The Ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20)   

I read today’s passage and think to myself that I must be doing this pastor/preacher thing all wrong. I’m just too nice!  Seeing this fellow John the Baptist, here is a guy who looks like someone competing on the Survivor show or a character from the cast of Alaska: The Last Frontier. He calls his audience a “brood of vipers,” yet multitudes of people flock to hear him preach. Maybe I need to kick up the nasty factor a few notches and embrace my aggressive New Jersey in-your-face heritage of communication a bit more!

What we have in our reading today is essentially Luke’s calling of the characters on the stage to get into their positions, while he as director calls “Action!”  Luke sets the stage by introducing some of the major players of that era in the political and religious fields of leadership …

Luke 3:1 – In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

This exact year is A.D. 29.  Tiberius was the ruler of the Roman Empire from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37.  Pontius Pilate ruled from A.D. 26 to A.D. 36, and this Herod is the famous Herod Antipas – ruling over Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39.  His brother Philip ruled to the east side of the Jordan from the same beginning point, but ending five years earlier in A.D. 34.  Not much is known about this Lysanias dude, who ruled out on the fringe of our story, beyond Damascus. Of the Jewish leaders, Annas had been high priest for nine years until A.D. 15, when the Romans dumped him. Though his son-in-law Caiaphas was placed in that position from A.D. 18-36, the people generally recognized Annas as the rightful high priest.

The action starts in this general timeframe with the ascendance of John the Baptist to public notice, being led by God to come out of his wilderness isolation and begin to preach his message of repentance as a preparation for the public ministry of the Messiah …

Luke 3:3 – He (John) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

This is a quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 that anticipated the coming Messiah, and the gospels of Matthew and Mark also attribute this to John’s preparatory ministry about Jesus.  When visiting monarchs came from far places and crossed desert terrain, preparations were made to clear obstacles and make a smooth pathway of entrance for the coming king. This is what John was spiritually accomplishing. His preaching was becoming well-known and people came out from the towns and cities to hear his message …

Luke 3:7 – John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 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. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

The idea of repentance is to agree about the truth of errant ways of life and then changing one’s life to demonstrate the inner conversion. A symbol of this was baptism: an outward act that spoke of an inner change of heart. The people could also prove their genuine change by the manner in which they lived and treated others. This was especially true of those who were privileged and could use authority to steal money by extra taxation (like Zacchaeus did) or to threaten with military power for extortion – there was no one for an oppressed victim to turn to when this happened.

There was a need in Israel for repentance; true faithfulness and biblical insight was more rare than common. Yet at the same time there was a great expectation of a coming Messiah, though this hope was for most people more of a political desire in terms of their difficult lives under Roman domination… more than it was a spiritual anticipation, as John and Jesus would preach.

So people wondered if John was this Messiah, but he makes it very clear that a greater one is soon coming behind him. John was merely the warm-up act in the show.

John’s message was indeed very bold and confrontational. Notice how Luke says it was for all nations, seeing also how even soldiers were coming to this truth. As well, it says that John, along with his hard message of truth, also exhorted the people in many other ways about what was indeed the good news.

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

Hey, scratch was I said at the beginning about more bold preaching! John’s ministry likely only lasted about a year or so, and then he was imprisoned for a couple of years before being beheaded. We’ll cover this in more detail in chapter 9 when we get to that point in late January.

The message and challenge of the gospel remains the same for us today. We may grieve our physical life conditions and wish for better circumstances, but the greater issue is actually a spiritual one. The matter of greatest importance is the condition of our hearts and our relationship with God through his son, Jesus Christ. And that is the greatest issue of concern we should have for others around us – our families, friends and associates. This is the true reality.


The Childhood of Jesus (Luke 2:39-52)     

I know that I have at some point previously written in these devotionals about one of the more famous stories from the growing years of our family of boys. It was at a time when we only had the first three, and I would estimate that their ages at the time of this incident were about 6, 5 and 3.  It was at the evening feeding time (known as dinnertime to more sophisticated families) that the two older boys – Nathan and Benjamin – were being very, very bad at the table. I had warned them several times about their poor behavior when, at last, I just blew up on them. Following a severe verbal lashing that left them in quiet tears, a moment of dead silence followed. The air of heightened tension was at last broken when three-year-old Aaron just blurted out confidently, “I’m always a good boy!”  Diana and I couldn’t hold it together, we totally busted out laughing!

