The Next Elijah
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
The mission of Jesus is to turn our hearts back to God.
Once, many years ago, when we lived in Pennsylvania, my wife drove to visit her parents in Michigan on her own, without me. I was traveling internationally. I was on a doing some missions work. And so she decided to drive the 10 hours or so to western Michigan. I am still amazed that she did that. She just had little Samuel, baby Samuel in the back seat and she drove the whole way on her own, which is not something she really enjoys doing a lot of times. But she really wanted to go and so she went for ten days. And then when the visit was over, she packed up all of her stuff that she’d brought with her, put Sammy in the back seat and started on the way home. Now, she was kind of in West Michigan, the Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids area of Michigan, if you’re familiar, if you’re not, here’s my handy map. It’s about here. It’s about here. And so she started driving south and she’s north of Kalamazoo. She’s driving south and she’s about to exit onto I-94, a road that you’re all familiar with I’m sure. And she’s exiting on an I-94, and she has what can only be described as a moment of remembrance. She remembered all those years that we had lived in Chicago during seminary, and the many times that we had made the trip home for the holidays, and then back again to Chicago. And so quite naturally, she merged onto I-94 West and began the long journey back to Chicago. Some of you are already ahead of me in this, I can see. The problem, as you might remember from the beginning of this story, is that we did not live in Chicago. We lived in Pennsylvania, which is decidedly not anywhere near Chicago. There she drove, baby Samuel in the back seat unable to give any recommendations. Just a couple of world travelers trekking across the globe in the wrong direction. And at some point, when she started to see more and more of the signs that told her that she was on her way to Chicago, she thought to herself, hold on a second. I don’t live in Chicago. Now, to this day, it’s a bit unclear just exactly how far she drove. As you can imagine, this is not her favorite story. Although I did get permission to tell this story, I’ll have you know. So she wasn’t keen on remembering all of the details of the story. I don’t know how far she got, but whatever it was, the moment she realized what she had done, there was only one thing she could do. And that was to turn around and go in the other direction. So anything you can do. I want you to put yourself there in that moment. I want you to put yourself in there in that moment, that moment of realization that you are incredibly lost. You are in the wrong direction. If you had been driving for an hour, you know you have to turn back around and drive, for how long? An hour. It’s a complete hour on the way back.
Now let me ask you, wouldn’t you want to somehow justify that time? Wouldn’t you want to somehow justify the fact that you had not wasted that error? Wouldn’t you want to think that somehow you had made some kind of progress? But the only thing you can do in that moment is to admit I’m going in the wrong direction. The only thing I can do to make any progress at all is turn around. Even the time I’m using right now to think about whether I should turn around is time going in the different direction. One of the biggest problems for non-believing people that they have with the gospel today is that the idea is that if the gospel is true, they’re going to have to turn around. And it’s one of the biggest struggles that they’re going to have to admit that their direction, however noble in their minds, however clear it was in their hearts, is actually taking them in the wrong direction further and further away from the Lord. And the only wise thing to do with the Gospel testimony of the death and resurrection of Jesus is to turn around and to follow Him. But getting off at that exit, getting off of that exit and turning left over the overpass and getting right back on the same road, going in exactly the opposite direction is hard for many to swallow because it means admitting that all of the progress you had made in the other direction was not actually progress at all.
Today, Luke is going to set us off on our discovery of Jesus by beginning the story of John, who is later known to us in history as John the Baptist. And we’re going to see that he had a very specific and important and unique ministry. His job was to turn people around. That was whole job. Go and turn people around. His job was to be that little voice on the G.P.S. that says, you need to take the next exit. You need to cross over. You need to turn back. Don’t you wish that had been around ten years ago? Rachel does. She does. And I got permission to say that, too. It’s fine. John’s role was to speak to the community and to let them know they’re heading the wrong way. You go in the wrong way. Why? So they could be prepared to receive the savior who was coming right after him, that that was going to show the right way to go. And the mission of the Savior is exactly the same today as it has always been. The mission of Jesus is to turn our hearts back to God.
