December 17, 2022 | Brian Bill
Many years ago, when our youngest daughter was in junior high, I was one of the chaperones for her and some classmates while they rang bells for the Salvation Army at a local grocery store. For over two hours, they sang every Christmas carol they knew.
It was fun watching shoppers come out of the store with sour looks on their faces but when they heard the carols of Christmas, they immediately started smiling. One commented, “This is the best thing I’ve seen today.” Another said, “This makes me happy.” At least three individuals started dancing. Many sang along with the songs.
One woman came out of the store and immediately started crying. She came over and put some money in the bucket and thanked the girls. Then, she moved about 10 yards away and kept crying. She came up again and put some more money in and started smiling. When we found out it was her birthday, the girls serenaded her with “Happy Birthday.” She cried some more and put some more money in.
During this entire time, the girls took only one brief break. When they were gone, I rang the bell, and all the shoppers went back to being grumpy and Grinch-like with their money. The girls came back and told me they had been asked to sing inside the store! As soon as they cranked up the carols the smiles returned, and the money started flowing again. I just slithered into the background. It’s a good thing I’ve never been asked to sing during the offering, or we wouldn’t have enough money to turn the lights on.
Many of the central characters in the Christmas story responded to their part in God’s plan with expressions of protracted praise and jubilant worship. Their original lyrics are recorded in Luke’s Gospel but find their roots in the Book of Isaiah.
During our December series called, “The Promise,” we’ve been using four words to summarize Christmas: Promises made. Promises kept. We’ve been moved to worship as we’ve considered how prophetic promises found in the Book of Isaiah have been fulfilled with pinpoint precision by characters in the Christmas narrative. Our topic today is, “Joy Shared” from the life of Zechariah. Here’s our main idea: God gives joy to those who believe in Jesus.
To set up Zechariah’s song, turn to Isaiah 34:2: “For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; He has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter.” Because God is a just God, He judges sin. According to verse 8, a day of judgment is coming: “For the Lord has a day of vengeance…” Verse 10 adds that for those who don’t believe, judgment will be everlasting: “Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever.”
This past week, after seeing sin celebrated in Washington, it made me wonder how much longer it will be before God unleashes His judgment on our country. I was reminded of this quote from Billy Graham: “If God doesn’t soon bring judgment upon America, He’ll have to go back and apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah!”
A couple months ago Pastor Chris told me he was going to speak on joy to the students. When I asked him how it went, he said he spent a lot of time teaching about judgment. When he transitioned to joy, he said the students were ready for some good news.
Many years ago, a pastor planted a church and instead of focusing on feel-good messages or felt need topics, he spent the first year preaching through the Book of Leviticus. This helped his new church focus on the holiness of God and the cost of their sin which necessitates a blood sacrifice. The Sunday after they finished Leviticus, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper and the people wept with joy as they realized their sins were forgiven through the blood of Jesus.
While Isaiah 34 pictures everlasting judgment, in chapter 35 God promises everlasting joy for the ransomed of God who return to Him. Prophecy in the Old Testament often pointed to a near future fulfillment as well as a far future fulfilment. Specifically, this chapter refers to God’s people returning from captivity as well as the events surrounding the first and second coming of Christ.
In contrast to judgment, listen to this good news filled with great joy from verses 1-2 and verse 10: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing…and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
The words “gladness,” “rejoicing,” and “joy” can be translated as, “intensively great rejoicing with a jubilant celebration.” Singing will replace sighing and gladness will come in the place of sadness. It’s interesting how Isaiah, which is a book filled with the sorrow of judgment, also has many verses describing singing with joy. Here are just a few.
Isaiah 12:6: “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
Isaiah 24:14: “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; over the majesty of the Lord they shout from the west.”
Isaiah 51:11: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”
Hold that thought as we fast forward 700 years.
Behind the Music
Imagine if you lived without any message from God…no Bible, no preaching, only silence from above (sadly, that’s how many choose to live today). Since the time of Malachi in the Old Testament, God’s people had waited four hundred years to hear from Him, waiting for His promises to be fulfilled. During these “silent years,” some of God’s people held on to hope, others were stuck in ritual and routine, and still others were not thinking about God and His promises at all. Immorality was rampant, sin was celebrated, and spiritual life among God’s people had lost its vitality. Sounds like America today, doesn’t it?
