The Second Sunday of Advent December 7, 2008

Advent 2008: “The Silent Christmas”

The Silence of Zacharias: A Lesson in the Promise of Christmas

Luke 1:5-23

Scripture Readings

Psalm 46
Philippians 4:4-9


66, 65, 56, 64

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous Gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
the dear Christ enters in.

[TLH 647:3]

Dear fellow-servants—you who have Christ and therefore lack nothing:

Advent is a time of action and motion, a time of chaos and preparation. “You snooze, you lose” is the mantra of the season. Even as I say such things many of you might well find yourselves reminded of (and thereby distracted by) that never-ending list of all those things that you still “have to do” before Christmas. This in itself validates the point. Advent is one hectic time.

There is nothing really wrong with that in and of itself. Busy helps to keep us out of trouble and makes the days go faster—“Idle hands are the Devil’s tools” and all that. The problem is when we lack balance. In this case the problem is when we don’t balance the busy time with necessary downtime or quiet time—the human body and the human soul require both.

To this end we will rely, in part, on our worship services this Advent season to afford us time for some of the necessary “down time” that we don’t seem to be able to find elsewhere. The theme for this year’s Advent services is especially appropriate toward this end since this year our goal is to take a look at the quiet, contemplative side of the season as we are guided by the theme: “The Silent Christmas.”

Our first of three meditations centers around the account of a man who was actually forced by an angel to close his mouth and to open instead both his ears and his heart to the Word and promise of God. That man is Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, and the account of his experience is found in the Gospel of Luke, the first chapter:

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. And so it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house.

So far the very words of our God, given to mankind through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Each time we are reminded of the origin of these words their true value is magnified in our hearts and minds. To prepare ourselves for the study of these words we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.

What a fascinating study is presented to us in the person and character of Zacharias. More than just a “good guy” in the eyes of the world, Zacharias was righteous in the only way that really matters. Our text tells us that he was “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.[v.6] Some have been disturbed by these words because they read them not with the eyes and understanding of Christian faith, but as the world reads them. “Righteous before God” in no way indicates that Zacharias was without sin and had thereby earned his way into the good graces of his God by keeping the Law of God. “Righteous before God” we rightly understand as a forensic or judicial term. God is the one who declares righteous for no man is without sin. God declared Zacharias to be “not guilty” because of his faith in the promise of a Savior—a faith all the more remarkable because it still resided in the hearts of the faithful remnant of Israel after so many centuries.

But don’t we read that Zacharias also “walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless”? In man’s eyes, certainly, for Zacharias’ neighbors undoubtedly knew him as a good guy. As far as man could see, Zacharias was blameless. You might say the same about several of your friends and neighbors. God, however, saw the man’s heart. There He found plenty of sin also in Zacharias, but nonetheless regarded him as righteous because of his faith in the coming Savior. Today’s text certainly bears this out, for a sinless man does not doubt the word of an angel of God. Nor does a perfect, sinless man tremble with fear in the presence of holiness.

So we find this man, Zacharias, faithfully serving in the temple where he is visited by God’s holy messenger. Don’t miss either the moment or the irony here. That visit to Zacharias was the first public announcement from God Himself that the time of fulfillment was finally at hand. That great event, eagerly anticipated since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, had arrived. The earth shattering, civilization altering event was begun at this moment!

The irony of this great moment is that the promise of the long-awaited New Covenant was given there among the symbols of the Old. An Old Testament priest with his incense burner working in the place of daily sacrifices was told that the time of the Great Sacrifice and of the New Covenant had finally arrived.

Yet what exactly was the reaction of this righteous, God-fearing, promise-believing priest when he received the news that would forever alter the course of world events and usher in a new relationship between God and mankind? He reacted with skepticism and doubt. Why? Why would a righteous man not simply leap for joy and shout the good news?

Maybe because it is relatively easy for us to believe in promises when they are abstract and impersonal and much more difficult when they are concrete and individual.

Try that on for size in your own personal life and see how it fits. Don’t you find it easy to agree that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not charging their sins to them(2 Corinthians 5:19) when you think in terms of “the world,” but then find it much more difficult to say, “God was in Christ, reconciling me to Himself, not charging my sins to my own spiritual account”? How much easier to say “God forgives sins for Jesus’ sake” than to say “God has forgiven my sin of ___________ (fill in the blank—theft, adultery, lust, bad language, hatred, coveting) for Jesus’ sake.” Easier to believe that “God loves sinners” than to imagine that “God also could love me.” Yet for the first to be true, the second must also be true. God loves sinners, you are a sinner, therefore, God loves you.

Zacharias believed that God would send a Savior, but that confidence just seemed to fall apart when he became involved. His confidence was shaken when he ran, head-first, into the wall of his own reason. The “reason problem” was that he and his wife were too old to have a child. Sounds kind of silly to us, in this context, doesn’t it? Zacharias undoubtedly knew the story of his ancestor Abraham who was also given a son long after the normal time for such things. Doubting the word of an angel is silly enough in itself, how much more so to doubt when it had happened before and given the fact that he was talking to an angel—an angel who was announcing a miraculous message of the miraculous promise and telling him that it was going to be achieved via a miraculous birth. To put it another way, Zacharias believed that the promise would one day be fulfilled, he believed that he was talking to an angel, he believed that a similar old-age birth had once taken place, but nonetheless he doubted the angel’s message, when his own frailties entered the picture.

The result was that the mighty Gabriel gave Zacharias something of a “time out.” Because of his words of doubt, he was not allowed to utter another word (doubting or otherwise) until the day that God’s holy promise, delivered here by His angel, was fulfilled. The forced silence served to remove Zacharias from the hustle and bustle of the next 40 weeks and afforded him the time to contemplate both the angel’s message and his own reaction to it.

In Zacharias’ case, the angel-imposed silence was golden. You will no doubt recall how this story eventually ended:

Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.” But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name. So they made signs to his father—what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John. So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God” (Luke 1:57-64).

Note that Zacharias did not say, “His name shall be John” as though he himself was doing the naming. He said simply, “His name is John,” acknowledging the word and promise of his God.

The necessary lessons had been learned. It is God who determines what will be and what will not be. Man’s doubt or skepticism never alters God’s truth. God had predetermined the role Zacharias’ son would play as he had also determined the boy’s name. Perhaps it took some quiet time for Zacharias to be reminded, some down time before he came to terms with such things.

Make similar time for yourself during this busy season. Stop talking long enough to listen—to listen to that blessed promise and to apply it to yourself and to your own eternal future. Remove this season from the superficial, and anchor it firmly in the concrete. You and I do that whenever the promise of the Gospel ceases to be some vague promise to the world, and instead floods my world with the peace of sins forgiven. The message of Christmas becomes real and personal whenever you and I, through faith, recognize that Jesus did not just leave the perfection of Heaven to save others, He left Heaven and was made man to save me.

Sometimes life is just too loud to hear such things—such blessed, comforting, revitalizing truths. Let it not be so with you and me this holiday season. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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