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Tender Mercy in the Rising Son

Luke 1:78-80

Well, listen, as we turn our attention to God’s Word this morning, go ahead and open your Bibles to that final section in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1. We’re going to be wrapping up. Hey, believe it or not, we’re going to be wrapping up Chapter 1 today. Yes! It’s been such a joy. There’s a sense, really a sense for me—I don’t know about you—but it’s a sense in which if it weren’t for what’s coming next, which is the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t want to leave this portion of Scripture. It’s been so rich. The songs of Mary and Zechariah have been so beautiful, so filled with profound theology, they just stir our hearts to worship. At the same time, what’s glorious about these two songs we’ve been through and spent some time in is not just what they say, but what they point to, what they direct us to. And that’s coming next, and we’re well prepared for what’s coming next. We don’t what to be, though, like Peter, who wanted to build tents and stay right there. God’s about to introduce us to his Son with whom he is well pleased. And so we’re more than ready to obey that command. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” So, we do want to listen to him and look at him, and we’ll do that in the weeks to come. But to help us to listen to him better, to understand the significance of listening to him, we’ve slowed down just a bit to contemplate this prophecy of Zechariah. This is the last day on it. So, let’s read it one more time together, starting there in verse 68 of Luke Chapter 1: 

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will 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, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 

As you know, if you’ve been with us over the past few weeks, we’ve already looked at the bulk of that. That great song —I’m not going to cover all that ground again. But what we’ve covered really does inform what we’re going to look at today in these final verses, just these final two verses, 78 and 79. The theme here is about the dawn breaking, about the experience of seeing light shine out of darkness. This glorious light that’s shining here in a very dark and desperate land. These verses here point us to a direct fulfillment of God’s restoration promises, all his messianic promises, awaking long-lost hopes, satisfying deep, almost forgotten longings. Because of profound sin and widespread unfaithfulness in the land, people languished in guilt and the consequences of their sin. That’s what verse 79 points to when it talks about darkness and the shadow of death. Darkness and death had blanketed that land, well, for definitely the most recent centuries and even beyond that and going back a long time, since basically the divided kingdom. Four hundred years, though, had passed since the people had returned from the Babylonian exile and, frankly, in people’s hearts and lives, nothing had changed. If you read the post-exilic books like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi—you see people really remain the same after the exile as they were before the exile. Sad to see.  

And it’s actually quite strange. As a people, as a nation, they had watched God do exactly what he said he’d do. He said, “Repent or I’m going to judge you. Repent or I’m going to judge you. Repent or I’m going to judge you.” And he said it over and over again, sending prophet after prophet after prophet. They didn’t repent. So, he judged them, sent them into exile. And you would think they would repent and come back to the land and be so grateful, so appreciative that they would want to obey him; they would want to give their hearts to him. And they, once again, gave lip service to the very same thing. They continued practicing the very same sins. It just didn’t make sense. They continued—these people of Jerusalem and Judah—they continued to pursue self-centered interests. They cared more about making money, about building houses, about indulging desires than investing anything in spiritual salvation, spiritual growth, spiritual fidelity to the covenant. The leadership proved to be unfaithful. Common people proved to be unfaithful. All of them were unwilling and, frankly, unable to keep the law. They were still wandering in darkness. Any glimmer of hope that had appeared in that return from exile, it quickly receded back into the darkness as the land settled in for a long, long night, 400 years of night. 

