(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

One thing unites the main players of the nativity story as told by Luke. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, Anna and Simeon were all God fearing Jews at a time when true religion was at a low ebb.

I will examine four things about Zechariah:

(B) His piety.

(1) The judge.

Sometimes my less discriminating friends will tell me that I am a good man! But what do they know! We can be in no doubt about the piety of Zechariah. He was upright in the sight of God. v6. God knows everything - nothing is hid from him - but, nevertheless, in God's opinion Zechariah was upright. God has the highest standards - but even by God's standards Zechariah was a devout man.

I read an editorial in the Daily Telegraph this morning (August 4th 2007) by Charles Moore in which he admits that goodness is rarely newsworthy and tends to be unreported by journalists. He wrote:

The goodness of a person takes some attention to discern because it does not announce itself. Someone who shouts, "I am good" is not, almost by definition. So it will be characteristic of most good people that they act stealthily, seeking to avoid notice because they do not want what they tend to call "all this fuss."

Unlike journalists and media folk in general God does notice goodness.

(2) What made Zechariah upright?

    (a) Zechariah and Elizabeth observed all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. v6. They were like the rich young man who asked Jesus: "Good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Mk10v17. After Jesus told him to keep the commandments the young man replied: "Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy." Mark tells us: Jesus looked at him and loved him. v21.

    Anyone who keeps the Lord's commandments both reveres God and cares about his neighbour. Zechariah had the deepest respect for his Maker and showed consideration to his fellow men.

    (b) Zechariah performed his duties as a priest conscientiously. Israel's priests were divided into 24, 800 strong, divisions. Each division performed temple duties for a week twice a year. There were so many priests that they had to draw lots for the sacred duties. Zechariah had drawn the great privilege of burning incense before the morning and evening sacrifice. It was a great occasion for him when he stood alone in the court of priests burning incense to the Lord.

    I think there is still something special about a Christian performing his duties to the church carefully and graciously. In the summer, when on a camping holiday in Dorset, I was very pleased to attend the evening service in the Anglican Church at Winterbourne Strickland. I think it is indescribably lovely to gather with a handful of people in an old village church on a sunny, summer's evening. I was greatly impressed by the care taken by a fine looking but elderly churchwarden in getting the church ready for worship. He put all the heaters on, gave out the hymnbooks, distributed literature from the diocese, put up the hymn numbers and finally, with care and not a little gentle pleasure, he lit several candles.

    (c) Zechariah was prayerful. The angel said to him: "Your prayer has been heard." v13. We are not told what Zechariah prayed for. Did he pray for a son? Did he prayer for a redeemer? Was Zechariah one of those like Anna the prophetess: Looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Lk2v38. Perhaps the old priest prayed for both!

    It is impossible to be genuinely devout without prayer. Who can doubt the devoutness of Daniel who in spite of Darius's decree making prayer unlawful for 30 days went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened towards Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Dn6v10. Today in our Sunday morning service our visiting speaker Mervyn Crawford urged us to spend more time in prayer. I can remember how his father, Tom, a truly devout Christian used to love to attend the prayer meeting. It was meat and drink to him. He revelled in prayer fellowship.

    (d) I like to think that Zechariah exhibited those three great virtues Jesus accused the Pharisees of lacking. He said to them: "But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness." Mt23v23.

    Sometimes mercy is found in unexpected places. I have just finished reading, 'In the Shadow of Death,' by Idris James Barwick. He describes the suffering of the Japanese prisoners of war building the Burma Railway between 1942 and 1945. Barwick recounts an incident that occurred near the end of a forced march: Then, as I neared a little shack of a shop, a native woman in spotless white clothes of very European cut, her hair greying and with tears running down her face, offered us bananas which she handed out and rushed back for more. But she soon realized that she couldn't get them quick enough to let all the men have a share, so she directed us to walk through the shop and pick up fruit as we passed through. All the time we were going through, the woman was wringing her hands and mumbling something in her language. To me she was a dear old lady who felt as any mother would for a son. And that day, whatever her religion may have been, she did a great Christian kindness in showing pity and sympathy to us at a time when we felt that both kindness and sympathy were dead. I had felt that every heart was hardened against us. We had suffered hell these last few days during which time people had just grinned at us, and now this dear old soul had given me new hope and new courage. Men went into the shop with long sullen hopeless faces and came out of the other door with a little gleam in their eyes, and I know that they felt just as I did. The Grace of God being administered through the medium of a lowly native woman. I feel very small and humble when I say 'May God bless her.'

