In these opening chapters of Luke’s gospel we’re faced with the ludicrous notion that God visited his people. We read last week of a young woman who became pregnant with the Son of God – even though she wasn’t married to her fiancé.
Luke’s gospel doesn’t try to explain the weirdness away, or find ‘natural’ (scientific) explanations for the supernatural events. But what Luke does do really helpfully is show us people coming to terms with what they’re seeing – inviting you to do the same.
Ponder what it all means (57-66)
Luke’s gospel opened with this man Zechariah, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, being visited by an angel in the Temple. It was as supernatural a thing as you could get. And the angel’s news was crazy too: Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth would have a son – despite being barren. The son would be special, and have the God-given task of preparing the way for the coming Messiah. Zechariah couldn’t – or wouldn’t – believe what the angel told him, so he was struck unable to speak until the child was born. Elizabeth took herself away and lived out her pregnancy in relative secrecy.
Here in these verses, the baby is born and suddenly everyone knows about it and are really pleased – and surprised. Luke 1:58 tells us “everyone rejoiced with her.” The angel had earlier told Zechariah that “many would rejoice at [the baby’s] birth” (Luke 1:14), and certainly here are some!
But then there’s a bit of confusion when they go to have the boy circumcised in the Temple. As godly Jews, they brought the child to the Temple on the 8th day as God’s law demanded. The child would be part of the covenant people of God, with circumcision a reminder of God’s covenant to bless his people, and to bless the world through them.
It was customary (but not law) to name the child formally at that point, and the people at the Temple assumed the name “Zechariah” (his father’s name, which was a bit unusual).
- Luke 1:60 But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!”
- That’s a surprise, so they ask Zechariah.
- Read Luke 1:62.
- It seems Zechariah is deaf, as well as being unable to speak. But he can write! Read Luke 1:63.
Ask the right questions
Zechariah and Elizabeth are a couple of jumps ahead of everyone else: They know that that God is at work, doing something extraordinary. The people with them mean well, but they’re just wrong. They start to catch up when Zechariah can suddenly speak again! Read Luke 1:64-66.
Very often, real wisdom doesn’t come from having all the answers, but rather from asking the right questions. The people who heard about Zechariah and Elizabeth and their baby, John, reflected on it and asked, “What will this child turn out to be?”
- They could have just said the whole thing was a scam, or a sham, but they didn’t. They pondered it and kept asking questions, trying to see what it meant.
- They wouldn’t find out fully for years. Often the way.
Christian faith is not blind faith. It’s not a matter of switching off your mind and suspending your ability to think. Zechariah and Elizabeth had had 9 months for the magnitude of the moment to sink in: God was doing something huge in their lives, something that would affect all humanity (through the coming Messiah).
So I strongly encourage you to ask your questions, don’t bury them. Put your doubts into words and express them openly. You might feel that God is doing something huge in your life, but you don’t know what it is, or what it might mean for you.
- Bring that out into the open.
- Because God can work in your life as easily as in anyone else’s. He does work in your life – has done so.
- So ponder that. Talk about it.
It’s one reason why we love things like Christianity Explored or the Word One2One tools – they help you ponder, ask, and talk stuff through. And then, hopefully, the light dawns!
Let the light dawn in you (67-80)
Let’s look at what Zechariah said when he started to speak. (We’ll take the whole thing in, then come back to a couple of verses in particular.) Last time we looked at Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat.
Zechariah’s words are known as the “Benedictus” (because it begins with “praise/bless the Lord” in v68). Read Luke 1:68.
It’s easy to feel abandoned and hopeless when the world is so crazy, but God has visited and redeemed his people! Zechariah knows that Elizabeth’s relative Mary is pregnant with the Messiah, and that his own son will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming. The Messiah will redeem his people – saving us from our sins. The Messiah is a saviour.
Read Luke 1:69-70.
- Zechariah was a priest, so not a descendant of King David.
- But God had promised to King David 1000 years earlier that he would have a descendant to rule over God’s people forever – and now this mighty Saviour is coming!
- That Saviour is, of course, Jesus, born of Mary, fiancée of Josephy, descendant of King David.
God had promised that to David in covenant. He also had a covenant with Abraham, centuries before David.
Read Luke 1:72-73.
- That was a covenant to bless.
- God would bring blessing to the whole world!