I recently watched a documentary called Antarctica: A Year on Ice. The narrator chronicled a full year at McMurdo station, a research outpost in Antarctica. The film wasn’t from a researcher’s point of view, and it was pretty fascinating. It portrayed the life of people who would winter over, like firefighters, cooks, administration staff, human resources personnel, information technology communications people like that to support researchers. Antarctica is one of the harshest environments on the planet, especially during its long, harsh winters. Temperatures remain well below zero and the sun disappears completely for about four months. During the months of darkness, people develop what’s called Winter-Over Syndrome.” That’s what they call it, and they associate it with something else called “Polar T Syndrome.” I won’t even try to describe the medical or biological name for the “T” term, but it results in a set of adverse symptoms due to cold and a lack of sunlight. One article I read described it this way and it kind of prompted me to read a few articles on this subject; I found it fascinating. One article I read described it this way: “The austral winter in Antarctica has long been associated with reports of depression, irritability, aggressive behavior, insomnia, difficulty in concentration and memory, absent-mindedness and the occurrence of mild fugue states known as long eye or the Antarctic stare.” I don’t’ know, it sounds like me without coffee. I don’t know. 

As it turns out, we don’t do so well, whether physically or mentally, without light. Take away light, and people develop all kinds of troubles. One of the chefs at McMurdo station described the onset of symptoms in an article that she wrote on her blog called “Great Moments in T3.” She writes this: “Last night—well almost every night of the season—I put my earbud-style headphones on to listen to music while I edited my novel. I put the “R” earbud in my right ear. I put the “L” earbud in my mouth. Yes, it’s that time of season, T3, formally called ‘polar ‘sadness, I settle in.” Later in the article, she described Polar T3 Syndrome as a taste of dementia. And the winter in Antarctica she described as kind of a preview of death. Pretty perceptive comment, actually. For those who wintered over at McMurdo station, as the cold, dark months stretched on week after week like that, it was fascinating to hear these people describe in their own words their intense longing for the light, to get just a glimpse of the sun. They become depressed, lethargic; their activity slows down to the point of a crawl, even almost to being totally immobilized. It’s as if they sat in darkness and in the shadow of death. 

“He put everything in motion to fulfill his promises to Abraham and to Israel’s forefathers. “

Travis Allen

Spiritually, we experience the same thing. Without light, we die. Using darkness and death here to describe the condition of the soul without the light of God, it’s so very appropriate. Without the light of truth, people suffer all manner of disorders, spiritual, mental, even physical suffering without truth. People, all of us really, are born into darkness. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know anything different, but we long for the light. Inside there’s still this understanding that we’re created in the image of God and we’re missing something. We need him. We don’t know how much we’ve missed until that light, that dawn begins to break. And that is why in these songs of salvation—Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus—these godly people break forth with such exuberance, such profound joy and hope to see the sunrise shining from on high. This is nothing less than the rising of the sun after centuries of darkness as God fulfills these long-forgotten promises to his people. 

One such promise comes from Isaiah 60:1-3, which say, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you, for behold darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” What wonderful words for a people who were so long subdued under the weight of sin, trying to keep going on with a troubled and a guilty and a muddled conscience, unable to think clearly, trying to fulfill themselves all the time by drinking from “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2.13). Here at last is some good news. Here at last, God has not forgotten. 

God sent John. He promised to send John, caused him to be conceived, and then he brought him into the world through the process of childbirth. Likewise, but in an altogether more miraculous manner, obviously, God sent the Messiah. He promised to send him, he caused him to be conceived in the womb of the virgin, and then he brought him into the world as well. We’re going to see that in the next chapter. No one but God manufactured this. No one but God was in control of the precise timing. No one but God was in control of how this was happening—the process, the means, the manner. God just decided, “Now’s the time.” And he acted. He put everything in motion to fulfill his promises to Abraham and to Israel’s forefathers. 

