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The Music of Advent: Zechariah’s Song

December 9, 2007

Luke 1:67-79

Wednesday was a special day. I led a worship service here in the Sanctuary at 9:30 A.M. for all of the children in the Preschool Partnership. Then I went out to Summit Hills and led a service there for a very different group. In both services though, we talked about the gifts the wise men brought to baby Jesus. Everybody always remembers that the wise men brought gold; but the preschoolers said that the men brought gold, Murphy, and Frankenstein to Jesus. The senior adults at Summit Hills said, “It really ought to be gold, common sense, and myrrh.” I think common sense is a good substitution.

I have been asked a number of times, and I am sure you have too, “Are you ready for Christmas?” It is a question people often ask, I think, just as a way of making conversation. Of course, people mean, “Have you finished your shopping?” “Do you have your menu planned?” “Have you mailed your cards?” Someone asked me Thursday night, “Have you put up your Christmas tree?” I had not. Like the others, the person was asking if I was ready in all of the material ways. It takes us a lot of effort to get ready for Christmas. I know that is true at our house, and I am sure it is true at yours, as well.

For those of us who are Christians, getting ready for Christmas is not a matter of just making all the material preparations. Getting ready is also a spiritual matter. I want to talk with you today about being ready for Christmas in your heart and your soul, where it really matters.

Have your Bible open to Luke 1 this morning as we look together at the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Through examining this couple, we will find nine ways to help us understand what it means to get ready for Christmas in a spiritual sense.

We will begin at Luke 1, Verses 5-7:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

I particularly like the Gospel of Luke. As you know, Luke, a physician, gives us case studies throughout his writings. Here, we have a study about a couple along in years. It would probably be fair to say that Zechariah and Elizabeth are actually elderly. Zechariah is a priest in one of the twenty-four divisions of priesthood. Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, is also from a priestly family. Luke takes great effort to make the point that these two individuals are righteousness and blameless. He goes to that extent because people in the first century considered it a disgrace to be barren. They thought it a sign of disfavor from God. People sometimes thought that those who could not have children had violated the law of God. Luke makes it clear that that is not the case with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

The first way we prepare for Christmas is by waiting. Our style is to be in a hurry, to be busy, to push and push and push. We sing the song of the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, “I’m late. I’m late. I’m late for a very important date. No time to say ‘Hello.’ Goodbye. I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.” How many times do the psalmists tell us to wait upon the Lord? “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” says Isaiah 40:31.

Zechariah and Elizabeth have been waiting for a child, waiting for a long, long time. The couple’s story parallels what is happening in Israel. All of Israel is waiting for a Messiah, a Savior. If you are going to have Christmas in a spiritual sense, you have to wait upon God.

Verses 8-10:

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving is a priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.

What is Zechariah doing? He is serving. For Zechariah, this kind of service was very important. William Barkley says twenty-four groups of 20,000 priests each took two weeks out of the year to serve in the temple. Selecting the two or three who would actually enter the sanctuary and serve was a decision made by drawing lots, as if they were drawing straws. The practice was that once a priest had one week of service in the sanctuary, he was never again allowed to be in the group from which the lots were drawn. Zechariah, in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve in the temple, cleans the altar from previous sacrifices. He also serves by burning incense to purify the altar. Zechariah illustrates the second principle that if you want to be ready for Christmas, you must be willing to serve.

You can serve in so many different ways. Volunteer at agencies within this city that care for people who are less fortunate. Serve by giving. Serve, simply by paying attention to people who are in need, to people you know who are going through a particularly difficult time.

Worshipping is the third principle of being ready for Christmas. You will notice that while Zechariah is serving the Lord, he is also worshipping in the midst of a congregation. Assembled worshippers are praying outside while Zechariah and other priests are in the sanctuary, making preparations for future sacrifices.

Verses 11-17:

Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel he will bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready the people prepared for the Lord.”

While Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting, Zechariah is serving. He is also worshipping in the congregation. You will notice that the angel appears while he is leading worship and says to him, “Your prayer has been answered.”

