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“Zechariah’s surprise” (Lk 1:5-25)

What has been your most memorable working day? What day in your career particularly sticks in your mind? Perhaps you can remember occasions when you won promotion, met a VIP, secured a bonus or simply got good feedback from your boss. Or maybe you can remember a day when you sealed a big deal or enjoyed an overseas assignment.

As I look back at my own career as an economist in the Civil Service, there are weeks and months that are very blurred in my memory, but some special days that remain sharp in my mind.

• For example, I remember exciting trips to Berlin, Madrid and Stockholm to meet my opposite numbers in Germany, Spain and Sweden.
• I also vividly recall a meeting in Downing Street, walking by that famous black door.
• And I won’t forget a face-to-face encounter with Chancellor Gordon Brown. A meeting when I had the dubious honour of telling him exactly how inefficient his government really was!

But nothing we have experienced can compare to Zechariah’s ‘day in the office’ described in our Gospel reading this morning. Zechariah has a working day he will never forget – he gets the surprise of his life!

But before we look at his surprise, let’s remind ourselves of Zechariah’s status – in other words, who he was and what he did.

1. Zechariah’s status

The first thing we are told about Zechariah is that he was a priest, and his wife Elizabeth was also the daughter of a priest. Our passage also tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both good and godly people. Verse 6 says that “both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.

Their only regret was that they had no children. Their inability to conceive was a source of sadness for them personally, and a source of stigma in their society. It seems that Zechariah and Elizabeth had high status in the sight of God, but their lack of children compromised them in the sight of their peers. The time had long since passed (so they thought) for Elizabeth to become pregnant.

And we know when this time was, don’t we? Luke informs us that the events in today’s passage took place when Herod was still king of Judea. So we are looking at around 5 BC.

Zechariah was one of several thousand priests in Israel at that time. And once a year he would take his turn to help lead worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. A great privilege and responsibility. But on one special day Zechariah was given the greatest task a priest could be given. Verse 9 says “he was chosen by lot” to perform the once-in-a-lifetime duty of burning incense to the Lord in the very heart of his Temple.

With a throng of worshippers assembled outside, Zechariah entered the Temple’s holy place to burn incense on an altar. It was an act that symbolised the prayers of the nation ascending to heaven.

All alone in the Holy Place, it was Zechariah’s responsibility to pray for God’s blessing upon God’s people. In technical terms, it was Zechariah’s duty to intercede for the redemption of Israel. To pray that God would truly and decisively save his people.

2. Zechariah’s surprise

That moment in the Holy Place was scheduled the zenith of Zechariah’s career, the pinnacle of his priestly ministry, confirmation of his high status before God. But then he got the surprise of his life!

As Verse 11 says “an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” Zechariah was terrified – and so would you be!

In verse 19 this supernatural messenger identifies himself Gabriel (a name which literally means ‘man of God’) and says he “stands in the presence of God”. He is literally ‘out of this world’, an awesome angel who must have almost given Zechariah a heart attack!

But Gabriel calms his fears and gives him some good news. Listen again to his words in verse 13: “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.

Gabriel’s message should have sounded doubly sweet to Zechariah’s ears. Not only had his prayer for the redemption of Israel been heard, but he and his wife were also to be given a child. Gabriel was promising Zechariah both salvation and a son.

Despite their advanced age, normal biology is going to be bypassed to allow John the Baptist to be born. As verse 14 tells us, this baby would not just be a “joy and delight” to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also a source of rejoicing for “many”.

3. Zechariah’s son

So we’ve considered Zechariah’s status and his surprise, but what exactly would his son be like? Well Gabriel gives us the answer in verses 15 to 17. If you have your Bible open, look again at what the angel says:

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 before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

In short, Zechariah’s son would prepare people for the arrival of the Messiah. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist would call people to repent of their sins and point them to Christ. John would be a great prophet, a man like Elijah – a famous prophet of Old Testament times.

What a wonderful mission statement! What a glorious, God-given role John would have. But if you are envious of what John would do, you have no need to be. Because as Christians today, we have the same responsibility as John the Baptist had. As Christians in Ashton and Mouldsworth today our God-given responsibility is to call people to repentance and faith in Christ.

Just like John, our role is to point people to Jesus, to commend Christ to our contemporaries, to urge our friends and family to turn from sin and follow him. Our great commission is to go and share the Gospel.

If that sounds daunting, the good news is that (just like John) we too have the Holy Spirit to help us every step of the way. He is alive within us, ready to give us the courage and boldness need to share our faith. To give us the wisdom we need to say the right thing at the right time.

So we should pray that God will give us every opportunity to share our faith, especially at Christmas time.

4. Zechariah’s silence

As we return to our passage this morning, after Zechariah’s status, surprise and son, comes his silence. When confronted by Gabriel’s good news, Zechariah doubts what is being said. He thinks it is too good to be true. He does not believe the angel’s words, even though they come straight from God. In verse 18 Zechariah says to the angel “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” Rather than taking God at his word, Zechariah demanded a sign.

Zechariah’s unbelief receives a stern rebuke. In verse 20 the angel says to him “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 appointed time.”

Zechariah is not alone, of course. Ever since the garden of Eden, human beings have been doubting God’s word. Now, as always, countless people question what God has said in Scripture. Millions either deny the miraculous in the Bible or reject its ethics.

It is a tragedy when God’s Word is rejected or ridiculed by so many. Because if God is God, he knows better than us what is right and wrong. He knows what is good for our church and our society, even if it is politically incorrect or out of fashion.

As the apostle Paul puts it in his second letter to Timothy, only God’s Word can make us “wise for salvation…and equipped for every good deed” (2 Tim 3:16-17).

You see, God’s word can be trusted. We’re told that soon after Zechariah returned home his elderly wife Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant. God’s promises really did come to pass. A woman had her womb blessed and her social stigma removed.

Our final verse this morning tells us Elizabeth’s own take on the event: “‘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”.

John the Baptist was about to be born. Zechariah’s silence would soon turn to joy, as he holds a baby son in his arms!

So as I finish, I hope we’re learnt something this morning, about Zechariah’s status, his surprise, his son and his silence. But most of all I hope we’ve been challenged. Challenged to point people to Christ, just like John the Baptist did. And challenged to trust God’s word, as Zechariah (just briefly) failed to do.

So let’s pray: Father, thank you that nothing is impossible for you. Thank you for the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, and for all he did to point people to Christ. Help us to do likewise, that we might be people who believe and share your Word. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Phil Weston