Please turn with me, if you would, to Luke Chapter 1. We’re going to begin in verse 5 today. I will have it on the screen today, but it’s a longer passage, and so you’ll probably want to have it open in front of you. We’re going to look at the birth announcement of John the Baptist and we’re going to see how he will prepare the hearts of people with repentance so that they will be ready to receive the gift of Jesus. So let’s start with a situation that might sound familiar to you. “In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the house of the Division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.”
Now, if the start of this story sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s part of the theme of the Book of Genesis, the barrenness and old age that we find in Genesis. This is exactly the situation that Abraham and Sarah found themselves in. But what they wanted more than anything was an heir, you’ll remember in Genesis. Abraham and Sara, they just they wanted an heir, someone who would take the next generation of their family forward. And God promised them that they would have an heir. But the older they got and the more they were concerned about God’s promise. And what happens is that God waits until they were far too old to have children, so that when he fulfilled this promise and he gave them Isaac, Abraham and Sara would know for sure that it was God at work doing this. That’s why he allowed for them to grow older. And so here the pattern is repeated. We see this in Scripture. The pattern here is repeated. But for another special son, Zechariah and his wife are both older. Elizabeth is barren, which, by the way, in that day didn’t mean you couldn’t have children; it simply meant that you didn’t have children. And now they’re so old that they figure that they probably won’t have children. And we know, Elizabeth, from Elizabeth’s response a little later in the story, that they experienced all of the heartache that went with that sort of difficulty. It’s about 5 or 4 B.C. so it’s near the end of the reign of Herod the Great. That’s our setting right now. I know that our whole calendar is built around the birth of Jesus, and so we always pictured Jesus as maybe being born in the year one. But that’s actually not true, because he was near the end of Herod the Great. And we know Herod the Great was around 4 or 5 B.C. when his reign ended. But we have enough troubles turning our clocks back an hour once a year. So I don’t think we’re going to be turning our calendar back 4 years anytime soon. So Zechariah, it says, is a Levite who is a descendant of Aaron. So Moses’ brother Aaron had a grandson who’s named is Abijah. You can read about this in 1st Chronicles 24. David, King David divided up the work of the priesthood into 24 chief men, and Abijah is one of these men. And these men were the heads of the divisions that would serve the temple two weeks out of the year. So there were these 24 different groups would all get two weeks out of the year to serve in the temple. And by the time of Zechariah, there were probably about 18,000 priests all throughout Israel. And these divisions were subdivided into smaller groups, and each group would take a day during their division’s weeks to do the work. And so they would draw lots to see who would do the work on that day. And on Abijah’s week they drew lots and Zechariah is selected of that group to go in. And the reason all that’s important is that you can see from a human standpoint, this is about as random as you can get. This is incredibly random. This is like flipping a coin for us, right? From our perspective, but not from God’s perspective. God aligns all of this to do something very special.
Now, the main thing that we need to know about this man, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, is that they are righteous before the Lord. You see that there in verse 6. It says, “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord”. Now, this is referring to their heart. Sometimes passages like this trip up Christians because we read it and we think that sounds like they’re righteous because of their works. And that would actually be the opposite of the gospel. But this is not saying that at all. This is describing people who walk in righteousness because they love the Lord. They’re being obedient. They love God so much that they’re going to act and make decisions in their life in a way that pleases Him. And that’s saying a lot for these two. Because clearly these are also people who did not get everything they wanted from the Lord. You see that? They’re older people now. They’re beyond the years when they can have what they want. Yet they are righteous in their walk before the Lord. They choose to serve him and love him despite not getting exactly what it is they wanted in life. This is an important point because it helps us to understand the unique ministry of the Son that’s about to be announced. These are two people who have lived their entire lives asking the question, Lord, what is it that you require of us? What do you want from us, God? That’s a pretty different question for today. Really the main question people have when they think about how to talk about God, that’s a pretty different take on God than is generally popular. The general take on God is can I get from God the things that I want. If I do certain things, if I live my life in a certain way, will then I put myself in a position of being in God’s blessing, usually defined as the thing I want. Can I posture myself in such a way to exact from God, extract from God the thing that I want most. It’s the wrong orientation. It’s the wrong orientation to the Lord. The first thing that Luke wants us to know is that these two people, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are walking in righteousness by keeping God’s laws, even though they have not received from God the thing that they want most. And knowing that will help make sense of what comes next. “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have the joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the Spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.'”
