Luke 1:5-25 – Touched by God when I didn’t expect it
A man named Jacob had hit a low point in his life. He had thought about killing himself but he was too poor and too tired to secure the means to do it. He found a park bench and just lay down to die. He did not eat, because there was nothing to eat. All he thought about was his death.
A couple of days later he saw in the distance a teenage girl entering the park with a friend. Jacob wondered what on earth someone so innocent and angelic-looking was doing in a park filled with derelicts. He closed his eyes. In a few minutes he heard a soft voice speaking to him. Jacob opened his eyes and saw this same teenaged girl looking at him with compassion. He was caught off guard. It was the first time he had heard anyone speak words of kindness to him in years. At that moment he did not know whether he wanted to cry in gratitude or laugh in cynicism. But her concern moved him in spite of himself. "What do you want?" he growled at her.
"Sir," the young girl said, "I was afraid to come over here, but I feel like God is nudging me to tell you something, before I get back on my bus. I wish I knew how to say it better but, well, sir, Jesus loves you. He loves you. He really does."
Jacob looked at her in disbelief. After all the heartaches he had been through, all the indignity he had suffered, all the rage that had filled his soul for so many years this young girl told him Jesus loved him. As he looked up at her face he saw tears streaming down her cheeks, and to his astonishment he began to weep as well. "No one could love me, child. It’s too late for me," he said between sobs.
"No," she replied urgently as she took his thin, gnarled hand into hers. "It’s not too late. God will gladly take you if only you’d let him. Just tell him that you want to. He will love you and help you." Jacob says it was at that moment that he knew somebody was reaching out to him through her. He knew deep within that he received a touch from God in his hour of greatest need when he didn’t expect it.
This morning I want to tell you about a man whose name was Zechariah who was a Godly man, but who still had some real disappointments in life. He was at the climax of his career when he received a touch from God when he didn’t expect it .
Zechariah – A Priest of Yahweh
Zechariah was a priest in Israel and the climax to his career came about 7 BC when he was serving at the altar of incense of the Living God. Now you need to understand some background here. 2A To be a priest in Israel – you had to be born as a descendant of Aaron. And if you were born into this family, you were destined to serve God and the nation Israel in the temple. That didn’t mean that you lived in the temple for the rest of your life and were celibate though – They would have died out pretty quickly if that was the case.
How it was structured was that Aaron’s descendants were divided into 24 clans. Each clan took it in turn to serve periods of 1 week in the temple. So you had about 2 weeks a year that you were required to serve in the temple. This service involved four things …
1) declaring the will of God to the people gathered for worship
2) teaching and educating the people
3) facilitating the ceremony and ritual of the sacrifices and worship.
4) protecting the holiness of the site.
There were always many things going on in the temple every day. People were constantly bringing sacrifices to offer and every day the daily offerings had to made. Every morning,
• a 1 year old male lamb was offered as a burnt offering
• a grain offering consisting of 1 kg of fine flour, 1 l of olive oil and incence was offered.
• A wine offering (1 l of wine) was offered
Every evening the same offerings were made - a 1 year old male lamb a grain offering and wine offering were offered. And every Sabbath, an extra 2 lambs and 2 extra grain offerings were made. Life was fairly busy for the priests as they helped with all of this work as well as handling all the offerings brought by the worshipers.
Amongst the duties of the priests, there were a couple of very important jobs. One of these was the burning of incense in the temple. To understand the importance of this a bit, you have to know a bit about the layout of the temple and its holy areas. You might think I’m going to go into this in a lot of detail this morning, but it will be helpful to understand the temple as it features in many of the stories in Luke so to understand it’s layout will be incredibly important in the coming months
The Temple – A Place where God touches people
The temple in Jerusalem was the centerpiece of the city. It dominated the city and was in a prominent place on Mt Moriah - that was the mountain where Abraham brought Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice – now God’s temple was on this site where God met with Abraham. It was regarded as a holy place and as such it’s holiness needed to be protected. This was done by encircling the temple by a number of separate courts which limited how close certain people could come. People generally entered the temple from the Southern side and walked straight into the Court of the Gentles. This was a large open area which was open to both Jews and Gentiles and served as a preparation place for people before they entered the inner courts. It was where the temple markets were located and people from out of town could change money and could buy doves, oil and wine for offerings.
