Luke1v57to80: Zechariah's Song

(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

Once again this passage can be divided into 3 parts of uneven length each of which conveys a distinctive message. I shall look at: Confusion at the Circumcision, Singing of the Saviour and Developing in the Desert.

(B) Confusion at the Circumcision.

(1) Shared joy. When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

I have been playing cricket for Brockley for 49 years. This will be my final season. My brother tells me that I should play for 1 more year and organise a match to celebrate my 50th year with the club. I will not be doing that! Mark e-mailed me to say that I should do so for the pleasure of others. He hadn't wanted lots of guests at his wedding but finally succumbed to parental pressure to share his joy. Mark does not regret his decision. My response to this was that if I ever married a wife as lovely as his I would be quite prepared to share my joy. However, I did not find retiring from one of my keenest pleasures a cause for celebration!

It is good to share our joy whether at a wedding, christening or dedication, special anniversary or baptism. I am afraid I do not approve of the modern tendency to go off to some far flung corner of the world to get married before a very few select friends. One of the abiding memories of my baptism is the joy of the folk at Brockley Baptist Chapel who witnessed it. I have attended a few wedding anniversaries where Jesus has been invited and where there is a special gladness in the goodness of God. Recently I conducted a dedication of a baby boy at Barton Mills where for once the Baptist Church was full. The people had met to rejoice with the proud parents of a beautiful son. This is as it should be!

(2) What's in a name. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."

There is very little in the Bible about what happened at the circumcision of a boy. We can safely assume that prayers were said for the child. If such was the case the baby would need a name. 'They' - the assorted friends and relatives - seemed to highjack proceedings; they took matters into their own hands and were going to call the child Zechariah after his father. This seems to be very arrogant behaviour on their part. Why didn't they ask Elizabeth what name had been given to her child? When she did speak up in protest the friends and neighbours did not take her word for it. They seemed to assume that because Zechariah was dumb he had not communicated with his wife for 9 months. He could write for goodness sake!

What did it matter what Zechariah's son was called? A name signified more in those days than is the case today. I suppose a few people in England name their children after a revered grandparent, entertainer or leader but the majority just choose something they fancy. So my niece Angela, otherwise a very sensible girl, has called her son Archie. In Bible times a name might describe: the circumstances attending birth (Esau and Jacob), the appearance of the baby (Laban means blond), the parent's joy (Samuel means asked for) or the parent's faith in God (Elijah means Jehovah is my God). Sometimes God gave a person a name and it is then full of meaning. He renamed Jacob, Israel - someone 'who struggles with God.' Jesus called Simon Bar-jona, Peter, the rock. So the name John, given by the angel to Elizabeth's son, is full of significance. It means: 'the gift of God' or 'God is gracious'.

I am glad that my parents called me John. I am sure they both thought of me as gift from God although whether I turned out that way others must decide!

(3) Treatment of the handicapped. They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who has that name."

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, "His name is John." v61to63.

The friends and neighbours fell into the trap of paying little heed to Elizabeth's protestation. Why? Because she was old and female! Elderly ladies are still treated a bit like this in modern Britain. Recently Doreen went to see a specialist at the West Suffolk Hospital about her back. I asked her how she got on. "Not very well," she replied, "he just said it was 'wear and tear.'" My friend Tommy went a few days later with the same sort of problem. The rheumatologist tried to fob him off too - but Tommy is a middle class, articulate, younger male and he wasn't going to have it. He was able to persuade the specialist to arrange for his back to be scanned.

The guests at the circumcision made signs to Zechariah. He was dumb not deaf!! Even if he was dumb and deaf - something the gospel does not record - why didn't one of the relatives communicate with Zechariah by writing tablet? Couldn't he read either! I am afraid the behaviour of family and friends is very believable. Zechariah was old and handicapped and so he is treated like an idiot. We observe the same thing today when professionals communicate with the elderly by raising their voices and using simple language irrespective of whether they are deaf or daft. People in wheelchairs complain of being talked down to.

No-one should be condescending to the old. How it annoys me when people talk about the old fogies who attend church. They have a deal more sense than the smart alecs that dont.

