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6. It’s A Boy! God Keeps His Word (Luke 1:57-80)

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In his book, Growing Deep in the Christian Life, Chuck Swindoll writes,

“History tells us that early in the nineteenth century the whole world was watching with bated breath the campaigns of Napoleon. There was talk everywhere of marches, invasions, battles, and bloodshed as the French dictator pushed his way through Europe. Babies were born during that time. But who had time to think about babies or to care about cradles and nurseries when the international scene was as tumultuous as it was? Nevertheless, between Trafalgar and Waterloo there stole into this world a veritable host of heroes whose lives were destined to shape all of humanity. But again, I ask who had time to think about babies while Napoleon was on the move?

“Well, someone should have.

“Let’s take the year 1809. Internationally, everyone was looking at Austria, because that was where blood was flowing freely. In one campaign after another that year, Napoleon was sweeping through Austria. Nobody cared about babies in 1809. But when you check the record, you realize the world was overlooking some terribly significant births.

“Take, for example, William Gladstone. Gladstone was destined to become one of the finest statesmen that England ever produced. In that same year Alfred Tennyson was born to an obscure minister and his wife. Tennyson would one day greatly affect the literary world in a marked manner. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1809. And not far away in Boston, Edgar Allen Poe began his eventful, albeit tragic, life. It was also in that same year - 1809 - that a physician named Darwin and his wife named their child Charles Robert. And it was that same year that the cries of a newborn infant could be heard from a rugged log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. The baby’s name? Abraham Lincoln.

“If there had been news broadcasts at that time, I’m certain these words would have been heard: ‘The destiny of the world is being shaped on an Austrian battlefield today.’ Or was it?

“Funny, only a handful of history buffs today could name even two or three of the Austrian campaigns. Looking back, you and I realize that history was actually being shaped in the cradles of England and America as young mothers held in their arms the shakers and the movers of the future. No one could deny that 1809 was, in fact, the genesis of an era.

“The same could be said of the time when Jesus of Nazareth was born. No one in the entire Roman Empire could have cared less about the birth of that Jewish infant in Bethlehem. Rome ruled the world. That’s where history was being made! Or was it?” (Growing Deep in the Christian Life, Charles Swindoll, 121-122).

Luke is careful in his gospel to give us historical facts. The fact is that the history of the world did not centre on Rome but on the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. And the precursor of the birth of Jesus was the birth of another baby - John the Baptist. In an event that seemed so terribly insignificant to the world, God acted in history to put to shame the things that to the world seemed so highly important.

Our subject in this sermon is: “The significance of the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus.” And the primary theological point of this message is that the coming of the Messiah fills us with comfort and hope.

We begin with the birth of John the Baptist, Messiah’s forerunner ...

I. The Birth Of Messiah’s Forerunner Produces A Powerful Reaction (1:57-66)

First, there is the reaction of joy at God’s great mercy (1:57-58). For Elizabeth the waiting wasn’t just 9 months but a lifetime. She and her husband, Zechariah, never dreamed that they would have a child, for they were both old and Elizabeth had been unable to conceive – she was barren. But just as God had promised Abraham and his barren wife Sarah that they would have a son in their old age, so he had promised Elizabeth and Zechariah. And now, exactly in accordance with the angel’s promise (1:13f.) “the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she had a son. Then her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her his great mercy, and they rejoiced with her” (1:58). The birth of a baby is cause enough in itself for joy, but this was no ordinary birth and no ordinary baby. No wonder Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her.

First, they rejoiced because “It’s a boy! God keeps his word.” The announcement by the angel Gabriel (1:11-17) to Zechariah had come true. That was very special and particularly since this would be the only child they would have to continue the family name.

Secondly, they rejoiced because the Lord had shown mercy to Elizabeth (1:58). God had acted supernaturally to cause an old man and a barren woman to conceive and bring forth a baby. This was the Lord’s mercy!

Thirdly, they rejoiced because this child would have a unique role in God’s long looked-for redemption.

First, there is the reaction of joy at God’s great mercy. Then…

Second, there is the reaction of amazement at God’s choice of name (1:59-63). On the day of circumcision (1:59), it was customary to name the child. All the neighbors and relatives assumed that he would be called by his father’s name, according to their tradition. But Elizabeth said, “No! He will be called John” (1:60). After scolding her for choosing a name that wasn’t in the family line, they appealed to Zechariah. Because he had been made mute by the angel Gabriel for not believing his announcement that they would have a child (1:20), Zechariah wrote out his answer: “His name is John” (1:63).

Notice, he does not say “His name will be John,” but “His name is John.” It’s already settled; it’s already agreed; there is no debate. “And they were all amazed” (1:63). The reaction of joy at God’s mercy to Elizabeth is followed by the reaction of amazement at God’s choice of name (cf. 1:13).