(3) Devout in an impious age.

It was not easy to be devout during the period in which Zechariah lived. There had been no prophetic voice in the land for 400 years. Herod, an Edomite, a puppet of the Romans, was king of Judea. It must have seemed to Zechariah and Elizabeth that God had forgotten all about his chosen people. The religious leaders were either legalistic like the Pharisees or worldly rationalists like the Sadducees. The common people aroused Jesus compassion before the feeding of the five thousand because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Mk6v34. Yet God was not without a pious remnant with real love for him in their hearts.

Today, in Great Britain, there are few encouragements for many Christians who worship in tiny congregations. We feel beleaguered by the forces of darkness, misunderstood and misrepresented. God seems to have passed us by. Decline is inexorable and conversions have all but ceased. It should help us to overcome our despondency to remember that small but devout remnant who played such an important part in the advent story - a story of God intervening decisively in the affairs of men and changing the world forever.

(C) His privilege.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were granted the great privilege in old age of having a son - and such a son!

(1) He was a joy and delight. But the angel said to him: "Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you." v13and14.

It is a tremendous blessing to have a son or a daughter who is a joy and a delight. My old friend and fellow elder Edward Underwood has a son like that - a son who loves his parents and loves his Lord - a son to thank God for. Phyllis, whom I take to church, has a son like that - a decent, cheerful, thoughtful, kind man who would do anything for his mother.

(2) Let us look at what made John special.

    (a) He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. v15.

    We do not read in Scripture of anyone else who was filled by God's Spirit from birth - except Jesus. It is a mark of God's special favour. John was open to holy influences as a child. How this must have thrilled his devout parents! God took particularly pains with John to prepare him for the great ministry he undertook.

    (b) John lived a disciplined life. He was not given to excess. He was not controlled by his bodily appetites. John was brought up never to take wine or other fermented drink. v15. In the desert John lived very frugally: His food was locusts and wild honey. Mt3v4.

    Many of God's ministers are undone by lack of self-control. One of my childhood memories, I suppose I was only about 4 at the time, was being repeatedly thrown in the air and caught by Pastor French of Bethesda, Ipswich. He was a vigorous, vital man and a passionate preacher. He was altogether too passionate! Sadly, he left his wife to live with a much younger woman and that was the end of his ministry. Sometimes when I visited my former teacher, Miss Kilpatrick, the Hawstead vicar would call in. We would chat amiably about spiritual matters. The vicar, very attentive and kind to my old friend Miss K, was undone by drink and died in his forties of liver failure.

    (c) He would bring about a religious revival in Israel. John exercised something of the spirit and power of Elijah. v17. He was very fervent, forthright and earnestly desired to restore God to his rightful place in the hearts of the people.

    John's passionate preaching brought about two changes:

      (I) To turn the hearts of the fathers to their children. v17. It is rather unclear what Luke means by this. He may mean that John awakened a concern in fathers for the spiritual well being of their children. This is nearly always a feature of Christian converts. Suddenly, their children's relationship with Jesus becomes a top priority.

      (II) To turn .... the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. v17. Those who were uninterested in God's word and careless of their conduct began to take a keen interest in what the Scripture said. This is another diagnostic characteristic of new Christians. For a time they are hungry to know more and more about the Faith.

    (d) John prepared the way for Jesus. The desert prophet created among his disciples an expectancy that the Messiah was coming. Jesus recruited followers from the disciples of John. God used the Baptist to prepare John, James, Peter, Andrew, Philip and Nathaniel.

    William Wilberforce who introduced bill after bill to Parliament before finally getting the slave trade proscribed owed much to those who prepared the way for him. His sons in their biography of their famous father were not willing to recognise the contribution of others but nevertheless John Westley, Thomas Clarkson, numerous Quakers including the publisher James Phillips and the Anglican clergyman James Ramsay who wrote a book entitled, 'Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves,' all contributed to the effectiveness of Wilberforce's campaign.

