June 28, 2010 David Balzer

Luke 1:1-25: Too good to be true

Paul and Cara were in my year at college. Until recently he was the Presbyterian minister at Kyogle. We first came across them when Caron was the Bursar at the College. In December of 1996. She got a call from Paul. “Hi, my name’s Paul. I’m from the country. I’m coming to college next year. I’m going to become a Presbyterian minister. We’ve got no savings, and nowhere to live. Have you got any ideas? And, by the way, we’ve got a brand new baby!”

Paul was about 23 at the time. And he was leaving everything he knew. Because he believed God wanted him at college. He was going out on a limb, trusting God. Trusting that God would provide for him, and look after him.

And God WAS good. The church had a vacant house at Concord – 10 minutes from college. And the government kindly paid quite good family benefits. And his church appointment was Kuringai – who looked after them very well.

He got towards the end of first year, and the minister at his church, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and died quite suddenly. Paul took on a big burden, as he tried to get ready for exams. Somehow he made it through.

In second year, Cara was due to have a baby around exam time. Paul struggled to get ready for exams. Once again, God brought him through.

In his third year, Paul planned to change churches. But the minister at the new church was diagnosed with clinical depression. And went on a long sick leave.

So Paul went to another church instead. And he was there for two years. During that time, the minister had a lot of time off with both chronic, serious physical illness, and bouts of depression. Once again, Paul bore a heavy burden.

It was during these two years, that their second child, Timothy, started to suffer quite severe epileptic attacks. That was a heavy load to bear. And now, Timothy’s been diagnosed with autism. ANOTHER load they bore for 7 years, And what finally forced them to leave pastoral ministry this year.

Paul’s the first to admit that it’s a miracle that he got through college at all! I’m sure there were times when he struggled with why all this was happening. “What’s going on, God? I’m doing all this for you, and nothing seems to be going right. Is this where you want me?

When will you heal Timothy? When will everything work out? When will I feel like I’ve got things in control?”

And these are real questions, aren’t they? Perhaps even questions you’re asking yourself. When? When are you going to answer? When are you going to change things? When are things going to get better?

When will the pain stop? Or the loneliness, or the frustration, or the embarrassment, or the sorrow, or the anger? The unemployment, the depression, the chronic sickness, the fighting, the pressure?

And it’s these sorts of questions God answers in today’s passage. The prayers of a blameless old man. Zechariah. Suffering the sorrow and shame of childlessness. And the prayers of A NATION groaning under the burden of Roman rule. Waiting to be free.

And suddenly. God enters the scene. He’s been silent for a long time. 400 years since the last prophet who makes it into the Bible. He answers their prayers. Good news! God’s on the move! And things are going to change.

The question is “When”. And God’s answer is “Very soon! It’s nearly here! Get ready!” I haven’t forgotten you. I’m still here. I’m still faithful. I’m still interested.

1. Blameless but barren (5-7)

Let’s pick up the story at verse 5. In some ways the start’s unexpected. Because we don’t start at Jesus. In fact we don’t even start with John the Baptist. The one who prepares the way for Jesus.

We start with John’s Dad, Zechariah. A good old Jew. Doing all the things good Jews do. And the picture is painted in a few short sentences.

He’s blameless, but barren.

Verse 5. Zechariah’s a priest. As Jewish as you can get. Not just from the tribe of Levi, but a descendant of Aaron. Just like his wife Elizabeth.

So as far as your family tree goes, you don’t get much better. …Except perhaps if you were a descendant of King David.

And they weren’t just well-BORN, but they LIVED GOOD LIVES as well. Look at v6.

(Luke 1:6 NIV)  Both of them were UPRIGHT in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.

Blameless. But. … Here’s the complication. Verse 7.

(Luke 1:7 NIV)  But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

No kids. And there’s two barriers in the way. Elizabeth is barren. AND they’re both old. So they’re not holding out much hope. They gave the baby clothes away YEARS ago. Converted the baby’s room into a guest bedroom.

And it would have caused them plenty of heartache– perhaps even embarrassment. Because, apart from missing out on the joy of kids, most people reckoned childlessness meant God was PUNISHING you. And so people gave them a hard time.