So, first there is the reaction of joy at God’s great mercy. Second there is the reaction of amazement at God’s choice of name. And then…

Third, there is the reaction of fear at God’s powerful act (1:64-66). The neighbors and relatives couldn’t get over the fact that Elizabeth had had a baby, that the baby’s name was John, and that Zechariah was able to speak again (1:13, 20). An older barren woman gives birth – that’s cause for joy! The angel’s choice of name - that’s cause for amazement! But the restoration of Zechariah’s speech - that’s cause for fear!

As the news of what had happened spread throughout the region “fear came on all those who lived around them and all these things were being talked about throughout the hill country of Judea (1:65). God was powerfully at work. They had seen it and heard it. They had seen God’s power in the miraculous birth of this baby and they had heard some very strange things that day.

When God acts powerfully it generates fear. That’s what the work of God does, it incites fear - fear because we are conscious of being in God’s presence; fear because God reveals his majesty and sovereignty; fear because of God’s power and what he can do; fear because of our own powerlessness, finiteness, and sinfulness in contrast to the presence of the all-powerful, infinite, and holy God.

If you are a Christian, you should feel holy fear - the fear that drives us to him in reverence and worship; the fear of our own unworthiness of his favor and presence; the fear of failing him through sin and disobedience.

And if you’re not a Christian, you should fear him because you are still in your sins. And unless you repent, you are under his wrath and will perish. Unless you repent, you will stand before him as your judge. If you don't fear God, may God have mercy on you.

The birth of Messiah’s forerunner produces varied reactions – the reaction of joy at God’s mercy, the reaction of amazement at God’s choice of name, the reaction of fear at God’s powerful act. And, then …

Fourth, there is the reaction of questioning about God’s future plans (1:66). The realization that God was at work in the life of this child caused them to fear and ponder and wonder and question: “What then will this child become?” (1:66). If this was the impact that God had caused at John’s birth, what would God do in him and through him when he grows up? Just as God was powerfully at work at his birth, so he would be powerfully at work in his life. “For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him” (1:66). God was already working in his life, blessing and guiding.

So then, the birth of Messiah’s forerunner produces a powerful reaction. Then notice secondly …

II. The Advent Of Messiah Himself Produces A Prophetic Song (1:67-79)

Immediately, upon his expression of faith in obeying the angel by naming his son John, Zechariah is able to speak again and the first words he speaks are words of praise to God. Notice that Zechariah did not rebel against God’s discipline. He had been unable to speak for 9 months because of his unbelief at the word of the angel, yet when he recovers his speech, he immediately praises God! His affliction had deepened and reinforced his faith! Though he had to learn the ways of God the hard way, yet he did not turn his back on God or become angry at God.

Sometimes God’s chastisement seems hard and we might have the tendency to rebel against God. Isn’t it true, that in times when God is dealing with us, there might be the tendency to kick against God? Those are the times when we might entertain questions like (1) Does God really love me? (2) Why would God do this to me? (3) What’s the point in following God if this is what it entails?

In fact, God disciplines us precisely because he loves us, “for the Lord disciplines the one he loves and punishes every son he receives” (Heb. 12:6). None of us likes being disciplined – “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). When we are disciplined by God, he wants us to learn from the experience, to mature, and go forward.

As soon as Zechariah is able to speak again, he utters a prophetic song of praise to God (1:67), at the end of which he answers the question, “What then will this child become?”

1. It’s a prophetic song of praise for what God has promised in the past - salvation for his people (1:68-75). “Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel” (1:68a). This praise of God is based on what Zechariah knows. He knows from the pronouncement of the angel (1:15-17) that this child is the forerunner of the Messiah. Therefore, he knows that the time of Messiah has come. And, therefore, he knows that the time of their redemption has come.

God keeps his word. God has “visited and provided redemption for his people” (1:68). The idea of “visitation” is not a Sunday afternoon cup of tea or a drop-in celebration of a 50th wedding anniversary. No! God has “visited his people” means that he has seen the plight of his people and he is coming down in sovereign grace to redeem them, for he is the God who sees, who hears, and who acts.

Notice that Mary in her magnificat (1:46-55) praises the God who acts but Zechariah praises the acts of God - God is acting on their behalf. Even though redemption at that moment was still future, it is now in motion and is absolutely sure so that Zechariah speaks of it has having already taken place. Just as God saw the bondage of his people in Egypt and came down to deliver them through Moses (Ex. 3:7-8), so here the birth of John the Baptist is the signal that God once more is about to deliver his people through the second Moses, the Messiah.

The central act of God that Zechariah celebrates here is God’s redemption of his people, and he focuses on what God has done in the past, the present, and the future.

