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The Actors of Advent: Zechariah
Luke 1:5 - 1:23
November 28, 2021
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
In the first sermon of our new series The Actors of Advent,” we look at Zechariah and his response to Archangel Gabriel’s news that he and his wife would have a child who would pave the way for Christ’s coming. In this sermon, we explore how to contend with the news of Christ's birth and how God uses the unlikely of people for his purpose.
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I have no doubt that many of you have already begun your Christmas shopping for your family, your friends, and your co-workers. I bet in this room some of you, many of you, are really good at Christmas shopping. Throughout the year, you’ve paid attention to your family and friends. You’ve listened for their desires, hopes, and interests. You’ve listened carefully for clues and hints that might lead you to give the perfect Christmas gift. Then sometime in July, perhaps an idea pops in your head, and because you’re always thinking about it, because you’re such a good gift giver, you write it down, jot it down. Maybe, you even make the purchase, or you begin making the gift so that it will be ready for Christmas. One thing you know for sure, if you’re a good gift giver, you wouldn’t dream of waiting until the last second, and the idea of giving a gift that seems impersonal makes you shudder to your core. That’s some of you.
I bet there are others of you here who are willing to wait. It’s not even December yet. There’s certainly a thrill, maybe even a challenge to find the gift at the last minute despite the inventory shortages and the delays in shipping that you will no doubt face in the coming days and weeks. You will seek to overcome those obstacles, but either way, you’re not that worried about it. You’re not going to concern yourself with it because you’ll think of something, you always do. If all else fails, you can give a gift card. The gift card—I think it’s one of the most underrated Christmas gifts that one can give. It might be the perfect Christmas gift. What it lacks in personal touch, what it lacks in thoughtfulness, it makes up for in convenience, not only for the giver, but the one receiving the gift. It doesn’t disrupt their lives at all. Isn’t that really what Christmas ought to be about? Giving and receiving gifts so that no one’s lives are disrupted. No one’s lives are inconvenienced—either the one giving the gifts or the one receiving the gifts. I don’t know what your philosophy of Christmas giving is. It might be one of those. It might be somewhere in between whether you welcome the giving and receiving of gifts that disrupt your life, or whether you would rather just give and receive the gift card. You might be somewhere on the spectrum, but one thing is certain is that when the Bible begins to lead up to the birth of Christ, and the promise of this gift that is given to the world, one thing is for sure: This gift—the gift of Christ—is going to be very disruptive for everyone involved.
This being the first Sunday in Advent, we are beginning a new sermon series called The Actors of Advent, and we’re going to take a close look at some of the main characters in the Advent story and see how they respond to the news of the coming of Christ. How did they receive the promise of the gift? Some received the news of Christ coming with hope and joy. Some received it with skepticism and doubt. Some received it with utter confusion. Everyone we’ll look at this Advent season, they all share one thing in common. Their lives were completely disrupted. Their lives were turned upside down by the coming of Christ, by the reception of this gift. They’re given this gift, and there’s no way they could possibly fold it into the rest of their lives in any sort of convenient, tidy manner. The birth of Christ is the great global and cosmic disruption, and to receive a gift like this, it requires time, it requires attention, and it requires preparation. The season of Advent throughout the church history has always been a time of preparation, time for making room for the coming of Christ. After all, this is John the Baptist, maybe he is the main character, the main actor of Advent, but this is his central message: Prepare the way of the Lord. We also sing it in our songs. When we sing our hymns, when we sing Joy to the World. Let every heart prepare him room.
As we look at the actors of Advent, whether it’s Zechariah or Elizabeth, whether it’s Mary or Joseph, whether it’s the shepherds, or Simeon, all of them must contend with the news of Christ’s birth, and they must let it reshape their entire lives. It’s the same thing with us, living some 2,000 years after these events. The news of Advent that Jesus came into our world, that he will come, is news that promises to disrupt our lives as well. Advent is the great disruption. When the promise of God and the coming of the Messiah intrudes on everyone who comes in contact with this Messiah, this is Advent. This is what Advent is all about. We all must adjust our lives and our ambitions and our expectations and our personal timelines, our understanding of our past and our hopes for the future, all of them must be recalibrated around and through the birth of Christ. During Advent, we confess this disruption not as an unwanted inconvenience, but as a prevailing hope because Advent is the disruption that we need. Advent is the disruption that you need. We don’t need a gift that we can easily fold into our daily lives and manipulate as we need because the reality is that our lives are marked by darkness, by sorrow, by loss and frustration. We need this kind of disruption because this gift, this grand disruption, is the gift that leads to life and healing, not only for us, but for the world. This is what Zechariah learns as he is the first to receive the news of the coming of the Lord. That’s what I want to look at. I want to look at Zechariah, as for all intents and purposes, the first actor of Advent, the first one in Luke’s Gospel to take the stage. Let’s give our attention to Luke 1. We’re going to read v.5-23. Let’s give our attention to God’s Word.
