Though there isn’t a consensus about what each of the weeks of Advent represent, many hold that this, the second week, focuses either upon the prophecies of Christ’s birth and hence it’s about Bethlehem or the Manger or the way of the prophets, which is our focus this morning.
As we noted last week, John the Baptist is the last in line of the prophets of Israel. And in a way it’s ironic that he’s viewed as being the last in line of the Old Testament prophets because prior to John’s coming God had in fact stopped speaking to Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom. Israel had fallen in 722 BC due to its disobedience; and Judah fell over 125 years later in 586 BC for the same reason. And between the time of the events recorded at the close of the Old Testament and those recorded at the time of the opening of the New Testament, 400 years have passed. Throughout these 400 years God has been silent. He has stopped sending his Holy Spirit to speak through his prophets. He has stopped sending his prophets to speak to his people on his behalf. No more Holy Spirit. No more prophets. No more prophecies. Until John the Baptist comes along.
In the beginning of the chapter we learn about Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom are descendants of Aaron, Israel’s first priest (v. 5). We’re told in verse 6 that “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” By noting that this couple was righteous, Luke is also indicating that their childlessness is not due to any punishment by God since many would have viewed childlessness as a sign of divine disfavor. Yet because of their advanced age, it is likely that Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up any and all ideas about ever bearing children by this time. But God had other plans for them.
I had never really notice before but in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel is one busy angel! He is only one of two angels whose names we are given in Scripture (the other one is Michael). And Gabriel lives up to the meaning of the word “angel” for he is sent to both Zechariah and Mary. One day, while carrying out his priestly duties, Zechariah enters the temple to burn incense as the worshipers prayed outside (vv. 8–9). While in the temple, Gabriel appears to him and tells frightened Zechariah not to be afraid for his prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, his wife, will bear a son whom they are to call John (vv. 11–13)—a name that means “the Lord is gracious” or “shows grace.” About John, Gabriel prophesies in verses 14–17:
14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
When Zechariah questions the angel, asking how this can be possible given his and Elizabeth’s age, Gabriel identifies himself and states that because Zechariah disbelieved his words, he won’t be able to speak until John is born (vv. 19–20). And so it happens.
Then “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy” (v. 26) God next sends Gabriel to Mary, “a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David” (27). And given the beautiful rendition of Ave Maria Ben sang this morning, it’s worth noting that verse 28 in this chapter is the origin of that song. You may know that “Ave Maria” is Latin for “Hail Mary” which the translation in our pew Bible renders as “Greetings.” Literally it means “be well” or “farewell.” So “Ave Maria” is a translation of Gabriel’s greeting to this young virgin who is highly favored with the Lord.
Now if Gabriel’s promise of a baby to Zechariah was difficult to believe given his and Elizabeth’s advanced age, Gabriel’s promise to Mary of a baby, prior to her marrying Joseph, must have been nearly impossible to believe, for she is told that she, a virgin, will bear a Son. Try to wrap your minds around that. And she, too, is told what she will name the child who, at this point, exists in promise only. When Mary is troubled and expresses her wonder and fear, Gabriel reassures her saying:
Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.
When Mary, quite understandably, asks “34 How will this be since I am a virgin?”—and the Greek translated “virgin” is actually a statement that she hasn’t known a man—Gabriel explains how this miracle will occur:
The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.
As we did last week, we continue to see that God is not only a promise Maker, but he is also a promise Keeper. And Mary accepts this word from the Lord via the angel Gabriel and goes to visit Elizabeth, her relative. When she does we learn in verse 41–45 that
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
God’s silence of 400 years is breaking. And though Pentecost has yet to occur, his Holy Spirit has returned to speak through his people and prophets. His Holy Spirit is on the move. God is starting to speak again in a time pregnant with meaning and fulfillment. And in the fullness of time, he is breaking his silence in two miraculous human pregnancies, one of John the Baptist from aged Elizabeth; the other through the probably teen-aged Mary, by the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing.
After John is born, while taking him to be circumcised on the eighth day per Jewish custom, Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives are pushing for her to name him Zechariah after his father, also per Jewish custom. But Elizabeth speaks up and says “No! He is to be called John” (vv. 58–59) When they point out to her—as if she didn’t know—that none of her relatives bears the name “John” (v. 61), they turn to Zechariah “to find out what he would like to name the child” (v. 62) since Elizabeth clearly has taken leave of her senses. But speechless Zechariah has learned his lesson and comes to Elizabeth’s aid. “He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John’” (v. 63). And, we’re told, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God” (v. 64). And “66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.”
This brings us up to speed for the focus of this second week of Advent, Zechariah’s Song. This song is also called the “Benedictus,” another Latin word meaning “Blessed” named after Zechariah’s opening words of praise. The Promise-Making one, true God, of the Old Testament, the Creator God, is breaking his silence, but not his promises. We see he is a Promise-Keeping God by the return of his Holy Spirit speaking and pointing to the promised Redeemer God. Isn’t this a beautiful portrait of our Triune God? As we’ve already seen, Gabriel tells Zechariah that his yet to be conceived son, John the Baptist, will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (v. 15). Then Gabriel tells Mary that her ability to bear the Son of God, God in the flesh, the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, will be made possible by means of God’s Holy Spirit (v. 35). Then when Mary goes to visit six-month pregnant, elderly Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary greets her (v. 41)—and, as prophesied, John the Baptist, before he is even born, leaps in his mother’s womb for joy (v. 44). And now we are told that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, also was filled with Holy Spirit—verse 67—and prophesied. God’s silence is broken. God is on the move. The time of the promised Messiah is being fulfilled. It’s time for God’s people to hear what he has to say.