(4) High expectations. Throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, "What then is this child going to be?" For the Lord's hand was with him. vs67and66.

Just a few babies and young children in the Old Testament promised much. Moses, Sampson, Samuel, Daniel and Esther fall into this category. Most fulfilled their promise except, perhaps, Sampson. John the Baptist certainly lived up to expectations.

In the world of football, talent scouts look for youngsters who show promise. Simon Clifford spotted and coached the 11-year-old Micah Richards. This week he played for England against Germany. He is one who lived up to the high hopes of his mentor. But many do not.

One of the great sadnesses for the church is that numerous youngsters promise much but never come to anything as Christians. We watch them growing up in Sunday school and our youth groups. They seem so keen. Their knowledge of the Bible is good. There is no doubt that they understand the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross. They could make such an important contribution to the church. But, in the end, there is no commitment and they drift away. These bright, personable, talented and energetic young people are lost to Christ and lost to his church. It fills my heart with sorrow as I sit here thinking of them.

(C) Singing of the Saviour.

Zechariah sings about what the Lord, God of Israel is going to do as if it had already happened. The old priest's song is one of salvation because in it:

(1) God redeems his people. "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people." v68.

We all know what redemption is! If my car is clamped and then impounded I have to pay a fine to redeem it. Last week there was a story in the Daily Telegraph about a financial expert whose Aston Martin was impounded for 3 months - running up a fine of 5000. To reclaim possession of his car the cost has to be met.

A price had to be paid for God to reclaim possession of his people. Jesus paid the price with his own life upon the cross. That is what Paul tells the Corinthians: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body. 1Cor6v19.

            Which of all our friends to save us,
            Would consent to shed his blood?
            But our Jesus died to have us
            Reconciled in Him to God:
            This was boundless love indeed!
            Jesus is a Friend in need.

(2) God has delivered us from our enemies. "He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, ...... salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us - .... to rescue us from the hand of our enemies." v69to74.

Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit but this does not mean that his prophecy is free from his own deep, patriotic longings. The desire for national renewal and freedom from the Gentile oppressor clouded the judgment of all those close to Jesus. However, Zechariah does remember God's oath to Abraham: "And through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed." Gen22v18. So, I believe it is legitimate to apply the godly priest's words to God's wider people.

    (a) We have great enemies - the world, the flesh and the devil.

      (I) The world. Jesus taught: "You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." Jn15v19.

      The world is a powerful enemy - numerically strong, incredibly influential and capable of a multi-pronged attack. The world ignores us, misrepresents us, despises us, attacks us, infects us with its own values and tries to lure us out of the narrow way that leads to life.

      (II) The flesh. How the flesh troubles us! The old nature, like some cartoon bad guy, can be knocked about, dealt mighty blows, but it just keeps bouncing back to assail us again. Paul describes what all of us experience in his epistle to the Romans: So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Rm7v21to24.

      The old nature is a very troublesome enemy. It encourages us to be self-conscious, self-centred, self-indulgent, self-serving and self-preserving. It gives in to ambition, pride, greed, fear and lust. It is never fully subdued in any of us.

      (III) The devil. Peter warns us of this bitterest of foes: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1Pet5v8. Paul writes to the Ephesians: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Eph6v12.

      It would be very foolish to underestimate a man-eating lion! The devil will do everything he can to keep us from God. He creates doubts and fears, uncertainty and delay, resentment and suspicion, antagonism and hatred. He is the master of misinformation and plausible lies - as the old story of Adam and Eve in the garden so graphically illustrates. I know a middle-aged man who inveighs against Christians for their hypocrisy, selfishness, thoughtlessness and unkindness. The intensity of his resentment is out of all proportion to the offences that trigger it. He is blind to his own faults and failings. It is Satan who fans the flames of hatred to create a raging inferno. I have a friend who always blames the church for making him feel guilty as a boy. The devil makes sure he never forgets! He uses the memory over and over again to prevent my friend taking an objective look at Christianity.

    (b) We have a mighty deliverer.

    Zechariah rejoiced because: "God raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David." The horn is a symbol of great strength. Jesus is a mighty deliverer.

