“Pray… with Zechariah” – Luke 1:5-25
Introduction: Family Life
In the first year of their marriage, when his wife became sick with a fever, her husband insisted, “I’m taking you to the hospital for a complete checkup.” What a caring and compassionate man! In the second year of their marriage, when his wife got sick again, her husband announced, “I’ve called the doctor and he’s going to rush right over.” What a caring man! In the third year of their marriage, when his wife got sick again, her husband said, “I’ll make you something to eat. Do we have any soup?” What a… man!
Family life. It can be the best of times. It can be the worst of times. I watched a little video this week about a man who bought his wife a dual motor vacuum cleaner for Christmas. He was so proud of himself for purchasing such a practical and costly gift. She promptly took him out to the doghouse in the back yard, where he dropped down into an underground bunker with other men who had made similar foolish decisions, or made insensitive comments that threatened their very relationship with their wives. Spoiler alert, men – something that helps your wife do housework is not an appropriate Christmas gift! Take it back!
Luke 1:5 introduces two families. “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah.” Luke doesn’t intend for this phrase to just be a vague chronological marker. Instead, he contrasts Herod’s thirst for power and dominance with the stain and stigma related to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lack of children.
This sermon addresses both families. In the first part, Herod’s family will be front and center. In the second part, we will shine the light on Zechariah and Elizabeth, especially Zechariah and our theme word for this Second Sunday in Advent – Pray.
1. King Herod
a. A tragic family story
So… Herod, and yes, this Herod is “Herod the Great.” And, yes again, this is the same Herod who – when Jesus was born – ordered the execution of all the boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem because he feared a potential rival king that the wise men mentioned.
To say that Herod was a monster is putting it mildly. Born into a politically well-connected family in 73 B.C., Herod was destined for a life of political hardball. He married ten times and ordered the execution of two of his wives and three of his sons. When a political opponent poisoned Herod’s father – seething with revenge – Herod formed an ingenious plan. He invited his father’s killers over for a dinner party. As they arrived, he had them all murdered.
At the age of 69 and knowing he was dying, Herod came to realize that no one would mourn his death. He longed for tears to flow at his funeral, so Herod devised one final, desperate plan. He would bring together the top leaders of the land for a meeting in Jericho and, once they arrived, he would have his fortress gates locked. Just before the moment of his death, he would have all the leaders massacred. One way or another, people would cry when Herod died.
In the late 1800’s two paddleboats on the Mississippi River left Memphis, Tennessee on a race to New Orleans. As his boat fell behind, an enterprising captain took some of the ship’s cargo and began throwing it into the ovens. When his sailors saw that the supplies burned just like coal, they threw more and more of it in. That boat ended up winning the race, but in the process, the captain and sailors burned all their precious cargo.
That’s a tragic picture of Herod’s family. To win the race, eliminate every rival and be top-dog, Herod burned all his cargo, all the things, all the people who should have been precious to him. In the process, Herod destroyed his family.
b. King Herod in your mirror?
“Thank God, I’m not like Herod,” I can hear us all say. “I never raise an angry hand against a child. I pay my taxes and, every now and then, I slip a little money into the offering plate. Once at a nursing home I even played bingo with my grandmother.”
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we sometimes see a little of King Herod staring back at us in the mirror. A part of every one of us would rather rule than serve, dominate rather than submit, and get ahead and win even at the expense of people in our family or our place of work.
We’ve all used words to slice and dice our spouses, made thoughtless, uncaring comments about a sibling, made selfish decisions that have hurt our children, and ignored clear warnings from God’s Word. And the result? Though family life can be the best of times, too often family life is the worst of times. Although our middle name is not Herod, often our feet may slide comfortably into his sandals and we see him looking back at us in the mirror. So much for highlighting King Herod’s family.
2. Zechariah (and Elizabeth)
a. Godly people but no children
Let’s now zero-in on Zechariah’s family and how God teaches him to wait, and pray – for Pray is our theme word for today.
The first description of them is, “Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” This couple did not resemble Herod in the least. These were good people – more than that, Godly people! I’m thinking Zechariah didn’t spend a lot of time in the doghouse, but he did spend a lot of time in the God-house, because he was a priest, and we hear in this story that sometimes – and specifically at this time – he would be chosen to go to Jerusalem to pray and burn incense in the temple of the Lord. They lived out in the hill country, so he probably didn’t do this often, and it would have been a real privilege to serve God and the assembled worshipers in this way. Like many of the devout Israelites, Zechariah was waiting for God to send the long-promised Messiah and Saviour.
So, this was all good for Zechariah, but he and Elizabeth had a family problem. The problem was… they didn’t have a family!! Luke tells us “They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” Elizabeth, herself, describes this barrenness as “a disgrace among the people.” In those days, if you had children you had everything. Conversely, if you had no children, you had nothing. Childlessness was considered to be an indication of divine disfavour, and may bring social disgrace and isolation. If everyone around you has kids, that’s what you talk about, that’s what life is about. If you have none, you’re on the outside looking in. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for a child. They long longed for a child. Undoubtedly, they prayed for a child… for years and years. Now it appeared to be too late. They were both too old. It seemed as though that ship had sailed, and that train had left the station. Luke puts it this way: “They were both well along in years.” The Bible doesn’t specify, but we might guess that they were in their 60’s, 70’s, maybe even their 80’s. They had been waiting for what must have seemed like an eternity!