Zechariah has his own private time with the Lord. This is the fourth principle. In order to be ready for Christmas, we must pray prayers of personal devotion, private devotion. Those prayers are different from leading worship. Sometimes I think we come to worship and really do not expect anything new to happen. Zechariah has waited a long time for this opportunity to serve in the temple. He never thought something like this was going to happen. It is true that sometimes God surprises us in the context of worship. We sing a song, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. I can feel His mighty power and His grace.”

Have you ever felt the brush of angel wings? Zechariah did. Verses 11-15 tell us that he was leading worship when he felt the brush of angel wings. He was startled, even afraid. The angel Gabriel had good news for him, a special message, which was, “You are going to have a child. Your waiting, your prayers, your faithful service – all of that now bears fruit because Elizabeth is going to conceive and have a child. This child is going to be special.” In Luke 1:17, Luke goes back and remembers, in these words of Gabriel, the very last words of the Old Testament. The book of Malachi includes a passage that talks about the hearts of children being turned to their fathers and fathers to their children (Malachi 4:6). This is not to say that John is going to be the reincarnation of Elijah. It is to say that the prophecy in the Old Testament is now occurring. Gabriel is saying, “Not only is your waiting over and coming to fulfillment, but now there is also going to fulfillment for all of the people of Israel.”

Zechariah has difficulty believing what he had been told. He responds to the angel in Verse 18: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’” This is almost an exact quote of Abraham in the book of Genesis. When God told Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, Abraham posed a question very similar to Zechariah’s. Consider Mary’s reaction when Gabriel told her that she was going to have a child. Mary questioned, “How can this be?” It seems clear that Gabriel is more lenient with the questions of Mary, a teenage virgin, than with those of Zechariah, an older man of the cloth. Considering these two instances, Zechariah’s question is not unreasonable, but Gabriel is not flexible with Zechariah. In fact, Gabriel tells Zechariah in Verses 19-20,

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at the proper time.”

Zechariah cannot speak. A priest leading worship must have his voice. Imagine a priest having his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead worship in the temple and then being struck dumb when an angel surprises him and he dares to ask what seems to be an obvious question.

I was leading a worship service here one Wednesday night. A dear lady, who was well along with Alzheimer’s, was sitting right over here with her husband. I was preaching away when she said out loud, “I wish he would shut up.” I did. That was pretty much the end of the message.

This kind of experience happens to Zechariah. He is struck dumb. He cannot speak one mumbling word, but he tries to communicate with them through the use of signs, quite difficult for him to do. People are astounded, as illustrated in Verses 21-22:

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but returned unable to speak.

If we are going to be ready for Christmas, we, too, must have some time of silence. Think about our Christmas carols. “Silent Night, Holy Night” is the most obvious. One of my favorite carols contains the words, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.” “Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10 says. If we are going to be prepared for Christmas, we must have some time of silence. For Zechariah, that silence was enforced; for us, it is really a matter of choice.

After his time of service, Zechariah goes home. Verses 23-25:

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace from the people.”

The sixth principle to consider when preparing for Christmas is that we need times of solitude, time alone. Elizabeth has five months, we are told. During that time, she reflects, considering what God had done for her. “God has shown his favor to me,” she says.

Long before you receive the first Christmas card or even if you do not receive any Christmas presents wrapped in pretty paper, you have been blessed. We all have. Christmas is not about getting stuff. Christmas is about being prepared to receive Christ. The carol “Joy to the World” says, “Let earth receive her King.” To be prepared for that, we must have some time alone, some time to reflect.

Verse 39 focuses on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, who is five months pregnant. Mary, only one month pregnant, is probably still having morning sickness. Mary knows Elizabeth is going to receive her. She is the first person to validate Mary, to validate her pregnancy, to validate that she has been blessed. Elizabeth knows that Mary has been blessed, and she knows this is also a blessing for her. She feels the child she is carrying move in her womb. The seventh principle is that we have to recognize the presence of the Lord, recognize the presence of God in our lives, in order to prepare ourselves for Christmas.

The king of France told Joan of Arc, “It is not fair. You hear God’s voice speaking to you. I am the king, but I don’t hear God speaking to me.” Joan answered, “It is because you do not pay attention.”