5In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
18And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
This is the word of the Lord. It’s absolutely true, and it’s given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
God and Heavenly Father, we pray that your spirit would descend upon us, that you would stir our hearts, open our ears, open our eyes so that we would see the ways in which you are at work in and through this text and in our world. Lord, we confess to you that so often, we do not want our lives to be disrupted, and yet here at Advent as we prepare to celebrate the coming of your son and our savior Jesus, we are asking for just that, that you would disrupt us. This is the disruption we need, the disruption we longed for because it brings us life. Help us to be a people who see and receive this as good news. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.
A New King
Zechariah, as the first actor of Advent, finds that he has to make room for a new king. He has to make room for a new story. He has to make room for new song. First, he finds that he has to make room for a new king. Luke’s Gospel begins by setting the stage for the birth of Christ by introducing us to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but before we get there, there’s this other actor. There’s another actor of Advent that’s lurking in the background. You find that in v.5, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” No doubt, Luke gives us this piece of information as a bit of a timestamp to locate us in time and space, in history, and in the real world that’s going on, but there’s more to it than that. Luke wants us to remember that as we await the coming king, we do so in a world filled with other rulers, with other kings, with other powers seeking to make the ultimate claim as the one true king. All that is happening as the curtain rises on Luke’s Gospel, here’s Herod, the king of Judea, another actor of Advent. He is a Roman king, but he’s not ruling with justice. He’s not ruling with righteousness. He’s ruling by fear, and he’s ruling by paranoia. He is a false king, and even though he has power—power over Zechariah, and all of those faithfully serving in the temple, praying, waiting and hoping for news of the promised Messiah. Even though he has power, it’s not ultimate power. This is the same Herod who, Matthew will tell us in his account of the birth of Christ, will seek to destroy the Christ child, and he will do so by calling for the execution of every male infant two years and younger at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Here in Luke’s account, he wants us to see that as powerful as Herod is, as much an actor of Advent as he might be, he is ultimately insignificant. He will be rendered without power because in this story, the real actor of Advent is Jesus. He is coming to usher in a new kingdom and a new world, and Zechariah is being invited to prepare the world for that king’s arrival.
This is what the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah in the temple, starting in v.13, we read this, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” He’s going to be John the Baptist. ”And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” The Scriptures had foretold that one day a great prophet, Elijah, would return, and when he did, that would be the sign that the king was coming. The long awaited Messiah would return. Gabriel says to Zechariah, your son is going to be that Elijah. He is going to prepare the way for this king. What I want you to see, as Zechariah receives this news, before it becomes deeply personal news, and it will, we’ll see that in a second, but before it becomes that, it’s news that is going to change the world. Zechariah is the first one to hear that the world is put on notice, that all the other kings, the Herods of the world, the Pontius Pilates, anyone from the Roman Empire and all powers and principalities will not stand and they will not last, because the one true king is coming. This is important for us to consider because in the same way Zechariah is going to have to make room for this new and better king—Jesus—you and I are asked to do the same thing in Advent. To make room for the one true king in our lives.
You all are going to have a lot to do this month. There are going to be invitations and parties and gatherings and events, but before any of that, Advent is the time to celebrate the fact that the gift of Christ is so all encompassing, so very intrusive, that it can’t help but disrupt the world. It can’t help but disrupt our lives because this is the gift we need. This is the king that we longed for. One of the questions we have before us at Advent is how are you going to make room for this king during Advent? This is the time not just to fill your calendars up with events but to look at your calendars and your bank accounts and your relationships and commitments and ask how am I making room for this king? Not as a nice addition to the other parts of my life, but as the central guiding hope, as the deeper reality that underscores every reality of your life. How are you making room for the king that is shaping everything that you think, and believe, and do? After all, this is the disruption that you need, and Advent calls us to make room for the coming king.
A New Story
Zechariah is asked to make room for a new king, but he’s also being asked to make room for a new story. Luke tells us not only the larger global cosmic picture of kings like Herod ruling and reigning, but also that for Zechariah and Elizabeth, this is also a very personal story. Luke tells us that they have no children, that they in fact were unable to have children. They were advanced in years, which meant for them, that the time for having kids had long since passed. Here in v.7, we get a glimpse of how not only the political and religious world is filled with darkness, but that the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is filled with longing, and darkness and sorrow as well. The lack of children for this couple would have been the point of their deepest grief and sorrow and disappointment. It meant that they had suffered a stigma in their childlessness with everyone wondering and speculating why they could not have children. Zechariah and Elizabeth are in a desperate need for a better story for their lives, but they can’t manufacture that story on their own. Just as the world needs God’s healing, they too need God to heal them—to give them hope, to work through them, and ultimately to rescue them. That’s exactly what God promises to do in this story. This is what the angel Gabriel is telling Zechariah—that God is going to work through you, through your deepest pain for your good, and for his glory. In other words, Gabriel is telling Zechariah, get ready, because God is going to give you a better story. It’s not going to make complete sense to Zechariah. It might not have even been the story that he was really looking for at this point in his life. It might not have been the story that he really wanted, but God is coming so Gabriel is telling Zechariah to make room because he is going to work through their sorrow.
