service.
The Jews began to pray while the priests offered incense, equating their prayers with the sweet smoke ascending to God. Verse ten tells us that the people prayed while Zechariah was serving, and as we will see in verse 13, apparently the old priest was praying for something as well.
But his prayers and priestly service were suddenly interrupted.
Just imagine the swirl of emotions that must have filled Zechariah when the angel – whose presence at first alarmed him, as angelic visits often did in the Bible – informed him that he would have a son.
And not just any son. Notice Luke 1:15a. “He will be great before the Lord.” All of you think your children are special. You are all wrong! Every child is special, of course, but the son of Zechariah will be very special.
First, he will be born under a special vow, called the Nazirite vow (described in detail in Numbers 6). This vow indicated separation to God for special service, and some of its characteristics are mentioned by the angel in Luke 1:15b.
Samson was born under this vow, but an even more relevant comparison is Samuel. Remember, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had also been barren, and she vowed to dedicate her son to God’s service if the Lord granted her one. So the son of this priest will be devoted to God’s service just like Samuel.
But there is something even more special about this child. He isn’t merely going to be another prophet – he will be a very special prophet, the one who will announce the arrival of Israel’s Messiah, paving the way for the coming of the Christ.
Gabriel ties together two important passages from the OT about the coming of the King. One comes from the last book of the OT, the prophet Malachi, the last inspired messenger God sent His people until the coming of John.
Malachi 41 For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
God will heal His people with the rising of the sun of righteousness while destroying those who arrogantly do evil. But to prepare for this fateful day, the Lord tells Malachi in verses 5-6-
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
The Jews considered Elijah the greatest of the prophets, and no doubt because of the mysterious nature of his departure from this world, all kinds of speculation arose about him in the non-biblical literature. But Malachi gives us the truth from God. Someday “Elijah” will return, and he will turn the hearts of the people so that they can avoid judgment.
Look again at Luke 1:16-17a.
John is to be that very Elijah figure who will come before the Lord’s decisive action in history.
There is one other important promise Gabriel references. Verse 17b concludes: “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
This is the language of Isaiah, from the start of the great 40th chapter of his message:
3 A voice cries:“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Isaiah announces that a voice will cry out to prepare the way of the Lord, and that it will happen in the wilderness. Gabriel says that John will be that voice, “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” And at the end of Luke 1, John is poised to begin his work in the very place the prophet predicted – verse 80.
Now at this point you might expect Zechariah to start singing. And he will – but his first reaction to Gabriel is to sing different tune that’s off key!
Zechariah’s reaction is much different than Mary’s. He isn’t simply astonished like she was – he is doubtful. So doubtful he wants a sign to confirm the news. “How shall I know this?”
I am not trying to be unnecessarily critical of Zechariah – I am sure I would have doubted too if I was in his place. His reaction only serves to highlight just how special Mary’s faith was. And the angel does indeed grant him a sign, though probably not the kind Zechariah had in mind-
We all know the old proverb that it is better to be quiet and to be thought a fool than to speak and erase all doubt. Well, maybe it is best that Zechariah doesn’t say anything else! And most likely (based on the fact that in verse 62 people communicate with him by sign language) Zechariah was deaf as well as mute, two conditions which often go together. But even though he was hesitant to believe God’s promise, God was not slow to keep it!
Just as Hannah faced reproach as she was spitefully treated because of her barrenness, only for the Lord to grant her a son, Elizabeth understands that God has taken away her reproach, and replaced it with joy. Let’s pick up the thread of the narrative in verse 57.
“Mercy,” you might recall, was a key theme in Mary’s song, The Magnificat (see verses 50, 54). Now all of Elizabeth’s loved ones rejoice at God’s mercy in her life. Literally, the text says, “the Lord had magnified his mercy to her” (ASV). Enabling this godly woman to have a son after so many years of trying was indeed a magnificent display of God’s mercy.
When Luke introduced this couple to us, he described them as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6). As a couple faithful to God’s Law, they knew that in keeping with God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17 (and the requirement of the Law in Leviticus 12) that on the eighth day of their son’s birth he was to be circumcised.
Sometimes parents named their child immediately, and sometimes they waited until circumcision (we were joking about Amy and Daniel taking so long to name William Reagan, but maybe they were just following this biblical precedent!). The father usually named the child, but of course Zechariah can’t. And the family and friends assume that when the child is named, by default he will called by his father’s name.
