It is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, and in a few days we will be celebrating Christmas day, the birth of the Savior. This advent season we are exploring some of the promised children of scripture. We saw that Abraham was promised a son who would continue his line and continue the blessing. And we saw how Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, furthermore, we were encouraged, I hope by the fact that we are now heirs of those blessings. We are descendants of Abraham, just as Isaac, Jacob, David and ultimately Jesus were.
Today we will look at the promises God made to Zechariah and Elizabeth through the prophet Gabriel. We will see how Christ is the fulfillment of these and how we too share in his glorious ministry to redeem humanity from the curse of sin and death. Our story is found in the Gospel of Luke. It is the only place where this particular part of the nativity story is told and Luke gives us a fair amount of detail about the setting before he moves onto the promises concerning the child to come. Let’s look at it for a moment:
It is the time of Herod, Herod the Great who ruled over Palestine (which composed parts of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) from the mid-40’s BC to 4BC. Herod was a pretty great king in the eyes of the ancient Roman world and he left his mark on much more than just the biblical narrative. He was a staunch ally of Rome believing that nothing could be achieved without their aid and consent. This belief caused him to use all his power to stay on Rome’s good side – he squashed rebels, fought against the Hasmonean’s (Jewish priestly movement to reclaim the royal throne), and even fought against Antony’s gladiators as the East and the West of Rome was being congealed under Octavius, a.k.a. Caesar Augustus. Add to these political choices the fact that Herod was desperately jealous of his empire and ruthless to protect his rule and we have a man who drowned the High Priest at one point in his reign, killed his wife and 2 of his sons along with countless other “threats.” On the positive side, Herod was a grand builder, not only at home building two cities and rebuilding and enlarging the Temple. He also built all across the ancient world – buildings, temples, gymnasiums in Athens, Sparta, Rhodes, etc.
This is the time frame and the political context of the day that we must understand when Luke says, In the time of Herod, king of Judea. A Jewish people are being ruled by an Idumean (descendant of Esau) named Herod the Great, who is more allied to Rome than to Yahweh. In this time a priest named Zechariah is married to Elizabeth. We know a few interesting things about Zechariah and his wife. First, they are both upright and blameless. They are of the faithful, obedient to the revelation they have been given. They are religious, not secularist. Luke gets at this even more when he informs us that Zechariah is of the priestly division of Abijah and Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron.
Let’s look at Zechariah first. According to 1 Chronicles 6:28 as the text is listing off the descendents of Levi, whom the priests and the Levites are to come from, we run across the name of Elkanah in verse 26 who has a son named Samuel. This is the same Samuel we will explore next week. But what is pertinent to us right now is that Samuel has 2 sons: Joel the firstborn and Abijah the second son. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zechariah is a direct descendent of Samuel, for the Israelite people were carried into exile and of the 24 priestly division David established, only 4 returned with Ezra (2:36-39) but the book of Nehemiah implies that out of these 4 divisions who returned, the 24 divisions were reconstituted (12:1-7). Luke is telling us that there is a connection being drawn between Zechariah and the last great Judge – Samuel, specifically that a descendant of Samuel is coming.
Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron, who was the first High Priest and Moses brother. Furthermore, she also carries the name of the Aaron’s wife, the only other Elizabeth in the Scriptures. Ex. 6:23 Aaron married Elisheba… I believe that Luke inspired by God is trying to make a statement to the church, and to the Jewish people. A very profound statement as a matter of fact. Where the prophets have been silent for more than 400 years, I am raising up a prophet who descends from one of the great prophets; where the modern day priests are failing to direct the people to God, I am going to be raising up a new descendent of the High Priest to point people to the Lord; where your king has allied himself to Rome and secular expediency, I will be raising up a leader allied to God Almighty.
Thus the angel of the Lord comes while Zechariah is performing his priestly duty of burning incense and says, “You will have a son, name him John – Yahweh has given grace. He is going to be a joy, a double joy (delight) and others will have joy because of his birth.” For a great priest, prophet and judge is coming into the world. But this is where it gets good. “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. Many 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, another wonderful prophet who fearlessly proclaimed the word of God to the people. He will 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.”
This sounds like the opposite of everything that Herod has exemplified and everything that the priesthood has been doing.
God is raising up a leader, a prophetic, priestly leader to point the people back to their Lord, to prepare the people to be ready for battle, to be built into the house of God.
The very last phrase, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord carries all these implications. For the only other things in scripture that are prepared are buildings and soldiers. The son that is promised to Zechariah is going to get people ready for the master builder to come; he is going to train them so that their General of the Army can command them.
Those two themes make a lot of sense out of the Gabriel’s proclamation concerning John. For if he is going to ready the people for being built into the true and living temple of God, the body of Christ, then he needs the empowerment of the Spirit, which is promised even from birth. From the very beginning of his days, God will be leading him and guiding him. If he is going to ready the army of God to take orders from their supreme commander then he needs first of all to turn people back to God from their wayward wanderings, their flirtatious experiments with Rome, their dependence upon dead religion instead of upon living faith and repentance.
