This sermon is part of the sermon series "Songs for the Not-So-Holly-Jolly". See series.
As familiar as we are with the songs of Christmas, there are four songs recorded in the Bible sung by people surrounding the birth of Jesus that aren't sung much at all now. The angels sang a song to the shepherds (we know part of their song: "And on earth peace and goodwill toward men."). Mary sang a song to God after she had time to get over the shocking news that she was going to be the mother of the Savior. Simeon had a song that we'll talk about in a few weeks. Then there's Zechariah's song. Zechariah was an elderly priest who sang after being visited by an angel. This wasn't like a Broadway musical—these people didn't suddenly burst into chorus. But the ancient church captured their words and created songs known as canticles.
God spoke through Elijah.
For some background, let's reach back in history to about four centuries before the birth of Christ. The Old Testament ends with this mysterious phrase in Malachi 4:5-6: "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; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." Just like that, the Old Testament comes to a close. It's confusing, cryptic, disturbing. It's not really the way you want to end a book—unless you're planning to write a sequel.
Elijah was probably the most famous of the Old Testament prophets. He was relentless in calling God's people to turn away from their sin and toward the one true God. He often stood up to evil rulers and never tried to sugar-coat his words. Elijah had died hundreds of years before the time of this passage. Is the Book of Malachi talking about reincarnation? Many in Jesus' day believed that this Scripture implied Elijah would come back from the dead. We are left hanging, wondering, and waiting.
God was silent.
After the prophet Malachi penned these words, there were no more prophets and no more written revelations from God for 400 years. That's how much time elapsed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. Four hundred years. That's longer than the United States has been a country.
Silence. We don't really like silence, do we? Have you ever been in a small group praying, and there's 30 seconds of silence? It feels like an eternity. Have you ever prayed and prayed and prayed about a struggle in your life and as best you could tell, God was silent? I think most of us have experienced that, and at the time it seemed like we would never hear from God. But for God to be silent for 400 years? What was that about? Generations went by without a fresh word from God. True, Israel had the Law of Moses and the words of the prophets, but only a few gave themselves to understanding the words and promises of God; only a few were willing to wait their entire lives if necessary to hear from God.
It's helpful to try and envision things from God's perspective. God was silent from a human perspective, but that doesn't mean he had stopped working on behalf of humankind. The apostle Paul wrote, "… when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). God acted when the time had fully come—when everything was ready and prepared. God was silently but actively preparing the world stage for the coming of the Savior.
From 356-323 B.C., God brought to power a man known as Alexander the Great. As Alexander took his army around the Mediterranean region, he set up cities and libraries for the sole purpose of spreading the Greek culture and language. By the time Rome came to power, Greek was the language of commerce and education. This influence led to the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, what scholars today call the Septuagint. Gentiles were then able to become acquainted with the principles of Judaism. Later, when the biographies of Jesus and letters of instruction for the early churches were written, they were written in Greek. Alexander the Great believed he was on a divine mission, although he personally did not know the one true God. In the silence, God was preparing for Christmas.
When Rome came to power, one of the lasting legacies was a system of roads going to every part of the Empire, hence the saying, "all roads lead to Rome." Along with this unified Empire came unprecedented freedom to move from one Roman province to another. In the silence, God was preparing for Christmas.
It's amazing what a change of perspective can bring. To the Jewish nation, it looked like God had abandoned them. But we can see from our perspective that he was very much at work preparing the world, setting the stage, for his greatest work—the coming of his son.
God spoke to Zechariah.
Let's move ahead to our key text, Luke 1:5-25. Finally after 400 years of silence, when everything was ready, God spoke again through an angel. The word angel means messenger. This angel was named Gabriel, who we'll see later was very busy. When the angel spoke, he picked up right where Malachi left off.
