The Christmas season is a beautiful time of the year. It’s probably my favorite season of the entire year. All of the lights, laughter, joy, Christmas movies, family get-togethers, food and gift giving… Christmas really is a beautiful season. But it’s also a season where some of our deepest unmet desires and struggles are brought to the surface.
Think about some of these: the pain of loss; the frustration of loneliness; the crippling effect of fear; the confusing presence of doubt; the overwhelming control of lust; the deceptive power of selfishness; the inflating effect of pride; the devastating power of despair and depression; the captivating clutches of worry and anxiety. The Christmas season has a unique way of awakening these struggles with a force that can leave you begging for mercy.
Like a school ground bully who twists your arm up behind your back and makes you cry out for mercy; these unmet desires; the things you desperately want to be free from, can leave you begging for mercy because mercy is the sweet release from suffering. Can you relate to what I’m saying here? I think Zechariah and Elizabeth could relate to this. Take a look at Luke 1:56 – 80 with me…
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. 57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.
64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. 67 And his father, Zechariah, was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied saying, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
#1. ZECHARIAH NAMES HIS SON (vss. 56 – 63)
After being with Elizabeth for about three months Mary heads home. Now I imagine that those three months were full of joy and laughter and hope as these two women looked forward to bringing these two babies into the world. And even though both of these women were in completely different stages of life, they both knew that their babies would serve an eternal purpose.
Elizabeth’s baby would serve as the last of the Old Testament prophets who called God’s people to repentance and obedience. And he would also announce the coming of the Messiah. Mary’s baby would live a sinless life to die on a cross and be raised again on the third day in a powerful victory over Satan, sin and the grave. I doubt that Elizabeth and Mary understood all of these implications for their babies but they knew that their babies were gifts from God who were designed with eternal purposes. Their babies weren’t just objects of earthly pleasure. Their babies were full of eternal purpose.
Those eternal purposes are evident in the choosing of their names. Choosing a name is always an exciting part of having a baby. And after Elizabeth gave birth to her baby, all of her neighbors and her relatives heard about the great mercy that the Lord had shown to her and they were filled with joy (vss. 57 – 58). Elizabeth was an older woman who had been unable to have a baby even though she desperately wanted one (vs. 7).
Can you imagine that place of desperation? Can you imagine how much they might have longed for mercy; to have what afflicted them removed? Infertility has been the cause of a deep struggle with a sense of worth or value for many people in every generation. The common thought is that if someone cannot have a baby then they are living under a curse (vs. 25). They aren’t blessed. They are cursed because they are childless. Wouldn’t you long for mercy if you were in their shoes?
Can you imagine how you would respond if the Lord answered this prayer? How would your neighbors and friends respond? The neighbors and the relatives in this story (vss. 59 – 61) are excited to see that God has given Zechariah and Elizabeth a baby and they come over to circumcise the baby and give him his name. But to their surprise, Elizabeth decides to name the little boy, John, instead of Zechariah, as was the custom of that day. So they go to her husband (vss. 62 – 64) and they ask him about this and he agrees with Elizabeth that the boy’s name shall be John in accordance with what the angel had spoken (vs. 13).
One author (Ryken 2008: 88) notes that John’s name was given to him by God to express the child’s true identity. John’s name simply means that “God is merciful” and this reminds us that God has withheld what we rightly deserve. If you trust in Christ then you are a recipient of God’s mercy. By trusting in the work of Jesus at the cross you are trusting that he has paid the penalty for your sin and God the Father has withheld that penalty from you. He’s been merciful towards you. So, John the Baptist had an eternal purpose to turn the hearts of the people to the tender mercy of God through his preaching. And Elizabeth and Zechariah both knew this because of what the angel had spoken to them previously (vss. 15 – 17).
And don’t forget that Zechariah has been unable to speak for roughly nine months (vss. 20). Can you imagine what it must have been like to be silent for nine months, contemplating the mercy of God as you wait for your baby to be born so that you could name him after God’s mercy? What kinds of things would be cultivated in your heart if you just simply contemplated God’s mercy towards you for nine months? That question leads me to the next portion of our text.
#2. ZECHARIAH BREAKS HIS SILENCE (vss. 64 – 75)
What would you say after being unable to speak for nine months? Zechariah’s silence was a consequence for his unbelief back in verses 18 – 22. He couldn’t believe that God was going to miraculously help his wife become pregnant at such an old age after being sterile for so many years. So the consequence of his unbelief was that he would be unable to speak until the day that all of the things that the angel said took place. This included not only the birth of a son but also the naming of that son, which explains why Zechariah was mute until he named his son John. Zechariah’s obedience to the Word of God through the angel preceded the praise that came out of his mouth.
One author (Ryken 2008: 90 – 91) notes that the moment that Zechariah opens his mouth, he blesses the Savior before blessing his own son. This reminds us that genuine faith always expresses itself in jubilant praise, and where there is no real worship we may wonder whether there is any true faith at all. In other words, the consequences of Zechariah’s unbelief were actually a merciful act of correction by God that produced a heart of faith-filled worship.
This leads me to ponder what happens in my own heart when I suffer the consequences of my unbelief. When Zechariah breaks his silence (vss. 64 – 66) he can’t help but to speak words of blessing about the God who had inflicted him with those nine months of silence. And all the people who heard him speak were consumed with a reverent fear of the God who is merciful and they couldn’t stop talking about who this child was going to be.
John the Baptist was going to be a great man of God and people everywhere were getting really excited to see where this kid was going and what God was going to do through him. But don’t miss the fact that Zechariah’s unbelief led to consequences that resulted in his faith-filled worship, which then produced an entire countryside that was consumed with the fear and admiration of God in his mercy.
