Sermon Notes

December 4th 2022

Thoughts on the Sunday School Lesson December 4th

Zecharias Hears from God / Luke 1:8-20 (MSG)

8-12 It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear. 13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God. 15-17 He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.” 18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.” 19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”

INTRODUCTION

This lesson is historical and Messianic. It unfolds certain details regarding the birth of Messiah. Specifically, it deals with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, who was spiritually and prophetically the forerunner of Christ and physically the cousin of Jesus. As Jesus’ birth was divinely announced, so was John’s several months earlier. But while prayed for, John’s father was skeptical upon learning that his prayer would be answered.

LESSON BACKGROUND

Zachariah (Zacharias in some translations) and Elizabeth are introduced in verses 5-7. So far as Judaism was concerned, they were obscure and insignificant people. Zachariah was a priest, but not one of great renown. Their home was not in either of the great priest-centers—the Ophel-quarter in Jerusalem, nor in Jericho—but in some small town in those uplands, south of Jerusalem, the historic hill-country of Judaea. And where one came from did matter to the Jews. We recall Nathaniel’s response upon learning that Jesus was from Nazareth (John 1:46).
Another problem for this couple was that they were childless. There was a tremendous stigma attached to being without children, one which the woman probably felt most keenly. In the eyes of many, their predicament was the “judgment of God,” for some sin they had committed.
Despite these hard realities, God chooses to use this couple to bring the forerunner of Christ into the world. Aside from an exercise of His sovereignty, two reasons seem to stand out as to why God would make this selection.
First, both Zachariah and his wife were of the tribe of Aaron (Luke 1:5), meaning that they were Levites. It seems to have been important to God that John would be of the priestly line, even though his function would largely be in the role of a prophet.
Second, and more important, this couple was spiritually committed to God: “Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God (Luke 1:6).” They tried to live their lives in obedience to God, as they understood obedience—adherence to the Law of Moses. Thus, God looks on them with favor and chooses to include them in the history of the birth and ministry of Messiah

