“When God Shows Up”

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Notes on Message preached 18 October 2009 at PCF: ”When God shows up” (Luke 1 v 5-25)

As we get into the main body of the gospel penned by Doctor Luke, we being to see the background to the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.

Luke 1 v 5-25

5In 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. 6Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

8Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But 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. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for 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.[b] 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And 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.”

18Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19The 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. 20And 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.”

21Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22When 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.

23When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

This familiar and charming record of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist speaks powerfully to us today:

1. An Ordinary Couple

Here we have a couple notable for their ordinary-ness. They were well on in years, faithful servants of the Lord, with Zechariah serving as a priest.  They were faithful, righteous and unremarkable. And like many couples of this kind they carried a heartache: they were unable to bear children. How many of Gods’ servants carry heartaches? It may be the same one that Zechariah and Elizabeth carried – that of being unable to produce children. Or it may be to do with health, or family or finance. Whatever it is, this couple is an example to us to continue to serve God in righteousness and to never let the heartache embitter us. It could be, that in an unexpected way, God will answer prayer and remove the heartache. Or we may never find out what is behind the burden we carry. But we can be sure of this: God has a purpose in everything that he allows in his people’s lives. We can trust him unreservedly.

2. An Ordinary Day at the office

Zechariah served as a priest. As one of about 20,000 priests in Israel he was responsible for serving at the temple. There were 24 divisions of priests who went to Jerusalem by rota. When they were there they tended to the temple, and drew lots as to who would have the honour on any given day of burning incense in the temple. It may be that this honour would only come to you once in a lifetime. So although this was a big day in Zechariah’s life – it was in many ways just an ordinary day in his service of God.

Most of our Christian life is quite uneventful. We have our quiet time, we pray, we read the Bible, we meet with God’s people, we witness, we go to work we eat and we go to bed. Zechariah had learnt to be faithful in the ordinary things of life. Have we? There is a day to day discipline of Christian responsibilities that seems quite unspectacular – reading the Bible, praying, fasting going to meetings and so on. But it is our   service in these apparently mundane areas of life that will determine how our Christian lives will progress – and in the case of Zechariah, it was in the ordinary things of life that he met with God.

3. An Unexpected Encounter

This task of burning incense in the temple has been carried out thousands of times without incident. And yet Zechariah suddenly found himself face to face with the angel Gabriel. He was “gripped with fear” – and so would you be!

We can’t pretend that these incidents are commonplace in the Christian life. For Zechariah – as far as we know – it was unique. But the fact remains that Zechariah had an encounter with God, whilst he was serving the lord faithfully.

We can’t guarantee mystical encounters – but we can do as Zechariah did, and serve faithfully. If we do that, we know that he will meet us there. It may or may not be spectacular – that is up to God – but God responds to the faithful work of his servants.

4. An Amazing Message

The appearance of the angel was remarkable enough – but what he had to say must have taken Zechariah’s breath away! Firstly: “your prayer has been heard”. Probably the couple’s prayer for a child had stopped long ago, and been mentally filed away as “unanswered prayer”. We need to understand that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. Zechariah’s prayer had been held the “holding room” of heaven waiting for the right moment. And the answer when it came would be bigger than they could have dreamed. The answer to their prayer was inextricably linked to God’s plan of salvation for the human race. Their answer was to be the herald of the Messiah – how’s that for an answer to prayer! As Gabriel went on to describe the ministry of their long- awaited son – Zechariah’s head must have spun. Not only was their prayer being answered – but their son was to be a great prophet! What an honour – and what a responsibility.

Gabriel concludes the package with some specific instructions on raising this man of God. Every blessing always carries with it a responsibility: Zechariah and Elizabeth would have to rise to the challenge of being the parents of John the Baptist. We have been given the honour of being God’s people in this generation. Are we ready for the responsibility it brings?

5. An Unacceptable response

Sad to relate Zechariah’s response fell far short of what one would have hoped for in a man steeped in the ways of God. His response (Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”) is in fact gross unbelief.

There are two occasions in the gospel when Jesus is said to be amazed. One is in Mar 6 when Jesus visits his home town and is “amazed at their lack of faith”. The other is in Luke 7 when he is “amazed” at the faith of the centurion .In the case of the centurion Jesus carried out an extraordinary miracle. In the case of the townsfolk at Nazareth we read that he “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them”. – how remarkable: Jesus could not do many miracles!

What would be said of us? And what would be said at you? Would Jesus be amazed at our faith – or would he be amazed at our lack of faith? Will he be able to do mighty works – or would it be said of Poole in 2009 that “he could not do many miracles there”?

In the case of Zechariah he sadly has most in common with the Nazarenes. Face to face with the awesome power of God – he does not believe. How do you respond to the word of God?

6. A  Severe Consequence

It is easy to see God as a benign grandparent who is always tolerant and never shows his displeasure. This account puts paid to that once and for all! The fact is that Zechariah’s response to God’s message is wholly unacceptable and unsatisfactory – and there is a consequence. Unbelief and rebellion always has its consequences. Why? Because God loves us and desires the best for us. Read the words of the risen Jesus to the churches in Chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation – there is no doubt there that whenever Jesus encounters sin in the church he deals with it lovingly, but severely. God breaks the rules for no one. No one, not even the righteous chosen Zechariah, can get away with gross unbelief. But God’s judgement is always merciful. Zechariah does learn his lesson. His greatest hour is still to come. He would recite the words of the great prophecy later in chapter one and would have the joy and responsibility of raising a great prophet. God’s discipline is always in love.

7. A Hope fulfilled

The scene when Zechariah came out of the temple must have been a mixture of awesome and comic. This respected priest wildly gesticulating and trying to speak must have been one of the most talked about incidents of the day. But Elizabeth conceives and their dream is fulfilled at last. Not all our dreams will be fulfilled in this life. But the day is coming when every longing will be fulfilled and every tear wiped from our eyes. Can’t wait?

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21 v 3-4)

8. A Rescue plan launched

Whilst this was a wonderful day and a great event in the life of the elderly godly couple, it is a also a strategic event in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Whatever God does in our lives he is working our a plan far bigger than any of us could imagine. The Saviour was on his way. The time would soon arrive when heaven would be singing “Glory to God in the Highest”

As for Gabriel – he would soon have another job to do. Shortly he would make another visit to planet earth – this time to a remote town in Galilee to visit a young woman named Mary.

But that’s another story.

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