Today’s message on Expectant Elderly Elizabeth concerns expectantly waiting for the return of Jesus Christ and pointing people to Jesus while we wait. Inasmuch as it is an Advent message, we are purposely not jumping to Jesus’ birth too quickly. Below is the sermon preached at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York this morning. The sermon audio is available here. Next Sunday’s passages will be: Genesis 18:1-15, Isaiah 7:10-25, and Luke 1:26-38. The title will be “The Young Virgin Mary.”
The consumer culture around us is getting to Christmas earlier and earlier every year. It used to be that everyone waited until the day after Thanksgiving. But this year one of the local radio stations began playing Christmas music on November 7th. Satellite radio began some of their holiday channels on November 1st and some radio stations around the country also made the switch to Christmas music on November 1st. For a few years now some radio stations have started Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And I don’t just mean a song or two here and there, I mean every song they play is already Christmas music. Mario was lamenting how it was threatening to overshadow Thanksgiving a few Sundays ago and I got the sense that many of you agree. It is also worth lamenting that this early start is designed to feed the idolatrous religion of consumerism. It must be working because Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales were at all time highs this year. When you consider consumerism, it is small consolation that our culture cannot start the Christmas push earlier than November 1st because Halloween has become more important to our economy in recent years than it ever was before. But I’m not raising these issues just to criticize our culture, but to encourage the church to wait expectantly for Christmas. Advent means “coming” and the season of Advent is meant to be a time of preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ while we are also preparing for Him to come again. Not all of the Gospels tell us about the birth of Jesus, but one thing that they all have in common is that they begin with John the Baptist. That’s what we are going to do this morning as well – but before we read the passage from Luke concerning the prophecy, conception and first two trimesters of this other baby in the womb of an expectant elderly Elizabeth, we are going to look to the Torah and Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures for some background.
Keep these observations in mind when we read the passage from Luke… we know that the baby boy in Exodus 2:1ff will be special because the story begins with the marriage of a Levite man to a Levite woman, then the Levite woman puts this baby boy in a basket and daubed it with bitumen and pitch – in other words, she made him a little ark like the big one Noah built in Genesis, and she put this ark among the reeds in the water. And we are told the significance of this baby boy on the lips of Pharaoh’s daughter who named him Moses, the text says, “Because, I drew him out of the water.” His name is meant to make us think of a baptism like the flood and the Exodus Event. In fact, the reason it is significant that the Levite woman put this little ark among the reeds is that the Hebrew Scriptures do not say that the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground – the Hebrew Scriptures calls the waters they passed through on dry ground the Sea of Reeds. So the big picture in our Torah reading is Levite man marries Levite woman and their son is known for baptisms – including the Exodus Event. Of course, Noah and Moses aren’t the only ones known for baptisms in the Bible – so is John the Baptist. And the reason that John the Baptist is known for baptisms is (at least in part) our reading from the Prophets. These are the very last two verses of the Prophets:
Keep these observations in mind as we read the passage from Luke… Elijah was to return to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord God Himself. You will even hear the angel Gabriel say that John the Baptist will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah and then quote Malachi 4:6 to explain John’s significance. The prophets described these things as a new exodus event, which we know was finished by Jesus on the cross. Jesus even spoke with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration about the exodus that He was about to accomplish with His death and resurrection (Luke 9:31). Thus it isn’t all that surprising that John would use baptisms in his ministry of repentance to prepare the people for Jesus and to foreshadow this new exodus. So the big picture in our Prophets reading is that a great prophet will prepare the way before the coming of the Lord.
- The people of God have always lived with the hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord.
