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A Startling Answer to Prayer

Luke 1:8-13

So, as we saw last time, the story we just kind of dipped our toe into the water a little bit—that story began with a faithful couple, an older couple—a righteous priest named Zechariah and his righteous wife Elizabeth, and as we talked about in some detail last time, they were living in some very, very dark times, this couple. The land was ruled at the time by Rome; it was governed by a tyrant, a brutal tyrant named King Herod. The temple, a place where you might expect to find God’s presence and faithfulness, was ruled by the Sadducees, an aristocratic, wealthy elite sect that was completely corrupt, on the take in every way. So politically, culturally, spiritually the land was just shrouded with darkness. Many of the common people, they loved Hellenized culture, they became accustomed to the darkness. We can understand that, can’t we? We see that all around us. The culture continues to degrade; people continue to get used to it. People continue to live their lives without the continual shock, and rage and dismay that they ought to have over moral corruption in our own society. You look at the headlines; you see them just like I do; terrorism is the new normal. It seems like somebody’s blowing themselves up somewhere in the world at any given time and killing a lot of innocent people. Moral impurity is nothing new. It barely raises an eyebrow these days. There’s going to be a football game on today, I hear. Got to turn away from some of the commercials; they’re just not righteous. We’ve come to expect corruption and deceit from people in positions of power and authority. There’s just so much degradation, and many people just simply shrug, change the channel, see what else is on TV. It’s just too much of a psychological strain to be burdened with all of this all of the time. We understand that. 

But there’s one who sees it all. There’s one who never turns away, one who takes note of every single offense—and it bothers him. David writes of him in Psalm 7, verse 10, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” And those who know and love God, those who’ve been pardoned by the righteous Judge, those who’ve been forgiven of their sin, they share in those feelings of indignation over sin, don’t they? I know you feel that. I do. We hate it. We hate it all around us, but we hate it mostly right inside of us. So David commands the righteous; in Psalm 4, verses 4 and 5, he says, “Be angry.” It’s a command: “Be angry.” Paul picks it up in Ephesians chapter 4: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts and on your beds and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord.” 

Listen, that’s what Zechariah and Elizabeth did. Both of them, righteous before God, Luke 1:6, “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord”—that is how this righteous couple handled their righteous indignation. They refused to go with the flow of the culture. They instead swam directly against the current and ran against the grain, and they lived righteously before God. They hated the ungodly oppression of the government, and yet they submitted themselves to Rome and to Herod. They hated the corrupt priesthood that was ruled by theological liberals, Sadducees who rejected all but the Torah. They said, all the prophets said all that, not scripture. And yet here, Zechariah, we see him serving faithfully within the system. As we’re going to see today, God decided to invade the system, and nothing would be the same after that. 

If you’ll notice in your Bibles, we’re going to be entering a new section today. We’ve already dipped our toe into it, like I said, but verses 8 through 23 make a complete section. The verses we covered last week, verses 5 to 7, they’re really like an introduction to the main scene, which is what we’re getting into today. And then verses 24 and 25 on the other end are like a conclusion, but the main body of this narrative is what we’re getting into today, verses 8 to 23. We’re going to read those verses in just a moment, but I wanted to point something out to you in the way that Luke structures these verses; it’s going to help you see and appreciate the organization that’s in here. I’ve got to do this now, here early in the morning while your mind is fresh so that you can follow along because it involves just little thinking, just a little. I don’t want to scare you, just a little bit of thinking, okay? Five sections. There are five sections in verses 8 to 23. And Luke has arranged them in what is called by grammarians a chiastic structure. Some people pronounce it “chiastic structure.” The word chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, and I don’t know if anybody’s ever been in a fraternity, but it looks like an X. A chi is like a big X. So if you imagine an X, the author writes sentences, and I’ll do it this way for you, the X goes this way. So, he writes sentences at the top and the bottom of the X that are parallel to each other. So the first and the fifth sentences or the first and the fifth thoughts start at the top and they’re parallel, and then you take a step downward and it goes into the middle and those two thoughts are parallel. So, the second and fourth sentences are parallel and then you get down to the middle, right in the middle, the third thought or the third sentence, that’s the midpoint. And that third sentence, the midpoint, that’s the point of emphasis. That’s right at the center of the X. So, if you take a look at the text, lays this out beautifully, he says, starting with the first and the fifth parts of the X, the chiasm, you’ve got part one in verses 8 to 10. And then part five in verses 21 to 23, right here. Then you go in just a little bit, just take a step in, and you’ve got in verses 11 to 12, you’ve got part two and verses 18-20 part four, and that leaves part three in the middle, verses 13 to 17, and that’s the angelic announcement. Okay, that’s what has the emphasis, so let me give that to you again, but give you some headings so you can write these things down and kind of look at it later, and I’ll go in verse order, okay? 