Though indeed a very good child as I recall, it was not however a definitive truth that he was ALWAYS a good boy. But there is one child in history who could make that assertion, and that was Jesus. Imagine being his brother and having to hear Mary and Joseph say, “Why can’t you be good like your older brother?”

We weren’t perfect parents either, although we never made the mistake of temporarily putting a child in a carrier on top of the car while settling everything and everyone else inside, and then driving away with a boy still on the roof.

We did however leave a child behind one time … yes, Aaron, when he was about age 5 or 6. We had been at a soccer game of an older boy, and by this time also had a fourth child. Diana and I had driven there separately, and then we each drove home, each thinking that Aaron was with the other. It was a while until we realized it was unusually quiet, at last also realizing that we had left him behind at the field.

Oh my! I got into the car and drove quickly to the sports complex (just a couple miles away) and pulled up to find Aaron there with only one couple who yet remained. They were saying to him, “Tell us again little boy where you live.”  You would think the kid would be glad to see me. But he just said, “Hi dad” and then joyfully continued on with the long story he was telling these people.

This same sort of mix-up happened with Mary and Joseph and Jesus in this lone biblical account we have of the childhood of Jesus. It involves a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover when Christ was age 12. This was a big deal for a family to make such a journey in ancient times, but many did. The roads would have been filled with pilgrims, surely many of them travelling together in groups. It was typical during these journeys that the older children would more likely be with the men, while the younger ones would be with the women.

After the festival, each thought he was either with the other or at least somewhere among the families and friends journeying home to Galilee. At the Holiday Inn on the first evening, he could not be found. So back to Jerusalem went the parents, searching for three days before finding him in the Temple. Jesus gives them a priceless answer as to what had happened. It’s a sort of “Duh” with an accompanied face-plant, “Why would you think I’d be anywhere but here?”

Over the years of church ministry in each place I have served, I have had that occasional precocious kid who is like “age 12 going on 40.”  Sometimes it is a child who is advanced in biblical understanding, or perhaps one who is way ahead of the game musically and in terms of interacting publicly. We’ve seen these kids; we have some of them!  But this must have been on an entirely different level, sitting in the temple with the religious teachers and leaders – listening and asking questions. Knowing how Jesus messed with them later in life with probing questions that had no answer, I could imagine even at age 12 there were interactions that were alternately amusing, deeply probing, and even annoying to be coming from a middle-schooler.

We may be a bit surprised at the reactions of Mary and Joseph. After all, they knew he was the Anointed One, the Messiah. But all of that divine, prophecy stuff had happened 12 years earlier. The picture I have of this is that there were no other big events to remind them of this over the intervening time. Think about something that happened at Christmas in 2005. How real is that to you today? This is not to say that they forgot or that they did not believe. Rather, I’m simply suspecting that their lives fell into 12 years of regular patterns of family life and making a living – building lots of chairs, cabinets, bedframes and animal troughs … having more children, etc.

We tend to think of the godly characters of Scripture as people who had an ongoing, daily conversation with God, experiencing miracles around them on a regular basis. In fact, prior to the Day of Pentecost, biblical characters did not necessarily have the Holy Spirit resident in them in the way we do. They did not have the completed Scriptures. Yes, there were great events in their lives, maybe even a series of them within the space of a couple of chapters. But between those big events were often many long years of silence where they had to live out their faith even in the absence of visible evidences and without the comfort of the indwelling Spirit.

For them, for us, this walk on earth is a long, faith walk in the same direction. As it says in Hebrews 11:1,2 — Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. It is like long-term investing. There are many days when “the markets of life” are not producing obvious gains. But the reward is there in the end for those who remain faithful.

Luke 2:39 – When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-38)

I began yesterday by talking about the music of this Christmas season and how for me, as I’m sure for most of you, the songs of the holidays bring back memories of years gone by. Unlike any genre of music, I believe it is Christmas season music that has been the most creatively crafted and reworked over the ensuing decades. Traditional songs, both sacred and secular, are now recast with all sorts of new harmonies and musical styles that have more recently arisen – even to include unforeseen treatments like hip-hop, techno, or contemporary R&B.

As you can probably sense from my words, all of these arrangements bring out the music geek inside me. I’ll be listening to a creatively-arranged treatment of a classic Christmas tune, analyzing the harmonic progressions and expecting a certain direction, when, suddenly the composer throws in a twist that was totally unexpected.

