This sermon is part of the sermon series "Miraculous Births". See series.
This sermon is part of the “Miraculous Births” sermon series. See the whole series here.
It's Christmas Eve 1945 in Bedford Falls, New York, and George Bailey is suicidal. George’s Uncle Billy, the one with the crow on his shoulder, had gone to deposit $8,000 (about $100,000 in today’s dollars) for his building and loan business that morning. But he mistakenly places the envelope in evil Mr. Potter’s newspaper. Things go from bad to worse for George Bailey, and there he stands on a bridge in a blizzard ready to jump. Looking at the raging river below, he prays, “Dear Father in heaven, I'm not a praying man, but if you're up there and you can hear me [begins crying] show me the way. Show me the way.” George Bailey needed $8,000 more than anything—or so he thought. But what he really needed was to believe that God had given him a wonderful life. A life of purpose. A life that genuinely helped others. But it’s hard to believe that when you are overcome with discouragement.
I can relate to George Bailey at his time of discouragement and loss of hope. Can you? What if you don’t have a “Clarence” to show you the way? What if it feels like all your prayers have simply been hitting the ceiling? What if the only thing you can hear in your pain is silence?
That was the situation for the nation of Israel and a particular Israelite couple 2,021 years ago (give or take a couple of years).
(Read Luke 1:5–7)
This couple must have wanted a child more than anything. Perhaps they had seen doctors. They had tried for many years. There had been tears. Sleepless nights. Lying awake and wondering, “Why, God?” Their friends had all gone on to have children years ago. Now their friends were starting to have grandchildren. Zechariah and Elizabeth felt their dream die. And they wondered who would care for them in their old age. Not to mention that they saw the judgmental looks of others; they heard the whispers. In that culture, many in the community would assume that this was God’s just judgment on them for their sin. They felt shame and disgrace. They had prayed to God in their sorrow. But the answer they had gotten was only silence.
Knowing God’s silence was not merely this couple’s experience. The nation of Israel hadn’t heard God speak through a prophet for 400 years. There was no promised Messiah. No glorious temple. Just Rome in control. I’m sure many thought God had forgotten his people. Many Israelites must have gotten on with their lives. Lived for the here and now. Tried to build a life with little thought to God and his Word. For he was silent, right? The voices of career, family, survival, politics, holidays, and ease spoke a much louder word than anything God had to say. It makes a lot more sense to base your life on what you can see, taste, and touch than what you hear about from long ago.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth thought otherwise. They thought God’s Word from long ago had something to say to their present and their future. Luke describes this couple as “upright” and “observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” They weren’t only listening to God’s Word from long ago. They were doing God’s Word. Their lives were built around it. But even the “blameless” and “faithful” struggle to trust God’s Word. Especially because what we want is a wonderful life now. One that we can control. With results instead of long periods of silence and disappointment. What life are you going after? The wonderful life you can see and feel? Or one built around God’s promises?
What we see here in Luke 1 is that God will fulfill his promise and prepare his people for salvation. And our response is one of trust and joy.
Trust in God’s promise
(Read Luke 1:8–25)
Zechariah wins the lottery! The highlight of his career! He is picked by lot out of 18,000 priests to burn incense in the temple! While he’s doing that, an angel appears. Which isn’t normal. I’ve never had an angel appear to me while I’m doing my pastoral duties. After Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid (because angels are terrifying), he says, “Your prayer has been heard.” What prayer? We think Gabriel is referring to two prayers. One, “God has heard your prayer for a child.” Two, “God has heard your prayer for the redemption of Israel.” This is two prayer requests heard for the price of one fulfillment! For Elizabeth will give birth to a son. And not just any son!
What child is this? Let’s just say that the miraculous births of Samson and Samuel were setting the table for this. He’d be set apart like Samson, thus no “happy hours” like Samson. But to take it a step further, he’d be filled with the Spirit at conception!
In the Old Testament, God’s spirit would come upon special individuals for specific purposes. But this child is filled with the Spirit in the womb. Why? Because John represents a bridge between God’s promise and fulfillment. One commentator writes, “In his intimate relationship with the Spirit, John the Baptist is a precursor of God’s coming ministry of the Spirit in the church when the Spirit will be given not just to a few but to all who believe” (Bock, 86). In other words, think of John the Baptist as the page between the Old and New Testament. He’s an Old Testament prophet, but he ministers during the age of fulfillment.
Look at verses 16–17. John will “turn” God’s people back to God. This “turning” is describing repentance. So it makes sense why John is described as ministering in the “spirit and power” of Elijah. Because Elijah had preached a message of repentance to the nation of Israel (that largely went ignored). This “turning” or “repentance” that Gabriel envisions is filled out in verse 17. Luke is basically saying that John’s ministry is one that prepares for reconciliation in horizontal relationships (like in the family, between fathers and sons) and in the vertical relationship (disobedient to the righteous). John had come to call people back to God and his ways of peace through repentance.