And it all begins in getting the adults to become like children, and the disobedient, not to become obedient, but to become wise. Zechariah’s son is going to turn the fathers’ hearts to childlike faith. At least that is how I understand the parallels,
Luke 1:17 to turn the hearts of parents to [their] children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous,
to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
When the disobedient parents become like the wise child, or maybe said another way, when rebellious humanity gains childlike faith, trust and acceptance then they are becoming a people fit for God’s use. In fact isn’t that what Jesus himself says in Matt. 18:3 “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But how are we supposed to become like little children? How are we to gain the wisdom of the righteous, salvation by faith apart from works? How are we to be built into a people, in to a temple? The rest of scripture tells us John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance, John the Baptist came calling people to turn from their wickedness and to recognize their sin and flee from it. This is the first step in gaining the wisdom of the righteous.
But this kind of repentance without the assurance of forgiveness and the knowledge of salvation is less than a message to rejoice in. That is why John prepares the way for the Lord, but Jesus is the way of the Lord. John’s disciples were awaiting the full message of salvation, as Acts 19:4-5 illustrates (Paul said,) “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus. On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus, and the text goes on to say they received the Holy Spirit.
So do we have work to do? Does this story have bearing on our life? On our world?
You bet, we live in a world where many of our leaders aren’t that different from Herod.
They are making names for themselves.
They are building monuments to their greatness
Many of our leaders are more interested in compromise and building their own names than they are on pursuing wisdom, discernment, and servanthood.
Yes we have a call to preach repentance and faith in God.
Furthermore, a vast number of our religious leaders aren’t turning people toward God; rather they are turning people toward popular psychology, self-help and self-improvement. They are mixing the gospel with other religious teachings. Our spiritual leaders have become enamored with religion that leaves people bereft of any hope of change while placating the sinful tendencies of society and baptizing them as Christian. Our churches have become bastions for popular social experimentation both on our children and our families. Prayer has almost vanished. Did you know the typical Christian only prays 3-5 minutes a day and most of that for himself?
Yet God intended that the church would be a house of prayer. God desired a people wholly devoted to his name, calling on the Lord day and night, giving thanks for everything, seeking his glory and his kingdom, praying for the formation of the spiritual community.
We desperately need the message John was called to preach, but we need to ensure the message goes with the truth of the incarnation so that people have hope. People desperately need to be awakened to the desires of God. We need to proclaim that the Lord is building a house and calling a people to resistance against all that the world offers up as normal and standard and acceptable. Jesus wants you. Jesus wants me. Jesus wants everyone of us to be equipped and empowered for works of service and for being united with his Spirit so that we can transform this dead and dying world into a living, breathing picture of his Kingdom full of love and obedience. And every bit of it begins in acknowledging that there is a God whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth are infinite, eternal and unchangeable (Westminster Shorter Q4). This is second step in gaining the wisdom of the righteous. First is to acknowledge our sin, second is to acknowledge God’s righteous character.
And this means that my natural ways of living are more often than not going to be an affront to God for I am not the possessor of infinite, eternal and unchangeable wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness or truth. So I need to repent and turn to his Son who alone fulfilled the righteous commands of the Lord, who alone can bring me forgiveness. He alone can enable me to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness (Luke 1:74-75). And I would venture to guess that you would agree with all of these same statements about yourself.
And so we wait, liturgically a few more days, but in reality knowing that the birth of the one who can redeem us from all our sins and release us into the newness of life has already come. This we must proclaim for all the goodness of the kingdom is available to whoever will believe. God has granted us a great privilege and responsibility – We are the ones who prepare this world for the Lord!
This is the story of Advent. Where John could tell people about their need, Jesus meets the need and we proclaim him. Where John could tell people their hearts were corrupt and to admit it, Jesus gives a new heart and we proclaim him. Where John could tell people to serve God and acknowledge God as God, Jesus gives us his spirit so that we can utter both the word and be empowered to do the deeds and we proclaim him. Where John prepared the building site and brought the stones together, Jesus builds the temple, first in his flesh and then in his body, the church and we proclaim him. For we are (1Pet. 2:9-10) a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
John got things ready, but Jesus did the work. John went before the Lord Jesus as a prophet denouncing sin and calling people to repentance, but Jesus gave his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins just as Zechariah prophesied in Luke 1:76. This is what Advent is all about, it is about the atonement beginning, and it’s about God visiting his people and empowering them to remain his people.
And we get to participate in it. Jesus calls us his mothers and brothers and sisters in Mark 3:34-35 and he calls us his friends saying (John 15:15) I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. We are partners with Jesus. In one sense we are like John, people sent by God to proclaim repentance, in another we are greater than John, for we know the whole truth about Christ and Christ himself indwells us.