Oh, they probably MEANT well. “Look Elizabeth. If only you’ll repent. Admit your sin, then God will give you children. There must be something you’ve missed! Some sin you’ve overlooked”

But that can’t be the case here. Because we’re told they were blameless. And not just before men, but IN THE SIGHT OF GOD.

They’re not childless because of SIN. They’re childless because God’s got something MUCH BETTER in mind. His answer’s not NO, just NOT YET.

2. A chance encounter? (8-10)

And that time’s just about here. The action starts. God’s plans start to unfold. Verse 8. Zechariah’s on duty at the temple. It’s his shift. It didn’t come up too often. And even LESS likely, they’d rolled the dice, and he’d been picked to burn the incense.

What are the chances of THAT?

He, alone, got to go into the Holy Place. It was a real honour. And some priests Never got the chance. Just him.

And so Zechariah gets ready. He robes up on his own. Goes through the various purification rituals on his own. He walks past the other priests in the locker room. On his own. And he walks into the temple. Everyone’s waiting. They’re all in the courtyard. Outside the Holy Place. And he walks through them. Dressed up in his finest priest’s gear. Everyone’s watching him. He’s going to burn the incense. Just him and God. Just Zechariah representing the whole nation.

They’re waiting for him to go in, and then they’ll pray. He opens the doors to the Holy Place. Pauses for a minute…. Then walks in, shutting the doors behind him.

He’s all alone.

The bright, glaring sunlight replaced by the dim glow of lamps. The noise and bustle replaced by the quiet of the heavy, solid walls and rich curtains. The dry, dusty heat replaced by the rich, fragrant warmth of the incense and the burning oil.

He’s all alone. He looks around the walls at rich cedar panelling. He looks around at the various tables against the walls, covered in gold ornaments. Ten golden candlesticks The gold glistens. He looks over at the altar of incense. In the centre of the room. And starts to head towards it.

Then all of a sudden he’s NOT alone. Look at v11.

(Luke 1:11-13 NIV)  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 give him the name John.

An angel with a word from God. Zechariah’s prayer answered!

Funny thing is, we didn’t even know that Zechariah had BEEN praying. But he must have been. Because God answered it. He answered the POWERFUL PRAYER OF A PRINCIPLED PERSON.

James 5:16 says that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. God listens to those people who listen to him. Who seek to do his will.

Is that the desire of YOUR heart? Is PLEASING GOD what you strive for more than anything else?

If you have an unanswered prayer. If you want your prayers to be powerful and effective. Then seek God’s will. Work at being RIGHTEOUS. Not so you can get what you WANT – there’s no guarantee of THAT. But just because pleasing God is the best thing you can do. And God listens to the prayers of righteous people.

And that’s what Zechariah was. And God’s going to give them a son. And he even gives him a name. John. It means gift from God. Which is fitting.

But then again so are the other names. Gabriel mentions all three names. In one sentence. Verse 13. And each one is meaningful and fitting.

Zechariah: The Lord REMEMBERS

Elizabeth: My God is FAITHFUL

John: Gift from God.

And ultimately, that’s why Zechariah’s prayer is answered. Not because he DESERVES it. Because he’s such a special guy. But because GOD IS FAITHFUL. He’s faithful to his character. To the way he does things. And HE REMEMBERS. He remembers his promises to his people.

And John is his ANSWER. Look at v14. For Zechariah, he’ll be A JOY AND A DELIGHT. Imagine! A baby after all these years!

I heard of someone expecting a baby after 9 ½ years of trying! 9 ½ years of praying EVERY SINGLE DAY! How wonderful! What a joy!

But the angel goes on. It’s not just Zeke and Liz who’ll throw a party. Verse 14. MANY will rejoice because of his birth.

Because it’s not just Zechariah who was praying, was it? Verse 10 tells us that THE PEOPLE were outside praying. Praying while the incense burned. The idea was that as the smoke from the incense floated up, the nice smell would go all the way to heaven, and God would be pleased to hear their prayers.

Now they could have been praying for all sorts of things – healing, children, money, other blessings.

But they were a people under oppression. Foreign rule. And my guess is that prayers for God to deliver them were pretty high on the agenda.

This wasn’t their land. It was Roman. And Herod their King wasn’t even Jewish. A Roman puppet. Who’d come to power through treachery and shed.

And even the VERY TEMPLE THEY PRAYED IN was built by Herod. Every time they came to pray their nose were rubbed in it.

