The Herald Angels: Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Sermon by David Strain on November 29, 2020

Luke 1:5-25

Well today is the first Sunday in Advent and we’re going to take the opportunity afforded by the season to think through the Christmas story this year by looking at the four angelic annunciations in the Gospel records. So there’s an annunciation to Zechariah of John the Baptist’s coming birth; we’ll be thinking about that today. There is, of course, the annunciation to Mary and an annunciation to Joseph, and finally an annunciation to the shepherds of the birth of the Lord Jesus. Now angels are familiar figures in our retelling of the Christmas story, aren’t they? We sing about them in many of our most beloved Christmas carols. We’ll be singing one of them later – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” “Angels from the realms of glory, sing choirs of angels, sing in exaltation, sing all ye citizens of heaven above.” In fact, so familiar a theme are they that we sometimes get the impression that in the Bible there were angels all over the place – you’d bump into them in Kroger, you know, passing them on the street corner. But that’s not the case at all. In fact, in Scripture, angels appear only very rarely. We have some account of angels in the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob; we have some in the story of Moses’ ministry. Again, during the time of the judges. The Psalms and the Prophets make mention of them a couple of times.

But did you know that when the events described in the opening chapters of the Gospels took place, no one had seen an angel for hundreds of years. And then all of a sudden, there was an explosion of angelic activity. Clearly in the coming of Jesus Christ, something unique in human history was taking place. As the New Testament explains, God Himself was coming to save His people. And when you put it in that light, we really ought not to be all that surprised to see swirling around the life, death and resurrection of Christ both demonic activity and angelic ministry in unprecedented measure. That’s especially true of the events surrounding the birth of Christ as we’ll consider them together this morning. I hope we’re going to see not only today but over this Advent season these four angelic annunciation narratives really help us get at the central message of the Christmas story.

And so this morning, as I say, we’re going to give our attention to the first of those annunciation narratives. You can find it in Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 5 through 25. Luke 1:5-25. If you don’t have your own Bibles with you, you can find the passage printed in the bulletin. It’s the annunciation to Zechariah by the angel, Gabriel, of the coming birth of his son, John the Baptist. And we’re going to think about the teaching here under three headings. First, verses 5 through 10, notice the theme of longing. Longing. Then 11 through 17, the theme of preparing. And finally, 18 through 25, the theme of believing. Longing, preparing, and believing.

Now before we consider those themes, as always, let’s pause and pray and ask for the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray together.

Father, send us from Your Son, the Holy Spirit to illuminate our sin-darkened understanding. We would see Jesus in Your Word. Give us eyes to see, then, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, beginning in the fifth verse. This is the Word of God:

“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. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.’

And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ 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. 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.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 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. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

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

Amen, and we praise God for His holy, inerrant Word.

The Theme of Longing

Let’s think first of all about the theme of longing in this passage. The theme of longing. It always amuses me to see how early some families put up their Christmas trees. I was driving through my neighborhood, I think in the first week of November, and there were several homes with trees lit up in their windows. I was in a store – get this – I was in a store at the end of October and it took me a few moments as I was walking through – “Something is not right…” – to realize what it was – they were already playing Christmas carols in the store! I’d like to think it was just the desire for 2020 to be over, to hurry up and be done, that has prompted all that premature festivity. But let’s be honest, isn’t it the same every year? There’s something about the build up to Christmas that we just can’t resist. Maybe it brings out the child in us that we find ourselves longing for the nostalgia of it all, though I suspect that the stores at least have a more mercenary motivation. But whatever it is in our case, longing was a major part of the experience, both of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and of the Jewish people as a whole at the time Luke is describing in chapter 1 of his gospel. Of course theirs was a longing for something much more profound than the relief and nostalgia of Christmas.

Look at verses 5 through 10 with me for a moment. What really strikes you right away after just a glance at the text is how very Old Testament the situation that Luke describes for us really is. For example, in verse 5, Zechariah is described as a priest of the division of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, likewise, descends from a priestly line. Her ancestor is Aaron. We know from historical sources that the division of Abijah was one of twenty-four priestly divisions who served in the temple in Jerusalem. This is the temple that Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilt after the end of the exile of the people of Judah in Babylon. And then that had been renovated later by King Herod. And in Zechariah’s day, there were about 18,000 priests in Judah, all of them in turn ministering in the temple. So many priests, in fact, that each division would only get to serve for one week, twice a year, at the temple. Verse 8, you will notice, tells us that Zechariah’s division happened to be on duty on this particular day. And so here he is spending a week at the temple in Jerusalem fulfilling his priestly ministry. It’s all very Old Testament. It’s positively Levitical in its flavor and its atmosphere.

