Please read Luke 1:5-25 in your favorite Bible.
(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)
There’s at least one thing very wrong with the mythology of Santa Claus. “According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December.
“Female reindeer retain their antlers till after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to EVERY picture depicting Santa’s reindeer in late December, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, has to be a girl.
“We should have known… ONLY women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost.”
It’s strange that so many people make such a fuss about a mythical figure like Santa and neglect the historical person of Jesus Christ. The gospel writer Luke was concerned with writing an accurate historical account of the life of Jesus. To cover the subject as thoroughly as possible, he began with the miraculous circumstances surrounding the birth of the man who would introduce Jesus to the world as the Messiah; John the Baptist. Our second advent angel sighting involves that moment of history.
CONTEXT: What we learn about Zechariah (5-11). NT Professor Brittany E. Wilson has found in Luke a portrayal of Zechariah as an ordinary man suddenly caught up in a historic situation. Perhaps you can imagine his disorientation. Wilson identifies three markers in the text.
1 = His ethnicity. Zechariah was a Jew. In the Roman Empire, all conquered peoples were second-class citizens, but Jews were the butt of additional ridicule.
2 = His vocation. While priesthood normally earned a man some respect, Zechariah lived in the hills of Judea, not the city of Jerusalem, so the circle of respect was smaller, his service in the temple far less frequent. Also, as v. 5 reports, Zechariah could trace his ancestry only to Abijah, while his wife could go all the way back to Aaron, Moses’ brother and the founder of the priestly line. She had the better pedigree!
3 = His age and impotence. Much has been said over the years about the scorn a barren woman had to endure in this culture. But the husband did not escape unscathed. Childlessness could be as demeaning a status for the husband as it was for the wife.
We balance these three observations against v. 6, where Luke identified both Zechariah and Elizabeth as UPRIGHT as the both kept God’s commands BLAMELESSLY. Human nature has not changed in 2000 years, so we can assume that in Zechariah’s time as today, the UPRIGHT and blameless people tend to be overlooked. The “squeaky wheels” tend to attract attention. Also, God’s choice of Zechariah to occupy this historic place in His plan is foreshadowed by his selection by lot to offer incense in the temple.
Most of us ought to be able to identify with Zechariah. He was an ordinary guy – why should he be visited by angel? Being chosen to offer the incense was akin to winning the lottery; Zechariah’s focus was on that when he was blind-sided by an angelic visitation.
God’s messages demand a faithful – not doubtful – response.
- Zechariah’s response was doubtful.
As is always the case in these biblical angelic accounts, Zechariah’s initial reaction to Gabriel’s visitation was surprise and fear (11-13). And, as always, the angel says, “DO NOT BE AFRAID,” but goes on to announce something surprising and fear-inducing (13-17)!
At this point, Zechariah had a decision to make: would he accept the angel’s message or would he believe and accept Gabriel’s message or doubt and reject it? (18) Using Zechariah as an example, let’s examine the continuum of belief.
– At the right end of the spectrum, we have BELIEF is intellectual agreement with and full obedience to the message of God.
– In the middle, we have DOUBT. Doubt is an intellectual struggle with the message of God. Doubt by itself is not bad, but if the struggle is either never resolved or is resolved with unbelief, it becomes a sin.
– UNBELIEF is at the left end of the continuum. Unbelief is an active rejection of God’s message. Believers can occasionally be guilty or mistakenly fall into unbelief, but are not characterized by it. When it becomes chronic, settling into a character flaw, unbelief is the worst sin, the unforgivable sin (see Matthew 12:31 and Mark 3:29).
Zechariah’s response was a temporary form of the third option; an ill-considered decision to not believe Gabriel’s testimony. It was an objection in the form of a question. Otherwise the disciplinary act of rendering him mute is inappropriate; it’s too harsh. Most convincingly, Gabriel himself condemns Gabriel’s unbelief in verse twenty.
Zechariah’s punishment is unique in this situation. In the Bible there are five other birth announcements similar to this one. In none of those cases, is objection met with divine discipline.
– In Genesis, the birth of a son is promised Abraham and he objected twice.
– In Judges, a son is promised to Samson’s father – Manoah – and he objected twice.
– In Luke, both Zechariah and Mary object to the birth announcements they received.
– In Matthew, Joseph did not argue with the angel who told him about Jesus.
Abraham, Manoah, and Mary were not punished for their objections or questions, yet Zechariah was. Since God knows our hearts, we have to assume what is unstated in the text: Zechariah chose unbelief.