If you’d like to follow along, I’m going to retell the narrative found in Luke 1:5-20. A priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth lived during this time of sorrow and sighing. If we could color their lives, it would be gray and gloomy, and the sky would be cloudy (like this last week). They had another silence in their life because they were beyond child-bearing age and had no children. In that time, infertility was considered a curse.
Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a PK (a priest’s kid). They tried to live a blameless life but had not received the blessing of a baby. Jewish brides were taught to have a large family because the next son born might be the Messiah. Their unmet desires had led to unspoken despair and a sense of deficiency.
Perhaps you’re living with some silent pain right now as you struggle with infertility or with a miscarriage. You are not alone and there are others here who can help you with your pain. Maybe you’re grieving the loss of a son or daughter, a spouse, a grandchild, a parent, a grandparent, a friend, or a sibling. We offer a group called Grief Share on Sunday afternoons. Or you wonder how your teenager could turn out to be so rebellious or how your finances went south so quickly or why your marriage ended up in such a mess. Perhaps you’re single and ache to be married. Like Zechariah, you’ve been waiting for an answer, but heaven has been silent.
In a state of humiliation and helplessness, Zechariah was about to hear some words he could hardly believe. He served as a priest, one of 20,000, and two weeks out of the year when his division was on duty, he would travel to Jerusalem for his Temple responsibilities. This time he was chosen by lot to be the one to enter the Holy Place and burn incense outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies, where the Shekinah Glory of God’s presence was manifest. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a huge privilege! Jewish tradition taught that the priest who did this would be “rich and holy” for the rest of his life.
Zechariah arranged the incense and offered prayers of intercession for the people.
As the smoke from the incense shielded his eyes, he thought he saw someone. Suddenly, he realized he was face-to-face with an angel and “fear fell upon him.” Perhaps he was thinking about what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they carried out this ritual in a wrong way and were vaporized by God (see Leviticus 10). The dangers of his duty were well known to everyone. The idea was to get in, offer incense and prayer, and get out as quickly as possible.
But then, on the right side of the altar, which was considered the side of favor, the angel Gabriel appeared. His initial message had two parts. First, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” Second, “Your prayer has been heard.” They were going to have a son! Verse 14 links us back to the promise of joy from Isaiah 35: “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.”
Verse 15 explains what kind of man he would turn out to be and verses 16-17 describe the message he would preach as the long-foretold forerunner to the Messiah. One of his tasks would be to bring people back to the Lord and to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” which is a reference from Malachi and a message we desperately need in our culture today. We need a revival among dads, so their hearts are turned to their children, and children’s hearts to their fathers.
When Gabriel told him he was going to be a father in Luke 1:18, Zechariah immediately asked for some sort of sign: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” [That’s a nice way to say Elizabeth was old]. Zechariah was really saying, “I can’t believe it.” The phrase, “I am an old man” is a very emphatic statement. One preacher put it like this, “Imagine you go into the Holy Place, and you see an angel, and the angel gives you a promise and you say, ‘I need a sign.’ Gabriel is like, ‘Dude, I’m the sign. I’m an angel. What more do you want?’”
In verse 19, Gabriel responded by using the same emphatic expression: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” He was no ordinary angel – he was God’s top gun, one of the archangels who appeared earlier to Daniel and later to Mary. It’s as if Gabriel was saying, “You might be an old geezer, but I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God. Don’t you think God can handle this?”
He was too busy asking questions and focusing on problems to really hear God
On one hand Zechariah’s question seems valid (he and his wife really were well past normal childbearing ages); on the other hand, he should have known better. He was too busy asking questions and focusing on problems to really hear God. Now he would have nine months to listen. We see this in verse 20: “And behold, you will 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.”