So, starting in verses 8 to 10, we’ll call that The Service, Sanctuary and People. Verses 8 to 10, Service, Sanctuary and People. Then in verses 11 and 12, that’s The Angel’s Appearance and Zechariah’s Response. Verses 11 and 12, The Angel’s Appearance and Zechariah’s Response. In verses 13 to 17, that’s the midpoint right there, The Announcement of Good News. The Announcement of Good News verses 13 to 17, right in the middle, the midpoint, the climactic portion of the narrative. Then in verses 18 and 20, we’re coming back out again, back to the angel and Zechariah, we’re going to call that Zechariah’s objection and the Angel’s response. Verses 18 to 20, Zechariah’s Objection and the Angel’s Response. And, finally, in verses 21 to 23, parallel with verses 8 to 10, but the opposite order, we see People, Sanctuary and Service. People, Sanctuary and Service—verses 21 to 23. All right, so follow along as I read. You’re going to be able to recognize it just a bit now. It may take you longer to appreciate it, but I wanted you to see that because this shows up all through Scripture and especially in the Psalms. You’ll be able to see that now, somewhat, in your own study of Scriptures. So, starting in verse 8, follow along as I read.  

“Now while he,” that’s Zechariah, “while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hears of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’ And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”  

You can stop there. It’s going to take us a few weeks to get through all of that. God’s packed so much into these verses, we want to make sure we can get everything out that we can. As Psalm 12:6 says, “Every word of God is true, his words are pure words like silver refined in an earthen furnace, purified seven times over.” So, if every word of God is pure and true, guess what, every word counts. We want to get everything we can, every word possesses transforming power. So, you’ll have to forgive me if we take our time getting through it. 

“And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.”

Luke 1:11

For today, we’re going to wade into that chiasm, that nasty X. We’re going get into it, the narrative of the angelic visitation of Zechariah in which God invaded the status quo to announce an end to the old order, to introduce a new era, the new covenant in Jesus Christ. The birth of John the Baptist meant something. It meant the Messiah was coming, and that changed everything. Now, we’ve seen the structure in the text, so we’re going to cover the ground with an outline that will serve our purposes, so it’s a little bit different than the structure I just laid out for you. Two of the themes that dominate Luke’s writings are the subject of verses we’re going to cover today—the temple and the ministry of prayer. The temple and the ministry of prayer. The temple’s mentioned 46 times in Luke and Acts. Luke portrays the early Christian life and worship that was in and around the temple. Prayer is also emphasized, 58 times just in Luke and Acts, just, and 28 times just in the Gospel. Luke especially highlights prayer in conjunction with divine revelation, and that’s what we see right here. For example, Jesus was praying at his baptism when heaven opened and God spoke, Luke 3:21. Later on at the transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, James and John. He took them up to the mountain, and he was transfigured before them, Luke chapter 9. Moses and Elijah arrived, again introducing the idea of revelation—past revelation—and then God spoke. Moses and Elijah are fine, yes, but here’s Jesus, listen to him. In fact, Luke’s gospel, it opens and closes with prayer in the temple. We’ve already read how he opens that way here in the temple; prayers going on, not only Zechariah’s prayer, but the prayer of the people. But you get to the end of Luke’s gospel, 24:52, and Luke ends by recording how, after the disciples, after the apostles watched Jesus ascend into heaven, he says that they worshipped him. And then they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Great joy. That’s another theme in Luke’s gospel. 