From the court of the gentiles, Jewish worshipers could enter the Sacred Enclosure. There was a wall called the Soreg which was about chest high that separated the Court of the Gentiles and the Sacred Enclosure. For a Gentile to pass beyond this wall meant death – They’ve actually found one of the warning signs that hung on this wall warning Gentiles to stay out. Jewish worshippers could then climb a set of steps to the base of the temple walls. From here, you had a choice of where you could go. If you were a woman, you were only allowed in the Women’s court at the Eastern end of the Temple complex. At the four corners of the women’s court were four rooms. One was an oil storage room and one a wood store. One a court dedicated to lepers and the other a court especially for Nazarites.
From the women’s court, Male Israelites only, could walk up a flight of semicircular stairs through the Nicanor (or Beautiful) Gate and into an area called the Israel court. Alternatively there were some other entrances into this court from the Sacred Enclosure on the side of the temple. The Israel Court was actually just a strip around outside of the Inner Court which was called the Priest’s court. The Israel court was open to Male Jews and was only separated from the inner court (the Priest’s court) by a row of Columns and a set of steps. Jewish men, could stand by the columns and watch all that went on in the temple court. You’ll notice that there are plenty of steps in the temple. Holiness was symbolized by height and this is why the temple was on the top of a mountain and why the outside courts were lower than the inner courts. As you climb the steps, you climb closer to God.
Well Zechariah, was a priest which meant that he was allowed to go into this last courtyard – the Priest’s courtyard. This surrounded the Temple itself and contained a slaughter yard for the sacrifices, the Altar on which all burnt offerings were made and the Laver of water used for ceremonial cleansing before entering the holy place. Because only the priests could enter this area where the sacrifices were made, the priests had to walk out to the different courts where they received the offerings from the Gentile, women or male worshippers and then bring them back into the temple to be offered to God. So you can imagine, it was a fairly busy time for the Priests, especially on the Sabbath.
Well lastly, you come to the Temple itself. This was the most holy part of the temple and not even the priests were allowed in here just any old time. At the back of the temple was the Holy of Holies. This was where the ark of the covenant once was kept, but it had been lost since the time of the exile. So this room was empty in Jesus Day, except for a “Foundation” stone that heralded from the time of the early prophets. But the High priest still went in there once a year to fulfil his duties. Separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was the Veil – this was what was ripped from top to bottom when Christ was crucified. The next room out was called the Holy Place. Here was where the Golden Lampstand, the Table of the Show Bread and the Altar of Incense were located. Next room out was called the Porch. It was the entry way into the holy of holies and had no ceremonial significance.
Every morning and evening a priest who was selected by lot from that clan rostered on would offer incense at the Altar of Incense in the holy place. It was as close as any normal priest could ever come to the Holy of Holies. It was a serious task which was treated with incredible reverence. How would you like to be just meters from God’s awesome physical presence.
Because there were so many priests – about 20,000 it was estimated at this time, you could only be selected for this most sacred task of offering incense once in your life time and even then many priests never got the opportunity. It was the climax to a priest’s career to offer incense at the Altar of Incense. When the priest entered the holy place with the incense, all the people were cleared from the temple, and from between the porch and the altar outside. Profound silence was observed among the congregation who were praying outside and at a signal from the high priest the priest cast the incense on the fire, and, bowing reverently toward the holy of holies, retired slowly backward and then joined in pronouncing the benediction to the people gathered. This was repeated morning and evening everyday.