Folks, as we face a similarly dark and ever-darkening culture, we’ve got good news for those people as well. They’re just as lost. They’re just as under the Winter-Over Syndrome, the Polar T3 deal—they’re going through that spiritually. They’re suffering. They’re just as distracted by temporal things as Israel was, just as chained down by their sin, just as weighed down by their guilt. We interact every single day with people who suffer from a spiritual form of Polar T3 syndrome, and they so desperately need the light. We have it. We can tell them. So as we announce good news of the salvation God has revealed to other people, we receive some special insight from this text—these two verses we’re going to cover this morning about God’s motivation for the Gospel. What happened as a result is laid out here for us in the text: God’s motivation for the Gospel and the gracious illumination he provided in the Gospel, which is the result. And this is what you really need to get a grasp of for yourself. You need to understand this for yourself to reinforce your own appreciation of God’s love for you because if you don’t have that in your heart, you won’t ever tell anybody else. Once you have that and you’ve resolved it in your heart and you know with a deepening understanding of God’s love for you, well, then you’re going to go out and tell others about this God that you know. As you cut through the clutter, you cut through all the traditions, the baggage they have, and you introduce them to the Christian faith, really, for the very first time. 

So notice the first point for your outline this morning. It should be written there in your bulletin. I just called it simply “the motivation for God’s Gospel.” In a word, the motivation for God’s Gospel is this word “compassion.” God “has visited us,” it says there, with tender mercy, with an acutely felt compassion. You see it there in the first phrase of verse 78, “because of the tender mercy of our God.” Now, that phrase begins verse 78, and it sets up the remaining portion of the song, but it’s grammatically connected to the previous verse. And actually, the phrase there in the sentence that runs from verse 76 to 79—that phrase, “the tender mercy of our God”—is at the dead center of that sentence. It is at the center point. It really acts as a pivot point in the sentence. On the one hand, God’s tender mercy is what explains the origin and source of John’s ministry. John came into being and did what he did to give knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of sins to God’s people because of God’s tender mercy. On the other hand, God’s tender mercy is what explains the origin and the source of the sunrise coming from on high. So, God’s tender mercy here is really just like this fountainhead of grace. It prompts his acts of kindness. It prompts his practical help to provide an actuated salvation. Or, more in keeping with the metaphor used here, God’s tender mercy is the birthplace of this star that is now shining, that now casts its warm and brilliant light all across a people who are languishing in pitch black. 

Zechariah knew divine compassion was at the center of the Gospel. It was the motivation for God acting graciously toward fallen sinners. It says in Psalm 130, verses 7 to 8, “With the Lord there is steadfast love,” and another translation, “steadfast mercy.” “With the Lord is steadfast mercy, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” God’s forgiveness has always been motivated by compassion from start to finish. The word used in verse 78, translated “tender mercy”—it’s a pretty strong word. It’s the word splankna. It’s rendered “tender mercy” in a lot of modern translation. A more crude translation, which depicts maybe more graphically the sense that’s being communicated here. It’s an old word. It’s the word “bowels.” And in the ancient mind, the bowels were the seat of emotions and feelings negative emotions like anxiety or anger were felt here inside, in what they call the bowels. Or the positive feelings like pity or tender compassion. In our culture, we’ve replaced that word “bowels” with the word “heart.” Anatomically, I guess one is as good as the other, right? Really, neither of them connect, but they just kind of have this sense of something visceral; we feel it, we feel it inside. What it depicts is this sense that we all have that we all experience, what we all feel that stirs our sympathies, that provokes our empathy, provokes our pity. It’s compassion, right? And sometimes you feel it when you see something that’s so pitiful. 

