God is Gracious

Advent 1, 2016, Glen Carbon Luke 1:5-15, 23-25

The dawning of the Day of our salvation began in the dark days when the people of Judea had been under the thumb of the Roman empire for 60 years.  An outsider, Herod was king, a Jew by birth, but not in conduct.  He had ten wives.  He erected The Roman golden eagle, in the temple.   He partially financed his extravagant building programs by appropriating money from the temple treasury.   He controlled the appointment of high priests.  It’s not that he was worse than other provincial kings, but he fully as bad as the others.

But in the quiet hill country of Judea, lived an older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth.  They were among the treasured possessions of the Lord.  Zechariah, meaning “The Lord Remembers,” trusted in the Lord who had remembered his people, and acted in behalf of Israel ever since the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Zechariah lived his life in accord with his faith.  As did his wife Elizabeth who also lived up to her name which meant, “God is an Oath.”  Her name testified, that what God promises God delivers.  Their faith was accounted to them as righteousness and they lived law abiding lives.  We would like to think the same could be said for us that we are faithful, righteous and law abiding.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were the ideal couple.  Both of priestly heritage.  Zechariah of the tribe of Levi, those who assisted the priests in the temple.  Elizabeth was a descendant of the first priest, Aaron, brother of Moses.  In fact, she shared her first name with the wife of Aaron. It was like the early days in our synod, when pastors’ sons married pastors’ daughters and kept all in the family.

As the book of Deuteronomy promised, they should have been blessed with numerous children.  Psalm 127, tells us, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  But there was no fruit of the womb for Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Oh, they had prayed and prayed for a child, but Elizabeth never got pregnant and now they were both old.  Do we have things of which we have dreamed, prayed for, hoped for, planned for, that never seem to come to fruition? How long do we keep praying and hoping for the fulfillment of our dreams when all we hear from God is the sounds of silence?  How long before we finally decide that God’s answer is “No?” and get on with life.

Zechariah and Elizabeth shared in the pain of some prominent Old Testament couples.  We know well of Abraham and Sarah.  God had promised descendants as many as the stars in the night time sky or sands on the seashores. However, there was no baby with twinkling eyes peered at them from his crib.    It was laughable to Sarah when three men came along one day and promised a child within a year.  She was 90 and her husband 100.  Nevertheless, a son was born. They named him, Isaac, laughter. Their son Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah.  Twenty years he and Rebekah waited for a child. Finally, their prayers were answered.  Rebekah was pregnant, but with twins who fought with each other even in the womb and her labor pains were excruciating.  Later one of their twin sons, Jacob, was conned into marrying two sisters.  The older, Leah, for whom he cared little, bore one child after another, but beloved and beautiful Rachel could not, until the very end when she mothered Joseph and Benjamin, but died in childbirth.  Like smoke on a quiet day the pain of childlessness hung in the background of the life of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they were in good company.

Then one day Zechariah received word he had won the lottery.   His name had been drawn to burn incense on the altar in the Holy Place in the temple in the Jerusalem at conclusion of the afternoon service. Perhaps this was a once in a life time occasion for Zechariah, and his family and his hill country village.  The incense altar stood in the Holy Place just outside the curtained off Holy of Holies.  Off to the side was the eight candled Menorah, the one which burned eight days after the temple was reconsecrated in the time of Judas Maccabaeus, a century and a half before, inaugurating Hanukkah. What a humbling honor to enter into the Holy Place.

Outside, the multitude of the people were praying as the incense rose.  To this day, we sing in the evening prayer service, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”  Undoubtedly, among the multitude was Simeon, who would soon take up in his arms and look upon God’s salvation in an infant named Jesus.  And there was Anna, worshipping with prayer and fasting day and night in the temple who would speak of the baby Jesus to the multitude who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

They were all waiting for Zechariah to complete offering the incense.  He would come out, stand on the steps and bless the people with words first spoken by Elizabeth’s ancestor, Aaron, and still spoken today, “The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”  But today there was a delay.  What could have happened?  People needed to buy some bread and go home and make supper.  People had things to do.  What’s the hold up?

The holdup was that the angel Gabriel had appeared, standing on the right side of the altar.  Zechariah was troubled and overcome with fear and finally doubt.  Remember that part of the service in which the pastor says, with “Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name.”  What if those angels and archangels and company of heaven appeared here?  It might boost attendance, but wouldn’t we be troubled and overcome with fear?  That’s the way it is when we are confronted by the holy heavenly host.  We like the prophet Isaiah know that we haven’t quite lived up to the holiness which is ours in Christ Jesus.

The angel said, “Fear not.” Then Gabriel told Zechariah that his prayer is answered.  “Elizabeth will bear you a son and you shall call his name John,” which means God is gracious. Yes, the Lord had remembered his promise of mercy spoken first to Abraham.  In acting in behalf of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God was also acting in behalf of all Israel as they waited for their redemption.  The answering of their prayers.  And God was acting in our behalf too.

It was the dawning of the day of salvation when God would visit and buy back his people from sin and death.  John, would prepare the way for the One who would come with salvation and the forgiveness of sins.

All of this happened during a conventional twice a day worship service.  So, it is happening beyond our sight during a conventional worship service this morning.  The Holy Spirit is carrying the word into your hearts and minds and lives, strengthening your faith and life.  As we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion we will also be receiving Jesus invisibly wrapped inside the bread and wine.  Once more our gracious God remembers his people.

And after the service Zechariah went home again. Elizabeth conceived and gave birth to John.  A few months later the angel Gabriel made another appearance to a virgin named Mary.  She too would conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus, who would bring about the day of salvation.  Therefore, we can go home to wait for the Lord’s coming, knowing that we are living in our gracious God’s day of salvation.

 

 

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