If we are always pushing and hurrying, if we do not wait or serve, if we do not worship publicly and privately, and if we do not have times of silence and times of solitude, times of reflection and awareness, we will absolutely miss the presence of God at Christmastime. We have to hold still if we are going to experience Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Verses 57-63:

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”

In the first century, it was the father’s prerogative to name the child. He always gave the child a family name. Very often the father named the first son for himself. Doing something different would be like naming the child for the milkman. It raised eyebrows. People wondered, “What in the world? Why is this family naming a child something other than a family name?” Gabriel had told Zechariah, “You are going to name the child John.” Both Elizabeth and Zechariah knew that. Why should his name be John? The name John means, “Yahweh has shown favor. The Lord is gracious.”

You will notice that Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the entire community experience great joy. If we are going to celebrate Christmas, we must have a time of joy. No matter how deep our sorrow, no matter how deep our sadness, we need to find joy in our lives. For some people, especially those who have a fresh grief, Christmas is a very difficult time. Even in the midst of that grief, joy has to find its way into our lives, as it did for this couple.

When we have joy, we sing. Look at what happened to Zechariah. He declared that his son’s name was to be John, and we find immediately in Verses 64-66,

His mouth was opened, and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea, people were talking about all of these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand is with him.

Zechariah had not been able to talk for nine months. Now all of a sudden, he can talk. He does not say, “Thank goodness that is over. I got my words back.” The very first thing he does is to praise God, by breaking into a song. This is a little bit like Mel Tillis, who stutters when he speaks because of a speech impediment. Mel can certainly sing though with no problem.

Zechariah’s song, which begins at Verse 67 and continues to the end of the chapter, is called the Benedictus. It is a part of the liturgy of the church. What is amazing about Zechariah’s song is that it is really the second verse of Mary’s song. The two are so similar. He talks about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, God’s forgiveness, God’s redemptive power, and God’s divine plan for salvation. Zechariah sings a song of faith.

Clare and I had a hard time coming to parenthood. We wanted to have children soon after we were married. Clare became pregnant and after just a few weeks lost the baby. I kind of shrugged it off, thinking anybody can have a miscarriage. It was hard for Clare. A doctor told us that it was very unlikely that we would ever be able to be parents, biologically. That was hard for us. We really wanted to have children. It is a Neely thing. We prayed. We also considered adoption and actually talked with an adoption agency.

Then Clare became pregnant again. This time, she carried the baby until she felt life but then she had another miscarriage. She was heart broken. I was so mad that I went out into the woods and shook my fist at God. I said, “I don’t understand this! People around the world have children like rats, and we cannot have a child!” I did not see anything. I did not hear anything, but I did get a message: “Kirk, how do you ever expect to be a father until you learn to hurt?” I learned to hurt.

We waited and started adoption proceedings again in 1970. We came to within six weeks before having a child. The adoption agency had already told us that they knew which child would be ours. We found out that Clare was pregnant again. We felt like it would be unfair to have an adopted child and then just six months later have a child biologically. We made a decision to terminate the adoption. It was one of the hardest decisions to make. It felt like another miscarriage.

We waited. The expected delivery date was December 18. As these things go, the day came and went. We had mailed packages to our family, and they had mailed packages to us. On Christmas Eve, the two of us sat by the tree together and opened one package from her family and then one from mine. We called both families about midnight and wished them a Merry Christmas. No sooner had we gotten in bed than Clare had her first contraction. At 5:00 Christmas morning, I drove her to old Norton Hospital as snow flurries were falling. Once checked in, she promptly went to sleep, having no contractions at all, while I sat, twiddled my thumbs, and waited. She woke up about noon and got down to business. By 3:30 in the afternoon, our son Michael Kirk Neely had arrived.

I learned a lot about waiting for a child, about waiting with uncertainty, and about understanding the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas has nothing to do with the packages under the tree. Christmas has everything to do with the work God wants to do in our heart. If we want to prepare for Christmas, we must be willing to wait, willing to serve, and willing to make time for worship, both corporately and privately. We must make time for some silence, some solitude. We have to recognize the presence of God. Our hearts need to be filled with joy. We need to sing. If we are going to be ready for Christmas, we must slow down. Slow down. Take some time and allow the good news of Jesus Christ to come into your heart, to come into your soul.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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