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John the Baptist is Born
This morning I want us to consider some of the joys and challenges of the Christian life. We shall do this by seeing how Elizabeth and Zechariah responded to the God who kept his promise to them; how they responded to the interest/inference of others in their lives; and we will also see how God interacts with his people as he carries out his purposes.
But before we dive into this we'll set the scene somewhat by reminding ourselves of the simple yet oh so important truth that lies at the heart of this passage:
God keeps his Promises
God had said it would happen.
We don't know for how many years Zechariah had prayed to have a son but it seems that he had given up – it was too late, he was too old and his wife was too old. But God broke in and told him that it would happen, Zechariah would have a son after all.
You'd have thought that Zechariah would be thrilled but it was all too much for him. He didn't listen to God and believe; instead he looked at his circumstances and his faith failed him. The message the angel Gabriel shared with him contained the news he had longed to hear but when it came Zechariah simply didn't believe it!
But nine months had now passed and Zechariah's failure of faith had not stopped God from doing what he said he would. Now it was time for the promise to be kept and it was time for Zechariah's baby son to be born to his wife Elizabeth.
For long centuries God had promised to send his Messiah into the world to deal with the problem of human sin. Through all those centuries God's people had sometimes blown hot and sometimes blown cold as they struggled to live as God's people in a fallen world. But the success of God's plans never depended upon their faithfulness – but it always depended upon his faithfulness.
Now the time was drawing very near when all those promises concerning the coming of the Christ were to be fulfilled and one of those promises concerned a forerunner who would come to prepare his way. In God's plan Zechariah's son had a great role to play because Zechariah's son was to be this promised forerunner. Zechariah's faith might fail, just as through the centuries the faith of God's people had failed time and time again, but poor faith would not stop God from keeping his promises! He always keeps his promises!!
Elizabeth, old barren Elizabeth, who had hidden herself away trying to keep her pregnancy quiet for as long as she could, was now "great with child" and it was time for her to give birth to the child she was carrying. And she brings into the world her baby – it was a boy of course because that is exactly what God had said would happen.
That is the first lesson for us to learn from this passage. God keeps his promises and he is not dependent upon us in the keeping of them. Sometimes when we think about faith we can put the emphasis in the wrong place. When we do that we find ourselves talking about weak faith or strong faith because we are focusing upon our faith, as though that were the determining factor. But I want to tell you that it is not our faith that determines what will happen, it is the One in whom we are called to place our faith who does that. If you look inwards too much to try to see whether you have faith and how strong it is then you'll struggle more and more but look away from yourself to the object of our faith God himself and he will cause faith to grow.
It has often been said that it is not so much great faith but faith in a great God that counts! Luke highlights that for us in his account of John the Baptist's birth: did you notice how Elizabeth's friends and family trace the Lord's good hand in his dealings with Elizabeth?
Lk.1:58 "And her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her."
The section ends with a solemn declaration:
Lk.1:66 "…the hand of the Lord was with him."
Aspects of the Christian Life
But now that God has kept his promise and Zechariah and Elizabeth have their baby boy life must go on. They have been tremendously blessed but how are they to live their lives from now on? What attitudes and actions are they going to allow to dominate their lives?
Let me highlight three that are found here:
Obedience - is sometimes a fairly easy thing to do.
Jewish law required male children to be circumcised and a devout Jewish couple would have been happy, if not proud, to submit. To obey at this point was easy, it was to go with the flow as it were, it was a joy and a privilege to pass on to their young son the mark of belonging to God's chosen people. How glad we should be when to obey God is an easy matter, a matter that fits in with our own preferences and doesn't ruffle the feathers of those who surround us! (The passage doesn't really focus upon the question of circumcision but certainly would have done if circumcision had not been carried out.)
Sometimes however obedience will take us into different waters and we will be called to swim against the tide. That happened very quickly for Elizabeth soon to be followed by Zechariah.
At the time of circumcision the child would be named and culturally there were certain customs to which to adhere.
So what name were they going to give to their son? Surely they would call him Zechariah – after all it was a good name, it was a name often used in the wider family, it was the father's name. Enough said – Zechariah he would be called…
That was how the wider family reasoned and family pressures can be very significant!
But no! Elizabeth spoke up and objected – he's not to be called Zechariah "he shall be called John" she said.
Why did she do that? What was the point of crossing other family members? Why was she prepared to go against the traditions of the day? Was she just being awkward? Was it an early example of women's lib? Maybe Elizabeth had got used to taking the lead since Zechariah had lost his voice, maybe she liked the power…
No, it was none of those things – it was because God had spoken and given his instructions. During those nine months of silence Zechariah had managed to communicate with her concerning the angel Gabriel's message and that message which Zechariah couldn't believe at the time had included the name to be given to the child.
So, Elizabeth said: he shall be called John.
It was an act of obedience.
It was also an act that was immediately challenged!
The same group of people that we meet in v.58 showing such a positive interest in the blessings enjoyed by this old couple and of whom we read:
Lk.1:58 "And her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her."