“Two of the themes that dominate Luke’s writings are the subject of verses we’re going to cover today—the temple and the ministry of prayer. “

Travis Allen

So with that in mind, with that in mind, starting in verse 8 there, let’s get started. Temple, prayer, revelation, joy—all those things come together here. So here’s the first point in our two-point outline today, point number one: A daily ministry of prayer at the temple, verses 8 to 10. Starting in verse 8, “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,” and stop there for a minute. You remember there were three times a year where when all Israelite males needed to appear and assemble before God in Jerusalem for worship. Deuteronomy 16:16 lays that out. You get the Feast of the Unleavened Bread—that’s Passover—was involved in that. You have the Feast of Weeks, which was Pentecost; remember that from Acts chapter 2. And you had the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, Ingathering. All those three feasts were large corporate gatherings, massive numbers of people thronged into Jerusalem, massive celebrations and sacrifices were taking place. Remember, sacrifices were essentially like a barbecue, coming worshipping God, sacrificing animals, pouring out the blood covering over for forgiveness of sins; but a lot of those offerings, both priest and people participated in those, in the eating of those sacrifices.  

This, though, was not one of those times. This is different. The temple is not crowded with people here. Folks were going about their routines of daily life, but at the temple, the priests and a few others, they were engaged in the daily ministry of prayer and sacrifice to God. Zechariah was one of 18,000 to 20,000 priests who ministered in Israel at the time, and his division, the division of Abijah, they would go on duty in Jerusalem two weeks out of every year, kind of like the National Guard, going for your two-week duty. And that meant, in addition to appearing at the temple at the appointed feasts, the three mandated feasts, Zechariah would travel there at least two other times in the year to conduct his priestly service, along with his divisions. So, the priests would go there, they’d serve, they would support, maintain the daily sacrifices in the temple, and basically they were like butchers. They were slaughtering, preparing lambs, they were doing other aspects of worship required by the Law of Moses. Back in Exodus 29, verses 38 to 46, that section there, you can read about the two lamb sacrifices that were required every day. Verses 38 and 39 say this, “Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old, day by day regularly. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight.” So, the priests, like butchers killing, cleaning sacrificial lambs, two every single day. You wanted to be in the lamb business, okay, the sheep herding business in Jerusalem in those times. So they prepare for the daily sacrifice, and if Israel would abide by these daily sacrifices, God promised them the blessing of his presence. Be faithful to this, God says, and “I will meet the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. […] I will dwell among the people of Israel and I will be there God.” (29:43,45). That’s what he promised there, right there in Exodus Chapter 29.  

So during those two weeks a year, when Zechariah came to the temple to serve, he was coming to help Israel be obedient to that passage right there. With the other priests, Zechariah would tend to the temple duties during that whole week, butchering animals, preparing sacrifices, performing all manner of other duties attendant to the temple and priestly service. Now, along with those daily sacrifices, there were also daily offerings of incense on the Golden Altar of Incense. So this incense offering, you have to understand, was a very special offering. It was a special recipe of aromatic spices, and they were mixed according to God’s instructions in Exodus Chapter 30, verses 34 to 36. Listen, only a priest could offer that sacred incense—only on the Altar of Incense, only in the temple sanctuary, only at specified times. They couldn’t do this as they saw fit. They had to do it according to God’s instructions. “And Aaron,” Exodus 30:7-8, “Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on (the altar). Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense of offering before the Lord throughout your generations.” Every single day, every single day. Can you imagine doing something like that every single day, dressing the lamps, the lamp stand inside the sanctuary, offering incense on the Incense Altar every single day? That was all in conjunction with the daily sacrifices, by the way. So, before the morning sacrifice, they’d offer incense and then after the evening sacrifices, they’d offer incense as well. And, as I said, this is a holy thing, very serious. 

