How do you react to news of the birth of a baby? If it’s born to a family that you know well – good friends, or relatives – and if, say the couple have been waiting, hoping and praying for a baby for many years, then our reaction is great delight. And that’s true even if we can’t quite be persuaded that this is undoubtedly the cutest baby the world has ever seen; and even if we can’t quite see that it has the ears of its father and the nose of its mother as the proud parents claim. I’m sorry, but they all look the same to me. Except for our own, which were all undoubtedly the cutest babies the world has ever known, and all different – even if two were identical twins. Well, our passage today will test our reaction to the birth of one, very unusual, baby.
That’s because, as we work our way through the early chapters of Luke, we come this morning to Luke 1.57-80, and Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist. You can find that on page 1027 in the Bibles. You can see there that this passage falls into two sections. Verses 57-66 deal with the events of John’s birth and the following days. Then verses 67-80 are almost entirely Zechariah’s prophetic song of praise to God which is his response to these extraordinary events in which he’s caught up. As you can see from the outline on the back of the service sheet, I have two simple points to make, one for each of those sections. The first is that God’s word comes true. The second is that God’s word points to Jesus. We’ll come to those in a moment.
There are two things that we need to bear in mind as we read this account.
One is that these events surrounding and including the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus himself are utterly unique. Nothing like this had ever happened before or will ever happen again. Jesus will come again, but that Second Coming will be very different. He will come as Judge and King and every knee will bow before him. He won’t be coming as a newborn baby. So the birth of John the Baptist is one part of a totally unique sequence of events, and we need to read it and understand it in the light of that. That’s the first thing for us to bear in mind.
But the second thing is that, despite the uniqueness of all this, we can see aspects of what’s going on that are reflected in a typical disciple’s experience down through history. Mary is an example of that. When she’s told that she’s going to give birth to a son who’ll be the Son of the Most High, that’s an utterly unique experience. But at the same time, her response of trusting obedience to God’s word is an example of the response of trusting obedience that should mark the life of every disciple of Jesus.
So remember that what’s going on here is both unique and reflected in every disciple’s experience. So to my first heading.
First, GOD’S WORD COMES TRUE
That’s a very simple summary of what’s going on in verses 57-66. Here’s verses 57-58:
57When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
Now, as I’ve said, any birth is a cause for joy, but there’s a good deal more going on here than normal. We need to back up a bit to remind ourselves of what’s been happening in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth, this baby’s mum and dad.
Both of them came from priestly families. Back in 1.6 they’re both described as “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” So this is a couple who take seriously what we call in the first part of our mission statement Godly Living. They’re faithful and obedient. They’re trying to love God and their neighbour. But their life had not gone as they’d hoped. No doubt they’d watched as many babies were born to local families over the years, but they had never had children. Verse 7:
But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well on in years.
But then God catches them by surprise and sends the angel Gabriel to tell them that there’s a baby on the way. Evidently they’d been praying for a child, so Gabriel says to Zechariah:
your prayer has been heard.
That’s 1.13. And then Gabriel spells out what he means. 1.13-17:
13Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for 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. 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And 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.
Their prayer is answered in the first place with that unique promise. They’re going to be the parents of a prophet. Zechariah struggles to take that on board, and is struck dumb as a result. In 1.20 Gabriel gives his reason:
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 proper time.
I for one am fairly confident that if I’d been in Zechariah’s place, I too would have ended up dumbstruck. Maybe you also. But if we’re slow to believe God’s promises, that’s not to our credit. Elizabeth learned that from the Holy Spirit. So when later, and now pregnant, she meets Mary – also pregnant, Elizabeth exclaims (this is 1.42):
Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!
What God said to Mary was unique, but the blessing applies to all of us. Do you want blessing from God? Then believe his Word. Believe his promises. We live with all kinds of as-yet-unfulfilled promises from God. We wait for the coming of his Kingdom with Jesus as the King. If we want blessing, we need the kind of faith that knows that when God says he’s going to do something, he does it. Mary knew that. Elizabeth knew that. Zechariah wasn’t sure. What about us?
