We continue our Advent series looking at the four songs with which the opening chapters of the book of Luke begin. There is, as we said last time, a real sense in which these four songs could be called the very first Christmas carols, songs of praise, the first songs of praise in response to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. And last Lord’s Day Morning we considered together the message of Mary’s song in the middle of chapter 1, often called “The Magnificat,” and today we’re going to think about Zechariah’s song in chapter 1, verses 67 to 79. So please take a copy of God’s Word if you’ve not done so already and turn to page 856 to the song often called “The Benedictus,” Zechariah’s prophecy, in chapter 1 verses 67 to 79. Before we read it together, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
O Lord, would You give to us the Holy Spirit? We want to do more than merely understand. We so want to meet with Christ. So please bless the reading and especially the preaching of the Word. Make them a means of grace indeed by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of His mediation. Do it for His glory and our good, in Jesus’ name, amen.
Luke chapter 1 at the sixty-seventh verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And he” that is, John the Baptist’s, “father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand 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 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.’”
Amen, and we thank God that He has spoken to us in His holy and inerrant Word.
Well, Advent season for many of us, especially for children or if we have children in our home, Advent season is a time of mounting expectation, isn’t it? The excitement builds as the weeks go on, the presents begin to appear under the tree or if you’re like us, you will have witnessed, or perhaps been the one to wrestle with a Christmas tree, and try and get it up and get the lights on, and discover how many of them don’t work, and then brave Wal-Mart and buy more and come back full of Christmas cheer at the end of your shopping expedition! And so on and so forth! But the momentum is building; the great day is fast approaching!
And yet as we turn our attention to the Biblical account of the first Christmas, at least for one of the characters in the Christmas story that very first Advent season was not fun at all, not for Zechariah. You will remember some of the story from last time. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has traveled into the hill country of Judea to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife. She’s living with Zechariah and Elizabeth in their home. And we saw last time, when Mary and Elizabeth meet one another and renew their acquaintance they are full of joy and Mary bursts into song. But for this whole time that Mary and Elizabeth have been together and are enjoying one another, Zechariah has been unable to speak a word, not a word! If you look back to the beginning of the chapter you’ll see why. In verse 18 you see Zechariah responding to the announcement of the angel Gabriel that his wife, Elizabeth, would be supernaturally pregnant and produce a son who would be called, John. Zechariah, as he hears that message, is full of doubt, unbelief frankly. Listen to what he says, verse 18. “How shall I know this for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?”
Now think about who Zechariah is? He is a man of God. We are told he is waiting for the consolation of Israel. He is a man of God, a man of faith! He’s actually a priest and at this moment he’s serving God in the temple, in the regular worship of the temple. And he knows the Scriptures! He’s well versed in the history of his people and in the Old Testament texts. And he knows, or at least he ought to have known, that Elizabeth would not be the first for whom God had been gracious and granted a miraculous pregnancy. He need go no further than the matriarch of Israel, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, for a Biblical————, Biblical precedent for all that God was doing in Elizabeth’s life. But as Zechariah listens to the angel, none of that seems to occur to him and he is overcome in a moment of unbelief, albeit perhaps for Zechariah, uncharacteristic unbelief, yet it’s unbelief nonetheless.