G. Campbell Morgan, a pastor of Westminster Chapel in London in the early 1900’s, once tried to help his congregation understand the significance of this term, splankna, “bowels.” He wanted them to grasp this concept of divine compassion and he illustrated it using the Isaac Watts hymn, With Joy We Mediate the Grace. The opening stanza in that hymn of Isaac Watts is this, “With joy we mediate the grace of our High Priest above, his heart was filled with tenderness, his bowels yearned with love.” G. Campbell Morgan was lamenting how modern versions of that hymn printed in hymnals at his time had sanitized what some viewed as really crude language. Publishers removed the term “bowels” and just rewrote the stanza—I imagine without Isaac Watts’ permission—public domain I guess. They wrote it this way, “His heart is made with tenderness and overflows with love.” Morgan didn’t like that. He decried that change. He didn’t care if the word “bowels” offended the sensibilities of polite company. He wanted to keep Isaac Watts’ original wording—and for good reason. Here’s what he said: “Every strong man or healthy woman knows how under stress of mental suffering, the whole physical nature is plowed to its very center. The phrase ‘tender mercy’ lacks the suggestiveness of trouble and stirring pain and agony, which are all in the figurative word.” He’s absolutely right about that. Splankna is a very strong word. And intentionally it’s strong. We’re meant to get the sense that God’s affection, his compassion for lost sinners, like us, it’s deep. It stirs him. He’s grieved, he’s sorrowing over sin and its effects on us. I really love G. Campbell Morgan’s phrasing here—“God is plowed to his very center with compassion for us in our sin.”  

Folks, that is the motivating factor in the Gospel. That’s why he sent his Son—to deliver us from such depth of sin, from hard-heartedness, from callouses that build up on the outside that protect our nerves from feeling anymore. He plowed right through that, broke it all open and dealt with the problem at its source. Listen, that’s why we confront sinners. That’s why we expose their sin. This is precisely why we need to be so clear and unambiguous when we talk to people about sin and its consequences. We have to have the courage to look people in the eye and tell them the truth. This covering it over and saying things that are vague doesn’t help anybody. The ramifications of continuing sin don’t just affect this life either; they affect the life to come. We tell people the truth because we know how grave their situation truly is. We also know personally, we know intimately, we know practically how compassionate our God is. His “bowels,” as it were, are stirred with compassion, with empathy, with sympathy over those who suffer in sin’s bondage, who are weighed down by guilt, who act out irrationally in their shame. And that’s why, verse 78, God acted. He acted out of his tender mercy. That’s the motivating factor in the Gospel. 

So as we pivot around that hinge, around this hinge of divine compassion, we come to the latter half of the second main section in Zechariah’s song, and here is the result of divine compassion. It’s absolutely magnificent, and it’s the second point in your outline there: “the illumination of God’s Gospel.” Take a look at the effects, the practical results there of divine compassion in verse 78 and 79. “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Notice how Zechariah ends his song the way he began it, with the visitation of God. In verse 68 he said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Remember that? Now he says essentially, “God has visited us with light.” A merciful visitation of God. That is the essence of the Gospel. It’s a merciful visitation. God will visit the earth one day again, right? At that time when he sends Christ to come, it’s not going to be mercy, it’s going to be judgment. Mercy is now. Now is the day. Now is the time.  

Several contrasts in those two verses we just read. You see light versus darkness. You see those who sit contrasted with those whose feet are moving, guided into the way of peace. You see the shadow of death contrasted with the way of peace, which is life. The exact phrasing comes from Psalm 107, verse 10, “Some,” the Psalmist describes there, “sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And that’s the wording, but the imagery as a whole—what Zechariah seems to be portraying in these two verses here—it’s really all borrowed from Psalm 107. In fact, go ahead and turn back to Psalm 107 because I want you to see this for yourself. Psalm 107 really is one of my favorite Psalms. I absolutely love the imagery there. It’s filled with illustrations of divine compassion, demonstrated in very, very practical ways. God delivers those who cry out to him, whether they’re lost and wandering, whether they’re prisoners of the darkness, whether they’re victims of their own foolishness and folly and sin, or whether they’re utterly helpless before forces that are too powerful for them—like sailors on stormy seas—forces of nature that they can’t do anything about. All the imagery in Psalm 107 I personally experienced in God’s deliverance for myself in the midst of all those circumstances—and perhaps you have too. 

