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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/baldivis/
 
Title:Take God at His Word
Text:Luke 1:18 (View)
Occasion:Advent
Topic:Faith Tested
 
Preached:2010-12-12
Added:2011-12-15
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Liturgy is from the 1984 Book of Praise

Hymn 12:1-3

Psalm 98:1,2

Hymn 14:1,2

Hymn 11:2

Hymn 12:4,5

Read:  Malachi 4, Luke 1:1-25

Text:  Luke 1:18

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a song that asks the question, “If Christmas is to celebrate the birthday of Jesus, why don’t we see more of Him?”  Every year we hear again, “Put Christ back into Christmas!”  And every year again we lament that the true story of the birth of Jesus has been buried and mixed in with a make believe world of tinsel, turkey and tradition. 

The story of Christmas and what Christmas is all about has become quite blurred.  On the one hand there is the story about a baby born of a virgin and laid in a manger.  On the other hand there is Santa with His reindeer, flying through sky, eager to give presents to all the good boys and girls of this world.  And while some begin life believing in both Santa and in the birth of a baby called Jesus, as they grow up, it all sounds rather fanciful and the story of baby Jesus is thrown out with the belief that there is a real Santa living at the North Pole.  It all becomes one cute story of make-belief.

But how are we to separate fact from fiction?  On the one hand we have Santa on a sleigh, being pulled by reindeer through the sky.  On the other hand we have a virgin giving birth to the Son of God.  How can we be sure that the modern story of Santa Claus is a cute fairytale, but the birth of Jesus Christ is a sure fact?  Can we be confident that what the Bible says is true?

Satan loves to play around with our minds.  He loves to make us question, to ask in unbelief, “How shall I know this?”  He loves to have that old song buzzing in your head like an annoying mosquito that just won’t go away: 

The things that you’re liable

To read in the Bible

It aint necessarily so.

And at times you may wonder.  Is it necessarily so?  Did it really happen?  There are times when the mysteries of the birth, death and resurrection of the Son of God appear so certain that it would seem foolish to bring them into question.  But at other times doubt gnaws away at our soul.  And we are left with the question:  Is it really true?  Did the Son of God, Jesus, really come down to earth?  Did He really hang on a cross?  Can my sins really be forgiven in Him?

It is possible that another man had such questions.  Theophilus, a man who’s name means “Beloved of God” had heard about Jesus of Nazareth and believed in Him.  But he needed a deeper, more thorough grounding in the truth, in the facts concerning the life of Jesus.  He needed to have fact separated from fiction, he needed to know what was true and certain.  And so Luke wrote his gospel.  And he wrote it, as he says in verse 4, he wrote it “that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.”  (Luke 1:4)  He both investigated and wrote this gospel carefully and accurately so that you may believe that “the things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it is necessarily so”!

Today I wish to preach to you the sure and trustworthy  Gospel from Luke 1, concerning the prophecy of the birth of John the Baptist under the following heading:

Take God at His Word.

1.    His Word is reliable.

2.    His Word is powerful.

1. His Word is reliable.

God wants us to be certain of His Word.  He wants us to know and believe that the Bible can be trusted.  That it is accurate and that it is authentic.  And of all the things that God has revealed to us, the thing that we need to be the most certain, the most convinced about is that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  We need to believe this, and to believe this we need to know how it all happened.  When need to know how Jesus was born, what He did, and how He died and rose again.  And God knows how important it is that we both know and believe what happened, so He gave to us not one, not two, but four Gospel accounts.  Four separate records of Christ’s life on earth: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Each of these Gospel accounts were written under the guidance and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Each of these accounts can be trusted and believed.  But each of these accounts were also written in slightly different ways and for different purposes.