So when this baby is born, that’s part one of the promise fulfilled. That’s grace in action. Verse 58:
the Lord had shown her great mercy…
And when God’s grace is in action, joy results. Elizabeth and Zechariah rejoiced. The relatives rejoiced. The neighbours rejoiced. God is no killjoy. Joy is normal for the Holy Spirit filled Christian life. All kinds of other hard things go on too, but there’s no stopping the joy.
Then a Godly response to being on the receiving end of God’s grace and mercy is obedience. And that’s exactly what’s evident in both Elizabeth and Zechariah’s reactions. So verses 59-63 tell how they were obedient to the law in taking John to be circumcised on the eighth day. And then they were obedient to what Gabriel had told them when they named the baby John in the teeth of all the social expectation that he’d get a family name like Zechariah Junior or something. This break with tradition astonished the onlookers, so it was obviously a powerfully counter-cultural move that they were making, because God told them.
Even that little incident is an object lesson to us. What comes first for us? The demands of the culture and social pressures? Or radical discipleship even if that means that we act in a counter-cultural way that at first people won’t understand? We need to be ready to swim against the tide if we’re going to turn the tide of godlessness in our culture – if you understand my mixed metaphors.
The sequence, then, is that God’s grace in action produces joy. It is responded to with obedience. Then notice how that obedience draws out from God yet more grace. Verse 64:
Immediately [Zechariah’s] mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God.
So more grace produces more God-centred joy and praise. And all this grace-joy-obedience-more-grace-more-joy has two further results, this time not just in the immediate circle around the family, but in the wider community. Verses 65-66:
65The neighbours were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord's hand was with him.
First, there is awe. People realise that what’s going on is not mere human activity. Babies are born every day but this is different. The powerful hand of God is at work here. So God is being glorified as people attribute these events to his activity and are humbled before his mighty power.
Secondly, there is, for want of a better word, publicity. Everyone’s talking about what’s going on. Everyone’s wondering what it’s all going to lead to.
What we’re seeing here is God’s word coming true. How, then, do we react as we hear about these amazing events two thousand years later?
There’s one good reaction to what happened here, bearing in mind the once-for-all nature of these events. That’s joy. Don’t get blasé about Christmas. The birth of John is part of the whole Christmas sequence of events. Celebrate Christmas for all you’re worth, and for all the right reasons. Join with those neighbours and relatives of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Share their joy. Join with Zechariah – let your tongue be loosed by the Spirit of God, and let your mouth be filled with praise this Christmas time. Not least, let’s pray that Carols by Candlelight will be a supernatural event, filled with Holy Spirit-inspired praise that will get people talking.
And that’s another good reaction to what happened here, bearing mind that aspects of this reflect discipleship today. Let’s be praying that the hand of God will be with us and will act powerfully among us in our day, to such an extent that awe spreads around the wider community of Tyneside and beyond, and everyone talks about it and wonders what more is going to happen, to the glory of God.
That’s point one: God’s Word comes true. My other point is this:
Secondly, GOD’S WORD POINTS TO JESUS
The next part of our passage is mostly taken up with Zechariah’s song. What’s the nature of this song? Verse 67 tells us:
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
Let’s be clear that the power at work behind all these extraordinary events is the power of the Spirit of God. Again and again Luke emphasises that. So in 1.15 the angel Gabriel says of John:
“… he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.”
That’s what will empower his ministry. Then in 1.35 Mary’s told by Gabriel:
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
When Elizabeth meets Mary, 1.41 says, Elizabeth…
… was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Now it’s Zechariah who is filled with the Holy Spirit. And the result is typical of what happens when someone is full of the Holy Spirit. He speaks the word of God boldly.
This song is Holy Spirit-inspired prophecy. These are words direct from God through Zechariah, so we can trust them as true. They are Scripture. In that sense what happens to Zechariah here is part of the uniqueness of all this.