You may remember that Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offered “strange fire” before the Lord; you remember what happened? God struck them dead, very serious. Anyone who offered God anything other than what God prescribed—that specific incense recipe—if they offered anything else, that person could expect to die, very serious. That’s what Moses reminded Aaron right after God struck dead his two sons, Leviticus 10:3, “Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord has said: “Among those who are near me, I will be sanctified, and by all the people I will be glorified.”’” It says that, “Aaron held his peace,” after that.  

There was also a warning about the incense recipe itself; Exodus 30:37-38, God said, “You shall not make (this) for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.” Now, to be cut off from your people, it’s not just talking about ex-communication here—that is talking about death. That’s a death threat. So, only the incense God prescribed—don’t use the incense for any other purpose, it’s holy. Offer the incense only when God prescribes it, only in the location God prescribes, in the sanctuary, on the altar, only by a priest. You get the feeling from that that the worship of God is not about expressing ourselves. It’s not about our own personal creativity. It’s not about God being satisfied with whatever we want to bring. That is actually the attitude that Cain had when he brought something from the field and thought, “Hey, God will be happy with this. I poured my all into this.” God wasn’t happy with that. We’re to come to God only in the way God prescribes. He is the holy God, and he knows best how he ought to be honored and worshipped. You agree with that? 

Now, for the priests who were chosen to draw near to God, to offer that incense, can you imagine how sober-minded they would be coming near? It was an honor, but it was a sobering honor, and that’s why in verse 9, it says, “According to custom of the priesthood, (Zechariah) was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.” That custom probably developed in an effort to quell any personal ambition in the priesthood. Oh, yes, priest, pastors, ministers, oh yes, they can have ambition, sometimes very ugly ambition. So, to prevent any eager, ambitious priest from taking the honor for themselves as often as they please, the priests found a way to take the human element out of it, to take the human will out of it, leave the decision to God. Each day, one priest would be chosen to enter the temple, the word here is not hereon, which refers to the whole temple complex. The word here is naos. It’s referring to the sanctuary. It’s that structure that contained the Holy Place and then the Most Holy Place. You can also call that the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, as Hebrews 9:7 says, and only once a year and not without blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. But the priest, the priests would enter always, or regularly, as Hebrews 9:6 says, into the first room of the sanctuary to accomplish the service of God. 

Now, because it was such a high honor for any priest to draw near to God in the sanctuary, and because they decided to separate this up by lot, casting lots, Alfred Plummer says, no priest might have this honor twice in his life. And the number of priests was so great that many never offered the incense. So, they cast lots for that honor, and they let God decide who served, and if you served, that was it—it was the one time you got to serve in the sanctuary like that, one time in your lifetime. That was their custom. Zechariah was probably in his 60’s, as we said, maybe even older. He could’ve been older than that. He’d never had the privilege of offering the incense, to enter the sanctuary itself, to stand between the Golden lamp stand on his left, the table with the showbread on his right, the Bread of the Presence. He never stood before that Golden Altar of Incense, facing it. Behind the Golden Altar of Incense was the veil that separated the two rooms. It was behind that veil, separating those two rooms, keeping the regular priests coming for daily offerings of incense, the lighting of the candles, keeping the lamps lit, behind that was the hallowed Ark of the Covenant. Inside, the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s Rod, which had budded, and some of the manna.  

Yet, here he was, Zechariah, on this day of days. For him, standing between the light and the bread, standing before the altar of incense, standing as it were before the very presence of God. And notice, others were participating in this incense offering, but from a bit of a distance. Look at verse 10, “the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” That incense offering, that represented, you need to understand, represented the prayers of God’s people, a fragrant aroma, a beautiful, a holy aroma. It was reserved specifically for representing or symbolizing the prayers of the people, sweet aroma ascending before the Lord. Psalm 141 verse 2, David says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” So that incense that Zechariah burned represented the prayers of the faithful Israelites in the land, not just Zechariah and Elizabeth, but the also the whole multitude gathered outside—in fact all the people of the land of Israel itself. Zechariah’s here; he’s inside the sanctuary. The multitude, though, they’re outside the sanctuary. They’re separated from God. Even in this whole ritual, there’s an indication of separation. 

