This morning we’re looking at Zechariah as we start a new series in the Gospel of Luke entitled the Rise of Christianity. And although the Christian faith continues to grow all over the world today some of you here this morning might be asking but is it true? Others of you might have been brought up in the Christian faith, you’ve been taught the Jesus of the Bible, you might even believe but, rather like Theophilus, to whom this gospel was originally written, you’re asking for assurance that it’s true in the face of an increasingly questioning and pluralistic society. Perhaps you’re experiencing doubt. In the words of Zechariah (v18) you’re asking, “How can I be sure of this?” Still others of you want to know how best to answer questions your friends are asking about the Christian faith. So you and they might be asking: Is the account of Zechariah and these two unusual births – of John the Baptist and of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in Luke 1 & 2 reliable? Is this account of the first Christmas and the amazing events that preceded it accurate? Or is it all bah humbug!
Well, of course, faith is key. The Bible tells us that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). But faith in Jesus Christ is not a blind faith. No, it’s a faith grounded on historical events. If Jesus did not come to earth as a baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, die on the cross and rise from the dead then let’s all pack it in now, go home and celebrate winter.
But Luke is certain that the Christian faith is true, indeed exclusively true. Luke’s Gospel has been subtitled ‘Jesus the Saviour of the World’. Colossians 4:14 tells us that Luke was a doctor. As a doctor, Luke wanted the facts. He tells us in v3 that his intention was to write an orderly account for the most excellent Theophilus, so that he and other readers might know the certainty, note the certainty, of what they’d been taught about Jesus Christ.
And Luke in his Gospel is not only certain of the truth of the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist, the one who was to prepare the way of the Lord, but also the truth of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. And so is Matthew in his Gospel. They both state that Mary remained bodily a virgin in the conception of Jesus and did not have sexual intercourse with Joseph. It’s long been accepted that the ultimate earthly source for these narratives is Mary and Joseph: Joseph for Matthew and Mary for Luke. In v2 of Luke 1 Dr Luke makes it clear that what he writes comes from eye-witnesses and servants of the word. In other words he got his information from people who had actually seen the events he records and from those who’d been willing to die for the truth of them. From Colossians 4 we know that Luke was a dear friend and fellow worker of the Apostle Paul. 2 Timothy 4 tells us that Luke was with Paul at the end of his life in a Roman prison. And we also know that earlier Luke spent two and a half years in Palestine while Paul was in prison there. Luke could easily have got his account from Mary direct at that time. Then in v3, Luke says that he’s carefully investigated everything from the beginning. As a doctor he would no doubt have been interested in unusual births! He did his homework. He was very concerned to get the account of Jesus right, from the beginning of his earthly life. Therefore he’s checked out the historical detail even down to the birth announcement! Even down to the birth announcement of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist.
Luke investigated and checked out the evidence. If you’re someone who’s still unsure will you investigate and check out the evidence for yourself? Christianity Explored is a course that’s not to be missed if you’ve got questions. There’s one running that you can still join in with on Thursday evening in 3 Osborne Rd. The course for students starts tomorrow night in 3 Osborne Rd and another for internationals begins this coming Thursday evening in the church hall. The details are on this leaflet that’s in your service sheet. There’s also a free booklet on the welcome desk called, ‘The Gospels: can we trust them?’, which you can pick up at the end of the service.
So Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, for the Bible tells us that all Scripture is God breathed, invites his readers to consider the true story of Jesus again, right from the beginning of his earthly life and to know that these indeed were events that have been fulfilled. For unbelief can also come into a believer’s heart. Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, sometimes had his misgivings. Here Zechariah, a faithful godly priest, did not believe God’s message from the Angel Gabriel at first. The well known preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote:
There is nothing in the world that costs a saint so dear as unbelief. If he disbelieves his God, he most assuredly robs himself of comfort, deprives himself of strength, and does himself a real injury. May the case of Zechariah be a lesson to the Lord’s people.
If you’re a believer do you struggle with doubt at times? Do you, as Zechariah did, question God’s ability to fulfil his own Word? Do you sometimes struggle to believe that he answers prayer? Do you fail to believe that nothing is impossible for God (v37)? It can happen to the most upright and faithful believers, even to leaders who seek to obey the Word of God as we see here in the case of Zechariah. Well let’s now turn to examine Zechariah further. And my first point is simply:
From v5 we learn that Zechariah, a priest, was a believing Jew. He and his wife Elizabeth were both of priestly descent from the line of Aaron and Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. From the time of King David the priests were organised into 24 divisions and Abijah was one of the heads of the priestly families. In spite of the godlessness around at the time, he and his wife were faithful in obeying the word of God and living blamelessly. Look at v6:
Both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly.
