November 26, 2017
At the heart of our text this morning is the proclamation fo the angel to Zechariah, but I want you to notice how that proclamation begins… “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard…” Now, there is much more that is said, but I want to start off this morning by pointing out that our entire narrative deals with prayer and answered prayer.
So, before we talk about Zechariah’s specific prayer, I thought it wise to speak for a moment about the role of prayer in a believer’s life and why God answers prayers in the way he does.
To begin with, prayer is one of the integral parts of a Christian’s life. The Heidelberg Catechism goes as far as to describe prayer as the most important part of our gratitude toward God. The Apostle Paul takes it one step further and instructs us to “pray without ceasing.”
The Puritan, Jeremiah Burroughs, explains that Paul’s statement refers to always being in a position that you are ready to pray. He goes on to say that those people who sometimes allow their passions to get away from them in such a way that they are unable to pray, that such folks are unfit to do anyone any good, in fact, he says, “if you are not fit to pray, you are not fit to live.”
Let nothing, beloved, keep you from prayer — it is not to God’s benefit you pray, it is for the benefit of your own soul.
What if you are at a loss for words? Not only does our Lord give us an example prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4, we are also given 150 psalms, given as an aide to put your groaning into words. Further, ask the Holy Spirit to give you the right words to pray.
And though, indeed, our heavenly Father already knows what we need, we pray anyway because it is an arrogant and stubborn child that will not communicate those needs to his loving Father.
Another question is sometimes raised — if God is sovereign and has ordained all things that come to pass and if he is unchangeable in his divine will (as scripture asserts…Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17), why bother praying, we aren’t going to change God’s mind about anything.
To that, I offer a two-part answer…
First, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, often while our prayer does not change God, it changes us. How often in my life God has used my prayers to convict me of sin, to soften my heart toward those who have offended or angered me. Further, God uses my prayers sometimes to help me view the events of my life from a more divine prospective rather than a selfish perspective.
Second, God who is eternal has chosen to put those prayers on our heart and then uses them in the working out of his eternal plan.
So, as Paul writes in Romans 8:26-27:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness because we do not know how to pray as we ought; he searches our hearts and internees for us according to the will of God.”
So, the Spirit leads us in our prayers according to God’s will, takes those prayers back to the Father (in the name of the Son) and the Father brings about that which he put on our heart to pray for in the first place.
In the end, though, while we are certainly called to pray for our needs and for the needs of others, the bottom-line purpose of prayer is for the glory of God.
So, back to Luke and to Zechariah’s prayer.
The question is, “What was the prayer in question that Gabriel is responding to?” Sometimes I fear that we have read this passage so many times that we assume that the prayer was that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a baby. Yet that doesn’t make sense in the context of their lives. Yes, we are told that these two are barren and it is to be sure that they must have desired a child, but at this point, they are advanced in years (verse 7) and realistically they would have stopped praying that specific prayer — Zechariah’s surprise is a good indicator that they were no longer preparing for this.
Plus, the angel says, “your prayer” (singular) not “your prayers” (plural). It implies a specific prayer is in mind and since Zechariah is at the Altar of Incense, representing the prayers of the people, with other priests praying for him outside and him prayerfully lighting the incense, that seems to be the prayer in question.
What was this prayer about? To answer that, you must understand the context…
We are told that Herod was the king of Judea. That in itself would be a problem as to be a king one had to be from the line of David and Judah, and Herod was not. He wasn’t even an Israelite by birth, but had married a Jewish woman. Even worse, he was an Edomite.
You remember the Edomites…the descendants of Esau who had despised his birthright. These were also the people who assisted the Babylonians in capturing Jews who were trying to escape the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem, of whom God spoke through the prophet Obadiah that “shame shall cover you and you shall be cut off forever.”
What makes matters worse is that Herod took power with a Roman army and his loyalties as a result were with the Roman Emperor.
The irony of Herod is that he tried to gain the loyalty of the Hebrew people by finishing and then expanding on the Temple that had been begun under Ezra and Nehemiah 400 years earlier.
