I know a Lutheran pastor and his wife who are unable to have children. They are a wonderful couple. She would be an amazing mother. He would be a great father. They want to have children. And yet for some reason that no one can understand, God has not chosen to bless them with children. They are physically unable to have any.
This presents a great challenge to faith. Because while this couple is unable to have children, there are women who have had children by several different fathers. While this couple is unable to have children, there are couples expending money and effort to make sure that they don’t have any children.
Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us that this kind of challenge to faith is not something new. While the use of sex apart from God’s design makes this situation stand out in our time, in the first century A.D. it was the use of sex as God intended that did the same. Children were considered to be a blessing from the Lord, not something to be avoided. The more children you had, the more the Lord had blessed a couple. To have no children was highly unusual. It made people wonder if you had done something and were being justly punished by God.
Apart from being childless, Zechariah and Elizabeth were exemplary Jews. Zechariah was of the priestly line. Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. Luke tells us that they were “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” They were faithful. And yet they had no children, and were now too old to have any hope of this happening.
The priests were divided up into groups which served at the temple during assigned periods of time. It was the assignment for Zechariah’s division to serve, and the great honor of burning incense had fallen by lot to Zechariah. The time for burning incense was associated with prayer. As we sang tonight, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense.”
While the people prayed, Zechariah was in the temple. But things didn’t go as planned. We learn that the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. Zechariah was no different from you and me. Angels didn’t appear to him every day of the weak. He was troubled and fearful.
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” The angel brought amazing news. Elizabeth was going to have a son! What seemed impossible was going to happen in answer to their prayer.
The angel told Zechariah that he would have joy and gladness about the birth of this son. Now it didn’t take an angel for Zechariah to know that he would rejoice about the birth of a child. However, there was more to it than just that. The angel went on to say, “and many will rejoice at his birth,
for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.”
It was not only Zechariah and Elizabeth who would rejoice. Many other people would rejoice. And they would not do so just because they were happy for this wonderful couple. Instead, they would rejoice because this child was going to be special. He would be great before the Lord. He would live in a way that was set apart for God. Indeed he would be filled with the Holy Spirit before he was even born – while he was still in his mother’s womb.
This child would grow up to be a prophet. In fact, he would be the great end time prophet promised by God through the prophet Malachi. The angel went on to say, “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
John was going to turn many of the children of Israel to God. He was going to call them back from their disobedience and would make ready a people prepared for the Lord’s end time work. John would be a great gift with a great work to do! But Zechariah’s thoughts were focused elsewhere. He asked, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
We immediately learn that Zechariah was thinking about this all wrong. The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
Gabriel tells us that Zechariah didn’t believe the good news that the angel announced. This strikes to the heart of the challenge you and I face. More often than we care to admit, our behavior shows that we don’t believe the good news either. If we really believed in the One for whom John prepared the way – Jesus Christ – would we be plagued by worry about the future? Would we always have our eyes set on the next thing we want, instead of giving thanks to God for what we have? Would be really find sports and hobbies more interesting and worthy of our time than Christ’s Word?
The answer is no. And in that answer we find the need for repentance – the very thing that was at the heart of John the Baptist’s ministry. John was sent to prepare the way for the Lord – for Jesus Christ – by turning hearts to God. This season of Advent that we have just begun is meant to do the same thing. It too calls us to repentance. We must face the unbelief in our own lives and repent. Because only in repentance are we prepared to celebrate the gift of God’s Son.
We prepare to celebrate the gift of God’s Son, as he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. In Jesus Christ we find the good news of God’s answer to our sin. By his death and resurrection he has conquered sin and death. We are forgiven and in Jesus we have the assurance of resurrection life with the Lord.
Gabriel tells Zechariah in our text that John will be filled with the Spirit even while yet in his mother’s womb. You and I are not the end time prophet promised in Scripture. No such claim can be made about us. But we do know that we have received the same Spirit, who is now at work in us. We know this because we have been baptized. We were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.
The Spirit who gave us new life has not departed. Through the Means of Grace he continues to sustain us in the faith. What is more he leads us to walk in Christ’s ways. The Spirit who gave us new life continues to enable that life in word and deed.
Through his leading we confess and repent. Through his leading we resist the sin present around us in the world and present within us. We do this because the Spirit has given us faith – faith in the crucified and risen Lord whose birth we prepare to celebrate.