Zechariah himself was separated from God being separated by a veil, a thick veil. Behind that was the Ark, the Mercy Seat, the very symbolic presence of God. That veil was a constant reminder. That separation between priests and people, a constant reminder of the separation between God and mankind, between God and Israel and the need for a mediator to stand between God and man. It wouldn’t be long before that veil, that barrier that separated the officiating priests from the Holy of Holies, that veil that separated God and man that symbolized “You-cannot-pass-any-further-than-this-or-you’ll-be-destroyed,” it wouldn’t be long before that veil ripped in half, torn from top to bottom, but not yet, not yet. The crowd’s still outside. The crowd’s still waiting on Zechariah to emerge from the sanctuary. And we don’t know which hour this is. We don’t know if it’s morning or evening incense offering. We don’t know if the crowd was small or large. If it was the morning sacrifice, probably small, evening sacrifice a little larger. What we do know is that the people gathered to pray at the hour of incense. They would’ve prayed a prayer something like this: “May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people.” That’s an actual prayer from the first century, which people recited together outside during the incense offering. So, these are the faithful. People like Simeon or Anna in Luke chapter 2, who were praying for the restoration of Israel. Luke 2:25 says Simeon was “righteous and devout waiting for the consolation of Israel.” You know what was on his heart and mind when he prayed.  

“Zechariah himself was separated from God being separated by a veil, a thick veil. Behind that was the Ark, the Mercy Seat, the very symbolic presence of God. That veil was a constant reminder. “

Travis Allen

A few verses later, verse 37, about the prophetess Anna, it says she “did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.” After Jesus was born, that dear woman, she spoke about him, it says, to all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel. That’s the crowd. That’s this crowd. They’re there. It’s filled with people like that, people like Simeon and Anna, people like Zechariah and Elizabeth. They were a praying people. They were a godly remnant. And they had never given up hope in God. It was a dark time, as we said, a terrible time in the land of Israel. But these people, they continued praying, longing, hoping. Zechariah—he’s standing there before the golden altar, he’s burning the incense. He’s representing their prayers before God, and that aroma going up is sweet to God. The prayers of his people are sweet to God. A very solemn, very holy moment in Zechariah’s life.  

Now, don’t miss the sovereignty of God. He is working through his providence in all of this. Remember, God is the one who sovereignly kept Elizabeth barren up to this very moment. And God is the one who withheld the honor of the offering of incense of Zechariah all of his life. Here he is an older man, serving faithfully, doing what’s required, whether in the hill country of Judea where he ministered regularly or twice a year, appearing three times a year. He’s not been able to offer the incense offering until this moment. God sovereignly turned the lot in Zechariah’s favor. Because of that, by his sovereign plan, God’s about to answer the prayers of his people in a very special way. Zechariah entered the holy place, he set the sacred incense on the heated altar. He prostrated himself on the floor before the altar, lay down to offer priestly prayers for the people.  

I like how William Hendrickson described the scene. This is what he says: “Zechariah proceeds toward the golden altar. He’s accompanied by two assistants. One of these men is carrying in a golden bowl, burning coals from the altar of burnt offering and is spreading them out on the altar of incense. He then withdraws. The other assistant is carrying a golden censor filled with incense. He arranges the incense on the altar and now profound silence ensues for the most solemn action of the ritual is about to occur. A signal is given. The sacred moment has arrived for Zechariah to place the incense upon the coals, causing a cloud to arise, its fragrance rising and spreading, together with the ascending aroma, a fervent prayer, consisting of thanksgiving for blessings received and a supplication for peace upon Israel now issues from the heart and lips of the priest.” While Zechariah is inside the temple sanctuary doing all that, the people are outside, and they’re praying their prayers and then they’re waiting for Zechariah to emerge from the temple. They expect him to step out and recite the Aaronic blessing: Numbers 6:24-26, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And after that, they’d sing songs of praise together, probably from the psalter, offer public offerings. The day would continue. But after waiting, waiting, and waiting, no Zechariah. What’s happened? It’s not normal. Something’s wrong. 