    Jesus has overcome the world. He told his disciples: "But take heart! I have overcome the world." Jn16v33. However strong and influential the world may seem to us - Jesus is stronger and more influential still. For 2000 years the church has been growing until now millions and millions belong to it all over the globe.

        God is working His purpose out as year succeeds to year.
        God is working His purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
        Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
        When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

    Jesus delivers us from the tyranny of the old nature. Paul penned these stirring words: Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through our Lord Jesus Christ our Lord! Rom7v24and25. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. Rom8v3.

    Jesus has defeated Satan. Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Heb3v14and15. How we should rejoice that Satan has been defeated. If we were being systematically bullied on a daily basis in our place of work how happy we should be if the bully's power over us was irrevocably broken.

    A day will dawn for the Christian when:

            Sin, my worst enemy before,
            Shall vex my eyes and ears no more;
            My inward foes shall all be slain,
            Nor Satan break my peace again.

            Then shall I see, and hear, and know
            All I desired or wished below;
            And every power find sweet employ
            In that eternal world of joy

    (c) We are delivered to serve.

    We are rescued: "To enable us to serve without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." v75.

    This has proved to be absolutely true. Innumerable people have been delivered from a futile, feckless and failing lifestyle to serve the Lord Jesus Christ fearlessly, faithfully and fruitfully.

    It will help us to see what a mighty deliverer Jesus is if we look at the outworking of the above points in an actual individual's experience. On August 19th a Geordie gave his testimony on BBC TV 'Songs of Praise'. In his youth he slipped into a life of crime, drugs and alcohol. This big, burly man was under the control of the world, the flesh and the devil. The turning point came at a christening. The joy and wonder on his mother's face spoke to him. He decided to turn over a new leaf. It wasn't as easy as he anticipated. For 12 months he tried one eastern religion after another but the man remained addicted to drugs and alcohol. In the end, like so many others, he said in desperation, "Jesus if you are there please help me." The Geordie testified that the room he was in filled with light and he had a vision of Christ. The words of Charles Wesley's hymn were true for him:

            My chains fell off, my heart was free;
            I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

    Jesus released him instantaneously from his addictions. The man proved Jesus a mighty deliverer.

(3) God has forgiven our sins. "To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God." v77and78.

God, in tender mercy, sent Jesus to make a sacrifice for sin. That sacrifice was made and all are forgiven who trust in Jesus. There are many Scriptures that confirm this truth. For example John wrote: But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence - Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1John2v1and2. This is a wonderful, wonderful verse for anyone who, unlike Tony Blair, realises that he is not 'a regular sort of guy'.

            I will sing the wondrous story
            Of the Christ who died for me;
            How he left the realms of glory
            For the cross of Calvary.
            Yes, I'll sing the wondrous story
            Of the Christ who died for me;
            Sing it with the saints in glory,
            Gathered by the crystal sea.

(4) God has dispelled the darkness. "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 paths of peace."

I watched a program on Snowdonia on Sunday evening. It featured the mountain rescue team that goes to the assistance of those that get stranded in bad weather at dangerous altitudes. A spokesman for the rescuers said this happens most often at night. It must be very unpleasant to be lost in the mountains, in the desert or at sea in darkness. What a comfort when the dawn breaks, the sun shines to illuminate our way and a sense of well being returns. Jesus is the dayspring from on high who came to bring peace to his people.

It is unpleasant to be in the dark about any unusual situation we might be caught up in. I found myself a week or so ago stranded, along with hundreds of other passengers, at the small Suffolk station of Manningtree. The train to London had ground to a halt! A tree had blown across the overhead electric cables and caught fire. We were told to leave the train and wait for buses to take us to Colchester. I was in the dark about when they would arrive, how soon I could get to London, if a train would arrive to take us back to our point of departure - Ipswich. I was anxious - uncertain what to do - not at peace. I felt much better when it was announced that the train arriving at platform 2 could take us back to Ipswich. The light dawned and my ignorance was dispelled. Jesus is like the breaking dawn because he shows us clearly the way ahead - the way that leads to God.