And just as an aside, isn’t there a salutary lesson for us here? A reminder that unbelief, however unlikely it may appear in your own Christian life right now, unbelief my nevertheless be a temptation into which any one of us may fall, no matter how mature or advanced in faithful service and trusting the Lord you may be. “Be on your guard” is one of the lessons from Zechariah’s experience. “If anyone thinks he stands firm let him beware lest he fall.” Zechariah’s overcome in a moment of unbelief! And notice that in response the Lord disciplines Zechariah. He is rendered unable to speak. And if you look forward to verse 62, as everyone’s gesturing at him, it seems clear that he’s also unable now also to hear! It’s as though Gabriel were saying to Zechariah, “You don’t think God can do this in Elizabeth’s life? You don’t think God can do this? Let me show you what God can do!” And like that, hearing and speech are taken from him and Zechariah is plunged into silence for nine months. Isn’t that fascinating? The song we are about to study together erupts from Zechariah but it takes nine months to ripen in his heart. It takes nine months of supernatural soundlessness and speechlessness for this work to take place in Zechariah’s life. I don’t want to stretch this too far or labor the point, but might not one of the lessons from Zechariah’s experience here be that our proneness to fill all our silences with constant noise, might it not be the case that our proneness to fill all our silence with noise is actually drowning out or making us increasingly incapable of hearing the voice of God speaking to us in holy Scripture? Nine months of silence! Maybe one of the things we can learn from that, maybe one of the great lessons of God for you in this Advent season, is to find time to be still and know that He is God, to turn off the noise and open your ears to His voice as He speaks to us in His holy Word. Perhaps the command is God’s word to you for this season, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Well, whatever the case, for nine months Zechariah has been speechless, until that is, Elizabeth is delivered of a healthy baby boy whom she names, John. And as she does so, it provokes some controversy. It doesn’t seem like a controversial thing to us of course, but in those days, as verse 61 demonstrates, it was the custom that a baby boy should be named for his father or at least some other male family member. But the custom notwithstanding, Mary is absolutely adamant, “No, the boy’s name will be John!” And so you can imagine them all turning to Zechariah as they sort of signal to him what is going on hoping that he is going to overrule Mary, but Zechariah confirms what Mary has said, Elizabeth rather has said, “His name is John.” And Luke says, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue is loosed and he spoke blessing God.” Zechariah submits to God, he obeys the angelic instructions, he’s learned the divine object lesson, and God in response opens his mouth, loosens his tongue, and what’s his first word? I wonder what yours would be after nine months of enforced silence? “Whew! I’m glad that’s over!” or perhaps a word of complaint? What’s Zechariah’s first word? It’s a word of praise, isn’t it? He bursts into song! Something has happened over these nine months in his heart. God has taken him from fear to faith, from unbelief to dependent trust. He’s begun to hear with new ears all that God had been teaching him and his heart swells in adoration in this great carol of praise and gratitude. And I want to highlight three themes from Zechariah’s song for us this morning.
First of all, we need to think about God’s plan. Zechariah sings about God’s plan. Then secondly, God’s provision. And then in the third place, God’s person. God’s plan and provision and person. Those are the themes of Zechariah’s song!
I. God’s Plan
First of all, God’s plan. It’s a central theme in Zechariah’s song. It’s actually a theme we saw last time in Mary’s song as well, but it’s much more prominent in the song that Zechariah sings - that in Jesus Christ, God was keeping His promise and fulfilling the ancient covenant that He had made with our fathers. We are being reminded, Zechariah is saying, that in His infinite sovereignty God upheld and governed all His creatures and all their actions so that the ancient oath made to Abraham might be infallibly and perfectly fulfilled. Ruled the ages, presided over the years, superintended the rise and fall of nations, directed the births and the deaths of generations to bring about the coming of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ! And as Zechariah takes it in, he can’t help but sing about it. Look for example at verse 69. Jesus’ direct descent from King David fulfills God’s ancient covenant promise to David, 2 Samuel chapter 7, that His Son would reign from David’s throne forever. “He will be born” Zechariah says, “in the house of David.” This child is David’s heir! And it will all happen, verse 70, “just as the prophets from of old had said.” Or look down at verses 72 and 73. In the birth of Jesus Christ, God was acting to show the mercy promised to the fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the oath He swore to our father Abraham. God’s millennia-old covenant promise and sacred oath, to bless the world through Abraham’s son, Abraham’s descendent, was brought to fulfillment in the child of the virgin laid in a manger.
Or look down again at verse 76. This time Zechariah addresses his own son, John, this infant boy, and speaks of his destiny and future ministry. The child, we are told, will grow to be the climactic prophetic voice. He will immediately preceded the coming of the Lord and prepare His ways. What John is saying, do you see, he’s looking back and he’s seeing the covenant with Abraham and the covenant with David, and the promises of the prophets, and he sees that whole Old Testament trajectory finally coming to its climax with John’s concluding ministry as the last of the prophets. He’s saying the era of promises made is now over and hereafter it will be promises kept. Promises kept! John is the one who will immediately precede Jesus Christ in whom the promises shall be kept at last. Zechariah is celebrating the great truth that there is only one overarching covenant of grace, one storyline, one single unified plan of salvation for sinners in every age, and it focuses and centers on the person of Jesus Christ. The whole Bible is about Him. All the promises of God are yes and amen in Him! He’s the center of God’s work and the focus of God’s Word. He’s the one to whom the Scriptures point us on every page. He is, as it were, the throbbing heartbeat of Gospel love in every place in Holy Scripture. Jesus Christ! Take any strand of God’s covenant promise and you can trace it through the Bible; it will lead you here to the child in the manger and the man on the cross and the Lord reigning on the throne.