In what ways is God correcting your unbelief right now? What consequences of unbelief are you experiencing in this season? Does God feel distant? Are you struggling to hear him speak? Is it possible that this is God’s mercy towards you? Could it be, that God is developing a heart of worship in you through some difficult consequences in this season?
I can’t imagine how proud and how excited John the Baptist’s parents were. I would think that the moment that Zechariah was able to talk that he would want to brag on his own son. But the reality is that he actually brags on God first. All of those nine months of silence, pondering the mercy of God, erupted in an overflow of praise to God. And Zechariah’s song of praise highlights some of the most massive categorical truths about God’s mercy in verses 68 – 75.
Zechariah reminds us that God is blessed. He hasn’t left us here to rot. He came to visit us in our helpless state. He came to redeem us from the clutches of our enemies. He came to save us from the penalty of our sin. He came to make good on his centuries old promise of redemption. He came to deliver us from Satan, sin and the grave so that we might freely serve him without fear as we grow in godliness forever. Is this not an awesome picture of a merciful God?
What would it be like to spend nine months silently contemplating this picture of a merciful God? How blessed would you be by the opportunity to be consumed for nine months by the mercy of God? How merciful would it be for God to leave you in silence so you could contemplate his mercy? What kind of faith would this produce in you? What kind of praise would this produce in you? Here’s the reality, blessed people have a gigantic picture of God’s mercy and blessed people are a blessing to God and others. You can see this truth in the final portion of our text.
#3. ZECHARIAH BLESSES HIS SON (vss. 76 – 80)
The words we speak to and about one another can have the effect of either blessing or cursing. Life and death is on the line when we use our words. We can either tear people down or we can build people up. We typically want to blame our words towards someone or about someone on the other person. Their behavior is to blame for my behavior.
In other words, I just live my life under the control of other people and I spend my life reacting to them rather than responsibly responding to them. This kind of attitude is built on a faulty notion that I am unable to be response-able. I can only be reactive. The reality is that the condition of my heart is to blame for how I speak to or about someone else. If my heart is full of the God of mercy then how will I speak to and about other people?
Imagine the implication of this question as it relates to your interactions with your screaming kid, or the crazy people on social media, or the insanity of the political world, or the waitress that is running late, or the coworker that is being a pain, or the boss that is being a jerk, or the spouse that is being lazy, or the person who believes abortion is ok, or the person who thinks that sexual sin of any kind isn’t a big deal. If your heart is full of the God of mercy then how will you speak to and about other people?
Imagine how this massive picture of a merciful God could impact your interaction in the world you live in. Imagine the results of this in your family, your church, your neighborhood, your city, or your world for that matter. Imagine the social transformation that could happen if each of us began to get a hold of a magnified picture of a merciful God. What social issues could be transformed by an increased image of a merciful God in a believer’s heart?
One author (Ryken 2008: 97) notes that John the Baptist would be intensely focused on spiritual transformation amidst a culture that longed for social transformation. As the forerunner to the Messiah he would point to the truth that there can be no social transformation without spiritual regeneration. No social transformation without spiritual regeneration. This is why I always say that I can’t expect a nation full of lost people to act like Christians. It’s frustrating enough to think about what it takes for Christians to act like Christians. Nevertheless, I still have a strong underlying frustration that our nation full of lost people acts like lost people whom I desperately want to see transformed by a relationship with Jesus.
That’s basically the context that Zechariah speaks into when he speaks this word of blessing over his son in verses 76 – 79. After singing a Christmas song of praise about the Savior, he sings a song of blessing about his son that is intensely focused on the work of the Savior. John the Baptist is going to be God’s man. He’s going to be a man who represents the Lord. He’s going to be a man who prepares the path or the road for the King of kings to travel into the hearts of sinful men and women.
He’s going to be a man who preaches salvation and forgiveness of sin. He’s going to be a man who preaches the tender mercy of God to people who’ve lived in darkness all of their lives. His words will be like sweet sunshine to people who’ve only known the darkness of their sin-filled souls. His preaching will be life to those who’ve lived under the curse of death. He will be a man who guides anxious and fearful people into the presence of God’s merciful peace. John the Baptist will be a blessed man because of God’s mercy and as a blessed man he will be a blessing to God and others.
Why does this story matter? What difference will it make in our lives? Why is this story so important during this Christmas season? I think this story matters because it teaches us that blessed people are blessed because they have experienced God’s mercy and because they are blessed they are a blessing to God and others.
Blessed people are a blessing because they know that God has not forgotten us. Blessed people are a blessing because they know that we can trust God. Blessed people are a blessing because they know that God can save us. Blessed people are a blessing because they know that this life is not all there is to our existence. Blessed people are a blessing because they know that God has been merciful to us.
Are you a blessed person? Are you a blessing to God and others? Has the picture of God in all of his mercy captivated your soul? Are you, like John Baptist (vs. 80), growing in spiritual strength as you walk through the wilderness of this life? Have you stopped and pondered the unbelievable hospitable investment of God on your behalf, as he owned your salvation at the cross of Christ? This is the picture of God’s tender mercy whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (vs. 78 – 79).
We have so many reasons to live with an attitude that says I am blessed and therefore I will be a blessing. For all of the frustrations of this life there are still a vast amount of reasons to know that we are blessed and therefore we can be a blessing. For all of the beauty and all of the busyness and all of the commercial, consumerist trappings of Christmas in America, there are still a vast amount of biblical reasons to know that we are blessed and therefore we can be a blessing.
And chief among those reasons is the truth that God has been merciful to us in sending Jesus to this earth to live a sinless life, to die on a cross on a lonely hill and to be raised again on the third day. We are blessed because God has blessed us in his mercy with the coming of Christ and therefore we can be a blessing. Blessed people have experienced God’s mercy and therefore blessed people are a blessing to God and others.