Sermon: "Zechariah and Elizabeth: Facing Dead Hopes"


First in a series: Faces Near the Manger,
Delivered November 30, 2003 by Rev. John Schmidt.
This was the First Sunday of Advent.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5

Theme: From Zechariah and Elizabeth we can learn what God's faithfulness means when our hopes die.

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: Luke 1:5-25

Advent artwork
Artwork by Michael Owen
for this sermon series (see larger)
color slide version by Matt Crocken

Note: This sermon transcript and MP3 includes some introduction of the sermon series from an earlier point in the worship service.

Today we are starting a new series because now it is the start of Advent, and we are starting a series of faces near the manger. And today's particular theme is facing dead hopes. There are a lot of people who struggle this time of year. This is a time of incredible hope, incredible joy, promises, and yet, at a time like this, we are kind of reminded in a fresh and painful way at the many things that aren't moving in our lives, things in our personal lives, things in families, families that are separated because of war or because of tensions within the family, problems with our job. In a time like that we have to think about what does it mean to hope in God when we are facing these struggles and difficulties?. And so today, we are going to be looking at Zechariah and Elizabeth. I want to read to you just one little small verse about them as we go forward in worship this morning. It says in Chapter 1 (the angel is talking to Zechariah).

"But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John."

So today we light the first candle of Advent. A candle that has to do with hopes, dead hopes, hopes in the midst of struggle, hopes that don't have an answer yet. And because this is a time that we are dealing with all of this, things that we have several ways of responding that will come up during our service during Advent. Today, we will have some candles up here and I will explain them more to you at the end of the sermon, but every week of Advent we also have immediately outside, on the left hand side, in the first room on your left, is a prayer room that you are welcome to go to. It will be ready each week, right about the middle of the sermon or so - it should all be prepared for you. It is a time when you can pray alone. There will be some people there if you need to talk to somebody, but if you need the chance to come and process whatever is happening there is always that space, during Advent for you to do that, you to spend a few moments with God. So we worship God today and we focus in on our hopes and the God of our hopes. I'd like to read now from the book of Luke, first chapter, beginning on the 5th verse.

"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.

Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. 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."

Let's pray. Lord, we thank you for this your Word and pray that you might open our eyes to whatever we need to see today. Foe we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

I am always amazed at how God uses regular people. With the exception of a few people like Moses or David who had some social standing and might have been noticed anyway, with the exception of people like that, most of the people that we read about in scripture are people who are otherwise unremarkable folks. Farmers, fishermen, housewives and Zechariah fits in this sort of category of people. Zechariah was a priest and often when we think about priests, we think about people who are particularly well educated in the Israel society. People who had all the answers and were looked up to. But, you know it wasn't all like that at that time. Certainly, there were those urban priests who were very well trained and they were called scholars of the law and looked up to. But there was a whole group of priests who were members of the priestly family, but because they lived out in the country or otherwise, they weren't as well educated. And in fact, in that period of history there were words used by the urbane and urban folks to describe these people and roughly translated it would be the idiot priests. The country bumpkin priests. And Zechariah if he fits in any category at all, he fits in the category of the country priests. The only reason why he is doing something special right now is that these responsibilities to carry, to light incense inside of the priestly part of the sanctuary, these responsibilities rotated from division to division within the priestly families and when his division came up, they all drew lots and Zechariah's lot was the one that was chosen.