The greatest of stories have such a flow. While copying the greatest story ever by going from “once upon a time” and ending with “and they lived happily ever after,” the best writing will take the reader upon a wild ride of ups and downs and twists and turns. And the nativity story is filled with such development.

Today we see the devout parents of Jesus performing the duties of their faith by observing the appropriate dedication rites and sacrifices in the temple. On any given day, there were surely dozens of other devout Jews doing the same thing. It was a place of great activity. But a couple of twists happen for Joseph and Mary in what would have been expected to be an in-and-out, quick experience.

First, they run into a pair of older saints who are divinely attuned to recognize exactly who this child and family is. Having been told in some fashion by the Lord that Simeon’s work on earth would not be done until he had seen the Messiah, it is revealed to him that this baby is indeed to be the long-awaited Christ. Anna, likely even older than Simeon (and anyone else nearby) is also aware of the significance of this moment. Together, for the purposes of Luke’s argument and gospel presentation, they are witnesses that collaborate the identity of Jesus from the very beginning.

Secondly, there is an unexpected comment in the midst of Simeon’s prophetic words. The scene is fully Jewish: Jewish people doing Jewish things in a Jewish place in fulfillment of Jewish prophecies over many centuries. And then Simeon comes out with, “… my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles…”   What? What’s this gentile/nations talk doing here at this moment? Again, harking back to our earlier sermon series this fall (The Other Side of the Tracks), God has the first and the biggest heart for all of the peoples of the world. Jesus is about more than just fulfilling Israel’s prophecy. Can I hear an “amen” from my readership?

Thirdly, this prophetic utterance and incarnational fulfillment is all about the victory that God is doing in the biggest picture of big pictures. Boom! This is the solution to everything that has gone wrong! Oh yes … victory to victory from this time forward, right?  Yes, that is the end of the story, but the process is going to be difficult. There will be conflicts that arise, grievous strivings … with results that will cut through the soul of the mother Mary like a sword. We still live with the battle raging.

But without doubt, the final victory is certain. Even amidst the tumult and strife, even in our own demise from the physical world, we can have peace and certainty that all ends well for eternity. And that is the ultimate peace we take from the season of peace … though hate is strong and mocks the song, the bells of Christendom peal loudly the truth that wrong shall fail and right prevail with peace on earth.

Luke 2:22-38 – When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-21)

I am not sure there is another passage in Scripture that dredges up so much within me as does our passage today about the birth of Christ. I was just doing the math in my head, and it is now 48 years of Christmas programs and celebrations that I’ve been a part of since the first one when I was in 9th grade. That year was a sort of coming-out season for me musically, as I was assigned one of the lead parts in the annual church Christmas cantata. My mother was thrilled … not sure about everyone else.

One thing led to another, and in college I was singing lead parts in Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio along with the school’s orchestra. Next it was directing such programs at our large Dallas church. Then it was on to other Christmas concerts in New Jersey, TSF Christmas shows, etc.

All of these programs have lyrics drawn extensively from this Luke 2 nativity passage. Simply reading through it sets off a cacophony of melodies in my mind like a jukebox gone haywire! As I write this, the contrapuntal harmonies and flowing lines of Handel’s chorus “Glory to God” are pounding through my brain.

Beyond the accumulation of songs, there is also the mental pile-up of decades of sermons preached on this passage. Within them I’ve gone deeply into the Roman decrees for taxation, the travel complications these demands wrought for Joseph and Mary, the awkward nature of their betrothal situation, the stellar character each displayed, the outcast Bethlehem shepherds who raised the sheep for sacrifice in the temple, and the splendor of the angelic hosts … to name a few themes. I shamefully confess to growing weary of these rehearsals, and I project upon the hearers a weariness that in fact may not be there(?).

But at the end of the day, at the end of another Christmas season, I do walk away most especially blessed by one major theme – the simplicity of the people God chose, both to do His work and to hear of it. The stars of this story are not the elite of the world in places of power, nor were they the religious leadership mega-stars of that time. Rather, God used simple people like Joseph and Mary, announcing the news also to those among the most socially outcast of society – the shepherds.