Zechariah and his wife were going to have a baby—John—and that baby was the very one that Malachi promised would come—a powerful, influential prophet who would be like Elijah. In fact, if you read further in the story about John as a man, he even dressed like Elijah, with a camel hair coat and a leather belt around his waist. Like Elijah, he called people to repentance; he called people back to God. Like Elijah, he didn't mince words, calling the religious leaders of his day, "a brood of vipers." As a priest, Zechariah was probably one of the few people left in that day who understood the Old Testament Scriptures well enough to make the connection between John and Elijah.
Despite Zechariah's awareness that God was at work, the news that he and his wife were going to have a baby at their age was pretty heavy. As my grandpa used to say, Zechariah had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
There are a couple instances in the Bible of God granting children to people past child-bearing years—Abraham and Sarah, for example. We really can't blame Zechariah for asking in verse 18, "are you sure about this? I'm an old man, and my wife … well, she's not exactly a spring chicken." In response to Zechariah, the angel said, "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."
Was Zechariah being punished? That doesn't seem fair, does it? I don't believe the silencing of Zechariah was about punishment. I believe that in the silence, God was preparing Zechariah for Christmas.
I hope this doesn't sound irreverent, but I sure wish the Bible recorded the conversation that went on when he got back home to his wife. Although he couldn't speak as a priest, he could read and write, so I imagine he wrote a note and passed it to her. She read it and responded, "The angel said what?! And so now you want to what?!" Husbands have been known to come up with some creative excuses, but this one seemed over the top!
The Bible says in Luke 1:24, "After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion." I guess she was a little self-conscious, don't you think? During the time when he couldn't speak, Zechariah must have poured over the Scriptures, trying to understand what was happening. He must have spent long hours in prayer trying to understand what the angel had said, and what the role of his son would be. Why name him John? Well, the name means "gift of God," so that was pretty clear.
John would obviously be the one Malachi had predicted, but was that all? Just another prophet? Another prophet to be mostly ignored like all the rest? No, the more Zechariah was silent, the more he thought about the last thing the angel said, "…and he will make ready a people prepared for the Lord." The Lord. The Lord … was the angel talking about the Messiah? The Chosen One? The Savior?
Zechariah's song of faith
At some point, it all came into focus for Zechariah. In the silence, God had prepared him to understand a bigger picture than just a miraculous birth to an elderly couple.
We pick up the story in verse 57:
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: "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 his 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 him 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 darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" Luke 1:67-79.
Zechariah sang, but it wasn't a lullaby. It was a song of faith. Zechariah sang, not about his own son, but about another baby who would soon be born to a distant relative of his wife. It's not until verse 76 that he addresses his own son, and the role he would play in this event we call Christmas. Little baby John would grow up to be a herald, to prepare people for the coming King.
After 400 years without a prophet, people had to be awakened from their spiritual slumber. They had to hear the old, old stories. They had to remember the promises of God. They had to become aware of their sin and the barrier that it is to God. Through John's life work and eventual death, God served notice that his eternal plan for the redemption of people was finally at hand.
In this beautiful song, Zechariah gave several pictures symbolizing the salvation we have in Jesus Christ:
Purchase from slavery (v. 68)
Deliverance from danger (v. 74)
Forgiveness of a debt (v. 77)
The dawning of a new day (vv. 78-79)
Salvation (vv. 69, 71, 77)
This was the first song of the first Christmas. And the lesson for us is this: Even in apparent silence, God is preparing you and me for Christmas. He's not preparing us for the holiday of Christmas, but for the reality of Christmas: "God with us."
When you find yourself in silence, it helps to read of others who have gone before you. It helps to remember that although God did not make himself evident for 400 years, he was at work the whole time preparing the way.
God will redeem the silence in your life. Whether you've been crying out for the salvation of someone you love, or the restoration of health for yourself or someone else, for an end to the financial hardship you've been under, for the stress and mental strain of life to ease up—God is still working, even when you cannot see evidence of it.
This is the essence of faith according to Hebrews 11:1—being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This Christmas, in spite of the silence, sing a song of faith—a song like Zechariah's.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).