Long ago, the prophet Malachi had spoken of a messenger of the Lord who would come and, like Elijah, would prepare the way for the Lord. And that when this messenger comes: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God … to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.” And when he has prepared God’s people , “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
With the introduction of this prophet that Malachi had foreseen, the Lord will come into his temple. In Ezekiel, the Lord had left his temple, but Ezekiel had foreseen a day when the Lord would return. With the birth of this prophet, the Lord Almighty was coming back. And Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was to be this prophet. His life’s mission was to get God’s people ready. Can you imagine the excitement? Can you believe it?
Zechariah couldn’t. And he should have. God had accomplished miraculous births before. He knows about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Samson’s parents, and Hannah. He’s also familiar with the prophecy we just read from Malachi. And on top of all that, he’s got an angel telling him all this—but he still doesn’t believe!
Zechariah is disciplined for his unbelief. But even his discipline is a sign of the Lord’s favor. It is a tool that brings Zechariah to trust in God’s Word.
There is irony in Zechariah’s discipline. He and the nation had believed that God was essentially mute. For there had been no prophet or sign of God fulfilling his promise for 400 years! But who is mute now, Zechariah? God’s Word and promise were present all along. He just doesn’t work on our timetable.
I worked at McDonald’s drive-thru. Our manager’s goal for us was 50 seconds from the time the customer placed the order to the time they were driving away. But it seemed that every day there would be an order that would get lost in the shuffle and take like five minutes to fulfill! That obviously spiked our averages way up. The customer wouldn’t be happy. Because customers were used to 50 seconds.
I think we often treat God as a McDonald’s drive-thru. Here is our order, God. Now make it happen and quickly. We haven’t got all day! We go to our McGod with our cravings, and we place our order. And not only does the order not come out right away, but instead of the order we placed, we get something totally different. And we are annoyed. Maybe even angry. We’ll take our business elsewhere! How have you treated God more like McGod rather than trusting his timing and purposes for your life?
If you’re anything like me, all too often I go to McGod with my order and I become impatient in the waiting. It seems like God is silent. So I kind of get on with life. I try to muscle through my disappointments. And distract myself. I listen to what the world has to offer. Oh, watching Netflix helps distract me from my disappointment. Oh, eating this and drinking that regularly can help. Maybe this pleasure is what I really need. If only I can be more respected and successful in my job. I’ll go on this vacation. I’ll invest in this. Control. Manage. Seek these things. What we can see seems like solid and tangible ground to build our lives on. Especially when God’s Word seems silent, right? Or irrelevant? Does your life look like you’ve taken your business elsewhere and are trusting in other things rather than God’s Word of promise?
God is not silent. He has spoken. The problem is all too often we aren’t listening. Or we hear what he says, but we don’t really believe. When he says, “I have come to give you abundant life,” we say, “Really? You call this abundant life?” He says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And we say, “When? Like the desires of my heart, right now? Because I don’t seem to be getting those?”
When Gabriel shows up and speaks this word of promise to Zechariah, it’s not that the promise is lacking. Gabriel didn’t promise Zechariah a new set of priestly robes and a limited-edition Isaiah scroll! No, his promise to Zechariah was amazing. So amazing that Zechariah couldn’t believe it.
If you’re a non-Christian here today, I’m so glad you’re here. I wonder what promises you are building your life around. Is it the promise that money can buy you security, family can buy you happiness, friends can buy you a wonderful life? What do you make of God’s promise? What would it mean for you to seriously consider building your life around his promise that he has already fulfilled in his Son? Jesus Christ died the death we deserved for our sin on the cross. This was the cost of us not trusting God and going our own way. But Jesus’ life didn’t end there. He rose from the dead, fulfilling God’s promise to be the eternal king for all who turn from themselves and trust that Jesus alone is Lord. All who trust God’s promise and live a life of repentance toward God will know eternal life with God forever. It’s an amazing message. The problem with many of us is that the pleasures of this world and our impatient hearts hear that and think, “Sounds kinda boring.” We’re like Zechariah in the temple and we say, “Look, that’s nice, Gabriel, but I’m really old so how is this going to happen?”
God’s promises have always been beyond human belief or understanding. But we can be thankful that he brings discipline and suffering into our lives for a season to cause us to trust not in ourselves or circumstances but to see that his Word alone is worth building our life around.
Zechariah’s discipline is not only a lesson for him but it is meant to function as a sign to God’s people. The people outside the temple recognize that something unusual has happened in the temple and they wonder. And imagine the wonder of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s relatives when Elizabeth began showing!
God made a promise to send a great prophet to make ready for the Lord a prepared people. And here that Holy Spirit–filled prophet is in the womb of an elderly God-fearing woman.