Now the word blameless in the Bible does not mean sinless. Zechariah and Elizabeth were not sinless rather they were faithful and sincere in keeping God’s ordinances. But, v7:
But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
It’s hard enough and painful even today for a married couple to be childless. For Jews then, to be childless was one of the bitterest of sorrows. In 1 Samuel 1:10 we are told that Elkanah’s wife Hannah, who was barren, wept much in bitterness of soul. It was generally considered to indicate divine disfavour and often brought social reproach. Hence the disgrace Elizabeth mentions in v25. However there’s nothing to indicate divine disfavour here as we’ve just seen from v6 – rather if anything it was for the Lord’s purpose as we’re about to see. Elizabeth was barren and they were both now old and so what happened next was a major surprise and it brings us to my second heading:
2. HOW NOT TO TALK TO AN ANGEL
11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But 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. 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. (Luke 1:11-17)
It’s hard for us to imagine the immense importance of this announcement. It was the first communication from God to Israel since the days of Malachi. It broke the long silence of 400 years. God’s choicest promise was at last going to be accomplished. Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3&4 foretold that when the Messiah came, someone would go before him to prepare his way and make ready a people prepared for the Lord. As Elijah came before Elisha (whose ministry was one of judgment and redemption), so quotes ‘Elijah’ will be sent to prepare God’s people for the Lord’s coming. And that person was to be John the Baptist. He would minister 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.
But first notice v13. “Your prayer has been heard.” We learn that a long delay does not necessarily mean that our prayers are rejected. I wonder who needs to be reminded of that this morning. If it’s God’s will and purpose it will be answered at the proper time. Zechariah had, no doubt, often prayed for the blessing of children but none had been given. He and Elizabeth must have felt that they’d prayed in vain. At his age he’d probably given up praying for this blessing a long time ago. But v13 tells us that those prayers have been heard. It’s interesting to note that Zechariah’s name means God has remembered! Their prayers are now to be answered and how and note (v20) at the proper time! Not only are they to have a son in old age, they are to have a son who will be great in the sight of the Lord. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth and he will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
How we pray for our children to know God’s grace, to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to be great in the sight of the Lord.
This child is surely God’s gift, which is what the name John means. He wouldn’t even touch alcohol whether under age or over! He would be a joy and delight to his parents. The wait was surely worth it. But Zechariah couldn’t believe it. Not even from the mouth of an angel. V18:
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
He wants another sign. (You see seeing is not always believing.) And he gets a sign he wouldn’t forget. Vv19-20:
19The angel answered, “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. 20And 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.”
Which leads us to my third and final heading
3. UNBELIEF IS JUDGED BUT FAITH IS BLESSED
Faith is blessed but unbelief is judged. Zechariah became dumb for nine months and because the people communicated with him in signs he was probably deaf too as we read in v62. Now contrast Zechariah’s reaction with that of Mary in v34, when the angel tells her that she will be with child as a virgin, and that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Zechariah’s question implies doubt about the whole announcement. Mary’s question implies no doubt about the event, just about how it will be accomplished. Instead of looking to God by faith, Zechariah looked at himself and his wife and decided that the birth of a son was impossible. He wanted some assurance beyond the plain word of God’s messenger, Gabriel. He was questioning God’s ability to fulfil his own word! Had he forgotten what God did for Abraham and Sarah? Did he think that his physical limitations would hinder Almighty God? But before we criticise Zechariah too much, we should examine ourselves and see how strong our own faith is. Have we allowed ourselves to be overtaken by the sin of unbelief? Hebrews 3:12 warns:
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But rather encourage one another daily.
Have you stopped praying and reading God’s Word? Meet up with someone who can help you and encourage you. Join a small group. Is your faith an ‘if you can Jesus faith or an ‘I believe you Jesus faith? In Mark 9 in the account of the healing of a boy with an evil spirit, the boy’s father says to Jesus, “if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “If you can?” Jesus replied, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” So often we need to pray as that boy’s father did, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” (Mk 9:22-24) Zechariah’s unbelief was overcome through God’s chastening of him.
Note that Zechariah’s chastening did not invalidate God’s promise. Zechariah’s unbelief and disciplining did not mean that Elizabeth would not now bear a son. God cannot deny himself. He is faithful. The promise still stood. His words would come true at the proper time as the Angel Gabriel had said in v20. Look at the start of that in vv23-25:
23When his time of service was completed he returned home. 24After 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 favour and taken away my disgrace among the people."
As we’ll see later in this series after being humbled Zechariah believed, not just that he now had a son, but in God’s message through the angel and he praised God. Look on to v63&64. No longer was he deaf and dumb. Unbelief is judged but faith is blessed. This baby had a special purpose from God and Zechariah now, not only believed, not only praised God, but also prophesied about John and Jesus. Having doubted God’s Word he now proclaimed it. Vv67-69:
67…Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. 69He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.
Unbelief is judged but faith is blessed. Do we believe God? Do we take him at his word? Do we believe that nothing is impossible for him (v37)? Are we praying in faith for 750 people to come to the Christianity Explored Taster Sessions over 5 nights in January? Are we praying in faith for our friends to come? To come and hear about the horn of salvation – Jesus Christ – who has won the victory over sin, death and the devil through his death and resurrection, a victory in which we can share through faith in him and so have life in all its fullness.