Well these same people would soon be interfering and testing the obedience of this couple. Just eight days after the great blessing of giving birth to such a long-desired child Elizabeth finds herself having to go against the wishes of friends and family. It's not easy to do that – how will she respond, will she crumble?
How easily these folk move from wholesome godly interest to misguided, unhelpful interference! We must be vigilant in our lives not to confuse the two. Let us take care that we get things right too when we show interest in other people's lives and that our advice be godly and not misguided.
Elizabeth didn't crumble but the family did presses. They don't accept what Elizabeth says, 'No, Zechariah will see reason, let's ask him' they reason.
When our obedience is challenged perseverance is called for – but isn't it tempting to opt for the quiet life and to avoid confrontation? But Christians are not to capitulate and become men-pleasers! In Elizabeth's case her obedience proves to be a persistent, persevering obedience and Zechariah joins her too in this – still not yet able to speak he calls for a writing tablet and he confirms Elizabeth's words the boy shall be called John; just as he had been told.
Making progress in the life of faith is a really quite simple matter. We like to complicate this at times in order to try to cover our failures but it really is straightforward – will we take God at his word? Will we believe what he says? Will we do what God says or not? Most of the time too it is not what we don't understand that causes us our biggest problem it is with the simple straightforward thing that we understand only too well.
God said the boy should be called John – they could obey or disobey it was as simple as that.
Similarly God tells us to love him above everyone else, to put him first in our lives and to love our neighbour as ourselves. That is clear isn't it? That is straightforward – but oh how difficult at times we find it to do so!
But the hymn writer summed it all up for us in these well known lines:
Trust and obey,
for there's no other way
to be happy in Jesus
but to trust and obey.
And our obedience is not to be a one-off matter but a persevering obedience which keeps on obeying even in the face of incredulity, disagreement and hostility.
The combined persistent obedience has an effect too. We should not imagine that our obedience is a purely individual, personal matter – in God's purposes it can be very significant:
Lk.1:63 "And they all wondered."
But obedience and perseverance are not the only attitudes we find on display here. A cold bare, obedience (even a repeated obedience) is not a particularly attractive thing and it is certainly not honouring to such a great and loving God. A cold, reluctant sort of obedience is the kind of obedience that a cruel tyrant imposes upon a subject people. And our God is no cruel tyrant.
Consequently we are not surprised to find worship and praise upon the lips of a Zechariah who is now able to speak again.
Lk.1:64 "And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God."
We have the distinct impression that the first thing that Zechariah does with his restored voice is to praise God and how fruitful the praise in his mouth becomes as God continues to work!
If obedience caused reflection, Zechariah's worship is accompanied by a fear coming upon their neighbours. God had indeed drawn near and the people knew it – their lives were influenced, they could not carry on quite as before. Oh that God would draw near like that to us, that we might be made conscious of his presence, his holy presence, that we might know that the One who is like no other has come!
As Zechariah obeys then worships the Spirit of God is at work and others are affected and so the ripples spread out – soon the whole region was talking about these remarkable things. And this was no mere publicity campaign – God was in it and causing the people to think seriously about what was going on.
The Role and Purpose of Divine Discipline in the Christian Life
Before we leave off for this morning I want you to consider how the Lord dealt with Zechariah who had so dramatically failed in faith nine months earlier. How you would have dealt with someone like that? Would you have trusted them anything important in the future?
Zechariah's failure of faith was real and it was significant – it had consequences – but it was not the end of everything. God doesn't want his people to fail and he doesn't throw them over when they do: that is the lesson of Zechariah's life story.
Zechariah's failure of faith did not hamper God in carrying out his plan and purpose but it did lead to considerable discomfort for Zechariah as he experienced the disciplining hand of God for nine months during which time he was unable to speak. Not only was he unable to speak but gradually people began to treat him as though other faculties were diminished too – why did they make signs to him (v.62) when we're never told he couldn't hear?)
But while the experience was uncomfortable for Zechariah it was discipline and not punishment. The Lord's purpose was to restore Zechariah and in restore him he most certainly did!
Obedience once more came to characterise Zechariah's life as did worship – he was now a tool fit for the Master to use and as God dealt with him so the surrounding area came to fear God and to know that he had indeed drawn near. The events surrounding Zechariah's discipline and restoration were all bound up with his son and people recognised that God's hand was with him. A new seriousness gripped the people and they were no longer forgetful hearers but they treasured up in their hearts the things they had heard.
God was preparing the way for the coming of Jesus!
John must stand out as the forerunner but would not delay long before declaring that Jesus must increase while he decreased. Everything must direct the attention to the Christ, even Jesus!
Have you failed in faith the past? Then consider Zechariah's example and how the Lord restored him to further usefulness and fruitfulness. The God of Zechariah is still on the throne still full of grace. Don't give in to the lie that you're on the scrap heap and that God has no further role for you to play! Zechariah failed so signally but was wonderfully restored so you too must, in the words of:
Acts 3:19-20 "Repent ... and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus".