The Announcement of the Forerunner - Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Luke 1:5-25
December 06, 2020

For the Sundays in Advent this year and the Christmas services I am pursuing a theme of God announcing His plan of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ in various ways. Last Sunday I pursued this theme by talking about God’s promise of the coming Savior and how that promise was fulfilled when Christ came at Bethlehem. I also talked about it as to how it will be fulfilled when Christ comes again at the end of the age. Today we consider how God announced the coming of the forerunner of the Christ, John the Baptist.

God does not keep us in the dark regarding His plan of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. He has made known His plan down through ages. And He makes it known in our hearing through the Gospel.

In Luke’s Gospel, a big part of the story about John relates to the circumstances of his birth. Luke introduces us to John’s parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth. Zachariah was a priest in the division of the priesthood called “Abijah.” Elizabeth was a daughter of Aaron. Aaron was the older brother of Moses and the first high priest in the priesthood that God had established through Moses.

The Scripture says that both Zachariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God, walking in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless (Luke 1:6). I wonder if this language might cause us some confusion because it sounds like justification by works. So let’s understand what Luke is saying here like this. We should understand this as language appropriate to the Old Covenant. We could say it this way: Whatever God required of Zachariah and Elizabeth in the Old Covenant outwardly, they were faithfully doing. Of course, we would also understand that they were faithfully doing this out of faith, for as Habakkuk says: The righteous shall live by faith (Habakkuk. 2:4). Sometimes the Scriptures can talk about people having faith by talking about their works. This is going on here.

Furthermore, in connection with what Luke says about Zachariah and Elizabeth, the Apostle Paul says something similar about himself in Philippians 3. There he talks about being circumcised on the eighth day according to the law of Moses, being of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. Then he says, “As to the law a pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6). But then he also goes on to say that he counts all these things as loss and rubbish so that he might gain Christ, not having a righteousness of his own through the law, but the righteousness that God credits to us by believing in Christ as our Savior from sin and death (Philippians 3:8-9).

Paul talks this way because he understands the Old Covenant as like a guardian or manager until the reality comes, and that reality is Christ (Gal. 4:3-4). And Christ is the fulfilment of the law for all who believe (Rom. 10:4). When the Christ comes, the fulfilment comes and so does our promised Righteousness, which is Christ Himself. So Zachariah and Elizabeth were faithfully following their guardian and manager. All Luke is saying is that Zachariah and Elizabeth were keeping faith with God pursuant to the terms of the Old Covenant until Christ came.

So we see Zachariah going about his priestly duties in the temple. Suddenly, there is an angel standing there at the right side of the altar for burning incense. It was the hour of incense according to the temple rites. Zachariah was startled and “fear fell upon him.”

This angel was Gabriel. Gabriel stands in the very presence of God, as angels do. He was sent to Zachariah from God to deliver a message, an announcement of glad and joyful tidings. Elizabeth was going to have a son in her advanced age. And this son would be great in God’s plan of salvation.

Since it is the angel Gabriel who announces this to Zachariah, we see that the Holy Scriptures affirm the existence of angels. These are wonderful creatures of God. They are faithful, strong, and mighty and serve God’s purposes and people in Christ. As we are friends of God through faith in Christ, the angels are our friends. They are on the side of the Gospel and all goodness and truth.

God does not permit us to interact with them very much—in fact such interaction is extremely rare—because we sinners would revere them too much if we did (cf. Revelation 19:9-10). But many of us can attest to and give thanks for how God has used them in our lives to protect us. Indeed, the people of God down through the ages could write books and books chronicling the ministrations of angels as God’s servants. And we rejoice in knowing about them. We also rejoice that Jesus brings the whole host of heaven with Him wherever He is. Or we could say He opens heaven to us. So when Jesus is with us according to His promise in Matthew 18:20, then the whole host of heaven is with us. Though we can’t see them, we also in Christ are in a great company of heaven, including the angels. So we say to God in the Communion liturgy, with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying.

Coming back to the announcement about John, Gabriel talks about how important John will be in three ways. First, he says that John will not drink wine or any strong drink (Luke 1:15). This suggests that John will be like one who has taken a Nazirite vow. The point of this seems to be complete dedication to the Lord in his vocation. You can read about this in Numbers 6.

Second, Gabriel says that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15). Thus, John’s life’s vocation will be as a prophet of the Lord. It is as we state in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit “spoke by the prophets.”

Third, Gabriel says that John will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). Next to Moses, Elijah was probably the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, though also a giant among giants. Now Gabriel says that the same spirit and power that worked in Elijah will be at work in John. This speaks of John’s greatness as a prophet in God’s plan of announcing the coming Savior. We recall Jesus saying last week that John was Elijah who was to come. He is to be regarded as like Elijah because he will announce that the Christ has come.

How does Zachariah respond to all this? Isn’t it wonderful that an angel appeared to him? Isn’t it wonderful that the angel told him such wonderful news? We may think that he would surely believe everything the angel said because the angel’s appearance was such a miracle.

But He doesn’t believe it. “How can I know this?,” Zachariah says (Luke 1:18). How can I know that this promise from God is true? How can I verify it so that I can be sure?

Zachariah then looks to evidence that he thinks should determine the truthfulness of the promise God sent Gabriel to speak. He looks to himself and his circumstances and the laws of nature. I am an old man, he says. My wife is advanced in years, he says. Old men and women don’t have babies, he says. This I can see, and it is obvious. But cannot God say and do otherwise? So Zachariah did not believe what Gabriel told him.

Of course, it is the normal course of things that old men and women do not have babies, and that is also generally a good thing. The normal order of things is a good thing and a gift from God. We could not live without being able to rely upon its predictability. But cannot God do otherwise if He so wills in accomplishing His plan of salvation in Christ? He certainly can. And so He did. So He does. So He will do.

Gabriel produces his credentials. I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you these words. He does so to impress upon Zachariah that he has just spoken the word of God to him. But Zachariah was forgetting the words of Isaiah we read earlier: The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). He was also forgetting another thing that God said through Isaiah: My word that goes out of my mouth shall accomplish the purpose for which I send it (Isaiah 55:11).

So Gabriel announces a judgment on Zachariah because of his unbelief. It is a little judgment, intended to rebuke him for his unbelief and to train him toward faith. You will not be able to speak for you did not believe my words from God, which will be fulfilled in their own time. The promise from God calls forth faith. A promise can only be received by faith. It cannot be verified until after the fact. Its verification is its fulfillment in its own time. And so Zachariah was unable to speak until John was born. Then, he broke out into song by the Holy Spirit.

This silence of Zachariah imposed by God because he did not believe God’s announcement through Gabriel also suggests this to us. If we do not speak according to God’s word, we really have nothing to say. But there is such a cacophony of speech today, isn’t there? Speech about right and wrong; about God; about where we have come from and where we are going. We are overwhelmed with opinions. But all this cacophony of noise is like a deafening silence before God when it is not according to His word. And it is especially the case that if we in the church do not speak according to the word of God, we have nothing to say.

As Advent and Christmas are upon us, God’s word again teaches us this faith that nothing shall be impossible with God when it comes to accomplishing His saving purposes in Christ. God was looking for this response of faith from Zachariah and led him in this faith. Gabriel spoke this explicitly to Mary, the mother of our Lord, and she responded with this faith: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Let us also join in Mary’s confession with the same faith.

And God’s word is truth and will be accomplished in its own time. And God’s word tells us this wonderful good news that God promises a salvation in Christ that has not entered into the heart and mind of man by natural lights. We need God to be able to do what needs to be done in accomplishing our salvation, even if it seems impossible to our experience and natural lights. We need this so that God can lead us from death to life through faith in the forgiveness of our sins and Christ’s resurrection from the dead, for such things being impossible with men are not only possible but accomplished and promised by God in Christ.

So let us say with Zachariah, once he was truly able to speak when John the Baptist was born: all praise, honor, and thanksgiving be to God, who has done, and will do, marvelous things for us, in Christ.

Amen.



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