As always these are my notes and not a transcript so apologies for errors, typos etc
I start by asking you today – what’s the answer? And I’m starting with a little story, which you may have heard of before or at least similar. There is a sweet story I read about a Sunday school teacher who asked her Sunday school class about an animal, wanting to illustrate serving…
She started the lesson by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”
“I’m thinking of something that lives in trees (pause). “It can be grey or brown… it has a long bushy tail”
Finally one little boy put up his hand. Yes, said the teacher, what do you think it is?
“is it Jesus?’ says the boy…!
It’s an old ‘in church’ joke that any question asked in Sunday school or in church, if you are not sure, the answer is always Jesus, which allows for some great comedy moments as we have seen. But the thing is, there is only ever really one answer –
So what’s the answer? Yes, JESUS
and there’s only ever really one sermon – that Jesus is the answer!
Today we are starting our new series from Luke’s gospel and it’s all about people meeting with Jesus. In fact we’ve called the series ‘Encounters with Jesus’. So we will see throughout Luke’s gospel, people encountering Jesus in diff ways. We’ll be looking at Jesus, his miracles, and parables. And we are going to see people having their lives transformed by him.
You know the entire bible points us to Jesus. From the OT paving the way for the coming of a messiah, to the NT where we see his birth, life, ministry and death and resurrection. And subsequently his word being spread through his followers. But the only parts of the bible that talk directly of Jesus life and ministry are the four gospels, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, and we are focussing on Luke.
So let’s do a quick overview of Luke so we know what we are getting in to. Here’s a few things to get us started:
: Luke is the longest book in the NT (in length not chapters).
: Thought to be written around 70AD. Why is this important? Only actually 30-40 years after Jesus death, so we know that whilst Luke himself was not an eye witness, there would have been people around who were, or who had direct memories of the events he is writing about.
: Whilst the gospels share some stories, Luke contains some of the most well known stories of Jesus life and teaching that don’t appear elsewhere, for example, as we see here, Zechariah and Elizabeth story, also, the Angel's announcement to Mary, Conversion of Zaccheus, Walk to Emmaus, the story of Prodigal Son and more.
What about Luke himself – who was he?
Well he think he was actually called Luke for a start – which might sound like a silly thing to say but that isn’t always the case with biblical books. And who was he? Well there is some discussion over this but generally academics agree that Luke was a doctor, and was the same Luke who is mentioned in some of Paul’s letters as someone who travelled with him. He is referred to in Colossians 4:11-14 as ‘our dear friend Luke, the Doctor’. On the same basis of mentions in Paul’s letters it is believed he was a gentile (so someone who wasn’t a Jew).
It is believed that Luke also wrote the Book of Acts and that these were possibly 2 halves of the same book, or 2 volumes.
Whoever he was it is clear from the writing that he had a deep knowledge of the Jewish scriptures and was a well educated man. People also think he had an interest in history and he is sometimes referred to as a historian because of his style of writing as we see in the first few para’s how we has done his research. Whilst nowadays we wouldn’t think of the bible as a historical document necessarily, we should remember that those writing were to some extent recording the facts and event of the day, accurate accounts of Jesus life.
In these 2 lines at the beginning he lays out his integrity, his devotion to the truth and how he has come about this information.
Who is he writing to?
Well, he says he is writing to Theophilus, who was probably a Roman official, a new Christian who Luke is discipling. However Theophilus also means 'beloved of God' and there is some thought that he could be using this term to refer to followers of Jesus, those who want to know more about him. And it's important to note that writings of this time would have been copied and distributed so he may be saying he is writing to one person but he would know and probably intended for this to be read and used to teach new Christians.
Luke is clever in that he writes in a way that encompasses Jewish belief but also the customs of the day that all would be familiar with. So that all can understand and be taught, he was writing for a culturally diverse audience, so poss tries to present Jesus in ways that might appeal to people with a wide variety of backgrounds
So, to our passage, as I said, Jesus is the answer. This book is all about Jesus, so then if that’s the case, why doesn’t he start with Jesus right? it’s interesting that right at the beginning we actually get this wonderful story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, which doesn’t appear anywhere else in the bible and in fact Jesus isn’t mentioned until v 31!
Well, what he is doing is putting Jesus into the context of the day. Before he gets into the real stuff, he is cleverly laying the ground, preparing the heart of the reader for what is to come. He doesn’t launch right into to, but he points us towards Jesus through this story.