So Zechariah goes in to burn the incense and sees the angel standing next to the altar. That’s got to throw off your day, doesn’t it? You just thought you were just going to do your duty. This is a big deal for Zechariah to be able to go do this. He’s probably got some idea of what’s going to happen when he goes in there. He knows what the job is. He’s not expecting an angel. It says that he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. And that, I would say, is understandable. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have been working in the office of the church where I’m working, and it’s sort of after hours. And so I’m the only one in the building and I’m working there, and then I hear footsteps coming down the hall. And I think, is this it? Is this how it ends for me? Imagine walking in to do your ministry and there’s an angel standing there. Yeah. This might be the end. The angel immediately senses that fear and says ‘Don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened’. First of all, his prayer has been heard. Elizabeth is going to have a son. Now, prayer here is singular, but it’s not referring to a single time that a prayer has been prayed, but probably to a single prayer that’s been prayed multiple times through their lives. They’re going to have a son and Zechariah is to name him John, a name that means the Lord is gracious. But more important than the name itself is the fact that God is the one who is telling Zechariah what to name this son. See, fathers are the ones in that culture who get to name their children. But this boy being named by God is going to be set apart by God as special. Which is the reason for the instruction that John is not supposed to drink wine or strong drink. Some of you just got nervous. Wait a minute. Is this saying that anyone who has the Lord’s favor, and that God is pleased and is someone who doesn’t drink wine? No. Jesus drank wine. It’s going to be okay.
This not drinking wine here is a rare step of consecration for certain special people. Priests, for instance – Zechariah here would probably not have been drinking wine during his time of serving in the temple. Prophets might be set aside for a time not to drink. Samson famously was set aside as a judge who would save Israel, and he wasn’t supposed to drink wine. What this is saying here is that John will be specially commissioned by God for a very special task. And what will he do? Well, he’ll do a couple of things, actually. The first thing he’ll do, and I love this, is that he’s going to make his parents very happy. Do you see that? That’s the first thing that said here. I love that part of what Gabriel says, that it’s not the most important theological part of this passage, but it shows God’s love for us. You will have joy and gladness. God wants these two people who love him and walk righteously before him to experience joy and gladness. Church, God’s glory and plan is not instead of our joy. It’s in concert with our joy. See, we serve a God whose plan is to bring us into His joy. The second thing here, not only will John’s birth bring his parents joy, it will be a reason for rejoicing for many other people in Israel as well. Do you see that word many there in verse 14? Many it says, will rejoice. If you’re wondering who the many are, you need to skip down to verse 16. There you see the word many again, and you see an explanation for the source of the joy that John will be to them. This is where we get an explanation of what makes John’s ministry special. Which, by the way, is also an explanation of what happens in the heart of a person who receives Jesus. The many are going to rejoice because he is going to turn their hearts of many sons of Israel to the Lord their God. The rejoicing is going to come because many of the hearts of the sons and daughters of Israel are going to be turned back to God. Now, you might be thinking, wait a minute, if you’re part of Israel, don’t you already have a heart that’s inclined toward God? I mean, you’re part of God’s people. You are part of Israel, the chosen people, the one through whom God was going to introduce his entire gospel to the entire world. Wouldn’t you already have a heart that rejoiced in God? You’d think so. But no, the history of Israel shows us that you can be ethnically part of Israel. And not have a heart and a life that serves the Lord. That’s why he, Zechariah and Elizabeth are described the way they are here. Yes, they are both from Aaron’s family. And Zechariah serves as a priest in the temple. But that’s not what matters. Their hearts are what matter. They also walk blamelessly before the Lord. Because all the other stuff is labels. All the other stuff is circumstances they’re in. But they walk blamelessly before the Lord.
