by The Reverend Bryn MacPhail
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
For whatever reason, our generation is fascinated with angels. Type the word “angel” in an internet search engine and you will find more than 60 million web pages on angels to browse through.
There always seems be a new book to read, or a new television show to watch, about angels. Indeed, Hollywood has got a lot of mileage in their portrayal of these celestial beings.
And yet, I still don’t know what angels really look like. I gather that they are recognizable in their heavenly form, but I cannot presume to tell you precisely what that form looks like.
It is from the prophet Isaiah that we learn that angels have wings—but, as Isaiah explains, they actually have six wings, not two (Isa. 6:2). In the Book of Revelation, we read about an angel “coming down from heaven, clothed with a cloud. And a rainbow was on his head, his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire” (Rev. 10:1).
The use of the word “like” is our hint that the author is attempting to describe something that is indescribable with terms that are familiar to us. Even still—“a rainbow on his head”? “Feet like pillars of fire”? That’s not easy to picture.
I highly doubt that any Christmas Pageants will attempt to replicate this description in their costume portrayal of angels. And isn’t it interesting that, in virtually every Christmas Pageant, angels are portrayed by cute little girls?
Perhaps you are familiar with the once popular television show, Touched By An Angel, where the main character is an angel portrayed by an attractive woman. You might remember another television show, Highway To Heaven, where the main character is an angel portrayed by a nice looking, and always composed, Michael Landon.
Frankly, I submit to you that our generation’s portrayal of angels has been exceedingly domesticated. We really don’t know what angels look like. But what we do know is this: In just about every instance in the Bible where angels appear, the people who are met by them are marked by sheer dread.
Cute little girls do not scare people. The angels portrayed on television are hardly frightening. And yet, the biblical presentation of these celestial beings is that they frequently have to convince people not to be frightened by their presence.
Such was the case when Zacharias the priest was visited by the angel Gabriel. Our text this morning recounts the day when Zacharias was “touched by an angel”—ultimately, for the better, but temporarily, for the worse.
We learn, first of all, in verse 5, that Zacharias was a priest. Secondly, we learn that both he and his wife Elizabeth were considered "righteous in the sight of God" (1:6). We infer then, that Zacharias was a genuine believer in God. And not only was Zacharias a genuine believer, but he was a well-instructed and upright man who Luke describes as "walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord" (1:6). In addition, Zacharias is described as being "advanced in years" (1:7), meaning that he was probably considered to be among the most experienced saints of his time.
This is important to remember because, very shortly, we will see Zacharias disciplined for his unbelief. This is important to note because, since we regard Zacharias as a genuine believer, he becomes for us a striking example of the discipline a Christian may have to endure as the result of unbelief.
Before detailing the priestly activity Zacharias was chosen to do, Luke includes some personal information when he reports that Zacharias and Elizabeth "had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years" (1:7). This information comes into play a bit further on in the passage.
Luke details for us how it was the appointed time for a priest "to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense" (1:8, 9). While there is nothing out of the ordinary about a priest burning incense in the temple, it was an extremely special occasion for the priest who was selected to carry out this task. You see, in those days, there were an abundance of priests and not enough sacred duties and so Luke explains that lots were cast to see who would perform each function (1:9).
Extrabiblical sources teach us that, during this time in history, a priest could not offer incense more than once in his entire lifetime (Mishnah, Tamid 5:2). And some priests never did receive this privilege. Thus, when Zacharias offered incense in the temple, it was to be a very special occasion.
Of course, we now see how this occasion became special in ways Zacharias could have never imagined. On this day "an angel of the Lord appeared to (Zacharias), standing to the right of the altar of incense" (1:11).
What was Zacharias’ response? ‘Oh, what a cute little angel you are.’—No! Luke tells us that Zacharias was “troubled when he saw (the angel), and fear gripped him” (1:12).
Whatever the angel Gabriel looked like, it was an overwhelming experience for Zacharias, prompting Gabriel to say, “Don’t be afraid” (1:13).