Zechariah & Elizabeth – A Couple deserving a touch
Well, in the first chapter of Luke, we meet Zechariah – a priest from the clan of Abijah. His wife was also from a priestly family. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were known for their righteousness. It is said of them that they were upright in the sight of God. These people weren’t just respected by men, they were respected by God because they observed all God’s commandments and ceremonial regulations. Now, don’t read into this too much. Luke says they were blameless in their observance of all God’s commands and regulations, but this word doesn’t mean that they were perfectly sinless, without blemish, perfect. The word here means that they could not be blamed or have a finger pointed at them with regard breaking laws and regulations. It doesn’t mean that they were completely perfect, just that in the sight of people, they could not be faulted.
It is interesting that Luke, says in vs 7 that they could not have any children, as an aside to his comments about their blamelessness. You see, having children was seen to be a blessing from God in the Jewish culture. If God was pleased with you, you could expect a large family. Yet here were a blameless couple without children. They were probably well into their sixties and for years, all they had heard was – “Just relax”, “Don’t try so hard”, “Take an extended vacation”, “have you thought about adopting”, “Just trust God.” And undoubtedly they’d gone through all the stages that infertile couples go through and had ended up coming to the conclusion that this was their lot in life. There was little hope of things changing now because they were old. The possibility of God touching their lives was so remote now. Do you ever feel that way – feel that it’s just time to give up.
I really feel for this couple, and you might relate to them too. Often we look at people and their difficult situation and blame them or condemn them. We look at a couple who haven’t had children and wonder what is wrong – Are they just being selfish and enjoying their life – Why are they not considering having children. We look at families who’s children are turning away from God and the church and condemn them for not being good parents and teaching their children God’s ways. We look at couples who have separated and wonder what they’ve done to ruin such a wonderful relationship. Often there is much more involved than we will ever know. It is all to easy to lay blame on people and condemn them, but here is a couple who were God fearing, who were right with God, yet they didn’t have all the “blessings” we think they should have. It is surely a lesson for us all to be careful how we look at others isn’t it. Even righteous people live with disappointments and hurt and instead of making that greater by insensitive comments, we need to empathize with them, support them in their questioning and doubts and pray that God would touch them in their hour of need.
Now Luke’s gospel tells us that it was Zechariah’s turn to be rostered on to help for a week in the temple but more than that, the lot had fallen to him to offer the incense on the altar for the week. It was the climax of his career as a priest. He was one of the lucky ones. Have you ever been in that situation where something unexpectedly good has happened and then you realize that luck had nothing to do with it. God had stepped in and touched your life for some reason. In allowing Zechariah to fulfill this important role this week, God was preparing to touch him.
God’s Touch – more than we could hope or dream of
So we read that when the time came for him to go into that holy place, something incredible took place. An angel appeared at the right side of the altar – now that was a bit of a shock to Zechariah. Now just pause to imagine yourself in Zechariah’s shoes. This was the climax of your career – you dare not muck this up or you’d likely end up being struck down by God. It was a scary occasion as it was - without some angel appearing out of no where. It’s enough to give a poor guy a heart attack – particularly an old guy like Zechariah.
Look at what the angel says (vs 13) … “Your prayer has been heard” said the angel. What prayer? Some have suggested that this was the request for a baby, but if that were the case, I would have expected that the angel would have said “Your prayers (plural) have been heard.” The word used however, is typically used for a specific request and seems to indicate it was a prayer on one specific occasion. So it may have been even that prayer uttered while offering incense at the altar. Typically this would be for the salvation of all of Israel and the coming of the promised Messiah. This was a prayer that all of Israel had been praying for 400 years. But it must have been like Zechariah’s prayer for a child – filled with doubt as to whether God would ever answer it. But here the angel says, your request has been recognized. God has heard it and what the angel goes onto promise would be in fact be an answer to that prayer of salvation, but within this, it would also be an answer to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayers about a child. God was going to fulfill his promises and touch their lives in a special way.
Look at the angel’s answer (vs 13b – 17) – it was astounding
• They would have a son who was to be called John (the meaning of this name is to show favour / to be gracious)
• He will be a joy to many people – that will be an understatement
• He will be great in the sight of God
• He will be filled with the Holy Spirit
• He will bring many people back to God
• He will be like Elijah
• He will prepare people for God.