Church, you can go a very long way in the wrong direction from the Lord, living a very pagan, worldly, godless life and still call yourself a part of Israel. Or still in some way call yourself a part of the church. And here’s why many people in Israel are going to rejoice. Their hearts are going to be turned around so that these people find joy in the Lord, so that their hearts actually match the ethnicity that they have, the community that they have. They’re going to love the Lord. Friends. Get ready. This is a book that’s really going to challenge us. This is a book that is going to be a call to the nominal self-religious Judeo-Christian ethic, praising people of our post-Christian American culture. It’s just going to be a challenge to those who have been steeped in churchianity, who understand Christian things, who need their hearts turned back to the Lord. The Gospel call, the call of Christ is to turn around. It’s to recognize that your heart has been going after something that is not the Lord, that your mind has been captured by a calling that does not lead you to the joy of the Lord. And the call of Christ is to turn around and recognize that your way is the wrong way. You’ve been going very, very far and very, very fast in a direction that will not lead to joy and it will not save you. It’s a call to realize that your way isn’t leading where you think it’s going. And so you need to repent of your way. You need to turn around and you need to follow Jesus.
John’s job in that plan is listed specifically in verse 17. He’s going to go before him. So we have a couple of pronouns here, so let’s see if we can untangle this. That second ‘him’ is important because he, John, is going to go before him. Second him. If you’ve been in the church very long, you immediately went, Jesus. That’s all. That’s. That’s John. The John is going to go before Jesus, right? That’s how it works. But here’s the problem. Jesus has not been introduced in this book yet. In fact, his introduction is going to come in the next story that we’re going to read. The him here is in the sentence right before. The Lord their God. John will go before the Lord God. You said, ‘but doesn’t John go before Jesus?’ Yes. Yes, he does. This is Luke’s way of showing us that Jesus is the Lord God, in the same way that Elijah, the Prophet in the Old Testament, went to the to the pagan and wayward children of Israel and challenged the worshippers of Baal, and stood in the face of this evil king, Ahab and and his terrible wife, Jezebel. And he called them and the entire country to turn their hearts to the Lord. John is going to do the same thing to prepare the hearts of the people by going before the Lord into the community to turn these people back. They’re going to be prepared to come and follow their Lord. Who is Jesus. He’s going to make them realize how far they’ve gone in that wrong direction, with their adulterous hearts, with their greedy, worldly ways. So that they can be prepared for a savior who will save them.
When I do evangelism with younger people, it’s easier because there’s not as much at stake. So anytime I do it, every time I’m sharing the gospel with somebody who’s younger, youngish, I don’t know, twenties, thirties, it’s easier – teens – it’s easier because there’s not as much at stake. It’s easier to turn around when you haven’t lived a lot of life. I mean, when you’re younger, you’re a lot more willing to say, I might be wrong, I might be doing this wrong, and I’m open to hearing how I’m supposed to do it right. You’re a lot more open to wrestling with ideas and changing the trajectory of your life because there’s not as much of life that you’ve lived. And you’re saying, yes, I want to go in the right direction, but if you live a lifetime apart from the Lord, you become entrenched in the decisions and the repercussions of those decisions, the results of those decisions. And we see a lot of that right now. Think about people that you know, who have spent their lifetime championing causes that turn out to be against the gospel. We see we’ve come up with cultural norms that further solidify the legitimacy and the permanency of sin. And I don’t know why there are so many Christians, and I’ve never understood this, but there are so many Christians who buck against the idea, who don’t like the idea of systemic sins, like systemic racism or systemic injustice to the poor, or systemic disregard for human life. Understand Church, systemic sin is just sin that it’s so well ingrained into a culture that it’s made its way almost imperceptibly into the culture’s laws and practices. Church, I meet people like that all the time. I meet individuals like that all the time. I have friends who have so invested their life into their sinful choices that they’ve actually turned those sins into values. Know how hard it is to help that person see, and turn around? That can happen in the church as well. It is incredibly difficult to see, especially in yourself. That can happen among religious people, among the people who claim godliness. And that’s what Gabriel is telling Zechariah here. This boy, John, is going to turn many people in Israel back to the Lord by exposing the godlessness of the direction that they are going so that they can see their sin for what it is and receive the Lord who is coming right behind him. And you know what that’s going to do? That is going to bring joy to many of those people. Many of them. We’d love to think that this is going to happen for everyone. But the preaching of the gospel doesn’t cause everyone to turn around. Jesus’ ministry tells us this. People didn’t repent at the preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. World history tells us this. Your own family tells you this. Not everyone who hears the word of the Lord to repent of sin and to turn and follow Jesus. The one who came to save you. The one who came to set you free. The one who came to give you new life. Not everyone who hears that good news is going to turn and follow him. But many will. And that’s why we do it. Many will. And the result will be an amazing transformation.