Sometimes we are in the dark about what people really think about us. When I started teaching at Debenham High School I was for many months unclear what my pupils thought of their new teacher. I felt a bit insecure. It was a great relief when the Head of Humanities, Mr Clear, told me that the students were beginning to 'take to me'. Jesus came to bring good news; news about what God feels for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Jn3v16.

Charles Wesley conveys what Christ can do for us as the dispelling light:

            Visit then this soul of mine,
            Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
            Fill me Radiancy divine,
            Scatter all my unbelief;
            More and more Thyself display,
            Shining to the perfect day.

(D) Developing in the Desert.

Luke records: And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel. v80. This verse speaks to me of:

(1) Lack of parental involvement.

Why did John the Baptist grow up in the desert rather than at home? He had godly parents - who better to bring him up? We must not forget that his mother and father were both old. It is possible they died when John was very young. In the desert east of the Dead Sea reclusive Jewish religious groups lived, including the Essenes, who were willing to bring up other people's children. John may have been brought up by one of these desert sects only to break away from them in later life. This may explain why he seemed so unprepared for Jesus to be the Messiah.

(2) The possibility of thriving in adverse circumstances.

Some folk would not consider an upbringing by narrow-minded monks in a desert environment advantageous. Nevertheless John became a great man.

There are many instances of Old Testament characters triumphing over circumstances to serve God. Jacob, Joseph, David, Esther and Daniel fall into this category. None had a more spectacular rise than Joseph - from being an imprisoned former slave to prime minister of Egypt.

The Google search engine gives over 2 million references to David Livingstone on the World Wide Web. The Scottish missionary and explorer started his working life at the age of 10 in a factory as a cotton spinner. He studied Latin and other subjects from books propped up on his spinning jenny and by candlelight late into the night.

(3) There are positive advantages to solitude.

There are some Christians who hate solitude. They only come alive when people are around them. They feel miserable when they are alone. Solitude however is conducive to:

    (a) Prayer. We read in Mark's gospel that after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sent his disciples on ahead, dismissed the crowd and withdrew into the hills to pray. He needed to be alone to commune with his heavenly father. Every Christian needs to be quiet to pray in private effectively. John Wesley used to rise at 5am to spend two hours in prayer.

    (b) Meditation. It is impossible to meditate at length upon the Scriptures without solitude. One of the reasons Paul was, and is, such an influential teacher is that he spent many years after his conversion in Tarsus quietly thinking. See exposition on Acts9v19to31.

    (c) Creativity. Most writers, painters and composers need solitude to create. It did George Herbert no harm to spend the last three years of his life as rector of the little parish of St Andrews Bemerton near Salisbury. It was here he composed hymns like, 'The King of Love my Shepherd is.' Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones' wonderful sermons owed much to the many, many hours he spent alone in his study.

(4) Preparation must precede ministry.

John spent many years in the desert preparing for his ministry. It was there he grew and became strong in spirit. John must have been almost thirty before he began preparing the way for the Messiah.

God takes time to prepare those for whom he has a special ministry. Moses was 80 years old before he was called to the leadership of his people at the burning bush. Paul spent 8 or 9 years in Tarsus before Barnabas recruited him to help at Antioch. Mr Ernest Oliver and his wife spent many frustrating years waiting in North India before they became the first Christian missionaries to enter Nepal. It is important for us to wait God's time and to be patient in preparation.

Rev. Charles Simeon used to go and visit old Henry Venn of Yelling in Cambridgeshire - a fellow evangelical in the Church of England. Charles Simeon was young, vain and rather opinionated. Henry Venn's daughters used to mock his ridiculous look and manner when he had left. Old Henry Venn remonstrated with his daughters in this way, "Look at those peaches on our peach tree. Are they fit to eat? Of course not - they are unripe and very green. We must wait, but a little more sun and a few showers and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr Simeon."

Many misjudged Charles Simeon because of his fine clothes, bad temper and over lavish hospitality but he was used by God to revive the Church of England in the 19th century and to foster the strong evangelical element of which Lord Shaftesbury was such a fine representative.

God may still be preparing you for that special something he wants you to do. There is no knowing at what age or in what circumstances God will call you to a specific task.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net

INDEX NEXT