A Word of Change. It’s a word many of us shudder just at the mention of the word change. But for little children their lives are filled with change constantly. They are at the mercy of adults who lead them around and guide them through their day-to-day activities. Schools are especially good at bringing change to our children’s lives in the guise of learning and personal growth. Even still many children struggle to cope with the high stress of change in their lives with so many demands on their schedules.
Change is inevitable. Children are required to grow up and adapt to their surroundings and the requirement to care for themselves. There’s a lot of change going on in our family right now. Doug has a new position at Kroger with new hours and new responsibilities. The children are adapting to new school responsibilities with the ebb and flow of seasonal demands on their time. And of course, there are demands on my schedule as a church leader.
As I am reminded of my own changing culture I can’t help but wonder about the life of Israel in the intertestimonal period some 400 years before Jesus was born. The experience of Israel must have been joy-filled and frightening. God had seemingly awaken from his long silence to offer a fresh word of repentance. I can only speculate the experience of those weary believers during that time of history.
400 Years of Silence from God’s Spirit. The time between the writing of Malachi and the history recorded in the Gospels spans about 400 years. These 400 years are considered the “quiet” years as there are no prophets from God who were writing Scripture. They were years which ushered in dramatic changes throughout the Ancient Near East. Much evil was done during those years by a number of leaders in the Ancient Near East including Alexander the Great and his predecessors. Many lands were conquered during this time as many cultures were colonized was intentionality with Greek influence in language and science while militaries were combined into one fighting alliance.
In many ways the awakening of the prophetic voice in Israel signaled something significant was about to happen – God was on the move . God had been silent and his voice had not been heard through the people. The infilling of the Holy Spirit for the leadership of the people was missing. When we study the Old Testament, we can see that there is a pecking order to leadership. Only those who are filled with God’s Spirit can lead the people. There are three particular roles: prophet who appoints and corrects the king of Israel, the king who rules the people on God’s behalf, and the judge comes along side the Israel people to guide their decision-making. The priestly role on the other hand does not require the infilling of the Spirit but the administration of the Laws of God primarily through the atoning sacrifice for sin.
Enter into this turbulent stage of history a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. At this time the writer Luke strategically points out the military rule of King Herod of Judea. God enters onto the scene of history to take back the leadership of his people Israel, the Messiah of the promise is coming. It is important to note that Luke is writing to Theophilus (translated “lover of God”) because he is sharing this good news only with those who desire to hear about this change.
He’s not trying to convict those who are not seeking God. The message is only for those who truly want to hear God and will embrace the change of life that is required by believing.
These birth narratives usher in the final awakening of God’s Spirit upon the earth within those who will believe. Prior to the coming of the Messiah the infilling was given only to those who would lead God’s people, but now all people who believe will be filled with the Spirit.
The Challenge of Childlessness. In the time of Herod King of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah and his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. Yet, Zechariah & Elizabeth had no heir until God chose to open her womb.
Elizabeth was barren, yet she was a daughter of the priestly order of Aaron. The fault of the childlessness rested on Elizabeth. Across the pages of Scripture childlessness is consistently a flaw within the female ranks. Childlessness is never presented in a positive way at all. It comes with a stigma. Every story of a childless woman in Scripture points to that situation being reversed by God’s own hand. Abraham’s Sarah, Isaac’s Rebekah, Jacob’s Rachel, Samson’s mother, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother all describe the heart-felt suffering of barrenness that can only be remedied by divine intervention. Scripture even points to barrenness as a result of unfaithfulness of God’s people (Ex. 23.26, Deut. 7.14). Socially, a childless woman would have been ranked among the despised, the poor, the helpless, and the widow (Job 24.21). In a shame based culture this couple would not have been respected. Childlessness was considered the result of sin or God’s punishment. It was God alone who would open or close the womb of a woman (Gen. 16.2, 20.18, 1 Sam. 1.5).
We have recently heard God’s word about Ruth and Hannah’s childlessness and the sorrow that brought to their families. Childlessness was often the cause for bigamy across the Ancient Near Eastern world. As we learned in Naomi and Ruth’s circumstance with the loss of their husbands they risked starvation and social isolation. Without children, particularly a son, the woman lacked social and financial protection. When her husband died, the wife would most likely be cared for by the eldest son. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 protects the rights of the firstborn son who is to receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance.