    Jesus made it clear that not all are privileged to reap. Some plough, sow, weed and water. Jesus said after the conversion of many Samaritans: Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may be glad together. John4v36. Both the sower and the reaper will be glad at that final great in gathering of the harvest! See exposition on John4v27to42

    (e) He will be great in the sight of the Lord. v15. Zechariah was upright but John, his son, was great. Perhaps, the old priest did not live long enough to see how great John was but nonetheless his greatness is implicit in Gabriel's promise. John's greatness is attributable to the work he was given to do. Many are great in this sense. Winston Churchill led this country to victory in the last World War. Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement that changed the lot of blacks in the U.S.A. Nelson Mandela ensured the peaceful transition from white to black rule in South Africa. John was no exception. He fulfilled God's purpose in announcing the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He was great by association with the blessed Redeemer.

    Christians can take enormous comfort from the words of Jesus: "I tell you, among those born of women there is no-one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." Lk7v28. I am great because of my association with Jesus - not so much for the work I do for him as the work he has done for me.

(D) His protest.

Zechariah was incredulous at the words of the angel. His response was: "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years." v18. He was incredulous in spite of:

(1) Praying with his wife for a son.

Childlessness was counted a disgrace among the Jews and a mark of God's disfavour. Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed year after year for a child. No doubt they kept praying long after they really expected an answer. Their prayer became a habit. It can be the same for us. A man can pray for a wife, the conversion of a son or the revival of his church long after he has given up hope that his prayer will be answered.

God heard Zechariah's prayer even when it was offered in little faith! Perhaps, we would be surprised if some of our prayers were answered!

(2) The messenger.

Zechariah was one of the few who received God's message from an angel. Gabriel came from the very presence of God. The devout priest found the angel frightening - When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear - but not convincing.

This highlights the inadequacy of angels as God's messengers. Sarah did not treat the promise of a son from three angelic visitors seriously. Gideon remained unconvinced that he would deliver the Israelites from the Midianites despite assurances from an angel. Mary Magdalene received no comfort from the angels in the empty tomb. I do not think angels have a very good rapport with humans. They do not make the best evangelists. See exposition on Heb1v4to14.

People who say, "If I had a supernatural experience - if I saw an angel - I would believe in Jesus" are talking nonsense. It is easier to believe a man than an angel. That is why Christ's great commission was given to men rather than angels.

(3) The message.

Zechariah received good news from God yet he doubted it. He said, "How can I be sure of this?" He was a bit like Jacob who on being told by his sons that Joseph was alive and prime minister of Egypt was stunned and would not believe them. Gen45v26.

Today when we tell people the good news of the gospel many make objections. Their retort is: "How can I be sure of this?" I was talking to my friend Dorothy last week about the resurrection of the body. It was not long before she said, "What about all the Moslems and Hindus - what is to become of them." She was objecting to the unreasonableness of God instead of making sure of her eternal well being.

(E) His punishment.

Zechariah's unbelief was punished. Gabriel said: "And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time." v20. Zechariah lost the ability to speak for 9 months. He couldn't speak about his promised son. It must have been an awful shock to him. Perhaps Elizabeth hid away for 5 months to avoid causing unbelief in her friends and neighbours. If she had talked about her conception in the early months of pregnancy - before it showed - her acquaintances would think she was loopy. I don't think she could have kept quiet about it without living in seclusion.

Unbelief often carries its own punishment. People in Africa who do not believe unprotected sex contributes to AIDS may well suffer for it. If I recommend a food, book, holiday destination or film and my recommendation is ignored who is the loser? I sometimes had to reassure a pupil starting out on an A level Geography course that if she did her best I was sure she would eventually get a good pass. Girls who showed no faith in my judgment and gave up never gave themselves a chance.

The very worst consequences of unbelief undoubtedly have to do with Jesus. John wrote: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." Jn3v35. This is both the most wonderful text in the Bible and the most terrible.