Expectant elderly Elizabeth may not have ever imagined that she would give birth to a great prophet, indeed one that the Lord would call more than a prophet (Luke 7:26), but she hoped for a miracle so that she could have a child and she nevertheless lived with the hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. Like Exodus 2 we read that a Levite man has married a Levite woman. But instead of it saying that she conceived and bore a son as it did in Exodus we read in Luke that they had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. In other words, (1) she was unable to have any children and (2) she has passed what doctors now call menopause and is therefore physically incapable of having children. Thus Elizabeth was at the point where having a child was humanly impossible. Luke also tells us that Elizabeth and Zechariah were both righteous before God and walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Thus we know that their sins were not keeping them from having children. Now I’m sure that you are familiar enough with the Scriptures and familiar enough with the God of the Scriptures to know how the story will end that begins by saying, the worthy wife, a righteous woman, is barren. And indeed this passage ends as expected telling us that Elizabeth conceived and said that her reproach among people had been taken away. Expectant elderly Elizabeth’s hopes were not dashed—they were fulfilled beyond her dreams. (But, no doubt, these hopes were the content of her prayers as her husband was called up to duty within the Holy of Holies).
Zechariah in the Holy of Holies and the people praying outside also lived with the hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. Now God could have sent the angel Gabriel to let Zechariah in on the plan at any time, but it was fitting that God chose to do so when Zechariah was offering incense within the Holy of Holies [correction to the audio: this wasn’t on the Day of Atonement when the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once each year to sprinkle blood, for the context cf. Exodus 30:1-10]. Verse 10 tells us, “And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” They were praying with hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord. And then verse 11, “And there appeared to him [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” And this angel told him the standard, “do not fear” and then that Zechariah’s prayer had been heard. It was “your [singular] prayer has been heard.” One would assume the text is implying a connection between Zechariah the priest’s prayer inside and the prayers of the people outside, but clearly the proclamation of the coming conception of John was an answer to prayer. And, moreover, the angel tells Zechariah that “many will rejoice at his birth.” (Thus Elizabeth, Zechariah, and the faithful praying outside as Zechariah was serving, lived in hopeful expectation of the coming of the Lord.)
The whole point of the Advent season is to encourage us to live with hopeful expectation for the return of Jesus Christ just as the faithful saints of old lived with hopeful expectation for His coming. We bear Jesus Christ in our hearts and long for His coming. (So a Levite man married a Levite woman and their son is known for baptisms – indeed, he is the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of the Lord Himself. Zechariah and Elizabeth, in their old age, became the parents of a new Moses, a new Elijah, a prophet who will actually be greater than all those who have gone before him, and just as Moses prepared the people for Joshua who went into the Promised Land, and Elijah prepared the people for Elisha who received a double-portion of the Spirit that was on Elijah (2 Kings 2:9), so too John the Baptist, in the spirit and power of Elijah, would prepare the people for Jesus the Christ. And as they lived in hopeful expectation of the return of Elijah and the coming of the Lord God Himself, we too live in hopeful expectation of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.)
- And the people of God point one another and the world to the Lord Christ.
The main reason that we want to jump straight to the conception and birth of Christ Jesus during Advent is that John did not come to promote himself but to point to Jesus. Indeed, the conception and birth of John the Baptist is not some ancient historical event that is irrelevant to our lives today. But rather, the reason many rejoiced at his birth was as the angel told Zechariah, “he will be great before the Lord…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” The reason this baby matters to you and I is that John even from the womb pointed people to Jesus. To be sure, part of the reason we want to skip straight to Christ is that the miraculous conception and birth story about John is overshadowed by the conception and birth of Christ Jesus to a virgin. Moreover, we want to skip to Jesus because in life John the Baptist is overshadowed by Jesus the Christ. But again, this is all because John did not come to promote himself but to point to Jesus.
And yet the good news began with the announcement to Zechariah that his elderly wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child. Zechariah had a hard time believing even this good news. So much so that he asked the angel for a sign. And the angel gave him one – Zechariah was made mute. Already the people outside had been wondering what was up because Zechariah had been inside for so long, but when he finally came out he could not speak to say the standard blessing on the people. It is a humorous scene because here is Zechariah asking for a sign and the sign that he gets is one where he will have to go outside and make signs to the people because he has no voice. This is not the first time that muteness has been a sign to the people in Scripture, but this time Zechariah has good news and no way to say it.
God does not want us to be silent about the good news. He wants us to share this good news. As we enter into the story of Scripture we are to be among the many who rejoice at the news of John’s birth. We are to be rejoicing in anticipation of Jesus’ birth. And so like John did, God will point people to Jesus through us—to make sure that people are prepared for Jesus to come again. Amen.