- Gabriel countered with discipline.
Gabriel pulled rank on Zechariah (19). “I AM GABRIEL,” he said. As he was a priest, we can assume Zechariah’s familiarity with what we call the Old Testament. He must have known the name Gabriel and its significance in Daniel (see last Sunday). In fact, there are several parallels between Zechariah’s experience and Daniel’s.
He continued, “I STAND IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD.” This statement implies a place of honor and high rank among the heavenly race of angels.
“I HAVE BEEN SENT TO SPEAK TO YOU AND TELL YOU THIS GOOD NEWS.” There are a couple implications in this clause. First, Gabriel informs Zechariah that God personally sent him with this message. Second, the message is GOOD NEWS, not bad news. Gabriel could have said, “Hey dummy! I just told you some good news! Why do you want to argue with me?” In fact, as Gabriel said in v. 13, this GOOD NEWS came as an answer to Zechariah’s prayers. Why pray for something and then disbelieve it when it arrives? We would never do that, right?
Gabriel administered a punishment to fit the crime: Zechariah was struck mute, unable to announce the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him (20). Gabriel specifically identified Zechariah’s sin as unbelief = “YOU DID NOT BELIEVE MY WORDS.” To paraphrase, Gabriel said, “You did not believe my words so you forfeit the power to use words.”
In that culture as well as in ours, words are power. The ability to speak to a situation, to make an announcement, to express an opinion, is a kind of power. So the punishment of Zechariah is a kind of disempowering him. The Greek word for mute can also mean deaf. It is possible Zechariah could neither hear nor speak. If so, this is a great Scripture passage for ASL interpreters like our Melanie!
God did everything Gabriel announced he would do (20-25), proving yet again God’s trustworthiness. In verse twenty, Gabriel predicted, “WHICH WILL COME TRUE AT THE PROPER TIME.” This is in reference to Zechariah’s loss of speech continuing until the birth of his son John.
There were witnesses of Zechariah’s speechlessness. The same group of worshipers mentioned in verse ten were still there in verses 21+22. They were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the temple and pronounce the customary blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. When he finally emerged from the temple, he was unable to speak and could not pronounce the blessing. Zechariah’s punishment for unbelief was to be unable to announce Gabriel’s good news and to be unable to perform his priestly duty, a double whammy! Notice how Luke really emphasized Zechariah’s being muted: HE REMAINED UNABLE TO SPEAK (verse 22). Relying on impromptu sign language, Zechariah was somehow able to communicate to the people he had received a vision.
In verses 23-25 we see Gabriel’s prediction COME TRUE, just as he said. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth became the speaker for the family and she praised God for showing favor to her.
God’s messages demand a faithful – not doubtful – response.
A new truth we learn about angels in this passage is that God deputizes them to dispense justice on His behalf. Gabriel presented his GOOD NEWS to Zechariah and when the priest responded with unbelief, Gabriel dispensed a punishment in the form of making Zechariah mute. So angels are more than just messengers, they appear at the authority of God Himself and wield that authority in human affairs.
A new truth we learn about God in this passage is that our obedience is not required to advance his plan. Zechariah’s moment of disbelief did not cause God to stop, throw up His hands and say, “Well NOW what do I do?” No, Gabriel immediately informed Zechariah the will of God was going to be accomplished.
The new truth we learn about ourselves in this passage is that belief ought to be an all or nothing proposition, but we try to pick and choose what we want to believe. Consider this; Luke identified both Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful people, even blameless in their obedience to God’s law. And yet, Zechariah chose to disbelieve Gabriel’s promise of a son born to him in his old age. Zechariah was guilty of sin by thinking he could pick and choose between God’s messages which he would believe and which he would not. His punishment fit his crime and serves as a warning to all of us not to follow his example.
None of us knows why Zechariah chose unbelief in this situation, but the text makes it abundantly clear that’s exactly what he did. Similarly, we sin when we think it’s up to us as individuals to decide which parts of God’s will we want to accept or reject. That kind of nonsense thinking is what our culture teaches. The Bible teaches that God is truth and truth is available for discovery, but not for us to determine it. Zechariah became right with God and regained his ability to speak just as Gabriel had predicted.
Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts, Brittany E. Wilson
Word Biblical Commentary #35a, Luke 1-9:20, John Nolland
Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible, Luke, Justo L. Gonzalez