Preached: December 4, 2011
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The word from God through which the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts for the coming of Jesus is from Luke 1.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah trembled when he saw him, and fear fell over him.
The angel said to him, “Stop being afraid, Zechariah, because your petition has been answered. Elizabeth, your wife, will give you a son, and you will name him John. He will be a joy to you and a celebration. Many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great before the Lord. He will never drink wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord, their God. He’s the one who will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers to children and turn unbelievers toward the thoughts of the righteous, to prepare for the Lord a people who stand ready.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know this? I am old and my wife’s well along in years.”
The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands before God. I was sent to speak to you and proclaim this good news to you. Now see, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things happen, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at the right time.” (Luke 1:11-20).
This is the word of our Lord.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had grown old together, living a quiet life. He was a priest, but not part of the ruling class of priests. He belonged to the division of Abijah, some where down the line. They lived in the hill country of Judea, not in Jerusalem. Their humble faith looked forward to the Messiah coming one day. He would be their righteousness and salvation.
So they lived their lives in obedience to the Lord and his commands, knowing that only the coming Messiah could save them from sin and death, just as the Lord had promised. Yet this faithful couple was childless. Children were a blessing from the Lord and still are. So Jewish society in that day reasoned that not having children was a disgrace. Despite fervent prayers in their younger days, Zechariah and Elizabeth remained childless. Now they were old. Those prayers had stopped long ago as hope faded with the reality of their aging bodies. There would be no children for them.
Now the twenty-four priestly divisions rotated their duties at the temple. During the week that the division of Abijah, Zechariah’s division, was on duty, he would be in Jerusalem. Recall that the whole temple complex was made up of courtyards, colonnades, chambers, and corridors -- quite impressive. All these surrounded the sanctuary, which was quite small. In fact, the altar for burnt offerings was outside the sanctuary in the courtyard of the priests. The sanctuary itself had only two rooms: the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, as called the Holy of Holies. Not even the priests could enter the Most Holy Place. Now in the Holy Place was the altar of incense in front of the curtain that closed off the Most Holy Place. Twice a day incense were burnt on this altar. One priest, chosen by lot, would enter the Holy Place alone to do so. It was often a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. This time Zechariah was chosen. He enters the Holy Place.
That’s when the angel appears. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John” (Luke 1:13 NIV1984). What an answer to prayer! As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, let's see what we can learn from Zechariah. In the first part, an Advent heart prepared for Christmas is a heart of prayer.
Zechariah had prayed for a child years earlier. But when he answers the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18), he shows that he had given up praying for a child long ago. It was no longer possible. The Lord’s answer now came after he had given up hope for a child.
What can learn from that? To start with, we need to realize they’re two different kinds of petitions or requests that we bring to God. The first kind asks for what he has already promised. We pray this kind of petition with full confidence and faith that he will do just as he has said. We dare never give up hope in this kind of prayer, for that would be calling God a liar who doesn’t keep his promises. Likewise, we don’t add “if it is your will,” because we already know it is his will since he has promised it. The first kind of petition holds God to his promises.
The other kind asks for something he hasn’t specifically promised, such as Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child. These prayers, as well, we offer from a heart that knows that we are God’s true children through faith in Jesus and that as our dear Father in heaven he does hear and answer these prayers in the best way according to his good and gracious will. We may pray these prayers with deep longing for a time, even as Zechariah and Elizabeth did. But we might also stop praying one of these kinds of prayers after a time when our Christian judgment determines that God in his wisdom has chosen not to answer in the way we had hoped. Zechariah and Elizabeth appear to have come to that conclusion after age made it physically impossible to have a child. There’s nothing wrong with faith moving, trusting the Lord to bless me in some other way. Faith knows that just because God can do something doesn’t mean that he will do it.
But take note of the mercy of our Lord! He answered Zechariah’s prayer years later. He hasn’t forgotten. And he answered in a way most amazing. For his answers come from his mercy, not because of our worthiness. And his answer went so far beyond that prayer for a child. For you see, as faithful believers, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have continually prayed for the coming of the Messiah, just as believers in Israel had prayed for centuries. The Lord had promised to send the Messiah. This is the kind of petition we talked about first of all. But no doubt, Zechariah and Elizabeth figured it wouldn’t happen any time soon.