Christ is the Focal Point of God’s Plan.
Jesus once said to the religious teachers, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life,” speaking about the Old Testament Scriptures, “but these are they which speak of Me. It’s all about Me!” You may read the Scriptures daily and yet miss their central point. If at the end you close the Book and your eyes do not linger on Him, you have not yet read as you ought, nor understood as you must. The whole Bible, not just Christmas Zechariah’s singing about, not just Christmas, the whole Bible, the whole of history is about Jesus Christ. Do you know Him? Do you know Him? The plan of God focuses upon Him like laser lights diffuse and spread out suddenly, trained and coming together and intersecting on one point and that point is Jesus Christ. All the strands of God’s purpose and plan focused on Him. He wants you focused here. He is the one that you need. Do you know Him? Zechariah teaches us about God’s plan.
II. God’s Provision
Secondly, he teaches us about God’s provision. What is God doing in the sending of Jesus Christ? I’d love to take a long time and linger over every phrase. I think we can summarize the teaching of Zechariah’s song under four headings; Redemption, renewal, illumination, and peace. Redemption, renewal, illumination, and peace. Do you see those themes in Zechariah’s song?
The Theme of Redemption in Zechariah’s Song.
Think about redemption first of all. Verse 68, “God has redeemed his people, Israel.” Redemption means being set free from oppression and bondage by the payment of a price. And if you’ll look at verses 71 and 74 you’ll learn that Zechariah thinks about redemption primarily in terms of the kind of deliverance that took place in the exodus when Israel were released from oppression and physical slavery and bondage. You remember how the blood of the Pascal lamb was shed and the people of God were released from their dreadful bondage. But as you read on in the song and you come to verse 77 you discover that ultimate redemption is about something far more profound than freedom from political oppression. It is about freedom from the bondage and slavery of the guilt of sin. And with the coming of Jesus Christ, we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. John will come to preach, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus will provide redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The Theme of Renewal in Zechariah’s Song.
Then secondly there’s renewal. Verse 74 - to what are we redeemed? Why are we forgiven? We are redeemed for holiness. We are forgiven in order that in gratitude to God for His mercy we might live for His praise. Verse 74 - we are saved “that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.” Jesus is the antidote, do you see, both to sin’s guilt and to sin’s pollution and power. “Rock of Ages cleft for me. Let me hide myself in Thee. Be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.” Here is the double grace, purchased by Christ and given to all who believe. Pardon and renewal. He deals not just with your standing in the court of heaven before the divine tribunal, He also deals with our perverted hearts inclined to rebellion and disobedience and evil. He provides a clean conscience and power to walk in godliness and praise before Him all our days.
The Themes of Illumination and Peace in Zechariah’s Song.
God provides redemption and renewal and then 78 and 79 there’s illumination and peace. Jesus forgives because of the tender mercy of our God. Listen to this extraordinarily beautiful language to describe the coming of Jesus. “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” That’s what’s happening with the coming of Jesus Christ. The sunrise visits us from on high. He dawns upon us, Zechariah says, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the way of peace.” You see what we are being told about our nature and condition apart from Him? We are in darkness. We dwell under the shadow of death. “The path of the wicked,” the writer of the Proverbs says, “is in the darkness. He does not know what makes him stumble.” Maybe you know something of that for yourself? You feel like you’re in the darkness stumbling, groping, searching for answers and not finding them. Zechariah is bursting with good news! The sun has risen. Morning has broken. The Daystar from on high has risen to give light in our darkness. You don’t need to stagger and stumble in the darkness of spiritual blindness and ignorance any longer. There is the light of life! Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” And then there’s peace, not just illumination, but peace. A consequence of having Him shed light upon our steps, we no longer stumble. He shows us the way He guides our feet, Zechariah says, into the way of peace. The way of shalom, the way of wholeness, the way of rest, the way of fullness. For our anxious, shameful hearts, for our troubled consciences. In Jesus Christ there’s peace for you.
