The Time is at Hand

A sermon on Luke 1:1-25, 57-80 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 12/4/05

How many of you are looking forward to Christmas? When will Christmas come? Are you sure?

Imagine that you didn’t know when Christmas would come. It might be December 25. It might be much later. You only have the promise: Christmas will come. Wait for it. Expect it. Be ready for it.

Imagine that went on day after day, week after week, month after month. Would you still believe that Christmas is coming?

Today we begin our studies in the Gospel according to Luke, this marvelous account of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the book begins, the Jews are in a similar situation to our imaginary story about a delayed Christmas. Through the prophets God had given them many promises about a future king, a future Messiah, a Son of King David, who would reign in righteousness. We read some of those prophecies during the service:

The Jews have been waiting a long time for these and many other prophecies to be fulfilled:

From Malachi until the opening of Luke’s gospel, no other books have been written that will be part of Scripture. There have hundreds of years of waiting, of struggles, of being subjected to various empires. But no Messiah. No restored kingdom. Only long periods of oppression broken up by short periods of political freedom.

But God had promised that His salvation would come at exactly the right time. As He spoke to Habakkuk more than 600 years previously:

For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. . . .  The righteous will live by his faith. Habakkuk 2:3-4 NIV

So God’s people waited and waited and waited. Luke 1 tells us of the beginning of the end of that wait.

We’ll look at this text under two headings:

The Time is at Hand

Two thousand years ago, during the reign of Herod the Great, God at long last brought about His plan - the plan He had formulated before the beginning of time to redeem and perfect His people for Himself, to the praise of His glorious grace. He chooses for the parents of the messenger prophesied in Malachi a couple too old to have children, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a godly man and woman from priestly families. They lived righteously according to the Law of God. This does not mean that they were sinless, but that when they sinned, they offered the appropriate sacrifice ordained by God.

They had prayed long and hard for a child. But that child never came. Elizabeth never gave birth. By this point, I expect they had stopped praying for a child. They know of other couples, other godly couples, who had desperately wanted children and never had any. They were confident in God’s wisdom and goodness. He apparently didn’t see fit to give them children. They accepted his judgment.

Zechariah was one of about 18,000 priests among the Jews at this time. One of the most important priestly tasks was to enter the temple two times every day to burn incense. Remember, the temple as whole pictures God’s presence with His people. But inside the temple was the Holy of Holies – the most holy place. In Solomon’s temple, the Ark of the Covenant, representing God’s presence, remained in the Holy of Holies. Although the Ark was lost or destroyed when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple in 586BC, the Holy of Holies continued to represent God’s presence.

The altar used for burning incense was right outside the Holy of Holies. This altar was a place of contact between God and his people. Furthermore, the incense itself is a picture of the prayers of the people going up to God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 5:8). So two times every day, a priest burned incense right before the symbol of God’s presence as crowds of people stood outside praying (Luke 1:10). The smoke from the burning incense, representing the prayers, wafted into the Holy of Holies, as the people and their representative, the priest, praised God for His power, His love, His grace, and admitted their own lack of power, their complete dependence on Him.

Which of  the18,000 priests had the privilege of doing this? The priests were divided into divisions, and each division came by rotation to Jerusalem to serve in a variety of ways. Each day, the priests would cast lots to see who would be able to burn the incense, excluding from the exercise all priests in the division who had burned incense previously. Given the number of priests, most likely each priest would only have this privilege once in his entire life.

Imagine how many times over the years Zechariah’s division had been in Jerusalem. And each day the lot was cast. Each day Zechariah prayed that he might have the privilege of burning the incense. The lot was cast. It’s not Zechariah. It’s not Zechariah again.

Zechariah waited for a son; he never got one. He waited to enter the Holy Place. He never was chosen. He waited. And waited.

Finally the lot falls to this old man. This is the high point of his life. At long last, he can represent the people before God. At long last, he can burn the incense in the Holy Place.

This daily incense offering has been going on for years and years. Zechariah never heard of anything unusual happening during the offering. But as he stands right before the altar, burning the incense, suddenly, an angel appears! On his left, immediately to the right of the altar, so close he could reach out and touch him.