Here’s point number two: A Startling Answer, A Startling Answer to prayer in the temple, a startling answer to prayer in the temple. Here’s the reason for the delay, verse 11, “And there appeared to him [to Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” The angel stood at the right side of the altar, which was on the south side of the temple. That would mean that the angel was standing to the front and left of Zechariah, who faced the altar, he may have been lying prostrate before the altar, face down on the floor. But here’s this angel, he is appearing as a man. Just as a footnote, there are no angelic appearances where angels appear as women, much less little Precious Moments babies. No angels like that in the Bible. Angels are always manifest as powerful, frightening warrior-like men. This one just appears suddenly. Whoa. He’d been left alone in there. Zechariah was without his assistants, he’s there, he’s quiet. All he can hear is the crackling of incense, smell the fragrance. All of a sudden, here’s what happens. The angel appears; look at verse 12, “Zechariah was troubled when he saw him.” I’ll say! He “was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” Listen, the sudden appearance of anyone just popping into existence in the middle of the Holy Place when he’s supposed to be alone—that’s startling enough, right? But the sudden appearance of an angel—that struck terror into Zechariah. You know some of the Israelites had some reasons for terror in their history. One angel killed all the first born children of Egypt. One angel killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers while they slept. 

Yeah, fear completely gripped Zechariah—and it would you, too. The word for troubled here when it’s used, used sometimes of physical, material things like water, it means a shaking, a stirring, an agitating; you can imagine water just trembling with an agitator or something in it. It’s a good picture of what was going on inside of Zechariah’s heart. He was disturbed, troubled. He was completely shaken by this. When it says that fear fell upon him, literally fear pressed down on him. It was like someone heavy who is leaning on you, and you feel the weight of it. It’s a really big guy, you know—oppressive weight. It means literally overcome, weighed down, paralyzed even with fear. I like what John Calvin says about this moment: “Though God does not appear to his servants for the purpose of terrifying them, yet it is advantageous and even necessary for them to be struck with awe. That amidst their agitation they may learn to give God the glory due unto his name.” Think about that for a moment. Zechariah was terrified. Before God, Zechariah and his wife were righteous; they were blameless in all the commandments and ordinances. According to verse 6, that’s how God saw them. That’s a testimony of God in their life. Now, if Zechariah was terrified, what would become of you and me? If an angel, not God mind you, just an angel, a fellow creature—how would we handle the appearance of an angel? Are we like Zechariah, righteous before God, blameless in all the commandments and ordinances of God? Who here wants to raise their hand? If we were like Zechariah, then we would possess the spiritual sensitivity, listen, to tremble before him. As Calvin rightly said, it’s only those who are stupid and insensible who hear his voice without alarm.  

Folks, this should give us pause as we think about our own private and public worship. Adam and I were talking about this the other day, how so many worship leaders try to create a carnival experience for churches. It’s like they want to produce a rock concert every single Sunday, where everyone experiences a collective emotional high. Folks, that is not worship. That is emotionalism. That is manufactured by sentimentality and emotional manipulation. Listen, if the psalter is any indication, there is a wide range of human emotion that is represented throughout the Scripture. If we’re to be singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together—Ephesians 5:19— why do we focus on only one emotion. Our Sunday singing doesn’t need to be all happiness and giddiness and glee. It’s not wrong to have that. I like being happy, but we don’t need to seek spiritual goose bumps, little hairs standing up on the back of our necks, to validate a valid worship service. Why not sing some songs in a minor key, songs that acknowledge times of sadness and trial, songs that acknowledge our sin. What about songs that represent the imprecatory psalms, acknowledging the holy judgement of God on sinners? I’ll admit those are harder to sing publicly, corporately, but just as important. There’s a movement in Handel’s Messiah, Part II, that takes its lyrics from Psalm 2. I don’t know if you’ve read that Psalm lately. You want to hear the verses? I’m not going to sing them for you. I’ll spare you that, especially the way Handel put them together. But if you read Psalm 2, verse 1-4, he divides those verses into three different pieces—three different songs. He also, in a fourth movement, puts verse 9 to music. Here’s what verse nine says: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, though shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Adam, let’s see what you could do with that, right? Next Sunday. 