They were in the promised land, but it wasn’t theirs. Gentiles ruled them. Gentiles made the decisions. Gentiles were being made rich by the fruit of their soil. And the sweat of their brow.

“When O Lord? When will you act? Where’s your Messiah? Rescue us from evil men!”

And so, in a sense, the angel brings an answer to the PEOPLE’S prayers, too. John is the start of God’s plans for Israel. The smashed champagne bottle across the bow of the new boat. The drum-roll before the cannon fire. The warm-up act before the headline band. He’s preparing the way for Jesus.

And look at how he’ll do it. Verse 15.

(Luke 1:15 NIV)  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 from birth.

Just like God’s great heroes of the past. Judges, and prophets, and priests. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps even like Samson. A mighty man to rescue Israel from her enemies.

But it’s not a rescue with swords and spears. It’s REPENTANCE that John will be fighting for. Look at verse 16.

(Luke 1:16-17 NIV)  Many of the people of Israel will he BRING BACK 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 FATHERS TO THEIR CHILDREN AND THE DISOBEDIENT TO THE WISDOM OF THE RIGHTEOUS–TO MAKE READY A PEOPLE PREPARED FOR THE LORD.”

He’s getting people ready for the Lord. The Lord is on his way. And John’s job is to make sure people are looking in the right direction when he gets there.

18-22 Too good to be true

Well, how does Zechariah respond to all this? Poor old Zechariah. It’s probably a bit much to take in/ all in one go. Verse 18. It’s sounds TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE!

(Luke 1:18 NIV)  Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

From a human point of view, things look hopeless. They’re past their use-by date. But God’s timing is perfect, isn’t it?

He’s kept Elizabeth childless until just the right time. Just the right time for Mary’s birth. And for Jesus. Just the right time.

And it’s the same with whatever YOU’RE praying for. God’s holding out for just the right time. You might think he hasn’t heard you. But there’s nothing wrong with his EARS.

You might think he’s not interested. But there’s nothing wrong with his HEART. The events of Christmas remind us that God loves us. He’s more interested in US than we can ever be in HIM.

You might think he’s pre-occupied, or too slow. Everything’s taking far too long for your liking. But there’s nothing wrong with God’s TIMING. His timing’s ALWAYS perfect. His answer will arrive so that all things work for good for those who love him, and are called according to his purposes.

You might think he CAN’T change your situation. His hands are tied. But there’s nothing wrong with the STRENGTH OF HIS HAND. The miracle of an old barren woman falling pregnant knocks THAT one on its head. The miracle of a virgin conceiving show that NOTHING’S too big for God.

So keep praying. Keep trusting God’s interest and love and timing.

But trusting isn’t what Zechariah did. It was all too good to be true. And so the angel punishes him. Verse 19. How can you be SURE?

(Luke 1:19-20 NIV)  The angel answered, “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 proper time.”

And sure enough, when he comes out to greet the people, he can’t speak a word. The same people who’d been praying, and who’d been waiting. They’d been waiting for God to act. And they’d been waiting for Zechariah to come out.

I wonder when he did/ whether they realised that God had ANSWERED THEIR PRAYER! Something extraordinary had happened. Something too good to be true. And God was starting to work.

23-25 God’s favour – My God is faithful

And so Zechariah goes home. And sure enough, soon after, Elizabeth falls pregnant. SHE’S in no doubt about who gets the credit. Verse 25.

(Luke 1:25 NIV)  “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.”

He has shown his favour. He has answered my prayer. In HIS timing. For his purposes. And his plans for Elizabeth were much more wonderful than she could even imagine.

And it’s the same for us. Keep praying. God will answer your prayer. In HIS timing. For his purposes. Purposes which are much more wonderful than you can imagine. Purposes which are too good to be true.

Paul and Cara have since had a THIRD child, who’s normal and healthy. And they’re working out what a normal life is like out of ministry. As normal as you CAN with an autistic child. Just trying to get back on an even keel. And they continue praying and trusting God. Because there’s nothing wrong with God’s EARS, or his TIMING. There’s nothing wrong with the STRENGTH OF HIS HAND, or his HEART.

So remember the lesson of Zechariah, and Elizabeth. Zechariah – The Lord remembers. And Elizabeth – My God is faithful.

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