As to what God has promised in the past (1:68-75), Zechariah looks back to the saving acts of God in history and his prophetic song is structured around what he knows from history. From history, he knows with absolute certainty that the source of these saving acts is “the God of Israel” (1:68a), that the plan of these saving acts is that God “has visited and provided redemption for his people” (1:68b), that the provision of these saving acts is that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (1:69), that the purpose of these saving acts is the “salvation (of His people) from our enemies and from the hand of those who hate us (1:71). That’s what Zechariah knows from history.

Salvation, then, is the fulfillment of prophecy, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past. God has “visited and provided redemption for his people” (1:68b) in his Son, the Messiah. He has made provision for the salvation of his people in that he has “raised up a horn of salvation” (1:69) as prophesied by David in 2 Sam. 22:3. A “horn” is the symbol of an animal’s strength. The rhinoceros is one of the largest and most powerful vegetarian mammals on earth today. One of its outstanding characteristics is its powerful horn. No obstacles get in the way of a 3 ton snorting rhinoceros charging at speeds of up to 30 mph. The “horn of salvation” refers to the saving power of the Messiah in the deliverance of his people – nothing can withstand him. This victorious, all-powerful King of the lineage of David will set Israel free “just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets in ancient times” (1:70).

God has not forgotten his promises -72 He has dealt mercifully with our ancestors and remembered his holy covenant— 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (1:72-73). to make of him a great nation so that we “having been rescued from the hand of our enemies, would serve him without fear” (1:74). God keeps his word!

Redemption is God’s means to an end, to deliver his people from opposition so that they could freely serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness (74b-75a). For Zechariah this was utopia, the coming of the Messiah that would give them the freedom to serve and worship God, to serve as priests of God “in holiness and righteousness” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9), to be consecrated to God “in his presence all our days” (1:75b) – not just 2 weeks each year as Zechariah and the other priests served in the temple.

And isn't this the purpose of our salvation to serve God all the days of our lives in holiness and righteousness? The sequence is: God redeems us from our sins and we serve him the rest of our days. We have been saved to serve! And the moral aspect of our serving God is “in holiness and righteousness.”

So, the advent of Messiah produces a prophetic song. First, it’s a prophetic song of praise for what God has promised in the past – salvation for his people (1:68-75). Then…

2. It’s a prophetic song of celebration of what God is doing in the present - a special child has been born (1:76-77). Zechariah now turns from addressing God to addressing the child. In the present, after 400 years of silence, God is intervening in world history by miraculously bringing into the world this child, John, whose mission would be “a prophet of the Most High” (1:76).

This child, who at that very moment probably lay asleep, undisturbed, inactive in his mother’s arms, has a marvelous future that the angel had foretold. And it is to that future role that Zechariah now refers.

This child is the last of the O.T. prophets, the one who “will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways” (1:76), the one who will “give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins (1:77). True salvation is not found in deliverance from political or religious enemies but in “the forgiveness of sins.” This is the “knowledge of salvation” that John would proclaim - not salvation through armed rebellion against Roman oppressors but salvation through repentance and remission of sins. John’s role was to prepare the way for the Messiah, not by inciting the people to insurrection but by awakening them to the consciousness of sin and to the desire for salvation from sin. Those who turned to God in repentance and faith through our Lord Jesus Christ have their sins forgiven, all of which is expressed in the confessional act of baptism.

Sin, not physical enemies, is the yoke that enslaves us, the yoke from which we so desperately need deliverance. The basic, underlying bondage of the human race is neither political oppression, nor psychological preoccupations, nor physical addictions, nor religious rituals. It’s the enslavement to sin. And the only deliverance that is of any lasting benefit is to have the power of sin in our lives broken through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

So then, the advent of Messiah produces a prophetic song. First, it’s a prophetic song of praise for what God has promised in the past – salvation for his people (1:68-75). Second, it’s a prophetic song of celebration of what God is doing in the present – a special child has been born, the forerunner of the Messiah. Then…

3. It’s a prophetic song of anticipation of what God will do in the future – he will save his people (1:78-79). The motivating force behind our deliverance from sin is “God’s merciful compassion” (1:78a). The term “God’s merciful compassion” literally means “the bowels of our God.” In Hebrew terminology, the bowels were the deepest, most intimate, and most compassionate part of the human being. So, the expression “the bowels of our God” connotes the compassion of God that comes from the core of his being, from deep inner anguish. The bowels of God’s mercy is the root cause for God sending his Son to be our Saviour. It is the love of God shown out in the gift of his Son. It is “God’s merciful compassion” which is manifested and fully told out in Jesus, “the dawn from on high who will visit us” (1:78b), the Messiah, that Light from heaven which has to come into the world, showing us the way to God.