At a time in history where ordinary church folks in Hagerstown can feel rather far down the ladder of life, being a part of the odious Christian faith that is so out of favor near and far, there is comfort in this story. Our faith is bolstered by the realization that it has always been true that such commonplace folks as ourselves have always been the target to receive this truth. And at this juncture the tune rings again through the jukebox of the mind that “to meek soul who receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Luke 2:1 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-80)

I really love my primary care doctor, not that I see him that often. We’re about the same age and we seem to have hit off a nice, jovial friendship. He really is a chatty fellow. You never feel like you’re being rushed along so that he can get to the next patient. The problem with this is that he was probably this same affable fellow with the three or four patients prior to me. Therefore, I’m always deep into extra innings of waiting for him to show up. First is the long time in the outside waiting room. Then you get your name called with an escort into an examination room (giving you hope). After a while, the door opens, but it is just a clerical person reviewing your information. Some time later the door opens again, but this time it is a nurse who is just getting some vital readings and that sort of thing. Finally, after a long, long time, the doctor himself arrives. But he’s so nice that he makes it worth the wait (even though I’m calling back to the office to postpone my appointments).

That is nutshell of what it was like for the godly people in Israel during the intertestamental period as they anticipated the coming of the Messiah. His coming had been foretold over many centuries. The “door would crack open” from time to time as other prophetic voices and religious leaders would come upon the scene. Though helpful and encouraging, none proved to be the long-promised Messiah.

In the meantime, there was national sickness and suffering. The political situation was really, really bad. The Holy Land was dominated by oft-despotic and cruel gentile rulers. Faith said, “Wait for it; wait for it; he is coming.”  But that was difficult to do.

As a priest, Zechariah was one who had high hopes and Old Testament-based expectations of a Messiah. He surely was a voice within the nation to call the people toward sustaining hope in the depths of darkness. And now, unexpectedly, of all people, he was filled with the Spirit and given insight as to the fulfillment of this work of God. It was indeed about to happen, and his son was to be an integral part of the public preparation and presentation of God’s work.

With his voice now returned, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and breaks into prophetic praise. There are at least 15 allusions to OT prophecies and statements in this passage.

The first paragraph speaks of the horn (an allusion to strength) that is being raised up in the coming of the Messiah to the family of David. This would mean both spiritual salvation for God’s people, as well as national salvation from the enemies and oppressors of Israel.

The second paragraph anticipates the role that John would play. He would go before the Lord Jesus to prepare the hearts of the people for his coming, pointing to Christ as the One to follow. It would truly be like light in the darkness … like the doctor finally arriving!

A final sentence from Luke in verse 80 speaks of the way John spent time in the wilderness for his own preparation for the part he would play. Though this seems a bit weird to us, in that time it would remind the people of the great prophet Elijah – one who was said to, in some form, return before the day of the Lord and the coming of Messiah.

Just because the Messiah in Israel did not come as quickly as many anticipated did not mean that God was delayed in His plans and schedule. We may wonder why Jesus seems to linger and not return as promised to mend our broken world. Beyond that, much of our lives are spent in waiting for God to do this or that work in or through us. But God is always on schedule. We can never look back and say that God failed to show up. We can trust Him and trust His schedule – to fulfill His work of the ages, and to do His complete work in and through us.

Luke 1:67 – His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.

The Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66)

As I write these thoughts today, earlier I was pondering the infant dedication which will be a part of our Sunday morning gathering next week. I think it is going to be a very significant time. Each situation has a background story of difficult times, even wondering if children in the home could be a reality. These little ones represent God’s gifts and goodness in very profound ways.

And so it was for Zechariah and Elizabeth. This was more than just a … “Wow, I guess they weren’t too old for children after all.”  No, that a baby boy came into this home was nothing less than a miracle that was recognized by everyone in a tight-knit community. Added to the wonder of it all were the unique physical things going on with Zechariah – from this passage indicating that he likely was not only not able to talk, but also not able to hear (as people were making signs TO him).

The tradition was for a son to be named after the father, so it was a great surprise to the people in the community that Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John. The people did not believe her, likely because she was a mere woman in that time and culture. But Zechariah affirmed the name in obedience to God. Immediately he was able to talk and he breaks out in praise of God.

All of this must have been quite a scene in a small community. Surely these events would be long remembered by people who would add to the story about John’s unique role in God’s plan, especially over the years as he began his preaching ministry.

Not every child dedicated to God is destined for a great public ministry of some sort. Ministry callings can also have some attendant difficulties in a world that is hostile to God’s representatives … John ultimately losing his head, for example. Infant dedication is not only about the child, it is also about the parents/families dedicating themselves. And we all need to be dedicated to whatever tasks the Lord will lead us and our families into. But there is ultimate fulfillment in following that leading.

