“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.”
The last time we saw Zechariah in Luke’s Gospel, those were the words that the angel Gabriel spoke to him. As we saw in the first mid-week Advent sermon, the angel announced to Zechariah the wonderful news that he and Elizabeth were going to have a son – a son who would play a special role in the salvation that God was about to bring. However, Zechariah had responded with doubt and unbelief when he said, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Sure enough, Zechariah was silent and unable to speak when he came out of the temple.
Last week we heard about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth who was indeed now six months pregnant just as Gabriel had said. Then, at the beginning of our text we learn: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
The word of the Lord delivered by Gabriel had been fulfilled. And of course, Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives rejoiced at the great mercy God had showed toward this aged woman by giving her a child. Everything is great. Everything is great that is, except for one deafening silence. We don’t hear anything from Zechariah. John the Baptist has been born in fulfillment of the angel’s word and yet Zechariah still can’t speak.
It’s easy to overlook because Luke immediately tells us about John’s circumcision where Zechariah does speak and prophetically utters the words of the Benedictus. Yet note what our text says: “And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child.” Circumcision takes place when a baby has been alive for eight days. This means that John had been born, and yet Zechariah was still unable to speak for an entire week. It’s not exactly what we would expect based on Gabriel’s words to Zechariah. It won’t be the last time that we find that fulfillment takes place, but not quite in the way we would expect.
At the circumcision, it was not surprising that family and friends were calling the baby by Zechariah’s name. However we learn that Elizabeth answered, “No; he shall be called John.” Those present were puzzled because none of the relatives in the family had this name. They made efforts to inquire of Zechariah, and when he had asked for a writing tablet he wrote, “His name is John.” Then, and only then – a full week after the birth of John – Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.
We have heard this text so many times that most likely we overlook the unexpected way that Gabriel’s words are fulfilled. John was born, and yet for seven days Zechariah continued to be unable to speak. Surely he had to wonder what was going on. The unexpected way that God’s words about John the Baptist were fulfilled continued in our Gospel lesson on Sunday as we found John the Baptist in prison.
On the eighth day, Gabriel’s words were indeed fulfilled. We learn in our text that not only did Zechariah speak for the first time again, but that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophecy. First, he spoke about what God was doing through the Christ as he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
These words say that the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David had arrived. The text speaks in Old Testament terms of redemption – being saved and delivered from enemies so that God’s people can serve him without fear. Zechariah then speaks about the role that John the Baptist will play – he will prepare the way for the Lord to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. Yet he immediately then returns to the source of this forgiveness as he says, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
If you had been a first century Jew among the family and friends standing there, there can be little doubt about how you would have understood Zechariah’s words. The promised David Messiah was coming who would defeat the Romans and make Israel powerful again so that they could rule the nations, live in peace and serve Yahweh. The promised restoration of God’s people had arrived and this would bring the incredible blessings for God’s people that the prophets had foretold.
What they would not have expected was the situation at the end of Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts. The Christ had died on a cross. He had been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. In this way God had provided forgiveness and freedom from the spiritual enemies of sin, death and the devil. The exalted Christ had poured forth the Holy Spirit to extend this salvation to the ends of the earth. Yet the Gentiles weren’t being ruled by God’s people. Instead, they had become part of God’s people, even as many of Abraham’s descendants were rejecting Jesus for whom John the Baptist had prepared the way.
The fulfillment of Zechariah’s words turned out to be very different from anything a first century Jew would have expected. And yet, Jesus is the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. Because he is, you are part of God’s people. You have received salvation and forgiveness of sins. You no longer walk in darkness and instead God is guiding your feet in the way of peace. You know that you have peace with God because of Jesus Christ. You have peace in the face of death, because you know that Jesus Christ gets the last word. You know that you are called to share this peace with others - to do this by telling them about Jesus Christ and the Gospel; to do this by forgiving other people who have wronged you.
This is fulfillment on God’s terms. And in this we receive an important “heads up” about what to expect of the future. It is very likely that it will not look like what you expect. This is true of the Church and the work of the Gospel. It is also true of the course of your life. The unexpected twists and turns; the failures that dash our hopes, are not occasions for despair. We cannot allow them to overwhelm us.
We can’t because of the birth we are preparing to celebrate. Truly we have received knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of our sins because of the tender mercy of our God. We have received rescue from the enemies that really threatened us – sin, death and the devil. This is certain because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Son of God went from the manger to the cross, but then he exited the tomb. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that even if we don’t understand what is going on and where it is going, the final outcome is one of victory and peace. It cannot be otherwise because the baby born in Bethlehem is now the risen and exalted Lord.