This angels looks nothing like the effeminate beings seen in pictures. When angels appear in Scripture, in almost every case the response is great fear. This angel is bright, mighty, overwhelming.

So Zechariah is deeply afraid. But the angel says, “Fear not! Your prayer has been heard! Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John.”

“Your prayer has been heard.” Now, Zechariah has offered lots of prayers. He right then is offering the prayers of the people of Judah, praising God, admitting their weakness, and asking for a deliverer. It’s been a long time since Zechariah prayed for a son. But God heard those earlier prayers, and although Zechariah didn’t know it, God’s answer to his request for a son was not “No” but “Not yet.” Now the timing is right. Now God will be most glorified in Elizabeth bearing a child.

The angels tells him to name his son John. Among the Jews, usually a child would be named after a relative. An only son born to man in his old age almost always would take his father’s name. But although John is not an uncommon name, Zechariah has no relatives named John. So why this name?

The angel doesn’t let this fearful and puzzled man dwell on that question, but assures him, “You will have joy and gladness” (verse 14). He personally will rejoice in his son. But not only that: “Many will rejoice at his birth.” This is the first clue that God has answered not only Zechariah’s personal prayer for a son, but also the prayers represented by the incense. The birth of Zechariah’s son is one necessary step in God’s plan to redeem His people. The time is at hand. At long last, the time that seemed to linger is no longer delayed.

The angel explains why many will rejoice in verse 15: “For he will be great before the Lord.” His greatness will not consist in human accomplishment, but in God’s commendation. John is specially chosen by God before his conception to be great before Him.

Verse 15 continues:

“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 Holy Spirit fills him continually in a special way all his life. Therefore, he has a major impact on the people around him, leading them in repentance to turn from sin to the Lord .

Verse 17 refers to Malachi 4:4-6, the last three verses in our Old Testament today:

"Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.  5 "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.  6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." Malachi 4:4-6  

Elijah the prophet lived in time of great apostasy. Indeed, at one point Elijah thought he was the only one left in Israel who was faithful to God (1 Kings 19:10). But he wasn’t; God assures him that there are 7,000 others who are faithful (1 Kings 19:18). God used Elijah to proclaim truth and have an impact on turning people to repentance and faithfulness before God, to restoring families.  

Just so with this boy John. He will do the same – preparing the people for God’s great work: the coming of His Messiah.

The time is at hand! The messenger will be conceived! The Messiah will come! The long wait is over!

Believing the Promise

The angel has told Zechariah that he will have great joy. The angel has told Zechariah that his people will have great joy at this birth. Yet faithful old Zechariah has a hard time believing this:

And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." Luke 1:18

What is Zechariah saying? “I can’t just take your word for this. This is too hard to believe! Give me a sign!”

Are you like this?

Everyone who rejects the gospel is like this. The Gospel proclaims, “Here is the way to true joy! Here is the way to God, the way He planned before the beginning of time! Just believe!” Yet we have a tendency to say: “Hey! I won’t let you pull one over on me! I’m too bright for that! Prove it to me!”

But we are like Zechariah not only when we reject the Gospel outright. We are also like Zechariah when we reject God’s plan for us. Jesus says, “I am with you always even to the end of the age.” Yet we are afraid to step out in faith if that means taking a lower salary or going to a place with a high disease rate. God inspires the psalmist to say, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You” (Psalm 73:24 NIV). But we hold on to all our little trinkets and pray, “Oh, please God, don’t make me give these up!” God says through Paul, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). But we think, “How can I possibly serve God without broadband internet access?”

God says, ”Here is great joy! Follow me!” And Zechariah – and all of us - say, “Hold it! That’s too hard to believe!”

Note Gabriel’s response in verse 19 to Zechariah’s doubts:

"I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”

Gabriel says, “Hey! Zechariah! Do you know who’s speaking to you? God sent me here! And did you notice? This is GOOD news!”

In subsequent verses, Gabriel goes on to say, “You asked for a sign? I’ll give you a sign! You won’t be able to speak until the prophecy comes to pass. But note: This prophecy will come to pass!”

The next few verses are straightforward: Zechariah comes out, yet is unable to speak. He keeps serving with his group of priests, but doesn’t burn incense again. He gets along by making signs and writing. When his division’s duty is complete, he goes home. By God’s grace, Elizabeth does become pregnant. She praises the Lord for His favor.