And as important as this week of ministry, this biannual week of ministry for Zechariah would have been, as verse 9 indicates he had been favored with something even more momentous. Because there were so many priests in Judah in those days, they had to cast lots to determine who would have the special duty of serving at the altar of incense with the result that if you were a priest in those days you would get this opportunity that Zechariah has here only once in your whole life; only once in your lifetime. So this is a huge moment for Zechariah. Verse 7 tells us that he and his wife were advanced in years by this point, so in other words, he’s waited almost his whole ministry career for this moment when he gets to offer incense on the altar of incense in the temple. The lot has now fallen to him and he gets to fulfill what would have, without a doubt, been the highlight of his ministry.

And we need to understand the significance of what it was he was doing in the temple. Why was he there? What is this business of burning the incense really mean? Well, it was the great symbol of the prayers of the people of God ascending to the Lord. Zechariah, as the officiating priest, was to intercede on behalf of the people while he performed this task. And the people in the courtyard outside were to join him as the smoke of the evening sacrifice mingled with the smoke of the incense as if to symbolize the cries of the people that the blood of the sacrificial substitute offered on their behalf might indeed secure their pardon before God’s throne. We know it, by the way, as an aside, that there were two offerings – morning and evening – and so twice a day incense was offered. But the evening sacrifice was the most popular where people tended to show up en masse. And we know from Luke chapter 1 that there’s a multitude outside worshiping, so this likely places Zechariah’s ministry here in the evening, at the evening sacrifice.

And so the people are praying, Zechariah is praying that God would accept this sacrifice of atonement, a later tradition that probably reflects the content of the peoples’ prayer has them praying, “May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of His people.” So that’s the burden of their hearts. Do you see it? They’re asking for forgiveness. They’re saying, “Blood has been shed. The sacrifice has been offered. A substitute presented. O God, have mercy on us and forgive our sin!” They’re praying for deliverance, for salvation. It’s a solemn, sacred moment of profound devotion for the people of God, but especially so for Zechariah. And Luke is painting this detailed picture of Jewish temple worship and priestly service for the benefit of his largely Gentile Greek background audience because he wants them and he wants us to understand something of the significance of the events that are about to unfold. You see, we are about to witness the end, the climax, of the old covenant system, established all those centuries before in the Law of Moses. Every day when the offering of incense was made, the cries of the people would go up to God that Messiah might come and their deliverance, at last, might dawn. They were longing for their redemption.

But we know from Luke that mingled with those longings for a deliverer, Zechariah and Elizabeth had, for years, longed for God to provide them a son. But it turned out they were unable to conceive and though they had waited long on the Lord, no child had ever come. And now as verse 18 seems to indicate, he and his wife have given up hope of ever having a child. They are beyond childbearing age and they have doubtless resigned themselves to the inevitably of their circumstances, perhaps like some of the Jewish people at least. After all, their suffering and long-waiting for a Savior with no answer from the Lord, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s longing for a son, has finally given way to a sense of resignation and defeat. In some ways, Zechariah and Elizabeth, this aged, priestly couple, embody the situation of the old covenant people of God as a whole. They’ve been waiting without answers and their expectations appear to have been dashed and their hopes shattered. Luke intends to evoke in us, as we read this whole episode, the sense that both Zechariah and his people shared of longing unfulfilled, of waiting, yet never seeing the answer to their prayers. That’s the first thing I want you to notice carefully, then. This theme of longing.

And we ought not to skip over it too quickly because it’s something we all know a little about. There are deep longings in the human heart that we can never satisfy. “God has set eternity in the hearts of men,” Ecclesiastes says. “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till we find our rest in Thee,” Augustine prayed. The Jewish people were longing for Messiah, and while we might not fully realize it, that’s the same longing that echoes deep inside every one of us. It has, perhaps, been nameless and elusive and you’ve tried to meet the longings that you feel with all sorts of things. Some of them good, like family. Some of them destructive, like the abuse of alcohol. But while we can sometimes distract ourselves from our longings, while we can sometimes drown out the demands of our longing hearts, we never can silence our longings, these deepest longings, because our hearts were wired to find the fulfillment of that longing only in one place – in the coming of Messiah Jesus. And you never will be whole, you never will be who you were made to be, and you never can be clean and right and at peace with God until you have come to know Jesus Christ for yourself. Perhaps you’ve never really realized it till now, but the deepest longing of your heart is for Him. It is for Him! And no one else and nothing else will do. Longing.

