Sunday Sermon: The Story of Zacharias and Elizabeth (series – ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’)

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Today we begin a short series of sermons I am entitling ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.’ As many of you know, I’m not the originator of that title. ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ was the title of a movie produced back in the 60’s portraying the life of Jesus. The reason I have chosen to use it this month is because I want us to relive the Christmas story and to be drawn into it.

Though Matthew gives us some details about the birth of Christ and so does John, Luke clearly goes into the most detail.

Luke 1:1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

Let’s take just a moment and consider who Luke was and why his gospel account is so important.

1) As far as we know, Luke was a Gentile

That’s pretty amazing when you consider that the rest of the New Testament writers were Jews.

2) Luke was a very intelligent man

In addition, scripture seems to indicate that Luke was a doctor. Paul refers to him as the ‘beloved physician.’ (see Colossians 4:14) Luke was no doubt a very intelligent man and this is shown by the polished grammar he uses in these opening verses. Why does a Gentile doctor write about Jesus? Verse 3 says that he’s writing a detailed account laid out in sequential order to someone named Theophilus. The term ‘most excellent’ was often used in reference to governmental officials and so perhaps Luke is giving a report back to the Roman government concerning what he learned about the life of Jesus.

3) Luke experienced many of these events firsthand

There’s one more thing I would like to point out. The way Luke writes this seems to indicate that he learned first-hand most of what he wrote. It seems that he made a journal as he traveled with Jesus.

So let’s get into the Christmas story. Part 1 involves an elderly couple named Zacharias and Elizabeth. Why are they important to the Greatest Story Ever Told?

I. Righteous But Suffering

Luke 1:5 There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

A. They Were Righteous

The Bible says that both Zacharias and Elizabeth were both righteous before God. That doesn’t mean that they were perfect, for the Bible says that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, (see Romans 3:23), but it does mean that they took their relationship with God very serious and they were doing everything they could to live according to God’s Word.

B. They Were Suffering

Zacharias and Elizabeth were doing everything they could to live according to God’s Word, yet they were suffering. I point this out to remind us that good people, even godly people, sometimes have to suffer.

How were Zacharias and Elizabeth suffering? Scripture says that they were barren. They were unable to conceive a child. Added to this is the fact that they are now beyond the normal age of childbearing. Scripture doesn’t tell us how old they were, but in their minds it’s too late. Life has passed them by.

C. They Were Symbols

Why does Luke begin his gospel narrative with the story of an elderly couple who didn’t have children? One reason is that they serve as symbols of the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. The nation Israel was also barren. How so?

1. The Desire for a Messiah

To really get into the Christmas story, you have to consider the spiritual atmosphere of the nation of Israel. For centuries Israel had been praying and hoping for a Messiah. In my studies I came across this quote from a Jewish website – “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah, and though he may tarry, still I await him every day.” [1]

I have read that most Jews in Jesus day prayed three times every day for the coming of the Messiah. I have also read that it was the prayer of every Jewish woman that she would be the one to give birth to Him. To jump ahead to next week’s study, consider what Mary said in her song of praise – “How my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.” (see Luke 1:46-48) What’s Mary praising God for? She’s praising Him for choosing her to be the mother of the Messiah.

Everything in the Jewish life revolved around their hope for this individual to come known as the Messiah. Who or what was the Messiah and why was He so important to the nation of Israel? If you go back as far as the book of Genesis,  you will see where God began to promise that He would one day send a Deliverer. God told Eve that the woman would give birth to a son who would ‘crush the head of the serpent.’ (See Genesis 3:15) God made a covenant with Abraham and in this covenant He promised Abraham that He would send a seed / a son through whom ‘the whole world would be blessed.’ (see Genesis 22:18) God reaffirmed this promise in His covenant with David when God promised him that he would have a Son who would ‘sit upon the throne of Israel forever.’ (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16) Added to this were the many promises regarding the Messiah sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Perhaps one of the most famous prophecies is found in the book of Isaiah –

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” (see Isaiah 9:6-7)

All of Israel waited for this special child who would become king, yet it had never happened. As a matter of fact, nothing had happened.

2. The Absence of a Messiah

Every Jew knew the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, yet up until this point He had not come. Between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament is four hundred years of silence; no word from God; no prophets of God; no miracles; and most of all, no Messiah.

Added to this was the fact that Jerusalem and all of Israel were being overrun by Gentile powers such as the cruel Roman government.

The more the Jews desired their Messiah, the more it seemed like He would never come. No doubt many wondered if perhaps God had forgotten them.

II. Struggling to Believe 

The second part of our story about Zacharias and Elizabeth is their struggle to believe. Sometimes when our pain gets so great, it’s hard to hold on to our hope.

Luke 1:8 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course, 9 According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

A. God-ordained Day for Zacharias

I have to take a moment and explain to you why this day was so special. I have read that there were over 18,000 priests in the nation of Israel at this time. A thousand years before this David divided the priesthood into 24 divisions or ‘courses’ as they are sometimes called. Most of the year these various priests lived in various parts of the land and ministered in local synagogues.