Next week we’ll read of Mary’s visiting Elizabeth at this time. But today let’s finish the story of the birth of John. Skip down to verse 57. Elizabeth gives birth to a boy. The neighbors and relatives are all excited; everyone acknowledges that this baby is of the Lord.

When the baby is eight days old, his parents bring him for circumcision. At this point, they will declare his name publicly. Everyone expects him to be Zechariah Junior. But Elizabeth says, “No. He shall be called John” (verse 60). Note that she uses future tense. We could paraphrase this, “From now on, he will be called John.”

No one can understand this choice. What’s wrong with the name Zechariah? Or if Elizabeth is tired of her husband’s name, why not pick the name of another relative? Perhaps the people think Elizabeth is being uppity and taking advantage of her deaf-mute husband. So they seek his opinion. They give him a tablet and he writes, “His name is John.” Note that John uses present tense. He does not write, “His name will be John” but “His name already is John.” Zechariah knew that the child had this name before he was conceived. His name is John.

In giving the baby a name with no family connection, in giving the baby a name other than his own, Zechariah is acknowledging that God is the source of this child, and that he himself has no rights to him. He is dedicating him to God.

At this point Zechariah’s mouth is opened. He proclaims this great hymn of praise in verses 68-79. The first section, verses 68-75, contain what Zechariah should have said when Gabriel proclaimed the good news. He has had more than nine months to think about that – and now he gets it right. This section steeped in Old Testament allusions is a lovely song of praise to God for fulfilling His promise – even though that promise is still far from fulfilled. Zechariah as seen the first steps: the pregnancy of Elizabeth, the pregnancy of Mary, and the birth of John. He is confident that God will complete the good work He has begun.

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” Luke 1:68

The word translated “visit” does not mean what my family did last week over Thanksgiving: Travel to see relatives, and let them serve you while you do nothing. “Visit” instead means “to exercise oversight on behalf of” or “to visit with the intention of helping.” How did God help His people? He redeemed them, He bought them from slavery, He freed them. For centuries God’s plan of redemption has seemed to be on hold. Now God has brought about key elements in the fulfillment of that plan.

Notice once again the tense that Zechariah uses. Although the Messiah is not yet born, although redemption is still to come, Zechariah is now so full of faith, so confident in God’s working out His purposes, that he speaks as if the plan is already accomplished.

Verse 69 then explains how God’s visitation was for the aid of the people:

“and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” Luke 1:69

A horn is a symbol of power; the specific phrase “horn of salvation” appears several times in the Old Testament. Psalm 18 is one example. Consider the second and last verses from that psalm:

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. . . . 50 Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever. Psalm 18:2, 50

Zechariah is saying, “You promised you would save your people through a descendant of David. Now you’ve done it!”

Consider: Why does Zechariah praise God? Not first and foremost for the private joy of giving him a son, though that joy is undoubtedly great. Instead, he praises Him from putting into effect His plan of redemption. Furthermore, note that when he does thank God for a child, his primary praise if not for his own son but for Mary’s! Zechariah’s long period of silence has born fruit. He knows what is most important.

Verse 70 notes that the coming of this Messiah is a fulfillment of age-old prophecies. Then verses 71-73 detail the content of that prophecy. What did God promise? What is he now fulfilling? Verse 71 tells us: “Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” What enemies? Both human enemies (which Psalm 18 emphasizes) and spiritual enemies. Indeed, Paul refers to death as our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

The emphasis here is on our enemies, on those who hate us. After centuries of remembering the Red Sea and other Old Testament deliverances, now at long last God is visiting His people to redeem those who live now.

This idea carries over into verse 72. The first phrase in this verse is difficult to translate, as it reads literally, “to show mercy with our fathers.” That doesn’t make much sense on its own, so every English version must either translate words differently from their usual meaning or add words. Given the emphasis on God working now in the previous verse, I think the idea behind verse 72a is something like this: “to show us mercy along with the mercy previously showed to our fathers.” For verses 72b-73 emphasize that the mercies shown to our fathers and to us today are all part of one plan, one covenant: “even to remember his holy covenant, which he swore to Abraham our father.” God’s promise to Abraham predates all the psalms, all kings, even the existence of the nation of Israel.