The Theme of Preparing

Then notice in the second place the theme of preparing. Preparing, in verses 11 through 17. God, it now becomes apparent, has not been indifferent to the longings and to the cries of His people. He is about to send His Son, the Lord Jesus, to be the Redeemer for which they have been waiting. But first, He will prepare them for that momentous event. So He sends Gabriel to Zechariah. Just at the moment he’s offering incense and praying for the redemption of Israel, verse 12 tells us that, understandably, poor Zechariah was “troubled when he saw him and fear fell upon him.” That is, actually, the customary reaction to angels in Scripture, by the way. They are not cutesy winged babies. Their presence is overwhelming.

And yet for all the drama of the moment, the angelic message is one of hope and good news. Isn’t it? Verse 13, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, for your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you will call his name, John. Now as we saw, verse 18 suggests that Zechariah had likely given up praying for a son years ago. He knows perfectly well that he and Elizabeth’s biological clocks have long since run out on that possibility. The prayer that is now being answered isn’t a prayer for a son specifically, but the prayer that he was offering at that moment in the temple, along with the incense and the multitude outside, “Lord, send us the Redeemer! Send us the Messiah! Send us our redemption, our deliverance!” And now, Gabriel is about to say, “The events that will lead to the coming of that one at last, shall shortly unfold.”

And if you look at what we learn about John, Zechariah’s son, who he will be, you’ll see how that is so; how John’s coming helps set the scene for the arrival of the hope of Israel, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. First of all, verse 15, “John will be great before the Lord.” You may remember later on in Luke’s gospel, chapter 7 verse 28, Jesus said of John that he was “among those born of women, none were greater.” So John will be the greatest man of his generation and his greatness, Gabriel explains here, is a consequence of his personal consecration to God and to His service. Notice he is forbidden to drink alcohol, suggesting that he will be something like a Nazarite. He will be someone especially dedicated and consecrated to the Lord. And what’s more, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. So beyond any other prophet in the Old Testament, John will enjoy a special anointing of the Holy Spirit empowering him for his ministry throughout the whole course of his life. Clearly, we are to expect something extraordinary from John.

And if you look at verses 16 and 17, you’ll see exactly what that extraordinary something was to be. “He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 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.” Now Gabriel there is quoting Scripture. He’s quoting from the last verse of the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi chapter 4 verse 5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes, and he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Now remember, from the moment that Malachi put the period at the end of that last sentence in his book, there had been absolute silence. God had not sent another prophet to Israel. There had been no more direct revelation given; none for 400 years. Absolute radio silence.

But now, in the birth of Zechariah’s son, Malachi’s prophecy was being fulfilled. At last, John, Zechariah’s boy, will be the final prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes, before the arrival of Messiah Himself. John will be the new Elijah and his role, notice this now, is to bring to repentance the people of God. It was to turn back the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. And he was to do it all to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. John was sent to get the people ready to welcome and receive Jesus. In effect, he was to say to the world, “If you want God’s Savior, this is how you must welcome Him. Here is how to receive Him. You must repent of life on your own terms and turn back to the Lord.”

And John’s ministry of repentance coming in the order of history before the saving work of Christ, I think, in some ways models the pattern of God’s work in us as we embrace the Gospel. Doesn’t it? Repentance, after all, is necessary if we are to receive salvation. “What must we do to be saved?” What’s the answer to the question? Repent and believe the Gospel. Turn back from your disobedience and turn to the wisdom of the just. Turn back from life on your terms, your way. The only heart that welcomes Christ is a repentant heart. The Christmas story will only remain a story unless we hear this call, this summons to repentance. It’s time, you see, it’s time to give up. That’s what John was sent to tell his generation; it’s what we still need to hear. It’s time to stop running away from God, to stop pretending that you have your life under control. Stop trying to fix the mess of your own sin. Stop. Repent. Give it up. Turn back to God. Only He can provide the cleansing and the grace that you need. Admit now, today, your desperate need of a Savior. You need Messiah Jesus. You need Him. That was John’s message. It’s a message we all still need to hear.

