St Michael’s and St Barnabas 30th November 2014
Readings – Luke 1:5-25, Psalm 130
Today I want to focus on something we all have to do but none of us like doing. It’s an activity we find extremely frustrating but cannot control. It probably leads to more complaints and more grumbles than anything else, but is an everyday part of conversation. What am I talking about? I am, of course, talking about waiting.
We all know what it’s like to wait: to wait in the pouring rain, hoping for once the bus might possibly be on time; to wait on the telephone, while a computer voice at the other end tells us “your call is important to us, please hold”; to wait hungrily at a table in a restaurant while those people over there who came in after you are already being served. I am sure you can think of many other occasions where you have had to wait recently and indeed there probably isn’t a single person here this morning who isn’t waiting for something or other at the moment.
So what does the Bible tell us about waiting? Well, I want to turn this morning to our reading from Luke’s gospel and to a man called Zechariah. What do we know about Zechariah? Verses 5 and 6 tell us:
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. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.
It seems quite fitting, then, that Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus starts with this man. Zechariah was by all accounts a good person who served diligently as a priest. He and his wife walked closely with the Lord and they were well known for their obedience and faithfulness to the law. But there is a twist in the tale. Because, for all his outward piety and humble lifestyle, Zechariah is someone who knows the frustration of waiting. He is a man grappling with the deepest mystery of unanswered prayer, trying to fathom the purposes and plans of the God he serves.
You see, according to the wisdom of the day, such a good and upright couple as Zechariah and Elizabeth should have been blessed by the Lord, and there was at that time no surer sign of God’s blessing than the gift of children. Yet what does Luke go on to tell us? Verse 7:
But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well on in years. Now to Luke’s first hearers, that would have been deeply shocking. It was a reversal of all they believed about God and how He worked in people’s lives. And as the years went by, Zechariah himself must have begun to wonder. Was there some hidden sin that meant he had he somehow forfeited God’s blessing? Or was it in fact just a case of waiting?
Then there was the question of Zechariah’s service in the temple. As part of the clan of Abijah, Zechariah was expected to carry out his duties there about twice a year, and no doubt he was very familiar with the all the tasks he had to carry out. But there was one duty he had never performed, and that was the burning of the incense right inside the Holy Place. It was such a special task that you could only ever perform it once, and when you had been chosen, you could never carry it out again.
No doubt as the years went by, Zechariah saw many of his fellow priests being chosen one by one, but for whatever reason his name had never come up. Again, it isn’t hard to imagine Zechariah looking on and wondering why the lot had never fallen to him. Would he never get his chance to enter the Holy Place? Or was it in fact just a case of waiting? He simply didn’t know.
And beyond all that, Zechariah was waiting for something else to happen. Being a good Israelite, he knew the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament by heart – that one day the Lord would send a saviour to come and rescue God’s people, defeat their enemies, punish the proud and exalt the humble. But the last prophecy of the Old Testament was over four hundred years ago. Many had come since then claiming to be that saviour, but every time their claim was found wanting and the promises and prophecies remained unfulfilled.
So in short, Zechariah was a man who knew all about waiting, and now he was, as Luke so delicately puts it, “well on in years”. Life was no longer quite as easy as it used to be. What hairs he still had were definitely greyer. People no longer seemed to speak to him as clearly as in his youth, and the writing on the scrolls was definitely getting smaller. No doubt when he prayed Zechariah would often echo the words of the psalmist: My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. But would his prayers ever be answered?
Well, let’s read on in our story: 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. You can only imagine how Zechariah must have felt at this point. Perhaps there was that little surge of joy as he realised that one of his deepest prayers had been answered. Perhaps there was a sense of solemn responsibility as he realised he had been chosen to represent the whole people of God. After all, as Luke tells us in verse 10: And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside. However he felt, Zechariah knew that a very special moment in his life had come to pass, one that would never be repeated. And here, at least the waiting was over.
But that was not the end of Zechariah’s story that one fateful day. In fact, little did he realise it, but all his desires were about to be most wonderfully and most dramatically fulfilled:
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 give him the name John.”
Take a moment, if you will, just to picture the scene. The Holy Place is a part of the temple where only a few chosen people may go. As he draws near, Zechariah has every expectation he will be alone. But to his surprise he becomes aware of a presence right there with him, and not just a human presence. He is treading on holy ground in the presence of an angel, and so it’s little wonder that he is terrified.