This is why Advent calls us to make room for a better king, but also it’s a call for us to make room for a better story, which simply means this: That God is at work through you and your life, today, right now, in every aspect of your life. He’s a work in your marriage, in your singleness, in your weakness, in your sorrow, in your frustrations. The question that Gabriel asked, that all the angels will ask in Advent, that John the Baptist will ask as the primary actor of Advent is, are you ready? Are you ready? That question is important, but in some ways, it really doesn’t matter because God is going to use you. Ready or not. That’s what Zechariah also is about to learn. Maybe you are like Zechariah. Maybe you can resonate a little bit with him in this story. The Archangel Gabriel comes to earth to tell him face to face, God is going to use you, and Zechariah says in v.18, “How shall I know this?” How am I going to know this? “For I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” Gabriel, the angel who stands in God’s presence says God is going to use you, and Zechariah says, are you sure about that? How do you really know? Are you sure? I’m not sure? I kind of doubt it. I love Gabriel’s reply to Zechariah’s gestures here. Gabriel is kind of dumbfounded that Zechariah doesn’t believe, and he says, you’re not sure? You know, I’m Gabriel, right? You know, I’m the archangel. I’m standing before you. You know who I am? I wonder though if this is our default reaction as well. You hear these words that God is going to use you and oftentimes I think our default response is, I kind of doubt it. Probably not. It doesn’t matter who tells you, whether it’s me, whether it’s someone close to you, whether it’s a friend, or whether an angel were to appear to you, our default reaction is I doubt it. Or maybe our reaction is, he’ll use me when I get my act together. Finally, when I come to a deeper part of my faith, or a different part of my life, or where I finally get some space to really reflect upon these things, and I can really operate out of strength, then God is going to use me but not right now.
Let me try again. I am not Gabriel, but I do have an Advent message for you. It’s really important that you hear this: God is going to use you. He will definitely use your gifts, and most certainly he will use the gifts he’s given you and the strengths of which he has given you. But at Advent, in light of Zechariah’s story, and in light of the larger story of the Bible, the other part of this that you need to hear is that God is also going to use your weakness. He’s going to use your wounds, your sadness, your confusion, because even as he comes to heal the cosmos, he’s also coming to heal the wounds of those who rest and rely upon him. Which is why the very best thing you can do during Advent, and all the days of your life, is to trust him or to draw close to him. The best thing you can do is to make room for him in your life. To be honest about your longings, to be honest about the wounds that you carry, to be honest about your sorrow, to be honest about your sadness, because this king is coming to heal that and to give you a better story. The story that we’re talking about here is the story of Jesus, but before Jesus can come, there needs to be the forerunner, and that’s John the Baptist. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s baby boy. God is going to rescue the world through people like Zechariah and Elizabeth in their weakness, in their faithfulness, in their confusion, in their deepest doubts. God is promising to use them in the midst of their sorrow and disappointment. He says, I’m going to wrap your story into this story of Jesus, this king. I’m going to use you to save the world.
I don’t know how God is going to use your sorrow and weakness to bring healing to this world. It oftentimes will be in ways that you do not expect, but at Advent, as we prepare him room, we wait with expectation that the very places in our lives, where we find ourselves staring in the darkness of our world, staring into the darkness of our own hearts, it’s those places where God is promising that he is going to shine the light of his salvation, where he is going to shine the light of his son Jesus. It can only be this way. It can only be this way because the entire story of the Bible can only be told through God working through the sorrow of his people to bring joy to the world. The promise you have before you is the same is going to be true of you.