Listen, we have been trained to think about worship in such causal terms, in such a superficial way. We’re taught to think our worship is somehow deficient if it’s not all happy-clappy and goosebumps on the flesh. That is a sentimental approach to God— one that does not honor him in his holiness, with profound sobriety. I sometimes hear worship leaders pray, and they’re calling on God to come and visit the congregation, inviting him or whatever to join the worship service. Really? You want that? You think for a moment about Zechariah’s reaction to seeing an angel, a fellow creature, and this guy was a righteous man. I’m afraid a visit from God—our God who is a consuming fire—would absolutely overwhelm us. Like Isaiah 6 says, “Woe to me! I am undone!”  

That said, look at verse 13. Notice these gracious assurances from this angelic messenger, “The angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’” How gracious, and what joy after the darkness of the times, after the sadness of living without an active presence of God, without hearing his voice for 400 years, after the personal, profound sorrow of infertility and the social stigma that accompanied that. And now, after the terror of this abrupt, unexpected, angelic visitor, Zechariah’s ears hear the most gracious words of joy and promise, “Do not fear.” Gabriel said this at least one more time to Mary, Luke 1:30, and it may have been he who said the same thing to the shepherds as well: “Do not fear,” Luke 2:10. Gabriel was also the angelic visitor to Daniel, and he was sent to explain revelations to Daniel, the ones Daniel had seen. He had to calm Daniel down, as well. Daniel was a righteous man. Jesus also often had to tell people in his presence not to fear or fear to no longer. “Don’t let your heart be troubled.” Almost as soon as righteous people are dismayed by the presence of a holy God, almost as soon, almost immediately after they’ve had a visitation from one of God’s messengers, God visits them—tender and gentle—and he raises them up. Isn’t that just like God? He humbles, but then He exalts. He crushes, but then He heals and restores and lifts up. Gabriel tells Zechariah, “You’re prayer has been heard.”  

There’s a question here. Was Zechariah making a personal petition during his priestly service? Some people say no way. That does not fit. It was such a solemn moment, such a holy opportunity. His priestly duty was to offer prayers of confession for the people, to offer prayers of supplication for the redemption of the nation. There’s no way Zechariah, being a righteous priest, would dare to entertain any kind of a personal petition before God while in the sanctuary, especially since he and Elizabeth were old-aged. They were way beyond hope of having a child. Perhaps the prayer that Gabriel mentions that has been answered, is “Your prayer’s been heard, your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, you’ll call his name John.” Maybe that’s a reference to an earlier prayer that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying all their life. Then again, maybe Zechariah had prayed not just for a child, but for redemption of Israel, confession of sin, all the above. Is that a choice? Maybe he was praying that Elizabeth would conceive, that Israel would be restored, and that God would visit his people. 

