The God who carved two stone tablets into Law…
The God who caused fire to rain down upon the altar constructed by Elijah in the face of the prophets of Baal…
The God who raised Lazarus from the grave…
The God who raised His own Son from the tomb…
The God who healed the sick and caused the blind to see…
That God has lost his power!
Or, at least many people believe He has. For some reason, people today have a hard time believing this God still works today!
Many of us are like a certain man on the beach. This man and his dog were walking the beach. They came upon another visitor to the beach. The owner of the dog was proud of his dog's newly mastered feat, so he said to the visitor, "Watch this!" Whereupon he tossed a piece of driftwood far out into the sea. His dog immediately ran on top of the ocean! He fetched the wood, and then ran back. The visitor just shook his head in disbelief. So, the owner repeated the procedure twice. Finally he asked the visitor, "Did you notice anything unusual?" The visitor responded, "Your dog can't swim, can he?"
Some of us are inclined to blind ourselves to the power of God. But let me let you in on a secret. If the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did all of those things in the past, then we have to believe that God is still just as powerful today as He was then. I know, sometimes it is difficult to see God. But perhaps we just need to open up our eyes a bit wider and notice the miraculous things God does even today.
It would be really convenient to say our doubt is a modern phenomenon. We could then look back into history and see exactly when humans began to head down the road of skepticism. We could fix their errors and then once again have faith in God’s activity. But the fact is, the people of God have always doubted. Even very faithful people, even the most spiritually-minded people. Take Zechariah for instance in the first chapter of Luke. Zechariah is best known for being the father of John the Baptist, the father of the great prophet, the father of Jesus’ forerunner. He gets most of his credit through the importance of his son. But Zechariah was a righteous man in his own right. Luke goes to great lengths to make sure his readers understand that point.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. (Luke 1:5–6, NRSV)Look at the many references to Zechariah’s righteousness in these two verses: He was a priest. He was married to a godly woman descended from Aaron. They were both righteous before God. They walked in the commandments of the Lord. They followed the ordinances of the Lord. And in case all of that wasn't enough, oh yeah, they were blameless. Why does Luke take the time to express this simple idea in so many ways? Couldn't he have just said something simpler? “Zechariah was a good man…” Wouldn't that be enough?
No, Luke wants to hit this point hard for at least two reasons. First, we learn right away that his wife was barren. Just like many others before her; Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah, she was unable to have children of her own. In antiquity, if a woman was barren, they believed there was a reason! Usually, some sin in her life caused her this calamity. But not in Elizabeth’s case. She was righteous like her husband. Her own name means: “My God is fortune.” Luke wants us to understand: her barrenness had nothing to do with sin. In fact, her barrenness would serve only to reveal the power of God.
But there is also another reason Luke wants us to be aware of the magnitude of Zechariah’s righteousness…
To understand this next reason, we need to read a bit further.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”Luke establishes from the very beginning that Zechariah was a righteousness man. If Zechariah was a member of our congregation, we would be fools to not nominate him to be an elder. Here was a great man. A man wholeheartedly dedicated to God. But this pillar of godliness failed to believe in God’s power. You would think Zechariah of all people would believe! He was a priest; he knew the stories of the Old Testament. Surely, he remembered Sarah and Abraham? An angel came to Sarah also announcing the upcoming birth of Isaac. Just like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah had been too old to have children too. Just like Elizabeth, Sarah had been barren, and Sarah hadn’t believed either, but God brought them a child anyway. I bet Zechariah had taught this story to his children! Why does he fall into the same trap as his ancestors? He had the answer right in front of him. We all have the answers right in front of us. But instead of believing, Zechariah asks for a sign. “How will I know this is going to happen? Lord, give me some evidence that what you say is true!” As if the angel standing in front of him wasn't enough! This pillar among God’s people had seen the power of God. He had taught about the power of God, understood all of the right things, dedicated his life to serving God, and still, when it came right down to it… never really believed God had it in Him!
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary.When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. (Luke 1:8–23, NRSV)
But the arrival of God would soon change all that!
And when God brought this miracle into the world, God opened up Zechariah’s mouth, and he could do nothing but offer this beautiful blessing…
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,The arrival of God gave a hopeless woman hope. From shamed to revered in a matter of months. And her husband was finally forced to come to grips with a very important reality. Whether he believed it or not, God was coming. And when God arrived, his silence was changed to uncontrolled praise of God. The arrival of God just seems to have that kind of effect on people. It changes despair into hope and silence into praise.
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68–79, NRSV)
To many people in our world, we are embarking on a very special time. The time commemorating Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem, the “advent” of God in this world. Like you, I'm struck by many things this time of year. The way commercialism has taken over. The way Jesus’ birth seems to get pushed in the background (even by Christians.) But I'm also struck by the great similarities between our two periods of history. We usually think of Jesus being born in another world and a distant time, a time of shepherds and magi roaming the countryside. But in reality, there are many similar things between the time of Jesus’ arrival in the first century and our own time. Both eras were filled with very godly people. And in both eras, those very godly people tend to doubt God’s ability to do extraordinary things anymore. Zechariah was given the blessing of fathering the forerunner to Jesus. And he stood in the face of God and said, “I'm not sure you can do it.” And in many ways, we have been guilty of looking God in the face and making that same arrogant comment.
As we embark on this season of Advent, let us not be so bold. Let us remember where we have seen God act before. God was there when your children were born. God was there when he was healed. God was there when, against all odds, she came home. God was also there when you couldn't have children, and God was there when she wasn't healed. God was there when the prodigal child stayed away. And in all of those moments, we, the people of God should be first in line to say:
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.The God of peace has arrived in our world, this season reminds us of that! And for that miracle, we along with Zechariah and Elizabeth and Abraham and Sarah and the countless others…we express our joy and our praise to the God who is still alive and who still does mighty things among His people!