A New Song
Another question for Advent is not just how do you make room but are you ready? Have you made room for this better story to take hold in your life? Have you made room for this better story? Zechariah is going to learn just how to do that, but he’s being asked to make room for a better king. He’s being asked to make room for a better story, but he’s also being asked to make room for a new song. This is what I want us to see. As we saw Zechariah, he is not ready for any of this. As he meets Gabriel, as he’s doing his duty in the temple, doing his job. He meets Gabriel; he is completely unprepared for what’s ahead of him. He can’t get his heart and his mind around this news, even as he stares at an angel face to face. In this part of the story, Zechariah’s part of the story ends in silence. Zechariah needs time for his faith to grow, his heart to grow. Until then, Gabriel closes Zechariah’s mouth and the dark comedy of this account—and it is rather comedic—continues in v.22, where Zechariah is unable to speak and communicate, to tell them what he saw and heard. I guess he’s doing a game of charades trying to explain to them how he met an archangel in the temple while he was on duty. But Luke wants us to know that he just goes home. That’s how this part of the story ends. How’s that for the first actor of Advent? He’s given a great promise, but then in the end in silence, he leaves and returns home, just to wait, to wait for something more. At this point, you could quote Macbeth. Macbeth comes to mind as I read Zechariah’s story. It’s that famous quote, this brief moment on the stage “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” That is how we leave Zechariah as he goes home. Given a huge promise, all sorts of hope and promises, and he’s got nothing to say because he didn’t believe it. You have a man, a priest, who encounters an angel, giving him both a personal promise of a miraculous son, but also the son that would be the forerunner to the Messiah, and he can’t get his mind around it. He just can’t believe it. So the scene is over, the curtain closes on this actor of Advent, and Luke moves on to the next one, the next scene.
If you follow the story through the rest of the chapter, Luke leaves Zechariah for a while and moves to the other actors of Advent, namely Mary. She receives her news with joy and expectation and breaks into song at the promise of the coming of Jesus. If you read it carefully and slowly, you might be left to think, that’s the end of Zechariah’s story. It ended in silence, but thankfully, Luke brings Zechariah back—not too long after telling us Mary’s story—in v.67. Now, we get to see that Zechariah moves from silence to song, because having made room for a king he was not quite ready for, and a story that he can barely fathom, he now has a new song to sing. Luke records this in v.67-79. It’s known as the Benedictus, and it is beautiful. It is a beautiful song. We didn’t get to read it, but I recommend that this week as you make room for Christ at Advent that you take the time to read it and ponder it. Let it be part of your song this week. This is how you make room for this king, this gift that we so desperately need. In this song, Zechariah now welcomes the promise of God, because here now he is holding his son John, as he sings it. He had been given a sign that the promise of Advent was not empty, that this was going to come to fruition. Zechariah could see what was happening in his own life, but also the world. This is how he ends his song. In v.76, “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 in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah is given a new song and so are we because of the tender mercy of our God, we’ve been given light, even as we sit in darkness, even as we stare off into sometimes the shadow of death because a new light is dawned, and this gift has been given. It is so gloriously intrusive, that the only response to the coming of King Jesus is to make room, to readjust everything else in your life around this glorious news. We too have a new song to sing and what Zechariah could only catch a glimpse of, we can see in fullness, that the one for whom John the Baptist would prepare the way would come. That this Jesus would be the one at long last, who could finally deliver people from the darkness of the world, from the darkness of our hearts, and be the king that we so desperately longed for. We, like Zechariah, have a new song to sing, a song of the tender mercy of God that moves from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy and from death to life. In preparation of the arrival of Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, I want you to know there is a lot of singing. Did you ever notice that? Everybody is singing. It’s more like a musical than a play. All the actors of Advent need to learn how to sing, and they are singing for good reason because people’s hearts are filled with joy at the arrival of this king, and the promise of a new story for them, but also for the world because the king that we anticipate at Advent is the only king who would lay down his glory. He is the only king who will lay down his life for his people. He is the only king for whom the joy is set before him would endure the cross, despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God, to rule and to reign until he comes again. This king Jesus promises to come again in power and glory, to renew all things. That is why we sing. That is our song.
Friends as we gather at this table, this is a way that we prepare him room. We prepare room in our lives for this great and wonderful king. It’s here at this table that we feed and we feast upon him so that we will be nourished, so that we will be sustained. It’s here that we gather at this table, that we bring our deepest sorrow, our deepest wounds, knowing that as we feed upon our savior, he is promising to heal us and not just heal us, but he is going to sustain us, to nourish us, to equip us so that we will move out into the world to sing this new song, to sing the song of hope, to sing the song of joy, to sing the song of the tender mercy of our God, who has given us the greatest gift the world has ever known and that we could ever receive. It is a gloriously intrusive gift, so this Advent, take up the call from Gabrielle to Zechariah. Prepare room for the Messiah to come. Look at every aspect of your life, every relationship and see it now through the lens of the promise and hope of the one who comes now who has come and who will come again. God gave us the hearts and the eyes and the ears to see and celebrate his coming.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we do pray that you would make us the people with a new song on our lips, new joy in our hearts, with eyes to see the promises that you are at work, even now. God, would you make us a church and a people who this day are ready to take up this call to follow you, to tell the world of this gloriously intrusive gift that brings life and healing to us and to this world. We pray this all in Jesus’ name, Amen.