So Zechariah was a priest. Not in the sense that we would know now, anyone descended form the line of Aaron was a priest and they served their temple in groups or divisions. Most of them would live outside the city then come into the city when it was their turn to serve their duties in the temple. The rest of the time would be spent teaching or serving in their own communities.
As there were so many priests on each occasion lots would be drawn to go into the sanctuary and perform the duties including burning of incense. Now this might not seem that big a deal but it was huge. Many priests never got the chance to do this and if they did it would be once, so a real once in a life time opportunity to enter the sacred place in the temple, the holiest part of the temple. So Zechariah would never have done this before, as a Priest it would have been a truly special moment and then of course this fantastic encounter happens, where he meets with an angel, who gives him amazing news that he will have a son, who will be holy and set apart.
Reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few weeks ago when some of us went up to celebrate Richard Jackson's consecration as the Bishop of Lewes. Particularly special for me, as I got to serve communion in Westminster abbey. Probably a once in a life time experience. Just amazing, the ceremony, the sense of the Holy Spirit, the feeling of being part of one big family. And to prepare for communion we went forward to the main altar, a holy place. And afterwards we went back behind the altar. I’d love to say an angel appeared, but it didn’t. the ABC was there though..! But the point is there is something truly special and holy about these moments.
So what’s all this got to do with Jesus being the answer, well the thing about that service was that it wasn’t just about Richard, at it's centre was Jesus. Everything in that service pointed to him.
And we see in our passage, it points people to Jesus. that this son to be born to Z&E will ‘bring people back to the Lord’ and ‘will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah (who was a great prophet) … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. We know and will read in later verses, that this son was to be John the Baptist, a man who devoted his life to being holy, to share the news of the coming of the Messiah and later in v76-79 we see Z saying of him: ‘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, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace’
This man is born to tell people that Jesus is the answer. To point the way to him. And actually what Zechariah says of John, we could say of ourselves to some extent. We should go before the Lord – we should prepare the way for people to come to him, we should be giving people the knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sins, shine on those living in darkness, guide people to the path of peace. Isn’t it? Isn’t that what our call is? To point people to Jesus in our words and actions?
Are we signposting the way to Jesus – to the answer?
And of course within our own context?
Luke is actually being clever including this story at the beginning, because he is pointing to Jesus but within the context of the day.
Right at the centre of community, of Jewish culture particularly was the importance of longevity, of generational lines, of family, so that’s where he starts. He notes the time – in the time of Herod, he names the line from which Zechariah and Elizabeth are descended, he is placing them and this story, and this gospel within the context of what his readers would have known. And after all JTB, was sent to point the way to Jesus, to go before, and Luke is echoing that theme here.
So when we think of pointing the way to Jesus, can we also do so within our own context? Our own surroundings? In the context of the service at the Abbey it was liturgical, it was in the hymns in the words spoken, in the act of the eucharist. Luke does it by putting Jesus into the pattern of the day. How do we share Jesus in our day? In our context?
So here we have Zechariah and Elizabeth, upright people, Godly people, but actually just normal people who are used by God. You see we are the bringers of Gods kingdom. Normal people.
But that they had a deep pain in their lives that Elizabeth was barren, she couldn’t have children. Now I know that in our society for those who cannot conceive it is utterly heart breaking, some of us here know that pain personally. I have stood alongside people dealing with this. It is deeply deeply painful, a pain that can last a lifetime. And I have no doubt that it was the same for Z & E and yet in addition in their culture those who could not concieve were mocked and scorned. Almost seen as a disability. And often it was seen as having a link to divine intervention, as we see when others such as Leah in genesis where it says that God opened her womb as he saw she was unloved. For Z & E they would have lived with this scorn their whole lives. And yet God had a plan for them they could never have forseen.
You know we are all responsible for the bringing in of Gods kingdom. God uses ordinary people like us to bring about his kingdom and we are going to see that through this book of Luke. Our God – the God of lavish, self giving love – doesn’t forget our human pains… I love how so often God takes something so tragic and painful and turns it into something so wonderful. As with Z&E here. Something so deeply deeply painful…
That is often the message in Luke that God, in taking care of the grand scheme of things – his truly grand scheme, he also takes care of the smaller human concerns too. God has a plan for each of us, just as he did for Z&E. God, through Jesus, through the HS is bringing in his kingdom through ordinary people. People with pains, people who are suffering, people with doubts, people who are not perfect. Isn’t it just awesome that God has this amazing plan and he doesn’t just roll it out, perfection all over the world, boom! No he uses us, his precious children broken as we are, imperfect as we are. His grand plan is played out through us.