But notice Psalm 107 verses 10 to 12. It says, “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death [that’s what we saw in Luke 1], prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they have rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help.” It’s an echo of Nehemiah’s lament, actually, in Nehemiah 9. 36 and 37: “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the king whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.” Psalm 107 illustrates that—the plight of sinners. It uses these poignant word pictures so accurately. And Zechariah pulls all that imagery into his song, portraying the plight of all mankind. Keep a finger there in Psalm 107, but look back to Luke 1 again at verse 79. The metaphor of darkness illustrates the blinding effects of sin. Man is under the delusion of sin’s deception. He’s confused. He’s led astray by lies and error. He pulls himself out of one pit only to fall headlong into another. And eventually he finds himself imprisoned with death as his jailor. He’s chained by his sins. He’s clothed with the tattered prison garb of guilt and shame. Death hovers over him, over this prisoner, like a shadow, ominously threatening him and patiently waiting for the judge’s permission to execute the sentence and fall violently upon his victim. And the shadow of death chills this prisoner to the bone, causing him to quake in fear. The sense of dread foreboding, terror and sorrow—he has no power at all to escape it. He’s stuck. 

“By the light of the gospel, God guides our feet into the way of peace.”

Travis Allen

That powerlessness to escape is pictured here by the participle, “those who sit.” Grammatically, it’s a present participle; it’s used with a definite article, and it refers to those who are sitting continually in this condition of immobility. Those people who are in darkness and the shadow of death—they are absolutely trapped, they’re enslaved, they’re going nowhere. It’s a picture of oppression, despondency, utter despair—all hope is gone. So, here they are, pining away with no help in sight, and suddenly, brilliant life floods the prison cell. Here again is this emphasis on the universality of light. It illuminates the entire planet. The light is not only confined to the borders of Israel, but reaches out to every corner of the earth.  

You say, “Well, where do you see that in Luke, Chapter 1?” Well, it’s in the reference to the sunrise which comes from on high. That term, “on high,” we’ve talked about that before because it’s related to the same root—it refers to God Most High. Remember how we talked about God Most High and that that title emphasizes God’s absolute sovereignty, his being high above every nation, every people of the entire earth? That’s the term. And Jesus is the “Son of the Most High God,” Luke 1:32. The Holy Spirit is the power of the Most High, Luke 1:35. And now this sunrise is visiting once again from “on high.” It’s a star that finds its origin and its source in God Most High. 

So it’s got a universal scope. It’s got a worldwide reach. All peoples are under its light. It’s exactly what Simeon foresaw when he took the baby Jesus in his arms and he said in Luke Chapter 2:29 to 32, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” So the sunrise from on high—it pictures the universal scope of the Gospel, but also I can prove it by telling you this: It also refers to the ubiquity of this light. This light is everywhere. Ubiquity just means it shines everywhere, it’s pervasive, it’s absolutely inescapable. It’s like the physical sun, right? Psalm 19 verse 6, “Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” Just as nothing on the surface of the earth escapes the light of the sun, so also the sunrise from on high is going to visit all those who sit in darkness, every single one. 

Now, everyone sits in darkness and in the shadow of death, right? Sadly, not everyone benefits from the light. Notice who benefits from the visitation of the light. It says, “The sunrise”—verse 78—“visits us.” Its light “guides our feet into the way of peace,” verse 79. Not everyone benefits, so what is it that makes the difference? Well, flip back—I told you to keep a finger in Psalm 107 and I meant it. So go back to Psalm 107 because I want to show you this and read that section again in verses 10 to 12. “Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. So he bowed their hearts with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help.” Now, look at verses 13 to 14: “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.” 

So what made the difference? They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, right? The key here is humility. It’s repentance. It’s crying out to God for help. Repeatedly, Psalm 107 points to the cry of the penitent as the key to the prison cell. Looking up in faith, crying out in repentance. In fact, you can let your eyes scan the verses there. Look at verse 6, verse 13, verse 19, verse 28. They are all four exactly the same cry. No matter which dire circumstance is being described, it says, “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” Can I tell you it doesn’t matter what kind of trouble you face right now? It doesn’t matter. If you cry to the Lord in your trouble, he will deliver you from your distress. Humble yourself before him. Put your faith in him. Trust him. Cry out to him; he’ll deliver you. 