INTO THE LESSON

8-12 It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
Priestly duties were allocated by divisions of priests (see I Chronicles 24). When it came time for Abijah’s division to perform the temple duties, the division to which Zachariah belonged, went to Jerusalem. There, he was chosen (by the casting of lots) for the very high privilege of burning the incense, which he would have done either in the morning or the evening. This was such a high privilege it could be done by a priest only once in a lifetime. It was a very coveted task.
Within the Temple’s holy place were three items. On the south side was the golden lampstand with outlets for seven flames, fueled by pure olive oil. To the north was a table of twelve loaves of showbread—known also as the “continual bread” or the “bread of Presence” (Numbers 4:7). To the west, just in front of the veil separating the holy place from the most holy place, was the Altar of Incense. It was very close to the Ark of the Covenant which was covered by the Mercy-seat—above which the presence of God was focused (Exodus 30:6). The Altar was made of acacia wood with a veneer of gold. It was 36 inches high and 18 inches in both length and breadth (Exodus 37:25ff). It served as a place for the daily burning of incense, both morning and evening.
The daily exercise consisted of a priest—selected by the casting of “lots”—taking burning coals from the brazen altar of sacrifice out in the temple court to the altar of incense and depositing the incense upon coals (Exodus 30:7, 8). The fragrant fumes that ascended from the incense represented the prayers of godly people, those in covenant relationship with Yahweh (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3, 4). This explains why there was a large gathering of people praying at the hour that Zachariah was to be completing this most important task.
The incense consisted of an equal mixture of five spices; any deviation from this formula was subject to severe consequences (Exodus 30:9). Moreover, this incense mixture could never be employed for private use (Exodus 30:37), as Israelites were forbidden to make and burn incense in their homes.
Given the nature of the responsibility, we can imagine that there was, within Zachariah, a sense of sober seriousness as he prepared to undertake this responsibility; there was a desire to make sure that he did it correctly. Yet, as serious as Zachariah was about fulfilling this religious assignment, something of far greater significance—both to him personally, and to the world—was about to happen in his life.
*There is value in being committed to our tasks, and in taking them seriously. However, we must always be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in unpredictable and unforeseen ways.
13-15 But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
The angel’s first words were of comfort. He assured Zachariah that he need not be afraid, for his prayer had been heard. While some commentators suggest that the prayer referenced by the angel was an intercessory prayer in keeping with his priestly responsibilities, there is no support for that in the text. What is the logic that suggests that the angel would preface his announcement about the resolution of a personal issue—the birth of a son—by referencing the fulfillment of a vocational responsibility? No, the inference of the premise statement is that Zachariah’s prayer for a son has been answered.
This answer to prayer had manifold implications:
• For Zachariah, it meant that his family legacy would extend into another generation, a sign of divine blessing and material prosperity.
• For Elizabeth, it meant that her perceived purpose—to bear children, and most notably, sons—would be fulfilled.
• For the couple, it would put to rest any thoughts that their childlessness was indicative of divine judgment for some unknown, unconfessed sin.
Like Jesus (Matthew 1:22), the angel determines that the name of Zachariah’s son would be John, which means, “Yahweh is gracious.” The name is appropriate both from the standpoint of the child’s existence—totally due to God’s grace and beyond any reasonable expectation of man—and to his ministry as the forerunner of the Messiah. John’s call for repentance would be a cry for man to respond to the unearned favor that God extends to a sinful mankind to be reconciled to Him.
The angel assures Zachariah that the child, given to the couple, would be a blessing to the world. This is the desire of every parent, to know that their progeny would make a positive contribution to the greater society. Even more, the promise here is spiritual, “He’ll achieve great stature with God.”
*Beyond any personal hope or ambition that we may possess, our greatest hope must be that we achieve stature—respect—with God. God loves us because we are His creation; but we achieve respect with God when we submit ourselves to His Word, will and way.
15-17 He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”
The promise that this child will not only bear the Holy Spirit but be filled (yielded to) with the Holy Spirit from the moment he enters the world is a powerful promise indeed. We must remember that the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals was different pre-Pentecost than it would become post-Pentecost. The work of the Holy Spirit was invasive and personal, rather than pervasive and corporate. Thus, the assurance that John would be indwelled by and submitted to the Holy Spirit meant that he would be set apart and different (sanctified) from the very outset of his life.
*As those who are submitted and surrendered to Jesus Christ, those who are indwelled by and submitted to the Holy Spirit, there ought to be something in our living that lets the world know that we belong to Christ.
This is further evidenced by the pronouncement that John will not consume intoxicating drink—wine, nor beer. Some perceive this as evidence that John was to be a Nazirite, under a special vow of commitment to God for the entirely of his life. The most famous Nazirite in scripture is Samson, who was to refrain from drink, not touch a dead person or animal and not cut his hair. While such a notion is not without merit, it seems that if John were to be a Nazarite, then Luke would have recorded such a pronouncement more directly. More likely, the announcement that John will not consume alcohol was to confirm that his intoxication would be the result of spiritual in-filling, not physical consumption. Remember Peter’s words on the day of Pentecost, when all the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:15).
*What consumes and intoxicates us? If it’s not the Holy Spirit, then it’s the wrong thing.
18 Zachariah said to the angel, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”
Despite Zachariah’s godliness, his obedience to the Law, and his lifetime of ministry, his faith was weak when it came to believing such a marvelous promise. For Zachariah, the physical realities, as he understood them, reduced such a promise to nothing more than wishful thinking.
*How lamentable that we can sincerely pray to God for Him to move in our lives, and yet be totally unprepared when such a movement takes place. Much more desirable is that our faith match our prayer lives in such a way that, when God moves, we are ready to positively respond.
While The Message translation of this verse does not contain it, other reliable translations include a request from Zachariah for a sign from the angel to confirm the promise being made. It should be said that the appearance of the Angel is a sign in and of itself, which should have required no further corroboration. But the fact that Zachariah would make such a request reminds us of the power of sight, which we are told must be regularly challenged by faith (II Corinthians 5:7).
19-20 But the angel said, “I am Gabriel, the sentinel of God, sent especially to bring you this glad news. But because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth. Every word I’ve spoken to you will come true on time—God’s time.”
Some suggest that Zachariah’s being made mute by Gabriel was a merciful discipline, for it prevented him from saying something inappropriate or untimely. When the priest emerged from the Temple, he was to pronounce a blessing on the people. Zachariah would have tempted to explain what had happened inside the holy place, but such an announcement, at that time, would have been premature. God wanted this work to continue behind the scenes, with no notice from the “powers that be.” Yet, Zachariah’s muteness was an appropriate discipline for him, for it reminded him that the power of God is infinitely greater than the circumstances that consume our attention—and thus, should be believed and embraced—and it served as evidence to those gathered for prayer (verse 22)—and later those at home—that something powerful had taken place.
The angel Gabriel gives Zachariah his name at the point of Zachariah’s unbelief, and he seems perturbed to have to do so. In effect, Gabriel is saying, “Do you not know who is telling you that you and your wife will have a son? I am Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence. When I speak, I speak for God. To disbelieve my words is to doubt God Himself.” Such is the case when we doubt the Word of God coming from the Messenger of God—human or divine. Scripture encourages us to, “test the spirits to see if they are indeed from God (I John 4:1).” But testing should end and belief should be immediate once we know that the Message is the Word of God. No further evidence should be necessary or requested.

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