The people “all wondered,” probably because Zechariah was deaf, and couldn’t have heard what Elizabeth said to name the child. They don’t know what Zechariah has known for 9 months, and so they are astonished that he chose the same name as she did, one that is uncommon to his family line.
The most important word in Zechariah’s response is, “is.” Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.” Not, “shall be,” but “is.” As far as he has been concerned, this child’s name was John from the time he was in the temple with the angel. And right on cue, precisely as Gabriel had declared, Zechariah speech returned to him.
You can learn a lot by not talking! And once you learn, when you do speak, it is significant. Zechariah’s blessing, and the miracle of John’s birth, made a huge impact on all their neighbors-
A sense of awe filled the hearts of the people in the hill country where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. In the past 9 months they have seen Zechariah inexplicably lose the ability to see and hear, they have seen this couple childless for so many years give birth, and then they were eyewitnesses to Zechariah’s recovery. And on top of it all, as Luke explains in verse 66, it was clear to everybody that this child was indeed special, “for the hand of the Lord was with him.”
Amazing, wonderful work of God like this should prompt a sense of amazement, and praise. It took Zechariah a little longer to understand this than it did Mary, but the old priest has a song to sing, too.
It’s called The Benedictus, “benediction,” stemming from the Latin translation of the first word in verse 68, “Blessed.” And just as Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit as he sings this song, which is part hymn and part prophecy.
Just as our songs have recurring choruses, there are certain words that reappear throughout this song.
“Visit” in 1:68, 78
“Salvation” in 1:69, 77
“Prophet” in 1:70, 76
“Enemies” in 1:71, 74
“Mercy” in 1:72, 78 (as you recall that was a key word in Mary’s song)
“Way” in 1:76, 79
Just a glance at these terms gives us an idea of the message of this hymn. God had visited His people to give them salvation from their enemies and guide them in His ways because of His mercy just as His prophets had foretold.
Mary’s song was a wonderful tapestry of many key ideas and passages from the OT, and so is Zechariah’s. Unlike so many of the popular “Christmas Carols” sung today, which contain few if any connections to the OT, these songs of Jesus’ birth are virtual summaries of the great themes of the OT.
Verse 68b contains two of these important themes, “visitation” and “redemption,” both of which are deeply embedded in the story of the Exodus.
First, “visit.” God’s “visitation” can refer to God acting on behalf of humanity graciously, or punitively, or to both at the same time. Rescuing the righteous and punishing the wicked.
When Moses and Aaron relayed to the people God’s promise to deliver them from bondage, Exodus 4:31 says:
“And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.”
The other key word is “redeemed,” which means “to set free.” It is the word Moses used in his song in Exodus 15, celebrating the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.
13 You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
When the psalmist later reflected on God’s help for Israel in Psalm 106, he put these two words to music.
In verse 4 he asked the Lord to visit him with salvation-
4 Remember me, O LORD, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation (KJV)
And in another part of the psalm he praised God’s redemption of Israel-
9 He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
10 So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
11 And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
12 Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.
And now Zechariah sings a similar refrain, that just as God visited and redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He is once again going to come to the aid of His people and deliver them.
And how is God going to visit and redeem His people? By raising up “a horn…”
In our culture we don’t spend much time with animals like wild oxen with horns, so this imagery is lost on us. But in the ancient world one of the most vivid metaphors for strength and power was the horns of an ox.
Deuteronomy 33:17 described the house of Joseph as-
A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth
In fact Hannah concluded her prayer,
1 Samuel 2:10
The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces;
against them he will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.
What Zechariah has in mind when he speaks of this “horn of salvation” is the power of God’s anointed, the king who would come from David.
The Messiah would come, and do what the prophets said, save the people from their enemies.
Zechariah says that God is going to save Israel from its enemies -twice – verses 71 and 74. And the basis for this hope is the great promise around which the entire Bible story revolves – the covenant with Abraham (verses 72-73a). And the purpose for this salvation is so that Israel may “serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness” (verses 74b-75).
This is again the language of the Exodus, as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept His promise and saved His people from their Egyptians enemies. The song of Moses included these words:
Exodus 156 Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power,
your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.
7 In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
8 At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up;
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
9 The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’10 You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
And remember, why did God save His people? What was the message God sent to Pharaoh through Moses?
“Let My people go that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:16).