God’s love is displayed in his mercy, which is operative in salvation, which is made effective through repentance, which results in forgiveness and remission of sins. God’s heart is tender, compassionate, and merciful such that he withholds the judgement that we deserve and provides a way of escape through salvation in Jesus Christ.

That’s the miracle of Christmas, isn’t it? Because at Christmas, God set in motion our redemption by sending his one and only Son to be born of a virgin, fully human and fully God. From his birth in a manger to his death on a cross, God was extending his tender mercy toward us by revealing his love for us and accomplishing our redemption. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins so that by believing in him we could be set free from the penalty of sin, the power of sin, the pleasure of sin, and, ultimately, the presence of sin. And that is certainly cause for a song of praise and celebration as we remember what God has done and anticipate what He is yet to do.

God’s purpose for Israel was always that, through her, light would come to us, Gentiles, “the people walking in darkness” who would see a “great light” (Isa. 9:2). We who were “excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). It is to us that God has extended his “merciful compassion” through “the dawn from on high who will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death” (1:78b-79a).

The coming of Jesus, God’s Son, into the world was the dawn of salvation for the world, shining upon us like the rising of the sun as it breaks through the darkness of the night. Those who dwelled in darkness and the shadow of death have seen a great light in the person of Jesus. Those who lived in spiritual, moral, and even physical darkness, bound up in ignorance and spiritual incarceration, have seen the light of God’s truth in the face of Jesus Christ. At last, through Jesus, we can see the way to God, for he is not only the light but he is also our guide, “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:79b).

The Saviour has come, shining the light of his life into our spiritual darkness and guiding our feet into the “way of peace” - peace as a result of forsaking our rebellion against God; peace which comes through the deliverance from sin by Christ through whom we have peace with God. All who are redeemed by Jesus are delivered from darkness to light, are delivered from rebellion to peace. And the one who has peace with God is now free to serve him.

Peace is the sum and substance of human well-being. That’s what everyone desperately wants. It’s what you want, whether it be political, psychological, or emotional peace. Above all we want peace of conscience and peace of heart and that only comes from peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who guides us out of our lostness in the morass of spiritual darkness to the way of light and peace.

Peace with God is the only means of peace with each other. Without that peace, the world lies in the hands of the wicked one, in darkness, chaos, and fear. This was the ultimate purpose of Christ’s mission, to bring to us the light and sunshine of the new age of God’s redeeming grace, to make known “God’s merciful compassion” to the world, to give us eternal peace. He has made “peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20).

And here, Zechariah anticipates that day, indicated in the birth of his child, the forerunner, and fulfilled in the birth of Jesus himself.

Final Remarks

“The child grew up and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (1:80). John grew to maturity and, after his priestly service in the temple, went into the desert awaiting the day of his public ministry. In that day, he would declare words of comfort and hope to the people of Israel in the words of Isaiah the prophet: “Comfort, comfort my people…announce to her that her time of hard service is over, her iniquity has been pardoned” (Isa. 40:1-2).

John the Baptist would be the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 3 Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. 4 Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isa. 40:3-5).

What comfort and hope those words must have brought them after not hearing from God for 400 hundred years, after crying to God night and day for a Saviour to deliver them from their desperate plight of oppression and abuse under the tyrannical power of Rome, after crying out constantly: 3 And you, Lord—how long? 4 Turn, Lord! Rescue me; save me because of your faithful love” (Ps. 6:3-4). They cried, “Harvest has passed, summer has ended, but we have not been saved” (Jer. 8:20). They cried in the words of the carol, “Come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” “We need a Saviour!” was their cry.

Now, they hear the sweetest news their ears had ever heard that God has sent a Savior to redeem them. In the words of Isaiah the prophet: “When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and leader, and he will rescue them (Isa. 19:20). For, “I—I am the Lord. Besides me, there is no Savior” (Isa. 43:11).

The coming of the Messiah fills us with comfort and hope. John would preach a message of comfort and hope. And John would preach a message of repentance and faith. That is the primary message of a prophet – to call people back to a right relationship with God. We must repent of our sins and affirm that repentance in baptism. “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:8).

This is the word of the Lord that we declare to you today, a message of comfort and hope and a message of repentance and faith – “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). That’s the message of Christmas, that a Saviour has come, Christ the Lord, and we need to get right with him. We need to repent of our sins and turn to God in faith. That’s what God is calling you to today.

If you are a Christian, the coming of the Messiah fills us with comfort and hope. What comfort, hope, joy, peace we have in the celebration of the first coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. And what assurance and confidence we have in the expectation of his second coming.

And if you you’re not a Christian, if you’ve never repented of your sin and turned to God in faith, if you have no comfort and hope, no peace and joy, if you have never experienced God’s merciful compassion in forgiveness, then, will you do that today?

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