Zechariah begins, naturally and understandably enough, with praise to “the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them” (v. 68). Zechariah, God’s priest, recognizes the wonder and marvel of what is taking place. His promises to his prophets of old of a Messiah, a Righteous Branch (as we saw last week) who would one day deliver them from their woes and make all things right, are now being fulfilled. That day—that “one day”—is now. As Zechariah notes in verses 69–70, Israel’s God “has raised up a horn of salvation…in the house of his servant David as he said through his holy prophets of long ago.” Now a “horn of salvation” is simply a way of indicating or symbolizing a strong King—again this is the promised Righteous King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right. This is the Lord our Righteous Savior.
In his praise Zechariah is recounting the story of two babies, to be born six months apart, but the one that is born later will be the greater of the two. And so Zechariah’s praise begins with praise for the babe to be born of Mary. That babe in a manger is the promised Messiah. That babe in a manger will be born a King. And as we just sang this morning in the beautiful hymn by Charles Wesley, this babe is “born to set his people free.” He is “born his people to deliver.” He is “born a child and yet a King.” Talk about an “a-ha!” moment. That babe will prove the means of salvation for his people and “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (verse 71). This horn of salvation will not only deliver his people, but he will do so because he is God and he is therefore One who keeps his promises “to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant” (verse 72) and he also keeps “the oath he swore to…father Abraham”—again—“to rescue us from the hand of our enemies.” This is no small thing. Because of Israel and Judah’s lack of faithfulness to God, they were delivered to their enemies time and time again. But, as we saw last week in Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 33 and 23), God promised that one day he would rescue his people from their enemies. And with the coming of Jesus, the horn of salvation, the promised Messiah and deliverer, the King who will be born in swaddling clothes in a manger, that promise is now being kept.
With the fulfillment of this promise, God will also enable his people “to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all [of] our days.” The time of God’s new covenant has arrived. The King, the Righteous Branch, has come. God’s law will now be written on the hearts and minds of his people. He will be their God and they will his people. All will know him, from the least to the greatest. And of his kingdom there will be no end.
Zechariah ends his song by considering his own miracle child, the baby John who will one day be John the Baptist. Though this small baby can’t yet understand him, Zechariah tells John the path the LORD has set before him. He begins by stating “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High” (v. 76). Zechariah knows that Mary’s baby is no ordinary child. Though John will be the prophet of the Most High, Jesus will be the Son of the Most High. John is but his prophet. As God’s prophet, as Jesus the Christ’s prophet, the promised Messiah’s prophet, John “will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (vv. 76–77). John has a difficult task ahead, doesn’t he? How can anyone possibly give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins? Even the ability to see our need for forgiveness, to see our need for salvation, is a divine work, isn’t it? Isn’t this part of the reason why people make religion a private matter? “Well, you may see a need for Jesus, but I don’t. If believing in Jesus helps you, that’s fine. But don’t push him on me. I’m doing just fine as I am.” This is why salvation is by God’s grace. Apart from his showing us our sin, we’re unable to see it. Apart from his showing us our sin, we’re unable to see our need for him.
But Zechariah understands all of this. He understands that receiving the knowledge of the salvation the Most High, the Lord, gives us by forgiving our sins, is—verse 78—due to the “tender mercy of our God.” As we keep being reminded throughout Scripture, Jesus came not for the righteous—for those who are self-satisfied and don’t see their need for God—but for sinners, for those who do see our need and therefore long for him. Only we who know our need, only we who know we are sin-sick, will seek out Jesus the Christ, the Great Physician. But even our ability to see our need is due to God’s tender mercy. It’s due to his gentle concern; it’s due to his compassion. God’s mercy is the goodness and love he shows to those who are in misery or distress. It’s an expression that he is ever ready to relieve our distress.
Zechariah goes on to observe that it is also by God’s tender mercy that “the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (vv. 78–79). These past few weeks have brought reminders of the need for God’s light to shine on the darkness of our society and for his light to enter the shadow of death, haven’t they? As senseless killings have taken place at an abortion clinic in Colorado Springs last week and at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino this past week, we are reminded of our need for the light and peace only God in Christ can bring. As a society we need Christ to “guide our feet into the path of peace.” We need Christ to guide our feet into the path of his shalom. We need Christ to help make things as he intended them to be. We need Christ to make the reality of his kingdom shine even in—or especially in—the darkest places in our society.
Brothers and sisters, with the coming of the Righteous Branch, our one eternal King, our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, in a manger in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago, the rising sun mentioned by Zechariah has come to us from heaven. This rising sun is none other than Jesus himself, God in the flesh. With the rising of this sun, we have entered the dawn of his age, the dawn of his kingdom, which he, the King over all creation, inaugurated with his arrival to earth in the form of a helpless babe in a manger.
If we fast forward to this babe now grown to be a man, we see him living out the mission for which he came to earth. Listen to these words from Mark 1:14–15 which mention both John and Jesus:
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
This morning—and every Sunday—we celebrate the arrival of God’s coming to earth. This morning—and every Sunday—we celebrate the truth that in the person of Jesus our King, God’s kingdom has come near. What I think we have a more difficult time with is repenting—seeing our selfish ways—admitting our selfish ways—turning from our selfish ways—even though those selfish ways ultimately lead to death. If only we could see that in repenting—in acknowledging our need for God—in leaving behind lies, and hurt, and anger, and despair—and turning to the God who made us, who lived, died, and rose to redeem us—lies the way of true life—of eternal life—of kingdom life as we live our lives before and with our loving, compassionate, tender King. Let us all this morning and every morning embrace the proclamation of Jesus our King: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Let us pray.