So to return to The Benedictus, Zechariah says that once again God is keeping His promise to Abraham to deliver Israel out of the hand of its enemies so that His people may serve Him in righteousness and holiness.
Now on the surface, this language would lead us to think that God is about to destroy King Herod, the first century version of Pharaoh, who slaughtered Hebrew babies. Or maybe to think of the Romans, under whose occupation the Jews resentfully lived. We sometimes say that the Jews (mistakenly) looked for the Messiah to be a military liberator. This is true, but we need to see that there was a reason they made this mistake. Lots of the language in the Bible that speaks of salvation does so in those very terms.
One non-biblical Jewish book that expresses the hope of the Jews in the first century says this:
Behold, O Lord, and raise up unto them their king, the son of David, At the time in the which Thou seest, O God, that he may reign over Israel Thy servant And gird him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers, And that he may purge Jerusalem from nations that trample (her) down to destruction. (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-25)
So since Jesus did not lead armies in revolt of the Romans, or cause the Mediterranean Sea to wash the legions away, in what sense did He come to deliver Israel from its enemies?
The key to unraveling this puzzle has to do with why Israel was in captivity in the first place. We know from our study of the OT that Israel was enslaved many times in its history, beginning with Egypt, then during the downward spiral of the days of the Judges, and finally at the end of Kings and Chronicles. In each and every case, why did Israel find itself oppressed or exiled? The answer is SIN.
Which also means that lurking behind the Egyptians, the Philistines, or the Romans was a far more sinister enemy, one whose handiwork resulted in Israel’s dire predicament. This enemy is exposed in the exchange between Jesus and the disciples in Luke 10:17-20-
The real enemy of Israel was Satan. Every time Jesus cast out one of Satan’s demons, or healed one of those oppressed by an illness from an unclean spirit, or forgave sins, Jesus was demonstrating that He did indeed come to defeat Israel’s true enemy. Jesus knew that in His ministry, and most of all His death and resurrection, the real adversary of Israel (and of humanity) would be destroyed.
Isn’t this exactly how Jesus explained His miracle in Luke 13, when He healed the woman who had a disabling spirit that bent her over for 18 years.
That is the same tune Zechariah is singing in The Benedictus, the triumph of Jesus over the Satanic enemy who had enslaved Israel and the rest of the world. How different this song is from “Christmas Carols.” Viewed in light of Jesus’ mission to overthrow the devil, the nativity scene was actually a battlefield, in which King Jesus was born to spell the doom of Satan. If you wanted to paint a greeting card to explain the birth of Jesus, paint a great red dragon poised to attack a woman with child, who instead is cast down from heaven while the child ascends to rule the nations with a rod of iron! That is how John visualized the point of Jesus’ birth in Revelation 12, and that is the song Zechariah sings in Luke 1.
And the one who will pave the way for the Christ to begin His work will be the son of this priest. That’s how Zechariah concludes the song-
God will save His people by dealing with the real issue, their sins, and John will be the prophet who prepares the people for their King by (according to Luke 3:3) “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
And why does God intend to forgive His people? Verse 78a – because of His “tender mercy.”
I realize I have said some derogatory things about traditional Christmas Carols today, but they are not all bad. One of my favorites incorporates the last part of The Benedictus. Look at the last verse of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing:
Hail the heav’n born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Compare that with the rest of Zechariah’s song-
Malachi spoke of the sun (S-U-N) of righteousness rising with healing in his wings. That prophecy is now Zechariah’s, as he sees the mission of his child, to ready the people for the S-O-N of God, who will rise like the sun and bring healing to the hurting and bring light to those in the gloomy darkness of captivity.
Isaiah 9:6 is one of the most well-known prophecies of Jesus’ birth, but if you read its larger context you will see the very same story Zechariah is telling in his song –
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
Mary and Zechariah are an interesting contrast. She conceives a child before she was married, while Zechariah has one after being “advanced in years.” Some of you had kids right away, while others of you waited a while.
That’s also a pretty good way to illustrate the difference in their decision to believe what God was saying. Mary believed God from the start, while Zechariah came to believe a little later.
I would bet that in our assembly today there are those for whom faith came early and easily, and those for whom it came later and with difficulty. I wish I could be more like Mary, but I’m much more prone to doubt, to worry, to question, like Zechariah. But after all of that he did believe, and through that faith he experienced the joy of salvation. That promise isn’t just for those like Mary, but also for the Zechariah’s of the world.