The following sermon corresponds to Advent 3 Midweek according to the Advent service plan “For unto us a Son is Given.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The altar of incense stood in the tabernacle, in a tent called the Holy Place, right in front of the veil that led to the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant rested. Every morning and every evening the priest would burn incense on this altar and pray, just as every morning and every evening the priest would sacrifice a lamb. These two times during the day were each called the hour of prayer, or the hour of incense, and Israelites came to the temple at these times to witness the sacrifice, to pray, and to receive the blessing from the priest.
One day, an old priest named Zechariah was on duty, and went into the Holy Place to burn the incense and pray. This was not a time of personal prayer for him, but as a representative of the people he approached the Lord and offered corporate prayers that concerned all the people. The greatest of these prayers was that the Lord would send the seed promised to Abraham, the Messiah promised to David, and that he would deliver his people.
On this particular day, the Lord made known that this great prayer was being answered. “There appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense” (Lk. 1:11). The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard” (Lk. 1:13). In answer to prayer, God was about to act on his promise to send the Savior. And the Lord sent his angel to Zechariah because it was in Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth that he would begin to fulfill his promise. Gabriel referenced the prophecy of Malachi, which says in chapter 4, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:5-6). Zechariah would father the forerunner of the Lord.
Yet Zechariah met this good news with doubt: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Lk. 1:18). But what’s so hard to believe? Is it hard to believe that God can give a child to an old, barren couple when he had previously done exactly that for Abraham and Sarah? Is it hard to believe that the Lord answers prayers since he has promised to and has a long history of doing so? Is it hard to believe that God will keep the Word he spoke through the prophets? These things shouldn’t be at all difficult to believe.
Yet you doubt the Lord’s Word as well. At times you doubt that God will provide you with daily bread, and so you worry about your life. But the Lord has assured you that you’re worth more than the sparrows, to whom he gives food, and Jesus did not teach you in vain to ask for daily bread. At times you doubt that your sins are forgiven, and so you become anxious and try to deal with them yourself. But the Father gave his Son into death for you, and his Son again did not teach you in vain to pray, “forgive us our trespasses.” And at times you doubt that God hears your prayers and answers them, even though he has promised in Psalm 50, “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you” (Ps. 50:15).
Gabriel responds to Zechariah, “I am Gabriel, he who is present before God, and I was sent to speak to you and to proclaim this good news” (Lk. 1:19). Or, in other words, “You don’t realize what you’re doubting! Not five minutes ago I was looking on the face of God, listening to the words of his mouth, and now, like an echo, I have said the same things to you. Will you not believe my words, which are the words of God himself?”
How shall the Lord deal with you for your doubt? Shall he withhold daily bread from you? Shall he cease forgiving your sins? Shall he turn a deaf ear to your prayers, and at the last throw you into hell? Who could accuse him of wrongdoing if he did these things?
Yet he doesn’t. The Lord may call us “ye of little faith” (Mt. 6:30), but he bears with us. He scolded Sarah when she laughed at his promise, but he did her no harm. He made Zechariah temporarily mute, yet he did not make an end of him. Those who embrace unbelief will perish in the end, but to those who despise themselves for their lingering unbelief, the Lord is gracious.
And the Lord is not gracious by giving signs and wonders to confirm his Word. Zechariah got nothing more than the Word. Rather, the Lord is gracious by fulfilling his Word. He proves it true and thereby strengthens our faith in his Word.
Elizabeth did conceive, and bear John; John prepared the way of the Lord. And Jesus came as the perfect priest who offered faithful prayer to the Father, and who then offered himself as the unblemished lamb. At the morning hour of prayer—as the lamb would have been sacrificed in the temple and the priest would have been burning incense—Jesus was nailed to the cross. And then at the evening hour of prayer – as the priest would have been standing at the altar of incense, facing the veil to the Holy of Holies – Jesus breathed his last, and that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom.
With his sacrifice, Jesus opened our mouths in praise, just as he loosed the lips of Zechariah. The people heard no blessing when the mute priest emerged from the Holy Place, but as soon as the Lord opened his mouth, Zechariah pronounced the blessing: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people… just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Lk. 1:68, 70). We rejoice with Zechariah because the Lord acts according to what he has said; he lets none of his words fall to the ground. The Lord promised to give you daily bread, and he does. The Lord promised to forgive your sins, and he does. The Lord promised to hear your prayers, and he does. Amen.