However the visitation of the angel is not to punish or to chastise. In fact, the first thing that the angel does is to reassure and to comfort. Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Aren’t those most wonderful and most precious words? All those years Zechariah has been waiting and wondering, the Lord has been listening. Zechariah hasn’t been forgotten or abandoned. The Lord has known all about his heartache and frustration right from the very beginning, and now He has sent an angel to declare that the wait is over. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.
Why John? Because, quite simply, that name means, “the Lord is gracious” and the fact this child will be born to Elizabeth even so late in life will in itself be testimony to the goodness and mercy of the Lord. But there’s even more to the angel’s message than the declaration of a miraculous birth. Right from the very outset of his life, this child to be born will play a very special part in the purposes of God.
Verses 14-15: 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 from birth. Now in the time of the Old Covenant there were very few people who were filled with the Holy Spirit right from their mother’s womb. Before the coming of Christ the Holy Spirit generally came upon particular people for a particular length of time for a particular purpose. But John would be different. He would be marked out and consecrated to the Lord as soon as he came into the world, because he would have a unique role to play in the salvation of God’s people.
And what would be that role? Well, to understand fully what the angel goes on to say, we need to briefly go back into the history of the Old Testament kings, where we meet a man called Elijah. This man Elijah was raised up by God to challenge the unbelief and idolatry of the Israelites at a time when most had turned away from the Lord, and some of you may know the story of the great victory he won over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Sadly, however, although for a while the people of God turned back to the Lord, in essence their hearts remained unchanged. They still persisted in their old, sinful ways, and their wilful disobedience of God’s laws.
That’s why, even as the people of Israel looked forward to the coming of a Saviour, the Lord told them they needed a new Elijah to make them ready for that great day, someone who would be anointed by God with a ministry of reconciliation and repentance. And, according to the angel, this ministry would be fulfilled by none other than the longed for son of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Verses 16-17: 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.
What an amazing message to give somebody about their future child! You can only imagine what was going through Zechariah’s mind as he stood there in the darkness, trying to take in all that the angel had said. He had thought he was just an ordinary priest, carrying out his duties as best he could, and trying, as far as possible, to live a good life. He had no idea how God was going to use him, or that he would soon be the father of the person known today as John the Baptist.
And I guess that when you’ve been waiting for something to happen for so many years, it takes a lot of faith to believe that the situation will change, even if there happens to be an angel standing right there in front of you. Certainly that’s the only reason I can find for Zechariah’s reply: How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. No sense of excitement that the Lord had spoken. No sense of holy fear at the angel’s presence. No joy and wonder at the fact God’s promises are about to fulfilled. Just: I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.
But maybe we shouldn’t criticise Zechariah too harshly. Because – and here I am particularly talking to the older folk this morning – I think with the passing of the years it can be harder and harder to accept that your prayers ever will be answered. Answered prayer is for other people, those who are young or new to the faith, for example, or those who haven’t really settled down. Yes, I might be praying, for example, for my best friend to become a Christian, but that’s not really going to happen after all these years, is it? I might want to see this church grow and flourish, but the Lord’s not really going to move in power, is He? It’s not that I don’t believe, but experience tells me it’s unlikely. Not now. Not that I am old and well on in years.
Well, even in spite of Zechariah’s unbelief, the Lord did keep his word. Elizabeth did fall pregnant, even against medical expectations. A son was born, and He did indeed prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a salutary reminder that when the Lord says He will do something, He will do it, whether or not we choose to believe it.
And I believe there is an important and powerful lesson for us here as we enter the season of Advent. Advent is a season of waiting and hoping, not just for the coming of Jesus Christ in a manger at Bethlehem, but also for His return in all His power and glory. It’s a time when we prepare ourselves to meet with the Lord and look to see where He is at work. Or is it? Has our sense of expectation become dull and wearied? Would we be ready if the Lord saw fit to answer our deepest prayers today? Or would we, like Zechariah, respond with incredulity and hardness of heart, and ask: How can I be sure of this?
This Advent I want to challenge you to give to the Lord your deepest hopes and desires. I want to challenge you to pray with the same eager longing as the psalmist and wait for the Lord, more than watchman wait for the morning. And I want to challenge you to be ready for the miracle of answered prayer and to respond with grateful thanksgiving and humble joy.
After all, unlike Zechariah, we already have the ultimate proof of God’s love and saving power. We have the gift of Jesus born to us to bear our sins and bring us eternal life. So this morning, let me ask you faith in Jesus really means. Will you come to him with humble, trusting faith in His goodness and mercy? Will you allow Him to be Lord even over those situations where you wait and wonder? Will, you in short, give Him your life afresh and let Him be your King?