The Theme of Believing

Longing. Preparing. Finally, believing. It’s clear, poor Zechariah does not believe Gabriel, isn’t it? Verse 18, “How shall I know this, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” I really like Zechariah’s answer. Despite the shock of being confronted with an angel he doesn’t forget his manners. Does he? He’s a bit of a class act, Zechariah. “I’m old, but my wife, she’s, ‘advanced in years.’” He could be southern with manners like that, don’t you think? He’s a classy guy, but his good manners cannot hide his unbelieving heart, can they? So Gabriel brings the discipline of the Lord to bear upon him. Look at his reply. You almost sense a little bit of Gabriel’s frustration, don’t you? “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! What more do you need to believe? And so, behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

Just like the prophetic silence that had prevailed in Israel for 400 years until the ministry of John the Baptist began, Zechariah would not speak another word until his son was born. And while the divine displeasure was doubtless severe, could you imagine what it would be like to walk out of the sanctuary this morning and your wife or your friend, your pewmate asks you something and you try to answer and nothing comes, you can’t form a word; there’s no sound. How distressing it must have been. So while God’s discipline of Zechariah was severe, if you think about it you’ll see that His discipline is laced with mercy; it’s laced with mercy. It is, after all, a miraculous sign and it’s designed to get through Zechariah’s thick skull. Isn’t it? To wake him up, to teach him to trust in the power of God at last.

And while God’s discipline of us today is rarely so dramatic, the note of mercy lacing all of God’s rebukes, let’s never forget, still continues to sound. I’m not sure Zechariah at first saw any mercy in the discipline he received that day. Though he did eventually. And sometimes that’s our experience too, especially in hard, sore providences. We wonder if God has failed in His love for us. But this passage in Luke’s gospel is a reminder to us that even the heavy blows of our Father’s discipline, they are always laced with mercy. They are always laced with a Father’s love. In His wrath, He will not forget mercy. He is teaching us, remember, calling us to faith, urging us to trust Him all our trails, to walk by faith and not by sight; reminding us of our smallness and our frailties and of His greatness and His power. “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and they shall break with blessings on your head.”

While that was doubtless a hard lesson for Zechariah to learn, but he did learn it later on in this story. In verses 57 through 66, we see his faith bearing fruit at last. When John is born and they ask him, “What shall we name him?” Zechariah indicates, “His name is John,” in obedient submission at last, as he sees the Word of the Lord fulfilled to him in obedience to the command of the angel. And now, his repentance and his faith complete, his tongue was loosed, Luke says, and he spoke, blessing God.

Now remember, Zechariah’s experience in this story is a kind of parallel to the experience of the whole people of God, the Jewish people in the old covenant. And it tells us something about what John was sent to do for Israel as a whole, and actually what happens in all our hearts if the Lord Jesus is to find a home in us. Zechariah comes to repentance and to faith because John was born. And that’s why John came, after all, to bring, to urge repentance and faith upon his generation. Because repentance and faith – please understand this – repentance and faith are the two hands that receive Christ and welcome Christ and take hold of Christ.

That first Christmas, God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, was coming. But unless we turn from sin and trust in the saving goodness of God, His coming will have born no eternal fruit in your life. Christmas will remain a nostalgic, midwinter festival at best. But if we see that God has made us for Himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Jesus, if we see that our deepest longing can only be satisfied in Him, if we come to the One to whom John was sent to point us, to Christ, in repentance and faith, well then at last the Christmas story will have come into its own and the message of this chapter is the message of the carol. Do you see it? “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room and heaven and nature sing!”

I wonder if you are ready, today, now, prepared to receive the Lord Jesus Christ. He’s offered to you, held out to you by God in His Word. You take Him by the hands of repentance and faith and when you do, like Zechariah long ago, your tongue will be loosed and with great joy you will bless the Lord. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we praise You for the way that You work in history, in providence, in our hearts and lives to bring us to Yourself, to bring us to the end of ourselves. We pray now for grace to remember in all Your dealings, even in Your hard providences, that You never forget mercy, but that You lace all Your ways with us with love. And help us especially to deny ourselves, to turn from ourselves in repentance and to turn to the One whom You have provided to answer the deepest longing of our souls, to turn to Your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus, that the truth of the Christmas story might bear real fruit in our hearts and lives. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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