2019-12-01 Preparing for the Forerunner

Preparing for the Forerunner
Luke 1:1-25
December 01, 2019

Prayer for Illumination:
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” [1]

This morning begins the season of Advent. Advent means coming. This is the time of year where we remember Christ’s first coming. It is the season where we remember that the second person of the trinity took on human flesh by being born of a virgin. This is a season of preparation. Advent as a season was developed between the third and fourth centuries. The Church developed it as a way to prepare herself the celebration of Christmas where we remember Christ’s birth.

This section of Luke’s gospel account is about preparing for the coming Christ. He begins by preparing us for the coming of the one who prepares the way for the Christ. He begins by tells us about the forerunner who will prepare the way for the Christ. As we examine these verses, we’ll see the trustworthiness of the gospel, God’s timing, and the job of the forerunner.

The Trustworthiness of the Gospel

Luke begins his gospel saying:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke has undertaken the task of writing his gospel account so that we have certainty about Jesus Christ’s life and work. While he is writing for all who will read his gospel, he is writing it for a specific person, Theophilus.

Theophilus was Luke’s benefactor. He was his patron. He made sure that Luke had the materials needed to write his gospel and that Luke was able to travel if necessary. He was probably a young believer; a relatively new convert to the Christian faith. As a new convert and a man of means, he wants an accurate account of Jesus’ life and work. He wants a gospel account that he can be certain is true.

There were other gospel accounts at that time. Some of them were incomplete; others not orderly and systematic. He wants a gospel account that is complete and orderly. He wants that because there are some fantastic, hard-to-believe things in the gospel. He wants to be sure that what he has been taught is true; that the gospel of Jesus Christ is trustworthy. So he commissions Luke to investigate.

As modern people, we can be skeptical about biblical claims. We read the things in the gospel like the miraculous births, the healings, and the resurrection of Jesus and dismiss it. We think of it as pre-scientific superstition. Those who are skeptical think that the Church made this up.

Luke has not made this up. Luke has investigated and is reporting what he has heard from eyewitnesses and those who have been entrusted to proclaim the gospel. He wrote this in the 60s. There would still be eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection still living. Had he written something wrong, they would have spoken up. They would have corrected Luke’s account. But they didn’t because it was trustworthy; Luke’s gospel account accurately and orderly portrays Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.

We can read this with confidence and believe what Luke has written. We can read it because it is a trustworthy account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. There are things in this gospel that are fantastic and hard-to-believe but they are true. We can read this with all the confidence and assurance that what Luke has written is trustworthy and believe it. We can believe the fantastic claim that Luke is about to make because it is true.

God’s Timing

After this assurance of the trustworthiness of what he is reporting, Luke tells us about Zechariah and Elizabeth. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

He starts his gospel not with the promised Christ but the one promised to prepare the way for him. He starts by preparing for the forerunner’s birth. Zechariah and Elizabeth are a godly couple. Luke makes that very clear. He says that they “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord”. They were a couple committed to God and his ways. They lived their lives in such a way that showed they loved God and his ways. They didn’t just talk the talk; they walked the walk.

But they were childless. Being childless in that culture would have been considered a reproach. Elizabeth might have been mocked by some of the other women for her barrenness and childlessness. They might have said that God was punishing them for some secret sin. Zechariah and Elizabeth might have even believed it.

Their childlessness was not diving punishment. They were not being punished for some sin because they were godly. They were two who loved the Lord their God with all their hearts, all their souls, all their minds, and all their strength. They desired to live as God has commanded his people to live. So their childlessness was not punishment from God. Their childlessness was a trial to set the stage for a greater redemption when the time was right.

Zechariah was a priest. Priests were from the tribe of Levi and the descendents of Aaron. There were some thousand of priests. That meant the priests only served in the temple four times a year. They would serve at the three main feasts, Passover, Booths, and the Day of Atonement, and then they would serve at the temple for two weeks out of the year. And a priest may be the one to offer incense in the temple only once in his lifetime.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.

Zechariah was selected to serve in the temple and burn incense one evening. And as he was burning incense, while all of the other priests were praying, an angel appeared to him. And the first words out of the angel’s mouth were “Do not be afraid, Zechariah”. He tells him to not be afraid. Angels represent the glory and majesty of God. They are his messengers. When someone sees an angel, they see someone who carries the full weight of God. That is often a terrifying sight. So the angel comforts Zechariah by telling him not to be afraid.

The angel tells him to not be afraid because he brings good news. Zechariah’s prayer has been heard. What was he praying for? When the angel appeared to Zechariah, he was probably praying for the redemption of Israel. The evening sacrifice was often when the priests would pray for Israel’s redemption. They would pray for God to send the Christ. This is something that they had been praying for nearly 500 years. Since the return from exile, they had been praying for the Christ to come and redeem them.