- That blessing was largely limited to Israel through the Old Testament period (they were supposed to tell the world about God, but they failed).
- Now God’s blessing extends to the whole world through knowledge of Jesus, the Saviour King (Messiah) God promised David and Abraham and the whole of the Old Testament.
So what was baby John going to do? Read Luke 1:76-77.
That phrase “prepare the way for the Lord” is from Isaiah 40, and John (the Baptist) will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord, the visitation of God, the Messiah – Jesus. How will John do that?
- By telling people how to find salvation through forgiveness of sins.
- Which means, you need to know that you need forgiveness from God if you are to enjoy his salvation.
- Which means, you need to realise you have sinned, offended God, and are in danger of the fires of hell!
You’re told it’s important to “just be you”, to find your own identity, and not care what anyone else thinks about you.
- In many ways, those things are helpful and true.
- But you’ll never understand who you truly are until you see yourself as God sees you.
- You live in his world, but you abuse it and are ungrateful to his kindness to you.
- He has given you a conscience and stated what is good, but you choose to go your own way.
- You want to see justice in the world – good people rewarded, bad people punished – but you excuse your own conduct, even when you know it’s wrong.
In God’s sight, your rejection and rebellion against him means that he will confirm your choice in the next life: He’ll reject you.
This is stuff you can’t fix.
You can’t erase your record. You can’t offset your sin even by being the best human you could be for the rest of your life. But while God will act in justice, he is also incredibly compassionate towards you. Read Luke 1:77-79.
The tenderness of God’s heart is revealed
When it says, “Because of God’s tender mercy,” it’s his heart that’s tender. He hurts at your rejection. He grieves at your predicament (in life, in death, in hell).
- But in Malachi 4, when God promised to send John the Baptist 400 years before he actually came, he said “for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings” – speaking of the coming of Jesus.
- And in Isaiah 9, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine… For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
So this child, John, will point out that your sin is serious enough to keep you from God forever. But salvation was promised, and a Saviour has been given by God, even his Son, Jesus Christ. And that salvation is forgiveness, and Jesus punished instead of you. Read Luke 1:77-79 again!
Live in holiness and righteousness (71, 74-75)
We need to take a closer look at a few verses. Read Luke 1:71, 74.
- Like lots of the phrases in the Magnificat (Mary) and the Benedictus (Zechariah), there are allusions and quotes from the Old Testament.
- Here we’ve got hints of Psalm 106:10, which says “[God] rescued [Israel] from their enemies and redeemed them from their foes.” Egypt, at that point in the psalm.
- But the psalm goes on to say that Israel then quickly drifted away from God and abandoned him again and again.
In Jesus’ own day, there was an expectation that the coming Messiah would rescue Israel from Roman occupation. But it’s clear from the rest of the New Testament that that wasn’t what Jesus came to do.
And when Zechariah uses the language of “enemies” he uses Old Testament phrases but they’re applied a new way.
What is the great enemy that defeats us all? Death.
What’s the enemy that will put you in hell? Sin.
Idolatry that tempts you away from life with God.
No wonder God looks at you with tender mercy, with love, and rich compassion. You’re hopeless. Unless he sent you a Saviour, you’d be lost forever. Your enemies are stronger than you. But salvation isn’t you beating those demons.
God visited his people to bring salvation. Salvation comes because Jesus has already had victory over them: He is victorious over temptation, and even over death itself.
You can be forgiven – if you only ask God to forgive you. If you’re willing to see yourself as he sees you, not as you’d like to be seen. And as you turn from sin to God, you turn to a new life in Christ.
Read Luke 1:74-75.
- Death will still come, but you have no need to fear it.
- (You might well fear dying, but not death.)
- Your Good Shepherd knows the way through, and will lead you through it to his own presence forever.
Some people wonder that if forgiveness is all you need to be saved (rather than doing good to be saved), isn’t that a licence to sin again and again?
- But no, Christ’s people are rescued from sin and death to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness.
- Christ changes you, bit by bit.
- Yes, we still sin. We’re not yet perfect, nor will we be in this life.
- But he has defeated the enemies of sin and death and they no longer hold power over us.
- So abandon your sin; cry out to God for forgiveness – he is already compassionate towards you and longs for you to call.
- Then live in holiness and righteousness with him, now and forever.