The angel proceeds to give Zacharias some extraordinary news, "Zacharias . . . your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John" (1:13).
Some imagine that the prayer of Zacharias that is being referenced here is Zacharias praying for a son. But given his advanced age, combined with his incomprehension at the angel’s statement, it is more likely that his prayer was for the redemption of Israel (Hughes, Luke, 23).
The angel’s announcement then, is that Israel will be redeemed, and that the son of Zacharias will be the “forerunner” for the Redeemer; the son of Zacharias has been chosen as the one who will prepare the way for Israel’s redemption (1:17).
‘Great news, right Zacharias?’
‘Excuse me Mr. Angel, but How shall I know this for certain? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years’ (1:18).
To us, perhaps, this seems like a reasonable question. Honestly, I can’t help but wonder if I might have given a similar reply. But, as we see by the angel's response, Zacharias' question was regarded as totally inappropriate.
As Spurgeon has said, "because (Zacharias) was a venerable priest, one thoroughly schooled in sacred truth, a man who for many years instructed the people of Israel in the oracles of God, it became a crying evil for him to say, ‘How shall I know this?’"
Perhaps Zacharias could have been excused if the announcement came in some ordinary way, by some ordinary means. But it didn’t. This announcement of Divine favour was delivered by the angel Gabriel who customarily “stands in the presence of God” (1:19). That is, this message has come straight from the throne of God.
The angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, seems to think Zacharias should have known better.
Would we have known better? To what degree do we struggle with unbelief? For some of us, nothing would surprise us more than to actually receive a positive answer to some of our prayers. Though we profess faith in God’s promises, admittedly, there are times when our faith is so weak that when the promise is delivered, we are astounded. Sometimes, our inattentiveness to God’s promises causes us to be altogether unaware when He responds in faithfulness.
Since we too struggle with unbelief, we should be sufficiently sobered by the fact that Zacharias was physically disciplined for his unbelief. The angel answers Zacharias and says, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time" (1:19, 20).
Zacharias was made mute because he did not believe Gabriel's words. Now, put yourselves, for the moment, in Zacharias' shoes. We know what it is like to battle unbelief, don't we? We can surely identify with, both, Zacharias and the man who exclaimed, "I do believe; help my unbelief"(Mk. 9:24).
Think about what it would be like to be mute, not simply for a day, but for more than 9 months. Surely, this was painful discipline. Zacharias could no longer bless or instruct the people as their priest. Even worse, at the news of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Zacharias could not audibly rejoice with her.
All this because Zacharias doubted a promise from God. Consider now your reading of Scripture. It contains many promises from God—do you believe them? Or, are you like many who believe a few of the promises, but not all of the promises?
Friends, the lesson here for us is that it is a dangerous thing to harbour unbelief. It is a dangerous thing to doubt the veracity of God's Word.
When Jesus visited Nazareth, we are told that He did very few miracles because of the unbelief of the people (Mk. 6:5,6). A more striking example is found in Numbers 20:12 where we learn that the unbelief of Moses and Aaron was the direct reason for why God did not allow them or those of their generation to enter the Promised Land.
We may be quite unaware of God’s chastisement, but the testimony of Scripture confirms that God does indeed discipline His children for unbelief.
As we approach Christmas, familiar stories will be told and ancient promises will be repeated. I implore you: Believe them. Believe all of them. Believe them with all your heart. More than that, I want to encourage you to act upon that which you believe.
There is a choice to be made. If we are unbelieving, as God’s children, we make ourselves vulnerable to corrective discipline. But if our faith in God’s promises is unwavering, we can expect to experience a Divinely bestowed peace and a joy that is beyond all understanding (Phil. 4:7).
I want that for you. I want your belief in Christ to be solid and unwavering. And I want you to experience to the fullness of joy that accompanies faith in the announcement of Christmas—the announcement that God is for you in Jesus Christ. Friends, this is the best news in the world—rejoice! Amen.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Annunciation to Zachariah Sunday
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