Maybe you’re like Zechariah and Elizabeth, waiting for children but not able to conceive. Or maybe you’re single, desperately waiting to be married, but it just hasn’t happened. Maybe you’ve been married for decades and you’re waiting for the sparkle and shine to return to your marriage. And you’ve prayed, too, like Zech and Lizzie. But those prayers haven’t been answered in the way you desire. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we can all feel hopeless and helpless when it comes to waiting.
b. Waiting and praying
It was as they were waiting that Zechariah’s number came up for opportunity for service in the temple. And so he went to Jerusalem to the temple. The honour attached to the burning of incense is related to its location. You need to understand here that the temple had various areas. The common people prayed in a certain courtyard. The priest – Zechariah – could go a bit farther, into the Holy Place where he burned the incense, maybe offered some sacrifices, and brought the prayers of the people before God. (see illustration) Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place, once a year, to be in the very presence of God and the ark of the covenant. That means that Zechariah is as close to the presence of God as any person—other than the high priest—would ever get. And he’s praying. It’s not likely that he was praying for a baby. He was bringing the prayers of the people before God – prayers for health, prayers for meaningful work and prosperity and peace, prayers for safety during the Roman occupation, prayers for forgiveness of sins and the healing of broken relationships, and prayers for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Saviour. That sending of the Saviour was an unanswered prayer that God’s people had been waiting for much longer than Zech and Lizzie had been waiting for a baby.
c. A forgotten prayer answered
Then, suddenly and surprisingly, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah beside the altar. The angel spoke to him, “Do not be afraid.” Too late!! His knees were knocking and his teeth were chattering. Zechariah had never seen an angel before. Then the angel simply said, “Your prayer has been heard.” “Oh, good,” Zechariah must have thought, “health, peace, forgiveness, safety for the people.” But the angel wasn’t done: “Elizabeth is going to have a baby. Call him John!”
Zechariah: “What! A baby? A child? An heir? We forgot about that prayer years ago!”
Oh, but God doesn’t forget. God’s promises never end. Israel’s three matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel were all childless at one time. So was Hannah, the mother of Samuel. (We heard that story in our Old Testament reading today.) All four women eventually had children. Elizabeth and Zechariah must have believed that, if God did it – not once, but four times – God can do it again!
Oh, and the angel still wasn’t done: “Your son will be your joy and delight, He will be great, He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, AND…. Zechariah, listen to me! John will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, the Messiah, the Saviour! God’s about to answer that long unanswered prayer for the Saviour!” That was even better news than that he and Lizzie would become parents.
We heard the rest of the story – how Zech’s thoughts were consumed by the baby thing – can you blame him? – and how he didn’t believe it, and how he was rendered unable to speak until that baby’s birth, and how he went back home to Elizabeth, and she was glad to see him, and well, you know, she got pregnant. And Elizabeth got it: “The Lord has done this for me… and taken away my disgrace.” And then John was born and he prepared the way for Jesus, as we heard last week. But Zechariah didn’t forget what happened that day in the temple. After Elizabeth gave birth, mute father Zechariah wrote out the name ‘John’ on a tablet – maybe an iPad – and was given back his ability to talk. Then he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang a song about God keeping his promise to send the Saviour and redeem His people, and about how his own son John would prepare the way. So, this Advent season is about preparing and praying.
3. Zechariah (Elizabeth) in your mirror?
Has family life left you waiting and empty? Then hear this. If God was faithful to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, he will be faithful to you. God loves you. God’s promises for you in Jesus Christ never, ever end! Look in the mirror… maybe you can see a little bit of Elizabeth there, or Zechariah. You may have given up on you. But God will never give up on you. He replaces barrenness and brokenness with goodness and grace! Jesus once told a story to His disciples to encourage them to be persistent in prayer. That encouragement is for us, too. Pray, pray, and pray some more.
What’s on your heart? A marriage partner? A child? A job? Forgiveness? Renewed family life? Health? Meaningful family time over Christmas?
In Luke 1, Zechariah has access to God’s presence to bring the prayers of the people. The only other time in Luke’s Gospel that someone has this kind of access to God’s presence in the temple is in Luke 23, at the moment of Jesus’ death. “The curtain of the temple – the one that separated the Holy Place where Zechariah was from the Most Holy Place of God’s presence – that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.” That indicated that, because of Christ’s death, we all have access to God’s fuller presence. By the blood of Jesus, you have access to the most holy presence of the most Holy God! And his real presence forgives all your family failures – every last one of them! And this presence never disappoints! Pray – whatever is on your heart… pray, for you have direct access to the very heart of God through Jesus Christ!!
God’s plan never fails, and God’s grace never fails, and God’s promises never fail. God gave Elizabeth and Zechariah a child. And God’s promise is that this child – John the Baptist – “… will go on before the Lord… to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.” God’s plan in this Advent season is to turn our hearts towards home, to replace vengeance and bitterness with forgiveness and love. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children towards their parents!
One day a mother came home from the grocery store. She looked in her living room and saw her four children sitting in a circle. As she got closer, the mother saw that her children were playing with four of the cutest little skunks you’ve ever seen! The mother yelled, “Run, children, run!” Each child grabbed a skunk and began to run. After that? Let’s just say that things began to get really stinky! Family life. It can be the best of times. It can be the worst of times.
The next time it gets really stinky in your family, don’t fly off the handle like Herod – you could lose all your precious cargo and relationships. Instead, pray and wait upon God’s promises, God’s presence and God’s plan. They are real. They are alive. And they work. Don’t believe me? Then just ask Zechariah and Elizabeth! Amen.
By Reed Lessing. © 2020 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.