We are going to have a look more closely at some of these things next week as there is a lot of meaning and encouragement in many of them. But for now – we can say that the baby, John, was going to be an incredible blessing on people’s lives and would prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah.
What was Zechariah’s response? He fell down on his face in praise and thanks before God --- Not!!!
Instead of praise, a doubt developed. He said in effect – “Is that so – well prove it to me”. The message puts it this way - “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman." His question was one of doubt and he demanded a sign. “How can I be sure of this?” he asks. Now this is probably not the wisest thing old Zechariah had done, but it was the result of years of unanswered prayer.
I actually think that the angel was a bit taken aback by his response. I mean – what more proof do you need buddy – Here is an Angel appearing before you in the Holy Place – a couple of meters that way is the place where God dwells. You are here undertaking one of the most sacred and holy tasks in all of Israel and you are doubting the words of an Angel obviously sent from God. Get a grip Zechariah – who do you think you are asking such a question “How can I be sure of this?” And so the angel rebukes Zechariah in a real way saying, “I am Gabriel” he says. Do you pick up the feeling of indignation here… “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” And you are doubting who I am? Okay Zechariah, if you want a sign – here it is “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.”
Zechariah doubted God and asked for a sign and it was given to him – in probably a very uncomfortable way - silence. Imagine the frustration he would have felt, not being able to share the news with his wife. What a punishment for doubting the promises of God. But let this encourage us also - Even blameless people slip up and God doesn’t destroy them. God is a God of patience and continues to work with us and often despite us. What would you happen if God reached down to touch you like he touched Zechariah? Would you doubt his ability to bring to fruition the things he planned and purposed? I bet we’d be no different but we need to work at trusting God and having faith in him.
And so the angel disappeared and Zechariah retreated somewhat sheepishly I’m sure from the temple. Meanwhile, the people outside were becoming a bit worried. This was usually a relatively quick little ceremony, and Zechariah should have been back out long ago. Where was he? He hadn’t done anything silly had he and been struck dead by God. He hadn’t collapsed had he? What would they do? This was actually quite a dilemma for the priests when the High Priest used to have to go into the holy of holies. No one else could go in there except for the high priest, so what would happen if he was killed by God for touching something he wasn’t supposed to touch. How would they get him out – His corpse would have to stay in there for another year until the next Day of Atonement came. The solution to this was to tie a rope onto his leg so that the priests could pull his body out if something did happen.
So you can imagine the consternation of the people waiting outside and then the relief when they saw Zechariah appear. But this turned again to consternation when Zechariah started waving his hands around. You know that this was the beginning of Sign Language don’t you!!! Imagine trying to dream up signs for angels, and babies and Elijah, etc. It must have been one huge game of charades.
Well when the week of service was over, Zechariah went home to Elizabeth – he still couldn’t talk, but Guess what – Elizabeth became pregnant, just as the angel had promised. And if this part about a son came to pass, so would the rest about saving Israel - WOW – this was just the beginning.
Listen to Elizabeth’s testimony (vs 25) … “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” Not having children was seen as a real cultural disgrace for Elizabeth and Zechariah. God removed that disgrace in the most wonderful way. He touched them in a most gracious way and removed their disgrace while at the same time working toward the salvation of Israel.
God’s Touch for you
I wonder what your disappointment is at the moment? Do you believe that God can touch you and satisfy your deepest needs? He can! He wants to!
Are you in the same situation as Zechariah and Elizabeth – literally they had given up the hope? Don’t give up – nothing is impossible for God. He can reach down and touch you at the most unexpected time in your life. Unexpected for us maybe – but not for God. God’s touch always comes in God’s perfect time. – Are we Ready for God’s touch?
And when he does touch you – Don’t doubt it was God. God has the very best in store for you. Sometimes it takes time though and often it is not exactly what we would have chosen – but we don’t have 20 /20 vision into the future – God Does. See his plans and purposes for what they are – perfect and praise him as Elizabeth does.
Do you need a touch from God? I know a God who wants to touch you – so be open to it and wait patiently for it.