May 21, 2017
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Luke: The Gospel for Everyone
The story starts with…
Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
Introduction and offering:
Have you ever wondered where to start a story?
ILL: When I was 13 and a brand new Christian, I was asked by our youth pastor to give my testimony at a retreat with my fellow junior high students. I had no idea what a testimony was, so I asked, and he told me to tell my story. I started, “I was born on August 11, 1951…” and for the next hour, gave every detail I could remember of my 13 years on the planet. He was too kind to interrupt and stop me, but he should have! It was a disaster!
When Luke writes his gospel, the story of Jesus, where does he start? The story starts with…John the Baptist. But actually, as we’ll see, it goes back way farther than that.
Welcome to our Summer Bible Series in the gospel of Luke. Today, we’re going to read Luke 1:5-25 which predicts the birth of John the Baptist. I started my miserable junior high testimony with my birth. You’d think that’s where the story of Jesus would start too, but only two gospels have birth narratives: Matthew and Luke. Mark begins with John the Baptist preaching—so both John and Jesus are already 30 years old when the story starts. John begins in eternity past with Jesus as the pre-existent Word: “In the beginning was the Word.” Only Matthew and Luke tell about the birth of Jesus, and only Luke gives us lots of information about the births of John the Baptist as well. Luke weaves together these two births which were 6 months apart. It looks like this:
John’s birth predicted. Luke 1:5-25
Jesus’ birth predicted. Luke 1:26-56
John’s birth. Luke 1:57-80
Jesus’ birth. Luke 2:1-20
Today, we’re going to try to cover the birth of John the Baptist and see what we can learn.
Luke 1:5–25 (NIV)
5 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. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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 call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 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 before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And 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 their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 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 remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
You’ll see three things on your outline: Luke looking back, Zechariah looking up, and John looking forward.
The story starts with…
- Luke looking back: the gospel is rooted in God’s eternal purpose.
The story starts with Luke looking back: “in the time of Herod.” Herod was the ruler of Palestine from 34-4 B.C. So Luke looks back to the time of Herod, and tells us that there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah who was married to Elizabeth. They were “righteous in the sight of God.” This is a couple you’d admire—they loved God and kept His commands. But there was a problem: they were old and they had no children. In that culture, to be childless was a social disgrace, and some even considered it a curse from God. This is why when Elizabeth discovers she is pregnant, she says,
Luke 1:25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
For years, Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a child—with no result. Nothing.
ILL: Many of you here know that feeling. Did you know that 1 in 5 couples are infertile? Laina and I were unable to conceive. We believed that God had promised us that we would have children, but years of praying had no results. (We did more than pray…I want you to know!) I remember the tears, the dashed hopes, the prayers, the emotional struggle. Many of you are going through that or have. Zechariah and Elizabeth did too—for years and years, until finally it seemed hopeless. We remember that feeling; some of you know it too.
Our story had a miraculous note to it too. We decided to adopt and we adopted Andy as a newborn; 18 months later adopted Jeff as a newborn. And on the day we picked Jeff up, Laina’s cycle spontaneously started for the first time in 7 years. Ten months later, we were pregnant with twins. I remember Dr. Moyer, our OB-GYN doc walking into the room and shouting, “It’s a miracle!” When the girls were born, Andy was just over 3, Jeff was 21 months—four kids 3 and under! It didn’t feel like a miracle then! Three years later, Michael was born…and we were done!
So here are Zechariah and Elizabeth—old and childless and feeling hopeless. Maybe you know how they felt. If so, I pray that God will give you hope—because God loves to surprise us! And he certainly surprised them!
Zechariah’s division of priests was on duty at the temple and he was selected by lot to burn incense in the temple. There were 24 priestly divisions, each with about 1000 priests. All the divisions worked the big festivals like Passover or Pentecost, and then each division worked two other weeks annually. So you were only on duty about 6 weeks a year total. To burn the incense was a high honor, and you could only do it once in your lifetime— many priests were never selected. So this was a very special day for Zechariah—one that he had been waiting for his whole life. He was the priest selected to burn the incense in the Holy Place before the Lord. It was his turn!
While Zechariah is performing his duties, an angel appears to him, and tells him that his prayer has been heard, and Elizabeth will have a child. And this is not any child; this child will be part of God’s great story of redemption and salvation. This child will bring back many people in Israel to the Lord. This child will come in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the parents to their children, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The angel is quoting the prophet Malachi. The Jews believed that God would send a prophet in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah who would bring them salvation. The angel is telling Zechariah that this child is that prophet, the forerunner who would go before the Lord and get people ready.