When you are tempted to doubt God’s promises, consider the miraculous conceptions of Samson, Samuel, and now John the Baptist. The God who accomplished these miracles is still at work today. And he can turn your skeptical or doubting heart into a heart that trusts his Word. Ask God today that he would give you a heart that trusts in his amazing word of promise. And a heart that rejoices in God’s promised salvation.
Rejoice in God’s salvation
(Read Luke 1:57–66)
Everyone shares in Elizabeth’s joy when this child is born. For God had shown Elizabeth great mercy and removed her disgrace. But when circumcision day comes around, it becomes a little tense. And it's not because of the circumcision. It is because of the name! You see it was the father’s job to name the child. But God the Father already had a name for this child as we learned from Gabriel. And Zechariah and Elizabeth knew it. Elizabeth takes her stand on God’s word in verse 60 and then Zechariah follows suit on his iPad in verse 63. By naming him John, his mom and dad are saying, “This is not our child.” This child is set apart for God. Similar to Hannah with Samuel.
Zechariah rejoices when he breaks out in prophecy in verses 68–79.
The funny thing about Zechariah’s joyful song and what we see in the naming is that their joy isn’t in being parents after such a long wait. You would think that is why they’d be filled with joy. But for Zechariah and Elizabeth, joy is not in the favorable change in their circumstances. They were barren. Now they aren’t. Their joy is rooted in the fact that this child represents that God’s purposes were being fulfilled for God’s people. And that salvation was here!
How did Zechariah and Elizabeth know this? Besides what Gabriel had prophesied, look back at what happened in verses 39–45. Mary comes to visit Elizabeth when they are both pregnant. And look at verse 41–43: “When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’”
The Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that Mary was carrying “her Lord.” And she was filled with joy. This was truly “joy to the world,” not just “joy to us, we’re having a baby!” The Lord had arrived to save his people! So, Elizabeth’s little boy was a joy and delight to Zechariah and Elizabeth not just because they had a baby but because salvation was coming. That is why back in verse 14 Gabriel had said that “many will rejoice because of his birth.”
What is your greatest joy? Do you know the convicting thing? If you aren’t really sure, your friends and family probably know. You won’t be there, but one day in the future, your friends and family will gather for your funeral and say all kinds of nice things about you. They will share about your joys in life. If your funeral was going to be tomorrow, would those gathered mention the joy you took in Christ and his salvation?
You were dead in your sins and God raised you to new life in the gospel! As Zechariah sings in his song in verse 68, “He has come and redeemed his people.” God has redeemed you from your sin. He has provided salvation. He has rescued you from God’s judgment. He has given you the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins because of the tender mercy of our God. He has kept his promise to send a King, to bring his people out of darkness into the glorious light of his Son so that we might know peace with God and with one another! What would it look like for Zechariah’s song to be your song?
This is the main reason we come together here to hear God’s Word and sing his praises. The joy of our salvation becomes dull in our hearts and minds. We don’t see Jesus for who he really is. So we gather to help one another. We need one another’s help to know the joy of Christ!
How will you rejoice in the salvation that is yours in Jesus Christ this week? How will you help others rejoice in Christ? One of the ways I am most helped in rejoicing in Christ is when I see my sister Darlene Maddox holding onto the joy of Christ to the end even as she says goodbye to everything in this life. When I see my brother Dan Maddox holding onto Christ in perseverance in the midst of his great loss.
What about you, Christian? Is your joy in God’s salvation rubbing off on anyone? Do you know joy in Christ even in the midst of your suffering? Let’s rejoice together in Christ in the midst of all these things. Let’s fight the fight of faith together as a church. How can we do that more faithfully? How can we live more sacrificially joyful lives? I think the first step is the hardest: Drawing near to one another. Being honest with one another. Confessing sin and struggles and then going to Christ together in prayer. Sounds so simple. But living it out can’t be in our strength but must be in joyful dependence on God’s great power.
At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey and his family are all beaming as they sing “Auld Lang Syne,” which is Scottish for “times long past.”
Zechariah sings his own version of “Auld Lang Syne.” He rejoices that God has kept his promises of times long past and brought them to fulfillment in these days.
It’s a Wonderful Life rightly recognizes that money won’t bring lasting joy. But neither will friends or family. Those good gifts are not what will bring ultimate joy. Zechariah’s beautiful song provides the answer to where our true joy should be.
God has provided redemption for his people. He has provided salvation through David’s greater Son, Jesus. He has shown us tender mercy and the glory of the risen King shines on us living in darkness under the shadow of death. For a Savior has been born. He is Christ the King!
Is that your joy this Christmas season? John the Baptist prepared the way for this King. Has your heart prepared him room?
Daniel Schreiner serves as an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.