A Sermon for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church (12.14.14)
Two weeks ago Frank began this Advent sermon series “Great Expectations: Celebrating Advent from Luke’s Gospel” preaching on the opening verses of Luke 1 and the prophecy to Zechariah as he served in the Temple. There Zechariah heard that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age, but Zechariah doubted this word from God. Frank reminded us that anxiety results from looking at our circumstances and lacking trust in God. But faith rests on the promises of God. We were reminded that we all struggle with doubt and we limit God by relying on self. And Frank told us that the remedy for doubt is to rest on the promises of God and to meditate on the attributes of God.
Then last week Justin continued with the middle portion of chapter 1 opening up for us the prophecy to Mary in Nazareth and her song of praise to God, the Magnificat. We were encouraged to leap as John in the womb, Shout for joy as Elizabeth did, and sing songs of gratitude and faith as Mary did.
Today we complete this first chapter. Time has moved on, and Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is ready to give birth. The text tells us:
- 57-58: “She bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her.” One of the most desperate life situations in the ancient world was to be without child. And since God looks on the broken hearted, this is one of numerous stories where He indeed showed great mercy in such a situation; here to Elizabeth and Zechariah. And there was great rejoicing.
vv 59-63: Naming the child: Custom of following the father’s name. Meaning of the names Zechariah (“Yahweh remembers”) and John (Yohanan, “Yahweh is gracious”).
Note in v. 62:“They made signs to his father” — Zechariah was both mute and deaf – He suffered silence for months as a result of his unbelief at Gabriel’s announcement to him in the Temple. But this suffering, this penalty if you will, led to deep godly meditation [my 10 days!].
Zechariah had doubted the goodness and sovereign power of God – and his silence may be seen a “punishment” of sorts. Piper on this point says, “Remember that [that is, remember this story], you who now suffer from the scars of past sins. If you keep faith now, God will turn the marks of sin into memorials of grace.” Zechariah kept faith . . . albeit in silence . . . and when he agreed with Elizabeth, writing on a tablet that the new born son would be named John, he was released from this silence. His first words after months of silence were praise to God. And text in vv. 65-66 says, “Fear came on the people” and they “laid these things up in their hearts” – personal recollections behind Luke’s Gospel account.
So Zechariah, filled with the Spirit sang a song traditionally entitled by its first word in the Latin text: “Benedictus.” The “Benedictus” reads like a psalm, and in fact there are many allusions to OT Psalm texts. But it also breaks out into two parts – the first speaking about the Messiah to come, the second stanza about the Messiah’s forerunner, John.
The Prophecy concerning Jesus:
- 68: “has visited and redeemed” – Zechariah is so sure of the present/future reality that he speaks of it in the past tense! There had been no visitation, no word, for 400 years! Israel had waited. Amos had prophesied there would be a famine, not of food but of the hearing of God’s Word and there had been – silence from God – for 400 years. But the waiting was over. Anticipation was about to be fulfilled. But this deliverance and redemption was not what they thought it would be – God seldom does things the way we expect. They expected (as they saw with Moses) deliverance from the present existential state of oppression – from Rome.
- 69: “He has raised up a Horn of salvation”
The horn is not a musical instrument (with apologies to Brian, Rob, and Larry), but a sign of strength and a means of victory. In Micah 4:13 God says to Jerusalem, “Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion, for I will make your horn iron and your hoofs bronze; you shall beat in pieces many peoples.”
Psalm 92: 9-10, “For behold, your enemies, O Lord, for behold, your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered. But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox” Psalm 18: “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.” We are weak and broken people. One of the big lies our age seeks for us to imbibe is that we are strong, able, and self-sufficient. As I think I have said before here, I believe the opposite of faith is not doubt – rather it is self-reliance. But God’s people in the first century knew that no amount of self-reliance or strength (personal or national) would solve their problem. They needed a strong ox with a mighty horn to free them. Free them from who?
- 71: “To save us from our enemies, from the hand of those who hate us”!
The people of Israel needed a strong savior to bring deliverance from oppression. But as too often, they were thinking physically, and God was communicating about spiritual truth. Yes, indeed, they suffered from oppression and slavery – though not what they thought. Rome was an enemy, yes, but sin is a much worse and more evil taskmaster and an oppressive enemy beyond their imagination – not just of Israel but of all mankind, of me and of you. Just as with ancient Israel, we need to be saved from the hand of the one who hates us, who hates all thing good and true – Satan, the father of lies. But God’s purpose was not merely to save us, but also in
- 72: “To show mercy” and “to remember his holy covenant”
The NT word mercy harkens back to that big, bountiful Hebrew word hesed that speak of God’s steadfast love, unfailing covenant loyalty and deep, abiding affection for His people. The Savior about whom Zechariah speaks, Jesus the Messiah, would show this covenant love, this steadfast mercy to His people.
Did God forget His holy covenant? Of course not! Remember here carries the sense of fulfilling and bringing to full fruition the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and the prophets.