They were very old and had experienced a lack of God’s Spirit in the life of Israel. They were not expecting that God would choose them as the first sign of the move of God’s Spirit in some 400 years. God came to the priestly order of Aaron to shed light on the coming Kingdom of God invading God’s people. God worked through the ways and means of casting of lots (Joseph sold into Egypt), a vision in the temple (Isaiah’s vision), a heavenly messenger (Daniel’s encounter), a promise (Abraham’s stars), a sign, and a childless couple whose prayers have been answered (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Boaz, and Samuel). Even the call to the Nazarite community points to the call of a holy person set apart for God’s work.
The promise that comes to Zechariah is that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. This will bring about deep change in the hearts of the people. The purposes of God are to return the hearts of the fathers to their children and bring the disobedient to righteous ways of thinking. Zechariah responded to this good news that way most all of us would today. We are seeking signs – is this really God? Unbelief comes in many forms but all with the same root issue – skepticism. Elizabeth knowing the skeptics of her community she remained silent for five months.
In the six month of her pregnancy Elizabeth receives a visitor, her relative young Mary who has also had an encounter with God. God chooses across the pages of Scripture to redeem his creation through opening the womb of barren women. And, he does so here at the beginning of a new era in Israel’s history. Mary stays some three months with Elizabeth then returns home it seems just before John is born. The text tells us that Mary was well beyond the childbearing years, yet, it seems the child was completely healthy and the delivery uneventful. Not only was the conception miraculous but so were the delivery and health of the child.
On the eighth day Zechariah and Elizabeth took the child to be circumcised as was custom to present the child before God and the community for the child to be named. The community wanted to call him Zechariah, but with some persuasion he was named John as the angel had said. And, the community could not imagine what this child might become. They said, “What then will this child be” (Luke 1.66)?
For us today we can see the connection between this story and the writing of Malachi the prophet. Hear what Malachi says, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you before the great and terrifying day the Lord arrives for he will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents (Mal. 4.5-6). The Angel Gabriel said the same thing, He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah for he will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children and change the minds of disobedient people (Luke 1.17). And, now Zechariah will speak for the first time since his encounter with God’s angel in the holy of holies. His first words reflect the same sentiments, You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way and you will tell his people who to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 1.76-77).
John is about to bring about deep change in Israel’s history. A tiny little baby will grow up with the Spirit of God guiding and leading him into all righteousness to bring about a right relationship between God and his people. The preparation for the Messiah has come. The anticipation for what will come was immeasurable. In the wilderness John would grow to become a man who would receive a word from God to call the people to return their hearts to God. John would call the people to an act of baptism to show that their hearts and lives were changing and they desired forgiveness for their sins. John would proclaim to the people, Prepare the way for the Lord making his paths straight as salvation is coming (Luke 3.2-6).
We too are not unaccustomed to God’s presence in our lives, all the while not knowing what will become of the church in this season when so many are not attending to God’s Spirit. God shows up on the pages of Israel’s history at time of great challenge for the Israel’s people. In many ways our text today is a cliff hanger. God is on the move but the children of Israel are uncertain as to the outcome of these events. We too experience God in our midsts from time to time in ways that make us feel uncertain. We know God is with us. We know God hears and answers our prayers. We believe that he has come to save us from our sins through repentance and forgiveness. We believe. But while we believe we do not know when he will return to take us home. We know not the outcome of the church in these latter days. We can only hold to God’s promises and our hope in a better tomorrow.
All the while we must realize that God has given us his Holy Spirit to us the Church. The many years of silence meant that there was no move of God’s Spirit for guidance – no prophets to appoint and correct Kings, no Kings to rule the people, and no judges to guide the community of faith. But now the silence has been broken and the Spirit of God is moving among his people in the still small gift of a child named John who would usher in the coming of the Messiah. Together they would offer Israel a great awakening in the form of repentance and renewal of their minds, hearts, and lives.
You and I have the opportunity to see ahead into the future even more clearly than John or his parents, Zechariah or Elizabeth, to see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We no longer have to rely on prophets, judges, or kings to guide us in God’s ways. We no longer have to rely on a priest to sacrifice on our behalf. The Messiah has made a way in the darkest of nights for us to experience God in obedience with His Spirit.
Advent remains a time for us to prepare our hearts to hear God’s still small voice in the gift of two little baby boys – one born to aging parents and the other born to a young virgin girl and her betrothed (not yet married). Both old and young will discover what it means to welcome God in their midst.
Will you join me this Advent season in remembering our inheritance of the gift of grace given to us through the Holy Spirit of God in the life of John and Jesus. Let us recite the Nicene Creed together.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.