So what an answer the angel gives them! Not only will they have a child, but he is to name him John, which means, “The Lord is gracious.” For now the Lord’s grace would now put his plan of salvation into action. The Savior’s coming was imminent. And John would prepare the way for, just as the prophets foretold.
When you pray, dear Christian friends, don’t cut the Lord short. Rely on his mercy, not your sincerity. His answers go far beyond what we could imagine. Be patient, for he answers when the time is right. As you prepare for Christmas, prayer with an Advent heart, a heart of prayer. Pray confident of the Lord’s promises. Pray patiently, trusting his good and gracious will.
Now let’s consider John’s ministry, as the angel described it, and see how it prepares our hearts for Christmas, as we move on to part two.
To prepare the way for the Lord, John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. Through Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, the Lord God had declared: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me … See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:1, 4:5, 6 NIV1984).
The days of Elijah were days of unbelief and hard hearts. He called out to the people to turn from their evil ways, to turn back to the Lord, their God, the only God who saves. So also would John as he prepared the way for Jesus. For you see, dear friends, only the penitent heart is ready for Christ. The Advent heart that’s prepared for Christmas is a heart of penitence.
Gabriel describes this work of John: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back 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 fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous -- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16, 17 NIV1984).
Like the people is Zechariah’s day, we consider ourselves to be God’s people. We call the Lord our God, just as they did. Such a thought dare not puff out our chest in pride, boasting, “I’m one of God’s people.” Rather it opens our eyes in awe, confessing, “God calls out even to a sinner like me, calling me to be one of his people.” Do you see the difference between a proud heart and a penitent heart?
The penitent heart begins by seeing the terror of my own sin. John did not mince words when he preached to the people. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10 NIV1984). Do you hear the terror in those words?
How often are we filled with the spirit of the season rather than the Holy Spirit? How often do we produce fruits of convenience when it suits us rather than fruits of humble, loving service? Does your peace of mind come from a dulled conscience that no longer takes your sin too seriously? Is that what a peaceful Christmas means to you? Then know the ax is at the root of the tree, your root, soon to be chopped down and thrown into the fire of hell.
The penitent heart takes sin seriously. It knows God’s holy law. It confesses how rotten our natural fruit is. It feels the heat of God’s just wrath and rightly trembles. That’s the beginning of a penitent heart, an Advent heart preparing for Christmas.
But how sad and forlorn the life of a Christian would be if that’s where the penitent heart ended! But John didn’t only preach the terror of sin. That was only the plowing, breaking up the hard heart; that wasn’t the seed or the harvest. How did Gabriel describe his work? “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16 NIV1984). He didn’t only turn people away from sin. He turned them to the Lord, whose way he prepared. Think of how John would point to Jesus and say, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)
He takes away your sin, dear friend, since he takes away the sin of the world, all sins including yours. He takes them away not because sin is no big deal. It’s most serious. He takes them away because he is your God and Savior who sacrificed himself as the Lamb whose blood alone redeems you, since he paid the greatest price of all for you. Jesus takes away your sin. That’s the peace of Christmas, the peace the angels sang about. That’s the promise for your penitent heart to hold on to. Yes, a penitent heart knows the terror of our sin, but it also knows the overwhelming peace of full forgiveness in Jesus. That’s faith. That’s a heart prepared, an Advent heart of penitence.
And such penitence overflows in praise. Zechariah’s heart wasn’t ready for the angel’s words. Instead of thanks and praise coming out of his mouth, he uttered words of doubt. Although he believed in the coming Messiah, he doubted God’s power to grant him a son in his old age. So the Lord trains his faith. He would no long speak words of doubt, for he would not be able to speak at all until John’s born. He would see just how much control the Lord has over our bodies. Nine months later the first words out of Zechariah’s mouth were words of praise.
So also from your Advents hearts, dear Christians, comes praise, praise to the Lord, your God, whose way John prepared. For your God has come in the flesh to bring you the forgiveness of sins, to give you the knowledge of salvation, to rise like the sun driving away the darkness of your night, to guide you in the way of peace.
Listen to these words of praise from Zechariah when John’s born, recorded at the end of Luke 1, just six month’s before Jesus’ birth. We too can sing these words in praise. He says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through the holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us -- to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before hm all our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68-79 NIV1984).
An Advent heart prepared for Christmas is a heart of prayer, a heart of penitence, and a heart of praise. Prepare your heart. Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.