And so Zechariah is having a once in a lifetime experience here. Even though it happened regularly in the life of the temple. For Zechariah, this is his 15 minutes of glory. But he didn't expect it to quite be the way it turned out, because angels arriving during this responsibility wasn't typical. And so this angel comes up and says, Zechariah your prayer has been heard. Now you know what I would have thought of if I was Zechariah at that point? Which prayer? He's an old man. He has prayed all kinds of things that haven't been answered and this prayer for a child, this was something that was probably up front in their lives everyday when they were a young couple, but as the years went by and they get closer and closer to the age where no one is bearing children anymore, I am not sure that that prayer would have continued. So when the angel says, your prayer has been answered, it might even be a prayer that they are no longer praying, but had prayed faithfully for years. Because this was a faithful couple. They described them in verse six as being, both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all of the Lords commandments and regulations blamelessly. These were good folks, but the natural course of events is that as time goes by and the answer doesn't come, our expectations start to drop. And so, when the angel says, your wife will have son, Zechariah isn't even a model of faith at that point because he says, how can I be sure? How can I be sure of this? He doesn't even rise to the occasion like we would like a Biblical hero to do. But before we get hard on Zechariah, I think we need to realize that all of us would probably be in that sort of category. Our faith is unprepared. Our minds are unprepared. Our expectations have gone down. God takes this lack of faith seriously because Zechariah is then not able to speak, and this is important not only for Zechariah, but for the whole nation because as he finished his responsibilities in this priestly part of the sanctuary he is supposed to come out and speak a benediction upon all of Israel. And he is unable to do it. This naturally causes some concern I am sure. And so now Zechariah is silent. I want to read to you now the first words that he says publicly after this time of silence. And we haven't put it on the screen because it's a longer section that you need to look at all at once. If you want to look at it, I think its on page 724. It's Luke 1 and I am going to begin at verse 68.

"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up the horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. (as he said to his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-- to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all of our days. And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."

Nine months go by and you can even see, maybe in those nine months, that they are still struggling with their faith because it says a few verses earlier that for five months, Elizabeth remains in seclusion. Why? Maybe because they were worried that this baby wouldn't come to term. We don't know. But they struggle during that time and then the time comes that the baby is born and Elizabeth says that his name shall be John and everybody says, wait a minute. There is nobody in your family named John, and you are trying to pull something over us and since Zechariah can't speak, let's get his opinion on the matter. And he writes it out; his name shall be called John. And at that point, he can speak again and he praises God. And then speaks these public words to Israel. Now, these words are prophetic, spirit filled benediction upon Israel. Good words. Breaks down roughly into two parts. Verse 68-75 focuses in on the deliverance of Israel as a nation, that God will raise up a leader particularly this person from the house of David, this horn of salvation which talks about might and power. But it's very much a political statement. The words that are in this first half are words that are very similar to words that were used in prayers constantly in Israel at this time. Everybody would have recognized this because this was the sort of benediction and blessing you expected. The day is coming that God will take the foot of these Gentiles off of you, and you will be a powerful people and will be able to live in peace. Now, this is something that is a little less familiar to us because this part of what he said still hasn't happened. We are still waiting, even as we look back upon the first coming of Jesus Christ. The things that are described in the first half of Zechariah words are things that we are still waiting for when Jesus comes again.

Now, the second part contains the words that are more like the words that we would expect as Christians. The words that we use in Advent. The things that talk about going before the Lord to prepare the way for him. Look, it's on the screen. Prepare the way for the Lord. We are used to words like this. But this was the part that was less familiar to the Jews, because they are no longer talking about the national hopes of Israel, but talking about this thing of the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of God. That the one who is coming is going to make all of that happen, and this was something they really didn't have a category for clear in their minds, and yet for us this is the part that makes sense, because we are looking back on it, because this has already happened. So Zechariah speaks these words to Israel. Some of it they understood better than others. Some parts they understood better than others. Now, I said that these were the first words that Zechariah said in nine months, but what's also significant is that these are the first words of public prophetic witness to Israel in more than 450 years of silence. The last prophet that they had, that shows up in the Old Testament is Malachi. And so, for 450 years there has been silence. They have been used to having some kind of prophet living within the community, people to rebuke you, people to encourage you, people to give you the sense that God was still speaking to your situation, but for 450 years there was silence and during that time their nation was overrun by the power of Gentile countries. Where is God? Has God forgotten us? And so you can imagine each generation of people having lower and lower expectations of what God would do. Maybe they could imagine God doing something major in the future, but certainly not in our generation.