Where does the story start? You could say, “During Herod’s reign”—that would be the time. Or you could say, “In the temple in Jerusalem”—that would be the place. But really the story starts clear back in the eternal purposes of God. Luke is telling us that all that is about to happen has been predicted in the Old Testament. The story of Jesus is not something new that popped up out of nowhere, but is the fulfillment of a story that started ages before. God has been at work through the ages and this is the promised fulfillment of God’s purposes. In fact, when Luke gives his genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3, he traces it all the way back to the beginning, to Adam, the son of God. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s where the story starts.
When Adam and Eve sinned and began to die, God promised a remedy. To the enemy, the serpent who had deceived them, God said,
Genesis 3:15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.
The woman’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent, and the serpent would strike his heel. Who is the woman’s offspring? Who came and crushed the enemy and set us free? It was Jesus. Later, God called Abram.
Genesis 12:1–3 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Why did God call Abram? Because God wanted to bless all peoples on earth. God was at work to bring us back to Himself, and He was going to use Abram and his descendants—and one Descendant in particular—to do it. Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise to Abram. Through Jesus, all peoples on earth were blessed.
So Luke starts off by looking back—way back. Luke grounds the story of Jesus in the eternal purposes of God, in the Great Story that starts in Genesis, continues through God’s long faithfulness to the nation of Israel, and will one day wrap up when Jesus returns as predicted in Revelation.
Why is this important? Why should you care? Two reasons.
First, God is faithful. God keeps His promises. Centuries of history had passed—people must have wondered if it would ever happen. Had God forgotten His promises? Then one day, Zechariah goes into the temple and is surprised by God! The promise was coming to pass! Now for us, centuries have past since Jesus lived, died and rose—and people today wonder if He will return as He promised. But God is faithful, and one day, the promise will come to pass. Jesus will return like a thief in the night the Scripture says—God will surprise us again! God’s eternal purposes will come to pass.
Ephesians 3:10–11 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God’s eternal purposes were accomplished in Jesus. He is the one who rescued us from sin and Satan, reconciled us to God, and gave us eternal life. God’s eternal purposes will come to pass. He is faithful and you can trust Him.
Second, your story matters. Your story matters because it is part of God’s big Story. Luke grounds the story of Jesus in the Big Story of God. And in doing that, your story gets grounded there too.
Here are the options. Option one: there is no God, so there is no Big Story, no meta-narrative, no purpose or meaning. It’s an accidental universe, an accidental world, and you are just one more small accident among millions of others. We live, we die, and eventually our planet will die, and none of this will matter. History isn’t going anywhere. Our stories are just random: we come from nothing, we go to nothing, we mean nothing.
Option two: there is a God and He created us with meaning and purpose. History is going somewhere; it is God’s Big Story, and you are part of that story. Your story makes sense only as part of His story. God is at work in your life, and what He started He will finish.
Philippians 1:6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
The story starts with Luke looking back: the gospel is rooted in God’s eternal purposes. And you are part of that purpose, that Big Story.
- Zechariah looking up: an answer to prayer.
The story starts with Zechariah looking up. He goes into the temple to burn incense, a practice that represented the prayers of the people rising to God. I’m sure that he was praying as he performed his priestly role. So here, in a place of worship, in a time of prayer, God meets Zechariah in an amazing way. The angel Gabriel appears to him. How many of you would freak out if an angel appeared to you? Zechariah was startled, and then terrified—gripped with fear. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.”
Would you tell the person next to you, “Your prayer has been heard.” That’s kind of comforting, isn’t it.
All those years of prayer and waiting—now suddenly, an answer. It must have been…unbelievable! In fact, Zechariah seems to think so. His question seems innocent enough: “How can I be sure of this? I’m an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Gentlemen, notice that he said, “I’m an old man,” but he didn’t say, “and my wife is an old woman.” Just, “well along in years.” Literally, “advanced in days.” My wife is not old; she’s advanced! He’s a wise man! It seems an innocent question and comment, but Gabriel detected a note of unbelief. It’s as if Zechariah were saying, “Are you kidding me? Do you know how old we are? Can you give me a sign, help me be sure?” So Gabriel gives him a sign: he won’t be able to talk until the baby is born!