There is no way of knowing for sure, but Gabriel’s immediate words are, “Your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall his name John.” There’s an immediate connection between the acknowledgement of Zechariah’s prayer and the answer that concerns only Zechariah and Elizabeth. And it’s only after telling Zechariah about the personal impact of this answer to their very personal, very intimate, only heard in secret prayer that Gabriel broadens it out. Notice verse 14—Gabriel even starts with the promise of joy for Zechariah and Elizabeth personally, but then he broadens it out to include the many. Verse 14 says, “And you will have joy and gladness,” and then this: “Many will rejoice at his birth.” Listen, I believe Zechariah was praying about both things. He was praying about the barrenness of this dearly beloved wife, and he was praying about the barrenness of his nation. He was praying for the fruit that would come from his dear beloved wife. He was praying for the fruitfulness of his nation. He was praying about Elizabeth’s consummation of hope and the consummation of the hope of his entire nation. I don’t think there’s anything unrighteous or inappropriate about making a personal petition in the sanctuary—nothing at all. God is the one who singled Zechariah out for that special honor, and Zechariah no doubt did his priestly duty in offering incense as a representative of his people, as the representative of their prayers. No doubt. He offered prayers for the redemption of his people Israel; his heart was like the heart of David, who prayed this in Psalm 5:1-7: “Give ear to my words, O Lord; consider my groaning. Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I do pray. O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.” 

Zechariah was a faithful priest. He represented Israel in his service before God in the temple, but that does not exclude the offering of a personal prayer. He’d never had the opportunity to enter the sanctuary and offer incense and now that he has it, why not pray just one more time for a child to remove his wife’s reproach? Bearing children is holy to the Lord, is it not? God had blessed the patriarch of the nation. In the same way, why not Zechariah? In any case, this answered prayer addresses both concerns, doesn’t it? By divine providence, by miraculous intervention, there’s a confluence, there’s a joining together, a uniting of Zechariah’s personal prayer request and his prayers for the entire nation. They come together, and they come united in one person: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John,” “Yohan nan,” “Yahweh is gracious.” 

In the previous section, verses 5-7, Luke introduced us to Zechariah and Elizabeth. That introduction ended on a note of sorrow—that they had no child because Elizabeth was barren. Both were advanced in years, with no child, no hope of a child. That sorrow has been completely forgotten now, eclipsed by the visitation of this heavenly messenger. He’s announcing an answer to prayer which results in rapturous joy. That word there translated gladness—“you’ll have joy and gladness”—that is the idea of a piercing exclamation, a loud exultation. This is no quiet rejoicing, sitting back in the closet. This is vocal, this is loud. This is public, and from here on through the rest of these infancy narratives, the stress is on joy. The mood is shifted completely, leaving behind the darkness of Herod’s reign, divine judgement on Israel, barrenness and hopelessness of the nation—and this couple is gone. Joy is the distinctive feature of everything that follows, and it’s perfectly symbolized isn’t it?— by the birth of a child, the birth of child. And it happened during the regular, normal ministry of prayer at the temple. It became a startling answer to prayer that exceeded all expectation way beyond anything Zechariah or Elizabeth could’ve imagined. We’re going to find out more about that next time. 

Just a couple things to note just quickly before we close. First of all, God responds to faithful prayer. God responds to faithful prayer. No doubt Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a long, long time. They were older, and yet they had never stopped praying, even when it seemed way beyond hope. Are we as faithful in prayer? Or as Jesus asked in Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Because that’s what faithful prayer requires. It requires us to trust in a God that is not seen, to exercise persistent faith believing in the unchanging God, hoping against hope because God is all powerful. Trust God, beloved. Keep praying to Him. 

One more thing to note: God works in and through faithful people. God works in and through faithful people. You cannot live a sloppy, halfhearted Christian life and expect God to do great things through you. All the characters in this narrative—Zechariah ministering in the temple, the multitude outside praying in the temple courtyard, people like Simeon, Anna—even Elizabeth, who was waiting faithfully for Zechariah to return home. These are all faithful, righteous people. God works in and through people who pursue righteousness, people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, people who long to walk in the path of God’s commands. Listen, that means first of all, you must be a true Christian. You must put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Secondly, it means you must be a faithful Christian, one who separates himself from the world to strive instead for holiness. As we can see, all throughout Scripture, God works in and through people who follow Christ, people who are striving for holiness, people not perfect by any means, but the trajectory’s right. It’s set on Christ. That’s what all of you here endeavor to be and to do, isn’t it?