Luke 1:57 – When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

59 – On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

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

62 – Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-56)

If I commissioned any of you to write a song of praise to the Lord, the finished product would likely demonstrate your knowledge of Scripture and the readiness of mind to quote relevant phrases. If you were to write such a work of adoration about some event in your life where God supplied a need at just the right time, likely you would include phrases like “all things work together for good,” or, “God will supply all your needs according to his riches,” or, “they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing.”

So it is with this Song of Mary, often called The Magnificat. Her broad understanding of Scripture is astounding, as no less than 12 quotes or inferences to Old Testament passages are included.

One cannot read this without thinking back to another amazing mother of 1,000 years earlier. And that is Hannah, the mother of Samuel. She too would be blessed with a child who would serve the Lord mightily, being dedicated to God and his service under the tutelage of Eli. Hannah’s song of praise is very similar in construction.  (It is in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.)

Each begins with a personal reflection upon God’s goodness in honoring them. For Mary, it was the profound realization that out of all women, she would be the one to bear the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.

The songs go on to speak praise to God for his great character and deeds, particularly for his justice in being merciful to those who trust him, while rendering judgment on those who rebel.

And finally, there is the acknowledgement of God’s providence and the outworking of his plan of the ages. This gives clarity to the past, perspective for the present, and hope and peace for the future.

These three steps inform us as to how to pray and relate with God. We begin with thanksgiving for his love and care for us, praise for his loving and sovereign attributes, and prayers of acknowledgement for the outworking of his plan in our day and in the days to come.

The passage today concludes with a single note that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. Was John the Baptist born during this time? Or did Mary leave before that? We don’t know. But in any event, imagine the conversations between these two great women of faith.

Luke 1:46 – And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Expectant “Cousins” (Luke 1:39-45)

One of the very fun things about the expanse of our extended family has been seeing the generation of children from my wife’s sisters, along with our five boys, having another generation of the family coming along at the same time. Some of them have been born in the same season of time, just as their first cousin parents were ahead of them. The granddaughter that I had up front with me at the outset of the sermon on Sunday had a little girls sleepover event with her local second cousin last weekend.

It says in the Scriptures that Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, right? It does say that, right? Well, the King James Version says that, though it is a more specific translation of the original word than can be definitively affirmed. The Greek term means “relative,” and could be used to speak of cousins.

Elizabeth was descended from the family of Aaron, whereas Mary was from the family of David. Since this was determined by the fathers, it could be that they were first cousins with mothers who were sisters, but who married men in different families. All we can say for sure is that they were relatives of some sort in some way, each familiar with the other. Mary didn’t say to the angel, “Elizabeth? What Liz are you talking about?”  She knew immediately.

And it appears that Mary went quickly to see Elizabeth. Knowing only the region where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived and not the exact town, this would have been a journey of somewhere between 50 to 75 miles. No small trip at that time.

For the first time, Jesus and John are in close proximity to one another. Baby John “leaped” in the womb – I’ve never been pregnant, but that sounds painful!  I know I’ve been using a lot of Greek words on you lately, but I couldn’t resist looking at this one. Here’s what it means: LEAP!  Only Luke uses it in the New Testament – twice here, and on one other occasion to say “leap for joy” (6:23) … of the reaction Jesus said his followers should have when they are persecuted for association with him.

The filling of the Holy Spirit leads to a most beautiful and profound statement and blessing from Elizabeth.

You have to like these two women. Here are two ladies – one young, one older – who were trusting God in the midst of very unique circumstances. This was the pattern of their lives. They were willing to be used of God for His glory and purposes, in spite of the personal pain it may bring to their lives. They saw themselves as blessed.

The kingdom of God, the church of Christ … through all ages have been blessed by women of such character. It continues to this day; it is a part of our church and our ministry. Churches could not function without the blessings that godly women bring to the family of faith. Beyond the incalculable influences they have in the homes, women make a church function practically in myriads of ways. This extends beyond hospitality to the very ministry of the Word to children and to other women in a host of venues. Y’all are MVPs!

Luke 1:39 – At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Highly Favored to Do God’s Will (Luke 1:26-38)

About a half of a lifetime ago I was leading a youth music group to Scotland on a summer missions trip. I was being hosted by a lovely Scottish family, who in the course of conversation told me that they were still in a bit of recovery from having lost a five-year-old son in the past year to some disease that took him rather suddenly. Even in the midst of their grief, they modelled the joy of faith and life in Christ.