This afternoon we read from the third gospel, the gospel according to Luke.  Luke was a well educated man, a man from Greece and a doctor who spent a number of years travelling with the apostle Paul.  While Luke himself had not travelled and lived with Jesus, he became a Christian very soon after Pentecost.  And from the beginning he heard and he read reports concerning the life and ministry of Jesus.  Some of those reports came from eyewitnesses, some from those who wrote down what they heard from eyewitnesses.  Some were factual.  But as time went on the truth began to be mixed in with the fable, and so stories began to emerge that were not true.  And so it became critically important for the Christians to have a trustworthy account of all that had happened so that they could be confident in what they believed in.  And that is why Luke decided to write his gospel.

Luke addressed his gospel in verse 3 to a man named Theophilus.  We don’t know anything about this man.  Perhaps he was a Greek, perhaps from Rome, and perhaps he was a wealthy man, who sponsored Luke to investigate and write the gospel.  Some people think that, and they could be right.  But whoever he was, Luke wanted Theophilus to know and believe the truth.  And so Luke wrote in verse 3,4

“. . . it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.”

Luke investigated things to ensure that what he wrote was completely accurate and was also orderly, well organized.  That is not to say, of course, that Matthew, Mark and John are less accurate or less reliable.  All four gospels have as ultimate author the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of truth.  But Luke wants us to read his gospel with the confidence that what he wrote had been verified as being reliable, as being the truth.

But there was also something else that Luke wanted Theophilus – and us – to understand.  The truth and certainty of what Luke wrote in his gospel is to be read in the context of the truth and certainty of the entire Bible.  The things that Luke wrote about were, he said in verse 1, “the things which have been fulfilled.”  We need to read what Luke has written in his gospel, remembering what God had revealed about the coming Messiah in the Old Testament.  We are encouraged to compare the New Testament with the Old.  And when we do that, then we are convinced that what God had predicted so many years ago did actually and truly take place.  The New Testament is a continuation of what God had revealed before.  We can see that in the way in which the angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist. 

The last book of the Old Testament was the book of Malachi.  And this book ended with the prophecy that before the Messiah would come God would send His messenger to prepare the way (Mal. 3:1).  And the last two verses of Malachi says,

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.  And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”

And that was the end of the prophecy of Malachi and the end of God’s revelation for 400 years, until the angel Gabriel came to Zacharias in Luke chapter 1.  And in Luke 1 you can see that the angel Gabriel picked up exactly where things had been left off at the end of Malachi.  Gabriel came to Zacharias and told him that the son Elizabeth would give birth to a son

“will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.  He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  (Luke 1:16,17)

And here we see something remarkable about the Bible.  Even though it was written by many people over 2000 years, God’s Word all fits together!  It is the one Word of God.  It can be checked not just for historical accuracy, but also for internal accuracy.  And not only that, the fact that God can predict in His Word what will take place hundreds of years later teaches us that His Word is reliable because the God who says what will happen also controls what will happen.  And that is something that not only Theophilus and we have to understand and believe, it is also something that Zacharias had to believe.

Luke begins his gospel in verse 5 by telling us that in the days of King Herod,  there was an old man and an old lady called Zacharias and Elizabeth.  They were both Levites, both from the priestly line of Aaron. They were righteous and godly people, but they had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

They had no child. 

For any of you who have gone through that lonesome valley of infertility, you know the heartache that lies behind those words.  For many people this is a really, really hard experience.  It affects your marriage, your friendships and even your faith in God.  It sometimes seems as though every party, every gathering you go to, you either see children running around, or you hear the latest news that so-and-so is pregnant and the conversation turns to having and raising children.  Occasionally people will ask you about your desire for children, but it is an intimately personal topic and they won’t always know what to say.  And sometimes they will say the wrong thing and the hurt suddenly gets worse.  And for some it gets to the point where it is an all-consuming desire to the point that you feel like Rachel who said to her husband Jacob in Genesis 30:1, “Give me children, or else I die!”