But how is it that one who is forever cut off from the assembly of the Lord can be responsible for building the Lord’s temple. How true indeed are Jesus’ words when he said that he was the fulfillment of the prophesies of a greater temple. What Herod built was little more than a monstrous imitation.
So, here are the people, under Roman Rule with a Jewish pretender as king — a murderous man whose loyalties were with Rome — and forced to worship in a temple built by one they considered an Antichrist.
The people were crying out for a deliverer — Just as in the days of the Judges…
And, like God so often does, he sent the deliverer and the deliverer’s forerunner through the least likely of people. In the case of the forerunner, through an elderly priest and his wife: Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Both of these people were descendants not only in the line of Levi (making Zechariah a priest) but also of the line of Aaron (making Zechariah in the line of the High Priest — though by this day, the High Priest was a political appointee…)
Zechariah was doing his duty at the temple. You see, the altar of incense was kept lit twenty four hours a day, the smoke of the incense representing the prayers of the saints constantly going up before the Lord. Priests were organized throughout the region and took turns coming to Jerusalem to do their duty in serving the temple in this way. Because there were so many priests, lots were drawn to see who would go in.
According to estimates of Jewish historians, there were about 18,000 priests living in Judea at this time. Do the math, that means that there were a vast number of priests who did not ever get to light the incense…it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. So, God waited until Zechariah grew old, never permitting him to draw the right lot until this particular day…a reminder of God’s sovereignty.
And what of the prayers of the priests? Largely they were connected with the consolation of Israel…brought on by the coming Messiah.
In the context then, the Angel comes to Zechariah while Zechariah is praying for the coming Messiah, and says, “your prayer has been heard…”
The angel Gabriel goes on to tell him that the son he will have is to be named, “John” (which means, “Yahweh has been Gracious.”
He is told that many will rejoice at John’s birth and he will be great before the Lord. Jesus himself even refers to John as the greatest in the kingdom (Matthew 11:11).
We are told that he will be a Nazirite (a Jewish holy-man) from birth, thus he cannot have wine…and his purpose? First, to call people to repentance and to go before Jesus (see Malachi 3:1 and 4:5).
Finally, he is called to “make a people prepared.”
You know, the theme of preparation is a common one in worship. We sing songs like “Lord Prepare me to be a Sanctuary” and “I surrender all”…though I fear that most of you might only be surrendering some.
At the heart of it, being a people prepared means being a people who repent of their sins before God and repentance means more than saying, “I’m sorry,” but means to turn around. This, of course, should be an attitude reflected in all Christians at all times in all of our lives. The church’s celebration of advent is a time when we should be renewing our commitment to the child born in the manger in Bethlehem all those years back.
Zechariah, we are told in verse 18, can’t get his head around the idea that he was going to be a dad.
I supposed that should not be surprising given his age. According to the Jewish Mishna, once you turned 60, you were considered aged…sorry folks if that applies to you… It should cause you to think about Abraham and Sarah. And thus just as Isaac is the child of promise, John will herald the ultimate child of promise, Jesus Christ.
And, for Zechariah’s doubt, he is silenced until the birth of John.
This silence serves two functions:
First, to discipline Zechariah for his lack of faith.
Secondly, it is a sign that God’s silence was soon to end. Remember, prophets were often called on to do or suffer things that function as a picture of what God has been suffering — for four hundred years, God had remained silent from heaven, largely in judgment on the people for their idolatry, but no prophet spoke in the land. Now, God would soon speak through his prophet once again…The Son and the Apostles as well as through John … but before that would happen, Zechariah would remain silent for 40 weeks as God had done for 40 decades.
And so, Elizabeth conceived and gave thanks to God, for he took away her reproach. Barrenness was considered a sign of disfavor by God, so though she had suffered until that weight for many years, but now it is lifted for God’s glory.
It is also a reminder of God’s blessing and mercy, fulfilling Psalm 113:9 in her life…
“He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children! Praise the Lord!”
May we indeed praise the Lord.