12/2/2021 10:32:51 AM
The Savior Comes: To the Doubting
Pastor Joel Leyrer - Midweek Advent 1 - Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ, In each of our three midweek Advent services this year we will consider a person whose life was intertwined with the birth of Jesus Christ. By taking a closer look at who they are and the part they played in the overall Christmas story as they waited for it to unfold, it will be our goal to learn from them and through them.
More importantly, it will be our goal to apply to ourselves the lessons they teach us as we await the coming of Jesus – both in his first advent as the newborn babe of Bethlehem, and in his yet to be experienced second advent as the returning King of kings and Lord of lords on the Last Day.
The first of these “Advent personalities” is a man by the name of Zechariah. You heard his story read from the lectern just a few minutes ago. And based on the best-known part of it, you might have noticed the corresponding theme for this sermon as stated in the service folder is
JESUS COMES: TO THE DOUBTING
However, I’m not sure we really do Zechariah justice if we define his life by a single event. So, what we’d like to do is unpack his story and divide it into three chapters, each with a specific application for us as we watch and wait this Advent season.
Chapter One: Zechariah’s character
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Here we learn that Zechariah was a full time church worker, and that both he and his wife were devout believers. They loved their Lord, and out of appreciation for what the Lord had done for them and the promise he had made of a Savior who was to come, they gave glory to God by the way in which they lived their lives. They were upright and blameless not out of fearful compulsion, but out of the grateful conviction that they served a good and gracious God.
However, we’re also told their lives were marked by a particular sadness and heartache. Although it was their desire, and in a time when many wrongly percieved it as a sign of God’s disfavor, they had no children. Given their age, they had no illusions that this situation would change. It was something they simply had to live with.
The lesson for us: We also know God to be good and gracious. We also seek to honor him with the lives we live, not out of compulsion, but conviction. Yet, on this side of heaven even the most devout believer can and will experience personal sadness and heartache in various forms. In heaven all will be made right, but on earth, God may ask us to endure situations we would never choose for ourselves.
But let’s be clear. While God may allow some temporarily difficult things in our lives, it is not because he doesn’t care for us. He obviously does, Christmas is coming. The troubles we endure are signposts along the way reminding us that there is a greater destination awaiting us, and we’re not home yet.
Chapter Two: Zechariah’s experience
This is the bulk of our lesson, and this is the part of the story that Zechariah is best known for. I won’t reread it, but simply retell it…
As Zechariah the priest was carrying out the high honor of his office as a church worker, something happened he never expected or could have imagined. The angel Gabriel arrived on the scene and spoke to him (this is the same angel who would also shortly appear to the virgin Mary and announce that she would be the mother of Jesus).
Gabriel declared to Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son. They were to name him John, and God would use him mightily. Gabriel’s exact words, “He will be great in the sight of the Lord.” And he was. We know him better as John the Baptist, and he is perhaps the premier Advent figure because his role was to prepare the hearts of the people to meet the coming Savior.
At the time, all this was in the future. In the moment, Zechariah was stunned; first by the appearance of this angelic visitor and even more stunned by the message he delivered. It was hard to take in on so many different levels. And as far as fathering a child at his and Elizabeth’s stage in life, this seemed impossible. They had given up on that possibility long ago.
Here is where we see the chink in Zechariah’s armor. You might recall that when Gabriel announced to Mary that she, a virgin, would be the mother of Jesus, she essentially asked the same question, “How can this be?” But hers was more of a rhetorical question, a question of wonderment and amazement. On the other hand, Zechariah’s response was tinged with doubt that what Gabriel said could even happen.
But it would, because this was God’s plan. Nevertheless, as both a teaching tool and a concrete reminder to Zechariah that his initial response was one of doubt and not embracement, he would be unable to speak until the birth of this special child. The sentence began immediately; when Zechariah finally emerged from the temple and back among the people, he was unable to talk.
There are a number of lessons for us here. Although we live in a different time and under different circumstances than Zechariah the priest, an amazing truth which we probably take for granted or don’t think much about is the fact that, like him, each day we stand in the presence of God. And each day we have the opportunity to serve him and honor him no less than Zechariah did when he entered the temple.
Writes the hymnist:
God himself is present
Let us now adore him
And with awe appear before him
We get to do that each and every day.
A second lesson has to do with the subject of doubt when it comes to the proclamation and promises of God. This was obviously a struggle for Zechariah, and, if we’re honest, its also often a struggle for us.
Gabriel’s reply to Zechariah is in some ways reminiscent of what Jesus said to “Doubting” Thomas a week after Easter. Remember what Jesus said to him: “Stop doubting and believe!” These are words which we very well may need to repeat to ourselves several times a day: “Stop doubting and believe!” What should we stop doubting?
That God is in control… Or that he will take care of us… Or that he will provide for us… Or that he will never forsake us… Or that everything he does is out of love and according to the big picture of what is truly best for us… Or that he will keep all his promises… Or that he has forgiven us all our sins (including – and especially – those we are having a hard time forgiving ourselves) … Or that he knows what he is doing, even in the unexplainable things in life.
Sometimes we forget these things. And just like Zechariah lived with the consequences of his doubt, so do we.
Of course, our consequences are different than his (if God struck us speechless every time we doubted his wisdom or timing we’d all be communicating in sign language right now). No, the consequences we live with is often a debilitating and clinging feeling of worry and dread. And the peace and joy that Jesus came to bring us through his life, death and resurrection slowly ebbs away.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a simple solution, and it is confirmed by the life and work of Jesus Christ which was set in motion on his first Advent: Here it is: “Stop doubting and believe!” Which leads us to:
Chapter Three: Zechariah’s restoration
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
That’s how our text ends, but that’s not the last word we have on Zechariah. You may remember that when his son was born, Zechariah insisted that he be named John, just as Gabriel had instructed. And on that blessed day his speech returned.
It didn’t take long for him to make up for lost time. Either on the day of John’s birth or shortly thereafter, he broke into a beautiful and prophetic song of praise known as the Benedictus (it is recorded after our text and closes out Luke chapter 1). In that song of praise it becomes immediately evident that all initial doubts Zechariah may have had were long gone and replaced by a clear understanding of God’s plan of salvation in the Savior who was to come, as well as the role his son, John the Baptist, would play in it.
And that’s perhaps the final and overriding lesson for us. When we understand the message of Advent and who it is that is coming, first to save us from our sins, and then to take us home to heaven forever, despair is turned into joy and doubt is replaced by hope.
So, during this period of watching and waiting we call the Advent season, let us rejoice in what we know – without a doubt – is certain to come. Amen.