This experience of deliverance from prison from darkness and the shadow of death—all of us who are saved, we all know it. Charles Wesley described it like this: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray. I woke the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed thee.” Is that not the experience of the redeemed? The metaphor of light pictures the delivering power of the truth, the illuminating power of genuine understanding, the life-giving warmth of the sun. Light is life. Light is the glory of God. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,” 1 John 1:5, “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Those who love the light find joy and gladness; they find hope and confidence in the light of truth. 

Now, back in Luke 1:79, don’t turn there, just listen for a second. I’ll bring you back there in just a second, but Luke 1:79 has this final phrase: “The sunrise shall visit us from high,” and then it says this: “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” For those humble penitents, those who cry out to God in their distress, no sooner has the light shined to set them free than they are no longer sitting in despair. They’re standing up to their feet and then they’re walking. And here’s where Zechariah borrows imagery from an earlier portion of Psalm 107. Take a look at the first word picture he describes there, which starts in verses 4 and 5. It says this, “Some have wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.” The imagery there is of a lost caravan, which was a very grave predicament. Think of a caravan traveling with all its world’s goods, traveling with families, traveling with women, small children, old, young, everybody in between, and they are lost. You’re dead if you’re lost, if you don’t know your way, wandering around in a desert where there’s no water, where there’s nothing but sun beating down. They’re suffering, they’re languishing in the oppressive heat. They’re wandering in circles; they’re unable to find their way.  

What’s the way forward? Verse 6. Same thing, right? “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” That’s the same predicament summarized in Luke 1:79. Go ahead and turn back there. 

Sunrise from on high—it shines brightly to give illumination, to give direction, to give protection, ultimately to give salvation for this lost caravan. By the light of the gospel, God guides our feet into the way of peace. He leads us by a straight way until we reach a city to dwell in. In that city, we’re protected securely, we’re provided for abundantly. In that city, God “satisfies the longing soul and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”  

Frederic Godet wrote this: “All at once a bright star rises in the horizon and lights up the plain, the travelers taking courage at this sight arise and by the light of this star find the road which leads them to the end of their journey.” A way of peace refers to, first, an objective peace. You might call it the end of hostility, the end of enmity with God. That’s the way of peace, true peace. As Paul says in Romans 5:1, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God,” a cessation of hostilities against God. No longer are we at enmity with God. No longer is God our enemy. No longer is he pouring out his wrath on us. We’ve been justified by faith, so we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And it’s in that objective, peace, which is really the essence of salvation, that out of that grows a subjective peace, a tranquility of mind, a sense of “everything’s okay,” clear conscience, God is our friend. And that subjective peace just grows stronger over the course of our journey until we arrive safely in our heavenly home never to be troubled again. 

It’s quite a song that Zechariah just sang, isn’t it? Illuminated by the rising sun, raised by the power of divine compassion, such a beautiful way to help us anticipate everything that comes next in Luke’s Gospel. As we close, I want to look just briefly at verse 80. We don’t want to leave anything out. Verse 80 says, “And the child grew.” It’s talking about the child, John the Baptist. “The child grew and became strong in spirit and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.” This is a cap of the entire chapter, and it really is a segue into the next chapter. It’s kind of putting a close on this reference to John. We won’t get back to John the Baptist until Chapter 3. Everything else is going to be focused on the infancy narratives of the Lord Jesu Christ in his early years as a young boy. 