Debbie and I often talk about Christmas presents way in advance. End of summer, early fall we will talk about some of these things and share you know what's really of interest to each of us and it gives you time to order things or browse around and make good selection, catch sales and things like that. And occasionally what will happen is I won't ask her anything about her size. I won't ask her anything about her favorite color. There will be silence from my side. And then the tree goes up and presents start going under the tree. Present for John, for Sara and for me, but my present to Debbie doesn't show up under the tree. And so her anxiety level starts to rise. It's getting closer and closer to Christmas and so finally she wonders, has he forgotten? Yes. Unlike God, I have forgotten. Now, none of you feel smug about this because I know some of you are going to be struggling with the same thing in the next few weeks. The point is, that Israel had been laboring under this silence wondering had God forgotten and here's the first set of words in 450 years and praise God, it's not a rebuke. It's a promise. Verse 68. "Praise be to the Lord God of Israel because he has come and has redeemed his people."

God has not forgotten. Incredible words to a people who felt that God had pulled himself out of the picture. Now we are coming into a time that focuses in on hope, but we've got to admit that most of us come struggling with the fact that we have dead hopes in our lives. Where are those dead hopes? Where is hope dying? Is it in your personal life where you were hoping to have some changes happen in your walk with God and year after year it doesn't seem to change and you struggle and you've got to admit it, you don't even expect a change anymore. You've stopped expecting God to work in your life. It might be in your family. You've hoped for peace and harmony in your family, but now you have gotten to the point that you are just willing to live with discord because you have hope for nothing more. It might be in your career, where you were hoping things would be better or that you would be at a different place and it's just not working out that way. It could be that you are praying for children or you have children and you are praying for those children because they haven't responded yet to the grace of God and you worry about their lives, and after a period of years sometimes you find that you don't really expect it to change. There is all kinds of ways that hope dies in our lives.

The good news we see in this passage is that God has not forgotten us either. Now, we've got to think about that carefully though. It doesn't mean that we get everything we want, they way we want it, because some things that we want actually are selfish and God needs to work in our lives to change those desires. But even if those desires are pure, even if we know they are right, it doesn't mean that God will answer necessarily the way we want him to. For example, in Elizabeth and Zechariah's case, it came very late in life, but basically they got the answer that they wanted. They had the child. Not only that, a special child. But in the case of Israel, they get this message that God is going to do something in their midst that they did not expect, and the things that they were looking forward to still haven't happened. And so they get a different message, that God hasn't forgotten. God has come to redeem, but redemption is something bigger than they ever imagined. Our hopes fall into those sorts of categories. There are ones that need to change. There are other ones that will come, but are delayed and there are others where God has to replace what we desire with something that is bigger and closer to his heart. But the word that we have here is that God hasn't forgotten.

You know the thing about Advent is that it lasts for four weeks. Four weeks of all of this flurry, all of these decorations, all of this music and then right after Christmas, just like turning off the Christmas lights, it goes out, it's over and you hardly think about it anymore. But in the Christian year, Advent is the start of the year. It lays the foundation for everything else that is going to happen in the year. So all the promises of God, all the mighty acts of God are still in the future. It's the start of our hopes. And so since that is the real meaning of what we should be doing in Advent, I would like to challenge you to face some of these hopes, some of these struggles that are in your life. Take some time and think about if all the stops were off, if God could do whatever you want in your life, whatever kind of growth or development, if all the stops were pulled out, what would it be? What would it be in your personal life? What would be in your family? What would it be in this church? What would it be in your job? Think about these things. Pray about these things and ask God, what's the first step to begin again with this journey with him. Because Advent is a time to rekindle hopes. Advent is a time for us to dust off our faith and get it in working order again, to trust God again because God isn't finished with us yet. The best is yet to come. And he can do it.

Let's pray. Gracious God, as we prepare our hearts even now in this worship service to respond to you, we pray that you will bring our minds and hearts once again to faith and hope and trust in you. Lord, it's so hard. There are so many disappointments. Lord we don't know what to do entirely with that, but we pray now that we will have grace to bring them to you. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

© 2003, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145
www.centralpc.org