The angel is declaring to Zechariah that God has heard the prayer for redemption and is finally ready to answer it. He is finally ready to enact the final phase of his redemptive plan. And this plan will include the redemption of Zechariah and Elizabeth. God’s plan to redeem his people includes the redemption of Elizabeth from her reproach. It includes a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth.

God is finally ready to answer those prayers. They have been praying those prayers for a long time. Israel has been praying for redemption for 500 years. Zechariah and Elizabeth have probably stopped praying at this point, but they would have prayed for a son for most of their marriage. And it may have seemed as though God was delaying. It may have seemed as though God was not interested in their prayers.

But God answers prayers in his own time. God answers prayers when he knows the time is right to answer them. And he answers prayers in the way he knows that it is right. God has hinted numerous times and in numerous places throughout the Old Testament about how he will redeem his people. Back in Genesis 3:15 God hinted that he would redeem his people through the seed of the woman. That was tens of thousands of years before Zechariah entered the temple. God was patiently waiting for the right time to answer that.

When God first called Abraham to himself, he promised that through Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed. Again, that was thousands of years before Zechariah entered the temple. God was patiently waiting for the right time to answer that.

The last thing that God said to his people was through the prophet Malachi. In Malachi 3, God says:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

There God promised to send his messenger who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. This was the last thing he said to his people. And that was 400 years before the events in Luke 1.

God does things in his own time. He is not delayed or rushed into action. He acts in his own time. He acts when he knows the time is right. God is orchestrating events so that things happen when he wants them to happen. It may seem slow. It may seem as though God is delaying. But he isn’t. He is orchestrating things so that things happen when he wants them to happen. When the time is right, he acts.

Let us continue to pray even if it seems like God is delaying his answer. We live in an instant gratification society. We eat fast food. We can watch TV shows and movies on-demand. We can order things from Amazon and get them the next day. We’re used to getting what we want when we want it. And when we don’t, we get upset. Recently I ordered a book through Amazon and it was delayed. It was supposed to arrive on a Friday but it didn’t. It arrived Saturday. I was slightly annoyed. That’s culture we live in.

And at times we expect God to answer our prayer instantly and have results in two days like we expect Amazon to fulfill our orders. We expect God to answer our prayer within days or minutes. And when he doesn’t answer them when we think he should, we get upset and usually we stop praying.

Let us continue to pray even when it seems as though God is delaying. God is not slow in answering prayers but he answers them in his own time when he knows that it is right. Let us continue to pray just as Zechariah spent his life praying for God to enact his plan of redemption. Let us continue to pray just as Elizabeth prayed for a son. God will answer those prayers in his time when he knows it is right.

And God knows that now is the time to send the one who will prepare the way for the Christ. God knows that the time is right to send his messenger. So he has sent an angel to announce that to Zechariah.

The Job of the Forerunner

We have seen that what Luke is reporting is trustworthy and we have seen that God acts in his own time to answer prayer. Now we’ll see the job of the forerunner.

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.”

The angel tells Zechariah what the forerunner will be like and what he will do. He says that John “will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”. John will be great before the Lord. He will be a man who lives for God just as his parents have. He will be one who ministers greatly before God. And that’s what he does. In 30 years, John will be a great prophet, preaching to crowds preparing them for the coming Christ.

And as he ministers he is not to drink wine or strong drink. People often assume that means he is a Nazarite. But there are other requirements for Nazarites that John is not given. It’s more likely that the command not to drink wine or strong drink is because John is to be on duty as God’s prophet his whole life. Priests when they were ministering before God were not allowed to drink wine or strong drink lest they be drunk and sin in their work. John is to be on duty ministering before God his whole life.

He will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do this. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. He will be one of the first people to be filled with the Holy Spirit like believers are. This is what the forerunner will be like. He will be great before the Lord, he will be on duty his entire life, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.

What John the forerunner will do is “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.” John is to call the people to repent of their sin so that the people are prepared for the coming Christ. His job is to prepare the way for Jesus.

Thirty years after this, John stands in the wilderness calling people to repent of their sins. He ministers in the power and spirit of Elijah. And all that he does prepares the people for the coming Christ. When asked if he is the Christ, John responds that while he baptizes with water “he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). His job is to prepare the people for the coming Christ.

Even here in his birth he is preparing the reader for the Christ. Just as God does something amazing in granting an old couple a child, just as he did with Abraham and Sarah, he will do something even more amazing in the birth of the Christ.

Luke begins his gospel by preparing us for the forerunner. He tells us we can trust what he is reporting because he has investigated. He has told us the time is right for the forerunner and the Christ to come. And he has told us what the forerunner will do. He is preparing us for a new era in redemptive history. He is preparing us for the final phase in God’s redemptive plan.

As we celebrate Advent, let us not just go through the motions. Let us not just do these things because these are the things we have always done. Let us celebrate Advent in a way that helps prepare us for remembering that God took on human form so that he could redeem his people through his life, death, and resurrection.

Let us pray.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Lk 1:1–25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.