But for now, we need to close the chapter on John where we are. It says he grew, became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. Obviously, this verse isn’t meant to teach us that Zechariah and Elizabeth, right after the birth, dropped John off at the desert on their way home from the hospital to fend for himself. Luke has just summarized here in one verse 30-plus years of John’s upbringing, all right? Clearly John was raised from a baby, was cared for by his godly, elderly parents. His earliest years were spent in the home of a priest, under the righteous instruction of godly parents. Imagine all that they poured into him as a young guy growing up in their home. But John was drawn by the Spirit; he was drawn to the desert places, never far from his home. He probably would have been getting out there as a young boy, as young boys do, going to explore, getting out there, seeing what’s out there. As he grows older and older and gets a little more courage, he goes out farther and farther and farther until eventually the desert in his place of constant abode as a young man. 

One commentator supposed John was 20 years old so when he started to live permanently in the desert. And if that were the case, it could have been his teen years, but he could have spent ten, fifteen years there in the desert—more than a decade at least—alone until he appeared to Israel as prophet of the Most High. It’s hard to say for sure. Nevertheless, he grew up, became strong in spirit. He became mature, both physically and spiritually. He lived in the desert until the day of his public appearance. That word for public appearance is a word that refers to a commissioning; it refers to a formal installation into an office—his own office. Until that day, John remained alone, isolated in the wilderness. It may point to the severity of Israel’s spiritual condition. God didn’t want him around those people. He didn’t want John the Baptist polluted, contaminated, influenced. His role was so significant he needed to remain utterly separate so as to be untainted by the influence of his contemporary culture. No familiarity with the culture. Interesting, isn’t it? You hear so much these days within the evangelical church that says we need to know the culture if we’re going to reach the culture. Well, here’s something different from John, right? The day he arrived and began his public ministry, he was already primed and ready. He was prepared. He was strong, physically, spiritually, clear-headed, morally, ethically. There were no gray areas in this guy’s ministry, no tolerance for compromise, no corruptibility. John was ready to go to war. That is where Luke leaves us for now.  

As we close Chapter 1, we have a strong sense of inevitability, that everything is proceeding and unfolding exactly as God planned it. Nothing can stop it. John emerged from the desert, announced his own commissioning, got to work. Even though the common people would be puzzled at the sight of this really strange guy dressed in strange stuff, eating weird diets and stuff like that, they would be unable to deny that he came directly from the Lord. No one denied that. 

You know, I hope it can be said of us, as well, that no one can deny that we have come from the Lord, that we’ve been affected by his Gospel, his word. I hope we don’t look like everybody around us. I hope we appear a little strange. I’m not going to advocate any different wardrobe or any diet or anything like that. I kind of like the stuff everybody else is eating. But honestly, I hope when we sit down with people and we get into conversations, that they think we’re not from around here. And it’s not the accent, it’s not the cultural factors or anything like that. It’s our heart, our mind. It’s how we act. It’s what we don’t say. It’s the conversation we don’t get involved in. I hope we seem just a bit strange, like visitors from a heavenly kingdom. We have so much to look forward to in this Gospel of Luke and next up, the birth of Jesus Christ, which is just in time for the Christmas season. Such providential timing, don’t you think? Well let’s pray together. 

 Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you once again for a close to Zechariah’s song and what it’s taught us about your tender mercy, your splankna, hat you are moved internally, viscerally, with compassion toward us in our lost condition. And there are so many of us in this room that know exactly what that darkness feels like. We know what it is to long for the life even before we longed for the light. We know what it is to be absolutely lost. We know what it is to have that light dawn in our hearts. I pray, Father, that if there are any here who don’t know you and don’t know what that light is like, I pray that you would open their eyes and give them salvation. I pray that if there are any here who are calloused because of sin, and their heart has grown hard and cold, I pray, Lord, that you would break that hard heart, that you would soften it and reach down and show them your grace, your compassion, your mercy. I pray that you would demonstrate yourself, that you would be the God that you are to all of us, your people, and let us then go forth, not only warmed in our own hearts because of that knowledge and truth, contented in the goodness of our God fully, but going forth in that, we would preach to the lost in our dark and dying culture. We love you, we give ourselves wholly to you, completely to you in your service. In Jesus’ name, Amen.