For Zacharias and Elizabeth, the failure to have children was doubly hard.  It was not just that they had missed out on the personal pleasure of having a child to love and to hold, but they would also have been keenly aware that their line would die out, and they would not have a living descendant on the day that the Messiah came.  And, what might have been worse, many people believed that not receiving children was a sign that God was punishing them.  And so here were two godly people, Zacharias and Elizabeth, devoted to serving the Lord, but the blessing of children was not for them.  And now they were old and well advanced in years.  Elizabeth, we can assume, was going through or had gone through menopause, and Zacharias also had lost the strength of his youth.

Now Zacharias was a priest and as a priest it was his privilege to serve in the Temple.  However, since there were many priests in those days, about 18,000 of them, they were divided into 24 divisions, with each division having about 750 men.  Each division would serve in the Temple for two weeks of the year, and for the rest of the year, they would go back to their own homes. 

The time had come for Zacharias to go up to the temple, along with the division of Abijah.  And so he went to Jerusalem.  But this time, Zacharias’ experience as priest would be special.  There were many things the priests had to do in the temple, but there was one task that was the most special of all.  In the Holy Place in the Temple, there was an altar covered in gold.  And on top of this altar, in the morning and the evening, a priest would come to burn incense.  And as the incense burned, the people would pray and the smoke would go up to heaven as a symbol of the prayers of the people going up to God.  The priest who would burn the incense was chosen by lot and apparently once he was chosen, he would not normally have the opportunity ever again in his life.  It was a once in a life time experience to be in the Holy Place of the Temple alone, offering incense to God.  And now, for Zacharias, the moment he had been waiting for all his life finally arrived.  It was his turn to burn that incense.

The time had come.  Outside in the courtyard of the temple, many people had gathered to pray.  Then Zacharias and two other priests went into the Temple and into the Holy Place.  They would have seen the golden lamp stand burning and spreading its warm and glowing light.  They walked past the Table of Showbread the approached the golden altar for incense that was standing before the curtain into the Most Holy Place.  One of the priests first stepped forward.  He cleaned the altar, and then left the sanctuary.  Then the next priest stepped forward, placed new coals on the altar, and he too left the temple.  Finally Zacharias was left alone to perform the most holy act of laying the incense on the altar.  It is expected that he would do that, offer a short prayer, and then also leave.  Then he would go outside the Temple and give the people God’s blessing. 

But for now he is inside the Temple, alone, burning the incense upon the altar.  But suddenly he was not alone!  An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  Zacharias was shocked and troubled!  What was this?  But then the angel spoke to Zacharias and said to him, “Don’t be afraid.  Your prayer has been heard.  You will have a Son, and you shall call his name John.”  And not only that, but this John would be the fulfilment of those last words of the prophet Malachi.  He would be the one to come in the spirit of Elijah, to proclaim the coming of the promised Messiah!

And then Zacharias said something that was very wrong.  He asked, “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” 

Think about it for a moment!  Here was Zacharias, a religious man, a man whom Luke described as being “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless”.  Here he was, in the holy Temple, the dwelling place of God, performing a most holy act in accordance with God’s Word.  He was burning incense and with that went up the prayers to God that He might fulfil the promises He made in times past, that He might send the Messiah to them.  And now he stands face-to-face with an angel who tells him, “Zacharias, what you have been praying for is going to happen!  Not only will Elizabeth have a son in her old age, but this son will be the One who, in the spirit of Elijah, will prepare the way for the Messiah, for the coming of Jesus Christ!”  And Zacharias responds and says, “Really??  . . .   How shall I know this?  How can I believe that all those Old Testament prophecies will come to pass? How can I be sure that what you are saying is reliable, trustworthy, is certain?

And can you believe it?

The things that you’re liable

To read in the Bible:

Are they necessarily so?

God is saying, “Trust Me!  Take Me at My word!”  But do you?

There is so much evidence, such a very clear testimony concerning the gospel in the Bible.  But are you prepared to accept it as fact?  It is true that, unlike Zacharias, most (dare I say all) of us don’t come face to face with an angel.  But we don’t have to, for God’s promises are readily available for us to read and examine.  We know the rest of the story!  We can read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old.  We can also read about the angel telling Zacharias that Elizabeth would have a son, and then read in verse 24 that she did indeed conceive and in verse 57 that this little boy was born.  It all fits together because it is all true!  And God is saying, “Trust Me.  My Word is reliable because I am reliable.”