How are you part of his grand plan? So what is he asking of you today?
Because we have to be open to hearing what his plan is for us – we have to be available to listen, we have to take the opportunity to hear him, to meet.
So, I want to speculate a bit, this is not in the bible, so just go with it… … but as I read this passage I just began wondering about Z&E. They are upright and righteous, they would have been praying people. I think we can safely assume that they must have prayed and prayed for a child. Did they give up? Did they get to old age and stop praying? ‘the Angel says – I heard your prayer’ But I just wonder if when Zechariah went into the temple that day he took that opportunity to be a little bit selfish, to as well as his duties, to offer a prayer for himself and his wife. He could have been waiting for that opportunity for years. Ery time waiting to see what the lots were…. I wonder if he and elizabeth discussued it in their younger years – ‘if you get picked to go into the temple this time, make sure you ask him, make sure you pray – in that holy place. Like some people going pilgrimages to holy places, or places where healings have taken place. God can work anywhere we know that, but there is something within us that recognises the holiness of on action, a miracle or a place. So my speculations I, did Zechariah, old as he was, remember his past prayers, remember all the scorn that had been poured on him and his wife, did he remember a promise to her, to himself to pray for a child in that holy place? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. And the reason I say this is that so often God gives us opportunities. Opportunities to come closer to him, to know him more, to hear him and we don’t always take them do we? Whether it is fear, or doubt or something else stopping us, but I really believe that God gives us daily opportunities to know him more, to be part of bringing in his kingdom and it is up to us to recognise them and take them.
Did Zechariah think. This is an opportunity? Did he pray Please Lord give me a child? Did he take that opportunity when it was presented to him?
Are we taking all the opportunities God offers to us?
Opportunity – be used for the kingdom – point people to Jesus – enable the coming in of the kingdom.
It’s all part of the same thing really. If we are open to the Godly opportunities before us, those chances to be used for the kingdom, then we will be pointing people to the answer, to Jesus. and in turn we will enable the coming in of more of God’s kingdom.
Opportunities breed encounters, reveals the kingdom.
So, today is Pentecost Sunday when we remember how the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire came down from heaven and rested upon them as we can read in Acts 2.
The Holy Spirit is the power of God that moves through us. It’s the same Holy Spirit that came upon Elizabeth and enabled her to conceive in her old age. The same HS that worked through Jesus to perform amazing miracles. It’s the same HS we see when after the birth of JTB. Later in this passage, it says, vs. 67: that fills Z and he worships the lord in joy. It’s says: Zechariah was filled with the HS and prophesied and he then sings what is called Zechariah’s song, of praise and prophecy concerning his son.
So today, thinking about some of the questions I’ve been asking, we’d love to pray for the HS to work through each of us just as it did through Z & E.
Do you need to be refilled and refreshed, or even filled for the first time with the HS - just as it was at the original Pentecost when the disciples were filled and 300 came to faith.
Or do you need to know Jesus as your answer today?
Or perhaps you want to be able to see the opportunities of God more clearly?
Ask yourself, if this is an opportunity to come before God, as Z did, what would be your prayer? If you could step into a holy place right before God, what would you ask? Is it simply to be refilled? Refreshed, filled with the HS? Is our desire for more of God? Or perhaps you have a prayer on your heart, maybe it is a prayer you have prayed hundreds of times like Z&E, a prayer of pain and brokenness? Or maybe God is going to put a new prayer in your heart today.
We can think this is just another Sunday morning, its just another service, what is special about today. Or we can say: This IS an opportunity. We might be fearful – Zechariah was, but the angel said do not be afraid. And I want to say now to you do not be afraid. We are family here, we stand with each other, we support each other. I don’t know what God wants to do this morning but I do know he longs for us to be closer to him, to step towards him, to be open to what he has in store for us. So lets do that now. Lets be open to what he wants to do and say to us today. Lets be open to Jesus being our answer…
Lead into Prayer time...