So God’s purpose is to save, show mercy, remember covenant, and . . .
“deliver us from the hand of our enemies” – Just as Moses was God’s man to deliver Israel from existential slavery, so Jesus has come to deliver all who trust in Him from sin and death. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. The Law had not changed. The righteous requirement of the Law stands firm. God still requires clean hearts. In Deuteronomy 10 He required that Israel circumcise their hearts – something they were unable to do – something we are unable to do. But toward the end of Deuteronomy, in chapter 30 God promised that He would – in His great mercy – circumcise our hearts . . . so that we could love Him and live. What God required of us, He promised to provide for us. Why?
In vv. 74-75: “That we might serve God without fear” – how? “with holiness and righteousness all our days.” God desires and desires our worship. And as He provides for us what He requires of us, so He gives us the grace to worship Him as His Body. Week in and week out, this is a profound privilege that we should not lightly give up or pass over. At vs. 76, the “Benedictus” turns to . . .
The Prophecy concerning John
Many have said that John is the final Old Testament prophet. He would be the forerunner, preparing the way – as we see played out later in the Gospels, what it says here in v. 76: “preparing the way” for Christ confessing that he is unworthy to untie His sandals, telling his own followers that he (Jesus) must increase while I (John) must decrease! And just as he must decrease, almost immediately, in this second stanza about John, the focus turns back to Jesus. He would bring . . . in
- 77: “Knowledge of salvation and forgiveness for sin” and then this precious thought, Jesus will display
- 78: “the tender mercy of God”
Forgive me at this point as I quote Charles Spurgeon at length:
The Lord could not forgive them on the ground of justice, and therefore he did so because of his tender mercy—the tender mercy of our God, who has made himself “our God” by the covenant of grace. He passes by the transgression of his people because he delighteth in mercy. At the very outset, I want any soul here that is burdened with sin to believe in the forgiveness of sins, and to believe in it because God is love, and has a great tenderness towards the work of His hands. He is so pitiful that he loves not to condemn the guilty, but looks with anxious care upon them to see how He can turn away His wrath and restore them to favor. For this reason alone there is remission of sins. Forgiveness comes not to us through any merit of ours, present or foreseen; but only through the tender mercy of our God, and the marvellous visit of love which came of it. If He be gracious enough to forgive our sins, it can be done; for every arrangement is already made to accomplish it. The Lord is gracious enough for this—for anything. Behold Him in Christ Jesus, and there we see Him as full of compassion. ‘Mercy’ is music, and ‘tender mercy’ is the most exquisite form of it, especially to a broken heart. To one who is despondent and despairing, this word is life from the dead. A great sinner, much bruised by the lashes of conscience, will bend his ear this way, and cry, ‘Let me hear again the dulcet sound of these words, tender mercy.’
In His tender mercy God has come to us in Jesus – Advent is the arrival of His most tender mercy. He has come to walk with us, to empathize with us, suffer with us. So He was prone to come along side the most needy among people – the sick and helpless, the rejected and marginalized. This is tender mercy. And it goes on in
vv 78-79: “The sunrise shall give . . . Light for those who sit in darkness”
Notice especially He is the rising sun for those who sit in darkness. Those who are motionless, without hope and without light. Those who know their plight is far beyond any remedy they might conjure from themselves. This light is for us!
Seventy years ago, in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that a prison cell is a good analogy for Advent. He said that in prison, “One waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – but the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside by someone else.” John Piper expands on this saying, “There is a hopeless precursor side to Advent. Until God arrives we have no hope for release from the imprisonment of our sin. We are stuck and condemned and the door is locked from the other side. We depend completely on Someone from the outside to free us.” Jesus has brought this light to our darkness to show us . . .
- 79: “The way of peace” – shalom!
We live in a world sorely in need of God’s shalom. We live with rushing, anxiety, pressure, unmet expectations, disappointment, depression, sadness, loss. Oh how we need peace. This tender mercy of God condescending to us in Christ brings every miracle you can think of into one. Imagine a paralyzed, sick, blind beggar, languishing in a dark prison. And Jesus comes, bringing light, and life, and strength and wholeness and hope and escape from an enslaving enemy of sin and darkness. This is our story. And at the first Advent it began and with this Advent, it continues as we embrace the One who come to release us, lift us on formerly lifeless legs and walks with us from incarceration to freedom and light and life. Oh the goodness of God’s tender mercy for us.
Conclusion: Do you see the Gospel here friends? Has God brought light and sight to the eyes of your heart to see His strength, His horn of salvation doing for us what we cannot do? Have you experienced His gentle and tender mercy, lifting you in your broken state, clothing you with righteousness and holiness to serve Him without fear? Oh the goodness of God with us, . . . of God for us, . . . of God in our midst. Thanks be to God.
what we cannot do? Have you experienced His gentle and tender mercy, lifting you in your broken state, clothing you with righteousness and holiness to serve Him without fear? Oh the goodness of God with us, . . . of God for us, . . . of God in our midst. Thanks be to God.