Why did Jesus come? Why is Christmas worth celebrating? He came to supply, do you see, a comprehensive provision for your heart. We need to be right with God in the courts of heavenly justice because we are guilty. Jesus comes to provide redemption, pays the penalty for us that we may go free. We need renovation! Our hearts are broken and prone to sin. We need to be made new! Jesus has purchased for us a new creation so that if anyone is in Christ the old has gone and the new has come. We live in darkness, unable to see. Jesus, the light of the world, pierces the darkness and gives us the light of life. We live, many of us, with the stormy sea of a troubled conscience. Jesus is able to speak a word of peace, who was Himself made to endure the restless torment of sin’s condemning power in your room and stead that you may know reconciliation with God, peace with God, for time and eternity. God’s plan, God’s provision. There is a complete answer to the true need of your heart in Him, comprehensive, and sufficient. There’s no lack in Jesus, no deficiency in Him! Everything that your heart really needs is found only here, in Him. God’s plan, God’s provision.
III. God’s Person
How does God provide? How does He keep His word and fulfill His plan? Let’s think thirdly about His person. Verse 76. John the Baptist, Zechariah’s son, will be “the prophet of the Most High; he will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” If you look back at verse 68, we see the Lord there is the Lord God of Israel who has visited His people and redeemed them. The one before whom Zechariah will go to prepare his ways is the Lord God of Israel. But as you read on in the Gospel accounts, the one before whom John the Baptist goes to prepare his ways is the man, Jesus Christ. How does God fulfill His plan and bring all the promises of Scripture and all the covenants He has made to a glorious and climactic fulfillment? How does God provide for the needs of our souls? He does not keep His word like a chess player moving the pieces on the board with distance, dispassionate and calculated. That’s not how He governs the ages to bring His promises to pass. Nor is He like a salesman responding to demand with supply, meeting out abstract blessings whenever He sees need. That’s not how He makes provision.
No, the glory of the Christian Gospel is that God Himself comes to keep His word in the man, Jesus Christ. God Himself, Immanuel, God with us, steps into history! God Himself comes and the provision He makes is not a series of abstract blessings; it is to give us Himself in Jesus Christ. He gives you Himself! You get Jesus, and in Jesus you get all the blessings your soul may need. He enters our humanity in the man, Christ Jesus, born and goes through infancy and teenage years and into adulthood to be a perfect Savior to children and teenagers and adults and to all who may call upon Him. He takes upon Himself the terrible burden of our guilt and our sin, the full array of human suffering and sorrow. He learns obedience by the things that He suffered. He bleeds and He dies, and He rises and He reigns as God become man in Jesus Christ. God, when He makes provision for us, when He fulfills His promises He’s made to us, doesn’t do it from a distance; He comes all the way down to us. He comes near to us! He comes right up beside us in one to whom we can turn confident that He knows, that He understands, that He knows our frame; that He is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, to whom we may pour out our heart and unburden ourselves. The God whose plan is accomplished, whose provision is complete, keeps His word and cares for your soul personally in Jesus Christ. He Himself is the great gift of this Christmas season, and every day in all the years. Do you have Him? Is He yours and are you His? You will continue to stumble in darkness without Him. Only He is the light of life! Only He can meet your deepest need! Only He is the answer for the heart cries that continue to sound from within you. Get Jesus! Get Jesus! God’s perfect provision - the fulfillment of God’s marvelous plan; the very person of the living God made man. May the Lord bless His Word to you and enable you this Christmas to enter into something of the joy of Zechariah’s song. Let us pray together!
Our Father, we are so grateful for Your Son. We praise You that You have but one message, but one way of redemption, one Deliverer, perfect and sufficient and complete, a great High Priest able to meet our needs, one who is fitting to us - the Lord Jesus Christ in whom God has come to us that we may know You. Help us to get Jesus simply by trusting the Gospel offer and to receive the great provision You have made for our souls in Him - redemption and renewal and illumination and peace. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
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