It was quite remarkable, and my understanding of their faith was informed by what the father told me of his experience. He said, “This is the thought that has given me the most comfort: If God had come to me six years ago and said, ‘I have this precious child that I need someone to give a home for five years, but then I’m going to take him back with me, would you be willing to do that?’”

And the father, with moisture gathering in his eyes, looked at me and said, “I would have certainly said to God in answer to that question, ‘Absolutely, YES, we will take that assignment.’  So why should I be angry about my loss when I have so much to be thankful for about the great blessing we received?”

That would be a tough assignment. It is difficult to give your heart away to uncertain situations. And that is what, for example, makes foster home parents such fantastic people in my book! But honestly, most of life is quite uncertain.

God sometimes gives people some tough assignments to carry out in the context of a difficult, sinful and fallen world. Mary could justly say that God dropped on her a pretty tough job. Along with the issue of the social stigmatization of the pregnancy, there was the challenge of raising and having this unique child in one’s home.

Looking ahead, at the cross we see Mary … apparently Joseph had died somewhere along the way … watching her son on a Roman cross. Talk about a brutal assignment!

But Mary accepted this assignment from God … immediately … no doubting or delaying. Over and over we see this with the main characters of the incarnation story. That a type of “character” we should strive to be as well!

Luke 1:26 – In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

The angel went back to heaven and said to the Lord, “That Mary is one impressive young woman! She didn’t put up any fuss or resistance. All she said was, ‘OK, cool.’’

Alright, yes, I did add that last paragraph. But it’s believable.

Zechariah’s Big Surprise (Luke 1:5-25)

I am guessing I am not alone in having melancholy experiences where, perhaps in a moment of solitude, we take stock of our lives and wonder what unique significance they have had … what have we truly accomplished, etc.  Likely we think this way more and more in the waning years. For me, I have at times bounced back and forth between feelings of the great blessing of having served in the church of Christ as a pastor, yet honestly, pastors are a dime a dozen. I have had the privilege of serving in some very interesting congregations that are larger than what most of my brethren have had, yet a voice tells me I should have done more to make them bigger and better.

I suspect the character of our focus today had some of the same melancholy moments. Zechariah has shown up for work for a lot of years as a priest in Israel. There was a privilege and blessing in doing that work, yet it was also a truth that priests were a dime a dozen. Divided into 24 divisions, his group – called the “priestly division of Abijah” – would serve in the temple one week at a time, twice a year.

And unlike the Lead Pastor at TSF who has five sons, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth carried the sadness of childlessness … now into their elderly years. Though this did not deter them from faithfulness as “righteous in the sight of God,” it represented years of unanswered prayers and “disgrace” in the eyes of the populace of that time.

Finally, something big happens in the life of Zechariah!  He wins the priestly lottery! Exactly! His number is pulled to have the honor of representing the prayers of the nation one day in the temple by taking the incense into the holy place. There were so many priests that not every last one of them would at some point in life have this honor. This would be the only time in Zechariah’s life that he would do this duty. As I liked to say as final words to my cross country teams when standing on the starting line at the state championships, “No pressure; just don’t mess up!”  A host of assembled worshippers were praying just outside, awaiting his reappearance.

But what’s this? An angel is there with a strange message … of a baby to be born who would fulfill prophecies from Malachi about a person who would be a forerunner of the Messiah. This cryptic fellow would be sort of like Elijah; he would be one to bring many people back to God. We will know him as John the Baptist.

In the model of Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah has the natural child-bearing doubts associated with advanced age. The angel gives him a divine smack-down for that moment of disbelief, rendering him unable to talk for the period of the pregnancy. But it is clear to all that something of great significance has happened. Something extraordinary is piercing the routine of the mundane.

Luke writes of this (applicational thoughts to follow) …

Luke 1:5 – 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.”

Some of the greatest characters in Scripture had lives that were 99 and 44/100ths percent routine. God used an ordinary priest in Israel – one of thousands of such men – to father a child who Jesus would speak of as “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.”  (Matt. 11:11)

But note that it was before any of this happened that the inspired Scriptures say of Zechariah and Elizabeth that they both “were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”  Greatness is not measured so much as the product of great efforts and accomplishments as much as it is the result of great faithfulness in the mundane routines of life. So do not weary of faithful duty and obedience day by day. We never know when something very small may be used of God to become something very big.