He didn’t believe—but that didn’t stop God from keeping His promise. In fact, Zechariah’s unbelief only slowed him down, not God. God is faithful and came through right on time.
But here is the thing that really grabs me. Zechariah and Elizabeth were praying for a child, most likely a son. And God answers their prayer, but in a much bigger way than they ever dreamed. This son of theirs would be the Forerunner—the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. Their son would trigger the great redemptive drama that they’ve awaited for centuries. This was BIG! They prayed this and God answered THIS. They prayed for a son and God gave them John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said, “Among those born of women, there is no one greater than John.” (Luke 7:28) Imagine praying for a son, and God gives you a son who is the greatest person ever up to that time! This reminds me of Paul’s prayer:
Ephesians 3:20–21 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. Zechariah was praying for a son—God gave him more than he could ask or imagine.
I think God loves to surprise us. I think God loves to go above and beyond.
ILL: When Jesus calls Peter in Luke 5, you might remember that Peter, the professional fisherman had fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus told him to put out into deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Peter protested at first, but then agreed. As soon as he let down the nets, they filled up with so many fish that the nets began to break! Peter had to call his partners over, and they frantically scooped fish into both boats until they were so full they began to sink! I think Jesus was smiling. “You want fish?” This was a net-breaking, boat-sinking catch! Really, a nice catch would have made the point—Jesus went above and beyond.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” This is who you’re dealing with when you pray!
One more thing. It seems to me that God could have chosen anyone to give birth to the Forerunner. He chose Zechariah and Elizabeth, but He could have chosen anyone He wanted. Why them? I wonder if God chose someone who was praying. I wonder if when He was ready to launch His plan, God looked for someone who was praying, and said, “I choose you.” Certainly, Gabriel connects Zechariah’s prayer to all that’s going to happen. “Your prayer has been heard, therefore…” Then comes the answer, a bigger answer than Zechariah could have imagined. What if praying puts you smack in the middle of God’s radar? “I’m looking for someone to be part of my plan—ah…there you are.”
ILL: Another example: think of Cornelius in Acts 10. Cornelius was a Gentile, an officer in the Roman army. He was praying one day at 3 in the afternoon. How many of you pray at 3 in the afternoon? Well, there you go. An angel appeared to him and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayer.” Does this sound familiar—it’s a lot like Zechariah’s story. “God has heard your prayer. So send some men to fetch a man named Peter; he’s staying in Joppa.” Cornelius did what he was told, Peter came and shared the gospel, and Cornelius and all his guests became Christians—the first Gentile Christians ever. It was a huge turning point! It seems like when God was ready to do something BIG, to expand the church from Jews only to everyone—Gentiles too—that God looked for someone who was praying. “Ah, there you are.”
Would you like to be part of God’s Next Big Thing? Pray! I think God is looking for pray-ers. Maybe when we pray, we’re like the Donkey in Shrek: “Pick me! Pick me!” Pray here!
The story starts with Luke looking back, Zechariah looking up, and…
- John looking forward: he will prepare people for Jesus.
The story starts with John the Baptist looking forward. The angel has some amazing things to say about this child.
- He will be great in the sight of the Lord.
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
- He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord.
- He will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
John was the promised Forerunner, the one who would go before the Lord to prepare people for His coming. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, John was:
Isaiah 40:3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
And that’s what John did. John called people to repentance, to prepare their hearts for the one who was coming.
Luke 3:16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John had one purpose: to prepare people for Jesus, to point people for Jesus. In fact, you can always easily identify John the Baptist in paintings. He looks like this (3 pics: Matthias Grunewald early 1500’s; Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1655; Leonardo Da Vinci early 1500’s). John is the one pointing to someone else. He’s pointing away from Himself to Jesus. John summarized it this way:
John 3:30 “He (Jesus) must become greater; I must become less.”
I think that every Christian is, in a way, a John the Baptist. I think our job, just like John, is to point people to Jesus. He must become greater, I must become less. This is the Jesus story—everything points to Him. John knows that he can’t save anyone, change anyone, give anyone eternal life. And neither can I. And neither can you. Only Jesus can. He is the star of this story. All the rest of us are supporting cast. We point to Jesus.
That’s my job today: to point you to Jesus. I can’t save you, Jesus can. I can’t heal you, Jesus can. I can’t give you life, Jesus can.
Charge: Go point people to Jesus!