Gabriel says two things are going to happen. The hearts of fathers will be turned to the children, which is kind of an odd saying, actually. What does that mean? He’s talking here about relational healing. Generations will be brought together because of the gospel. When people turn and follow Jesus, generations come together. There’s a healing when the generation stops shifting and shaking their fists at each other, and together, follow the Lord. Can you imagine if different age groups of people in our culture treated each other with love and respect? Can you imagine that? That is not the world we live in right now? Unfortunately, terribly. The second thing it says is that disobedient people will start listening to the wisdom of the just; meaning those who have embraced biblical justice, God’s justice. So societal transformation is going to take place. Those who have gone off in a direction of injustice fueled by their own vision and their own direction, they’re going to turn and they’re going to strive for gospel-shaped justice in their community. I cannot think of a more profound vision for the healing of our world today than relational and societal transformation. Can you imagine it? All the relationships healed by the gospel; all the society’s decisions and discussions and everything that we’re doing together, completely shaped by the gospel. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? It can happen, but there’s only one way to achieve it. We have to turn and follow Jesus and we need to help others turn and follow Jesus. Well, that’s John’s ministry and it is quite a ministry. John would be the guy who would lay the groundwork for Jesus to come and accomplish this God-glorifying transformation.
And you know what? Zechariah wasn’t buying it. “And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife has advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be 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.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at this his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus, the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.'”
Now, I’m not sure why Zechariah is struggling here. If an angel comes to you while you’re in the temple and tells you something, isn’t that the sign? Isn’t that the sign? Right? Zechariah is like, how will I know? When the angels like this is how you know this right here, what’s happening right here: this would be how you would know this. What more do you want than this? I love it because the angel starts listing off his credentials. Like. Like I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. I was sent here to bring you this good news. Seriously, how is that not enough for you? But he says, okay, how about this? You’re not going to be able to speak a word until all of this is accomplished. How about that? That’ll do it, right? That’ll make it happen. How about. How about this? How about you don’t get to talk for nine months? How about that? I think it’s kind of funny. I do, but I think the imagery is even more profound. How about this? You don’t get to speak another one of your words until all of God’s words are accomplished. How about that? How about you just be quiet for a while and you just watch God do what God has said He’s going to do. Can you picture Zechariah walking out of that temple? Everybody’s waiting for him. He’s been in there way too long. He comes out, he can’t speak. He knows something amazing is about to happen. He can’t share it with anyone. Everyone says that he saw a vision in there. He knows he saw a legit angel in there, and he can’t even say it was an angel in here. And he goes home and his wife gets pregnant. And what does she say? She says, The Lord has done this for me. She got it right away. No question in her mind that this is God at work. Plenty of questions in Zechariah’s mind. But he’s just going to have to wait it out.
I want you for a moment, Church, to ask yourself, which direction are you going? Which direction are you going in life? Especially those of you who are new to Christ here this morning, or especially to those of you who aren’t followers of Jesus at all. What do you say about the direction of your life? If you review it and you realize that your heart and your mind are not right in a full pursuit of Christ, that you’ve been driving the wrong direction for quite some time, let me ask you, what would it take for you to turn it around? What would it take for you to admit, get off of the exit and go in the other direction? What would it take for you to admit that your direction of self-interest and self-focus is not the path of joy and peace with the Lord? I can tell you that it is not. I invite you this morning to recognize your need to turn, to repent of your sinful ways and receive the salvation of Christ who will set you in the right direction. We are going to learn a lot more about this salvation over the next few weeks. Let’s pray.