Once a year, each division would come to Jerusalem for two weeks to minister in the temple and do other priestly duties. If there were 18,000 total priests divided into 24 divisions; that means each division had over 700 priests in it. If a different priest went into the Holy Place to offer incense each morning and each evening,  that means that only 14 or so priests would get to do so each year. The other 600 plus had to do other duties such as performing maintenance on the temple structure. Warren Wiersbe says that this therefore was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ for Zacharias. Not only had he been waiting for a child, he had been waiting for the opportunity to be the one who would burn incense on the golden altar.

I’m sure that Zacharias was excited when his turn finally came; yet the greatest thrill was yet to come. As he entered into the Holy Place, he saw something very unusual. A man was standing at the right hand of the golden altar. Think about it, no one but a priest was supposed to be in there and only one priest at a time. Who was this man? Scripture says that he was the angel Gabriel sent by God to give Zacharias a special message.

Though sometimes in life we think that God has forgotten us, the Bible says that it would impossible to count the number of precious thoughts God has towards us. The psalmist said, “How precious are Your thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand!” (see Psalm 139:17-18)

B. God-ordained Message for Zacharias

Luke 1:12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

God has listened to every one of your prayers Zacharias. He has not been indifferent to your suffering, nor has He forgotten you. Since before the beginning of time, He has had a special plan for you and your wife. Even your years of waiting and suffering have had a special purpose.

Do you know what the name Zacharias means? It means: “remembered by God.” God made three promises to Zacharias:

1. You Will Have a Son

2. You Will Give Him a Special Name

“…and thou shalt call his name John.” Some of you know that when the baby was born, this was a big issue. Everyone else wanted to name him Zacharias, Jr., yet Elizabeth and Zacharias insisted that his name would be John. Why John? For one thing, this is what the angel specifically instructed Zacharias. Secondly, the name John has a special meaning. Whereas the name Zacharias means ‘remembered by God’, the name ‘John’ means – ‘God is a gracious giver.’ God was about to graciously give a son to Zacharias and Elizabeth and He was about to graciously give another son to the world whose name would be called ‘Jesus.’

3. Your Son Will Have a Special Purpose

Luke 1:14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Later in his song of praise, Zacharias said to his newborn son – “…you shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…” (see Luke 1:76-77) Jesus said that no child was greater than this baby they called John. (see Luke 7:28)

C. Struggle to Believe

1. Zacharias’ Struggle to Believe 

Luke 1:18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.

Why did Zacharias say that? After all, hasn’t he just had a conversation with an angel sent from God? For one thing, I don’t know if Zacharias knew that it was an angel. Oftentimes when angels appeared to people in the Bible, the people didn’t know who they were.

Secondly, sometimes our circumstances seem too great or difficult for us to believe in even a miracle. Later, when Gabriel has his conversation with Mary, he tells her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Apparently a tinge of doubt was about to creep into Mary’s mind for Gabriel reassured her by saying – “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (see Luke 1:37) Literally that phrase means – ‘no word from God will ever fail.’ If God has promised it – it will happen.

Yet Zacharias had a hard time believing, even an angel sent from God.

Luke 1:19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God;and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

In other words, what God has determined to happen will happen, and while it does, you will have to stand back in silence and watch.

2. Israel’s Struggle to Believe

Again I see a strong comparison between Zacharias and the nation of Israel. Both are barren. Both are waiting. Both have given up hope. And both had to continue struggling while they could have been rejoicing.

3. Our Struggle to Believe

 If the truth be told, many of us have areas in our lives where it’s sometimes hard for us to hold on and continue to believe. We know what the Bible says, yet sometimes it’s hard to remain hopeful when life is hard.

Yet God is a gracious giver. Zacharias and Elizabeth will have a son and God will sent His Son to be Israel’s Messiah and our Deliverer.

III. Rejoicing and Full of Hope 

Luke 1:23 And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. 24 And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, 25 Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

57 Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58 And her neighbours and cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. 59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. 66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

CONCLUSION

It’s hard to remain hopeful when life is hard. Sometimes the pain seems too great for us to continue to hope and believe. Often when we’re experiencing pain in our lives we are tempted to think that God has forgotten us, or that He doesn’t love us the way He loves others. Yet keep these two names in your thinking:

1) Zacharias – ‘Jehovah remembers’

Consider these words from the psalmist –

“How precious are Your thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand!” (Psalm 139:17-18)

2) John – ‘Jehovah is a gracious giver’

Though Zacharias and Elizabeth had to wait a long time for a child, God has a special child in store for them. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias – ‘thy prayer is heard.’ The Bible teaches us that God listens very carefully to our prayers and He answers them according to His will and in His time.

I pray that as we begin to celebrate the Christmas season once again this year, we will take time to carefully read the greatest story ever told and renew our hope and faith in our Savior.

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[1] http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm, December 1, 2016

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