Promised a Son: Luke 1:5-25

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As we continue our year focusing in on Luke’s gospel, it seems a little odd in my mind to jump into the Christmas story, especially since last month, we both likely heard and were reminded of this amazing event. However, Luke’s gospel shares more about Jesus’ birth and childhood than any of the other three gospels, and some of these details are only included in Luke.

While I know it might seem redundant being reminded again of events in the Christmas story, especially when everything built up to our Christmas’ celebrating last month, I’ve found it is fascinating looking at many of the Christmas-time passages outside of the Christmas season. Looking at Jesus’ birth not during Christmas helps us see this event with new eyes, and new insights often stand out when we break out of our cultural routines.

With that said, our passage for this episode leads in to the birth of John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ forerunner in ministry. Let’s read from Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, using the New International Version. Starting in verse 5, Luke tells us that:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Pausing briefly here, I think it is valuable for us to realize that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous in the sight of God, they were obedient to God’s commands, but they were both childless. In the culture they lived, having children was one of the primary ways that God showed His blessing on a couple, and it seemed that Zechariah and Elizabeth, while being obedient and righteous, appeared to be punished by God because of their lack of children.

This didn’t just happen over a few years. Luke describes both spouses as being very old. This couple’s childlessness had lasted for decades, and they may have even resigned themselves to dying childless.

However, God had not forgotten them. Even when it looked as though God had forgotten them, He was actually setting the stage for something big He was getting ready to do. In our own lives, even though it may seem at times like God has forgotten us, it is possible He is really setting the stage for something big He is getting ready to do.

Continuing reading in verse 8, Luke then tells us:

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 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.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

In this event, three big things stood out in my mind, and we could also draw two conclusions about John’s life that we don’t often think of.

First, Luke’s gospel describes the very first way that God decided to step back into history. For centuries before this, it had seemed as though God was silent, and with Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah, God’s silence ended. It is powerful in my mind that the first person God chose to break His silence with was a priest serving in the inner room of the temple. While this wasn’t in the Most Holy Place in the temple, it would have been right outside the Most Holy Place, and Zechariah’s task was to burn incense on the alter that was just outside the curtain leading into the Most Holy Place.

While we often think that the first people God breaks the silence to after several centuries are the shepherds in the field on the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us that there is more back story that is worth paying attention to, because the story really begins with John the Baptist.

Also in this event, it is worth noting that Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s message. Perhaps Zechariah simply wanted some additional assurance that this promise would be kept, or maybe Zechariah had hoped for a child for so long that he didn’t want to share the promise with Elizabeth and then be disappointed when something didn’t happen again.

While we often give Zechariah a bad reputation for doubting God, I don’t think it is unreasonable to have some reservations after it appeared as though God had said no to a child for decades of their lives.

The sign that Gabriel gave Zechariah seems like a punishment for Zechariah’s lack of belief, but I wonder if in this sign, we have the seeds of something amazing. After God had been silent for hundreds of years, we see a priest being struck silent for not immediately believing God’s promise. While Zechariah’s silence likely lasted less than a full year, it served as an amazing symbol for God being silent, before stepping into history in a big way through John the Baptist and ultimately through Jesus.

Zechariah’s silence also served as a sign for everyone present that God was doing something in their midst. Knowing Zechariah’s muteness was a sign leading forward to the birth of John, this should have been enough for those present to take note that John the Baptist would be a significant person in history.

Zechariah’s silence also gave Zechariah a clear, easy reminder that the angel Gabriel’s visit actually happened. Often times, it is easy for our brain to trick us into rationalizing or belittling something amazing or special that happens in our lives, and the clear temptation for Zechariah would have been to rationalize this away as a dream or a vision rather than a clear visit with a promise. The sign of muteness served as a reminder to Zechariah that God’s promise to him was real!

I believe God had planned for John to have older parents. With older parents, John may have begun his ministry after both his parents had died. This doesn’t seem very positive, but this detail frees John up to live in the desert and share a more challenging message about repentance than if John’s parents were alive. John’s parents being older and likely having died before John’s ministry also saves them the emotional anguish of their son being imprisoned and beheaded by Herod.

Everything in this event draws our attention onto the amazing truth that God has not forgotten His people, and that God keeps His promises and His Word!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, continue seeking God first in your life. Choose to accept and believe His promises and His Word. While we don’t always know when God’s promises will happen, we can be certain that they will come to pass.

Also, continue praying and studying the Bible for yourself to learn God’s truth and to grow closer to Him. Through prayer and study, we are able to open our hearts to God and learn the truths He has promised for His children in the world today!

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or abandon where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Luke – Episode 2: Luke begins Jesus’ story sharing not about Jesus’ birth, but about the events leading up to the birth of Jesus’ forerunner in ministry, John the Baptist, and the amazing promise of John’s birth to an unlikely, old, childless couple.

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