Interestingly, Zechariah had asked for a sign and now for nine months he had to use sign language to communicate. Someone has wondered what the greater miracle is here – Elizabeth having a baby in her old age or a preacher keeping quiet for nine months! The people now wonder what happened to him because he can’t talk or hear (see verse 62). He’s going to be a new father and he can’t tell anyone!
By the way, in the din of the Christmas madness and endless commercialism, don’t let the cacophony of competing sounds and voices keep you from hearing the true music of the season. We need to figure out a way to slow down and be quiet. If we don’t, we’ll miss the message of Christmas. What do you think you would learn if you couldn’t speak or hear anything for nine months? Or how about nine weeks? Or nine days? Nine hours? Nine minutes? For some of us, it would be tough to be silent for nine seconds.
Nine months later, their baby was born and the whole town was filled with joy. We see this in verse 58: “And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” Another version says, “they shared her joy.” I also like this paraphrase: “Her neighbors and relatives, seeing that God had overwhelmed her with mercy, celebrated with her.” Notice they celebrated, while Zechariah was still silent.
Eight days later, the whole town came out to the circumcision ceremony where he would enter the covenant community and be given his name. Everyone assumed his name would be Zech, Jr., Zeke, or Zach. Instead, Elizabeth insisted he would be called John. This was shocking because the firstborn son was almost always named after the father or a relative. Zechariah asked for an iPad (it does say a “tablet”), and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” What he said in the original is even stronger: “John is his name.”
Inside the Music
I love what happens next. The song in his heart explodes with pent-up praise. The first words he says are not directed to his wife or to his family, nor does he talk about sports or the weather, or even what he saw in the Holy Place. His immediate response was an exuberant eruption of adoration! This is a fulfillment of Isaiah 35:6: “Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
This time of silence was really an act of mercy, not judgment
The one who was formerly mute is now making music! Zechariah had been unable to speak and now he can’t stop singing! The neighbors were filled with awe and all the shoppers started smiling at this one-man caroler. By the way, this is a perfect example of how God’s discipline does not disqualify us. This time of silence was really an act of mercy, not judgment.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah broke out in prophetic praise as he sang his Christmas chorus. I think of the hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” when I consider Zechariah’s response: “Hear him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ; ye blind, behold your Savior come; and leap, ye lame, for joy!” Zechariah couldn’t help but sing as he realized the miraculous birth of his son would be part of preparing people for the coming of Messiah. One thing we learn from the Gospel of Luke, which has more references to singing and praising than the rest of the New Testament combined, is how we too must sing because of the good news of great joy.
God gives joy to those who believe in Jesus.
Listen to these lyrics found in verses 68 and 78: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.”
Do you see the word “visit” is used twice? The root means, “To visit personally” and was used by Jesus in Matthew 25:36 when He said, “I was sick, and you visited me.” God saw us in our sin-sick state and sent His Son to come and visit us. This word was used of seeing someone in a bad situation and then personally intervening to provide a solution.
I should move on, but I can’t because I see another connection to Christmas. The word “visit” can be translated as “to tent upon.” That’s exactly what’s behind John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” Friends, that’s what happened at Christmas! Jesus personally visited us and dwelt among us to save us from our sins. At the incarnation, Jesus became Immanuel, to be with us, in order to save us.
Isaiah 64:1 captures the longing God’s people had for God to visit their world: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down!” It’s hard for us to fully comprehend this because we live on this side of Christmas. The prophets predicted His coming, but nothing was happening. Almost 1,000 years had passed since King David ruled, 700 years had come and gone since Isaiah’s prophecy, and it had been 400 years since Malachi’s last message. While most had lost hope, others held on, longing for a visitation from God.
As Zechariah looked down at his baby boy, he knew help was on the way. Somehow his son would prepare the way for the One who is the Way. The long wait was now over! The song, “O Come, O Come Immanuel” sums it up well. The Benedictus is all about God’s coming to earth. Nearly every phrase in Zechariah’s Christmas Chorus is filled with biblical references, especially from the Prophets. Here are five specific facts about the Divine Visitation.