When Zacharias first saw the angel, he was troubled.  But the angel said, “Do not be afraid.  Listen to what I’ve got to say.  Take God at His word.  Be certain of it.  Trust Him.  Because you can.”

And God says the same thing to you today. 

2. His Word is Powerful.

It is ironic that Zacharias had prayed to the Lord for the very thing that he doubted God could do.  When the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that not only would Elizabeth conceive, but this son John, being filled with the Holy Spirit already in the womb, would herald the coming Messiah, he effectively said, “No, it can’t be!  For I am an old man, and my wife is well past the age of bearing children.”

Never mind that God had done this before!  Never mind that He had opened the womb of Sarah when she was the ripe old age of 90 – and father Abraham as good as dead at 100!  Never mind that those other stories in the Old Testament of God giving children to barren women – to Rebekah, to Rachel, to the wife of Manoah, to Hannah.  Never mind that later the LORD would do an even greater miracle in sending His Son to be born of a virgin!  Zacharias was not ready to accept the Word of the Lord in faith.  He wanted something more, he wanted a sign so that he might be certain.

But the angel basically said,

“How dare you ask for a sign?  I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God!  I was sent from there to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings.”

The angel had come straight from God’s throne which meant that Zacharias was not doubting Gabriel, but he was doubting God!  And so Zacharias received a sign that was, at the same time, a punishment.  Because he had not believed the word of the Lord, he would not be able to speak it.  Until the angel’s prophecy came to pass, Zacharias would be mute and unable to speak.  And immediately, at the word of the Lord through the angel Gabriel, his mouth was stopped:  Zacharias was speechless.

And so Zacharias left the altar of incense to return to the people who were anxiously waiting outside.  He had just been told the greatest news for 400 years.  He’d just been told that the One everybody was praying for would soon be coming!  He’d just been told that he would have a son who, in the spirit of Elijah, would make ready a people prepared for the LORD.  But he was not able to tell anybody about it.  He could not give them the Lord’s blessing, nor could he pass on the “best news ever” that he’d just been told.  All he could do was wave his hands around in excitement until the people concluded that something special must have happened in the Temple, that he must have seen a vision.

Can you imagine how Zacharias must have felt?  In unbelief he had asked for a sign.  He received a sign but as a result he could no longer speak.  He could not tell the waiting people the good news of what was about to take place.  Zacharias had responded to the gospel in unbelief; he would now remain silent until God’s Word was fulfilled. 

But Elizabeth believed.  When Zacharias returned home, he must have written something down to tell her what had happened.  And she believed him.  After Zacharias returned, his wife conceived and Elizabeth hid herself for five months.  Remember, she was an old lady.  It appears as though she’d never been pregnant before, so she didn’t know what it was like.  She didn’t have a take-home pregnancy test to confirm that she was in fact pregnant.  No baby bump would have shown for the first months, and she would not have felt the baby move until at least the fourth month.  But Elizabeth believed that with God all things are possible.  She took God at His Word.  She stayed at home to rest, to worship, and to wait for God’s promise to come true.  She stayed there until in the sixth month she received a visit from a young virgin called Mary, who had an even greater, more amazing story to tell!  Mary, who herself had told the angel Gabriel, “Behold, the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be according to your word.”

And that is what God wants from us:  to take Him at His Word.  And we have that Word.  In the gospel according to Luke we have a careful and an accurate record of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus.  We can read it.  We can study it with the assurance that it is historically accurate.  We can compare it to what God had promised in the Old Testament.  We can believe that His Word is sure.  And we can believe that His promises for us are true, and that they will be fulfilled.  Take God at His Word.  For His Word is reliable.  His Word is powerful.  The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it is necessarily so.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2010, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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