But even here there’s a more general application to discipleship. That’s clear in Part Two of Luke’s account, which is the book of Acts. At the Central Prayer Meeting last Wednesday we were reminded of what happened to the disciples as they prayed when they were being threatened by the religious authorities. Acts 4.31 says:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Let’s make it our prayer that our lives will be so full of the Holy Spirit that we too will speak the word of God boldly, even in hostile environments.
What, then, is the content of this word from God spoken boldly under the impact of the Holy Spirit’s presence? In a word, it is Jesus. It is the message that God has come to us in the person of his Son. Of course, Zechariah’s outpouring of praise comes before Jesus is born. Mary knows what his name is to be, but he’s not named here. But what is clear is that Zechariah is talking about God having arrived among his people. Verse 68:
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come…
God has arrived on earth. He promised he would, and now it’s happened. This goes right back to the promise that God made with Abraham all those years before – about 2000 years before. In other words about as long as we’ve waited for the Second Coming of Jesus. And now that covenant promise is being fulfillled. God is doing this (verses 72-73):
72…to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath he swore to our father Abraham…
God is a God who keeps his promises. The passage of 2000 years shouldn’t make us think that he’s forgotten what he said. He never does. Have you been waiting for God to fulfil his promise of blessing in your life in some way? How long have you been waiting? 20 years? 2 years? God’s timescale is not necessarily ours. Keep trusting.
God’s word comes true. And what is God’s word to us primarily about? What is the content of his promise? Jesus. Notice six descriptions of Jesus – God with us – in what Zechariah says here.
One. He’s our redeemer. Verse 68:
… he has come and has redeemed his people.
He is the one who pays the price to set us free.
Two. He’s our saviour. Verse 69:
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us…
A horn in Old Testament language is a symbol of power and strength. So Jesus is our strong saviour – stronger than all the powers that want to keep us enslaved by sin and death.
Three. He’s our King. This saviour has been raised up for us (verse 69):
… in the house of his servant David.
In other words this is great David’s greater son. This is the messiah, God’s anointed King. God said through his prophets that he’d send a King who would reign for ever – a good shepherd. Well he’s arrived.
Four. He’s our rescuer. Verse 73: he has come…
… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies…
Five. He’s our enabler. Not only does he save us from disaster. He empowers us for the future as well. He comes (verse 74):
… to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all our days.
And six. He’s our guide. Verse 78:
the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
He doesn’t just empower us and set us on our way. He leads us. He walks with us.
Jesus is our redeemer, our saviour, our king, our rescuer, our enabler and our guide. God has come. That’s what the Holy Spirit showed Zechariah. No wonder he pours out praise.
And what’s the role of Zechariah’s little baby boy John to be? He is to be the prophet preparing the way with the message of forgiveness. Verses 76-77:
76And 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, 77to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins…
Remarkably, the adult Jesus says of John the Baptist that he was the greatest of the prophets – but that (I quote):
“…the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
That’s Luke 7.28. That’s not to say that John wasn’t a subject of God’s Kingdom. But it is to say that the privilege of knowing Christ by faith that’s experienced by every disciple of Jesus is a greater privilege than being the greatest prophet. And that is our privilege if we’re believers.
So what should our response be to this torrent of praise from the lips of Zechariah? It must be that we, too, should focus on Jesus. It seems odd that that should need stressing at this time of year – but of course there are so many distractions that it’s all too easy for other things to take centre stage. Let’s make sure our minds and hearts are full of Jesus in the coming weeks, in the midst of all the present buying, card writing, social attending and sheer hard slog of recession Britain in the final throws of this first decade of the third millennium.
Praise God, his word comes true. And praise God, his word points to Jesus.
One last thought from the final verse of Luke 1:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.
John became “strong in spirit”. In what sense? Surely in the sense that he became clear about his calling and incapable of being knocked off course, however hard things became – and they became very hard. But he’d become strong in spirit, so he persevered to the end. Let’s pray that for one another. Even now pray that for those sitting around you – that they will become strong in spirit, and that nothing will knock them off course as they follow Jesus.