1. Christ’s coming provides salvation.
Zechariah mentions God’s saving purpose in four different ways:
- Redemption: “For He has visited and redeemed His people.” (68)
- Salvation: “And has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” (69)
- Rescue: “That we should be saved from our enemies.” (71) “To rescue us from the hand of our enemies.” (74)
- Forgiveness: “To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” (77)
2. Christ’s coming fulfills prophecy.
Zechariah sang three stanzas extolling fulfilled prophecy:
- Promised by the prophets. “As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets.” (70)
- Cherished by the fathers. “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers.” (72)
- Guaranteed to Abraham. “And to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham.” (72-73)
3. Christ’s coming gives us purpose.
- Serving. “…might serve Him without fear.” (74)
- Sanctification. “In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.” (75)
God gives us grace so we can live for His glory. God blesses us so we can bless others. We’ve been saved to serve. I had the joy of watching a team of servants on Tuesday night as our Women’s Ministry team and Mainspring Ministry team partnered together to lead Curbside Christmas. Approximately 100 cars drove under the portico to drop off items for people in need. I greeted as many as I could and was struck by how generosity leads to joy! Everyone who pulled up had a big smile on their face. Even the Grinch showed up and started leaping with delight.
4. Christ’s coming will be prepared by John.
Next, Zechariah sings joyfully to John and utters three specific predictions about his future:
- He will be a prophet of God. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest.” (76)
- He will prepare the way of the Lord. “For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.” (76) John would end up fulfilling another prophecy found in Isaiah 40:3: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This passage is quoted in Luke 3:4-6 to describe John the Baptist.
- He will preach forgiveness. “To give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” (77)
This is exactly what John the Baptist did. His whole mission was to make the nation ready for the coming of Messiah. He was a prophet, a preparer, and a preacher of salvation.
Did you notice there are only two verses in this entire song about Zechariah’s own son? The rest of this chorus is all about the Savior because this dad recognized the subordinate position of his own son. Parents, this is a good challenge for us. Zechariah was good with John not being number one.
We need to train our kids to be servants and not to think that they’re the best or the brightest, entitled to a life focused only on fulfilling their own needs. We need to teach and model how they were created to put Christ first, deflecting attention from themselves to the Savior. One of the purposes of our parenting is to help our kids see their role in preparing others to come to Christ.
We would do well to mimic John’s life mission as found in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John was focused on being second, not first. He prepared people for Jesus’ first coming. As we decrease, we can point people to the deliverance Jesus offers so they are ready for His second coming.
5. Christ’s coming brings blessings.
In one final burst of praise Zechariah speaks of three great benefits:
- Light to those who are in darkness. “Whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” (78)
- Pardon to those condemned to death. “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” (79)
- Guidance to those who have lost their way. “To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (79)
God gives joy to those who believe in Jesus.
Beyond the Music
Here are some action steps we can draw out from this song.
1. Keep praying no matter how long you’ve been waiting.
Don’t lose heart. Keep seeking the Lord.
2. Find some silence and solitude in your life.
Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
3. Increase your generosity.
If you’re feeling crabby this Christmas and your joy tank is low, intentionally increase your generosity. Listen to Proverbs 11:25 in the New Living Translation: “The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.”
4. Point people to Jesus.
Let’s decrease so Christ can increase. Invite at least three people to one of our Christmas Eve services at 12, 2 or 4pm. We’re encouraging families to come and sit together as we’ll have a surprise special element at the end of the services.
5. Give your life to Christ.
Zechariah didn’t get his voice back until he acted in faith by writing out his son’s name. In a similar way, we won’t be saved until we scribble out the Son’s name. Will you write the name “Jesus” as your Savior and offer your life to Him?
6. Start singing more.
Years ago, when our girls were young, the Christmas devotional we used as a family suggested a song for us to sing. None of us recognized the tune so we struggled to sing it. That made one our daughters say, “Daddy, I’ve never heard you sing except at church.” Beth knows I’m usually too shy to sing so she helped me out by saying, “Just let your inhibitions go and sing…take a deep breath and belt it out.” To which this one daughter said, “I don’t want to be here when he does that!”
I’m committed to sing with joy if you’ll join me, especially if it will increase our offerings.