What is this promise to Abraham? God makes promises to Abraham several times in the book of Genesis, but I believe Zechariah has in mind Genesis 22:16-18, which God speaks after Abraham has willingly placed his one and only son on an altar with the intention of obeying God by killing him:

16 "By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,  17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies,  18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice."

Zechariah does what Abraham did: He gives up the son born in his old age to the Lord. And he sees that God will fulfill this promise to the earlier old father by using the child of Mary to bless all nations.

Verses 73b-75 then give the purpose of this salvation. God has displayed His great mercy and showed his faithfulness – why? So that we might worship Him, so that we might live to His glory:

Grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve (or “worship”) him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Do you see the flow of the song of praise? Don’t miss this last point! Zechariah praises God for visiting His people today to help them through fulfilling His promise, His covenant with Abraham, showing mercy by rescuing the people from all their enemies, even death, so that we might worship Him. The purpose of deliverance, the purpose of redemption is worship. God saves us, He redeems us for His glory. God remembers and fulfills His covenant so that He might be magnified. And we magnify Him as we live holy and righteous lives.

We are not just saved from oppression. We are not just saved from death. But we are saved to live to His glory.

In verses 76-79, Zechariah addresses the infant John. Imagine this old man holding his boy in his arms, looking at his face, speaking these words to him – the first words Zechariah ever spoke to him:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." Luke 1:76-79

Zechariah now sees what Gabriel had told him before: God will use this infant to prepare the way for God’s plan to come about through Mary’s child. Verse 77 makes clear how he will prepare the way:

One could argue that all those were needed in this society. But instead of working in these ways, John will prepare the way by helping people to see the forgiveness and salvation that God offers. God’s sunrise – Christ Himself – will visit us with tender mercies, shining His light in our dark, frightening places, cleansing us from the deeds of darkness, guiding us in His path, His way – the way of peace with Him.

Do you see what has happened? Zechariah, the doubter, has become Zechariah, the man of faith. The man who had a hard time believing the promise of the angel now believes with all his soul in the coming Messiah who is not yet born. He now sees that the time is at hand. And He believes the promise


What about us today? What can we learn from Zechariah?

Even today God’s covenant, God’s plan of redemption, is being fulfilled. The way is prepared. The Messiah has come. You don’t need an angel to appear before you to tell you this. He tells you right here in His Word. From before the beginning of time, God has planned to glorify Himself through redeeming a people for Himself from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. As God’s oath to Abraham concludes, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). 

The time is at hand to complete this task. For the first time in history, it is possible in our lifetimes to have a thriving church within every people group on earth. For the first time in history, it is possible in our lifetimes to have the name of Jesus praised in every language of the world.

Zechariah had a special privilege: Hearing the first announcement that the time of the Messiah’s birth was at hand, knowing even before Mary that the Messiah now is about to be born. He had the special privilege of fathering and raising the forerunner to the Messiah.

What is the special privilege of our generation? To complete this task. The spread the Gospel to every people group.

Will you play your role? Will this church play its role? Will you pray, asking, “What is my role, Lord God?”

As Jesus tells us,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14 (emphasis added)

The end will come. That is, Jesus returns.

Do you believe it? Are you ready? Will you be ready?

The same God who planned all events over centuries and millennia for Jesus’ first coming is planning all events now for Jesus’ second coming. Are you praying for that? Are you praying, “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus!”

Would you be surprised if God answered those prayers?

This brings us back to Luke’s opening words:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 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, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4

The purpose of the book of Luke is to give you certainty concerning the things you have been taught. In this book, Luke compiles eyewitness accounts of what God did in the first century so that Theophilus in the first century and you in the twenty-first century might have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

God’s plan is sure. His covenant is certain. He will fulfill His promise to Abraham: All nations will be blessed. He will redeem those from every tribe and tongue.

You have a role, like Zechariah. Jesus will return in power and great glory. The time is at hand. Do you believe?

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 12/4/05. Darrell Bock’s Luke: 1:1-9:50 (Baker, 1994) is the source for the number of priests in Israel; he also points out the shift in tense from Elizabeth to Zechariah (verses 60, 63).

Copyright © 2005, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

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