Father to the Fatherless
We’re going to stay in the Gospel of Luke for Advent, but we’re going back to the part we skipped in August – the first two chapters… the story of the birth of Jesus.
Our goal is the same – we want to see the heart of God. What is God doing? What does God want? What is He like? And as we read, keep in mind, this is actually the first story Luke tells us.
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.
Luke tells us about a married couple – a priest and his wife. And he connects them to Old Testament history, something he’s going to do over and over again in this story. He traces their family tree all the way back to the time of Moses.
6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
In other words, they were Old Testament believers – looking forward to a Messiah in faith, demonstrating their faith through obedience. Remember Genesis 15:6 – Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
And who does this sound like? Abraham and Sarah! Another Old Testament connection.
We have a priest and his wife, faithful to God in spite of the fact that they were old and childless. In ancient times, a woman without a child was openly mocked by other women. It was assumed that she had done something wrong and had been cursed by God.
And so, we have two things side by side – faithfulness and suffering. Keep that in mind.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,
9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
This was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zechariah. It was a great honor to serve in this way. It was probably the first and only time his number would be called.
10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
The incense actually signified the prayers of the people rising up to God as a pleasant aroma.
11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.
It’s understandable that Zechariah was afraid. He was already nervous, having entered the Holy place and knowing that his job was serious. Remember, priests had been killed in the Old Testament for offering the wrong incense at this altar.
13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
The name John means “Yahweh is gracious.”
14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,
15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.
This suggests that John was under a Nazarite vow from birth, linking him to two more figures in the Old Testament – Samson and Samuel. All three men were set apart by God for a special purpose. The first two men prepared the way for David. The third man prepared the way for David’s heir.
16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,
17 and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.”
Finally, the angel connects John to Elijah – the great prophet. And notice his mission – to prepare the people for God. In a sense, there are already God’s covenant people. But there was still a need for repentance. And that was John’s ministry – to preach repentance and to prepare people for Jesus.
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”
Just as Abraham doubted this news, so does Zechariah. It sounds too good to be true. And I love the Bible’s honesty. Luke describes Zechariah as righteous, but he’s obviously not perfect. He’s standing in the Holy place, listening to an angel, and still the man doubts!
19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
God uses a rebuke as an assurance. He proves His power to fulfill this promise by taking away Zechariah’s ability to speak. If one is true, then so is the other. Zechariah gets the message.
21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple.
22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.
How do you explain in sign language that you saw an angel?!
23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying,
25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Amen. This is the word of God.
First, consider that it had been 400 years since the people had heard from God. 400 years of silence. All they had was a book. No prophets. No angels. No words from above. Just a book that most people couldn’t read. A book that ended with Malachi, whom the angel quotes to make sure we remember it has been 400 years!
But God had obviously been at work because there were still faithful believers like Zechariah and Elizabeth.
It’s been 2,000 years for us – with just a book and the Holy Spirit, working silently behind the scenes. And still God’s church is growing, in every corner of the world.
Second, consider that God chooses to work in amazing ways through ordinary people. From the perspective of the other priests or their neighbors, there was nothing special about Zechariah and Elizabeth. But God loves using ordinary people.
He also loves answering ordinary prayers. This happens during the hour of prayer; the time designated for people to enter the temple courtyard and pray together. And what does the angel say to Zechariah? Your prayer has been heard!
You can trace the connection between incense and prayer from Exodus to Revelation. Revelation 8 teaches that God will initiate the end times because of the prayers of the people rising before him like incense.
Prayer is an important, irreplaceable part of God’s plan. Ordinary Christians praying ordinary prayers. Our prayers are a big deal to God.
Consider also that when God takes away Zechariah’s speech, who is the only person Zechariah can talk to until God restores His speech? God. He couldn’t talk, but he could still pray!
Third, consider again the context I mentioned earlier. God speaks to a man and a woman who are experiencing both faithfulness AND suffering. And so often, that is the life of the believer.
A dear friend of mine has been battling some sort of kidney disease for the past several months. They still don’t know the exact problem. This week, he sent me an update. He wrote:
“I am as confident of God’s love and presence as I have ever been. My wife and I are as close as ever. And I’m not despairing over my future.
Physically, I am in the same place I have been for the past five months, and I can’t tell you how discouraging it is to write that sentence. I still don’t know if I will ever feel better or be able to work a full work week.”
Both things are true at the same time, and so often this is where God meets us. This is what the Christian life looks and feels like.
But consider also the faithfulness of God. Something amazing is about to happen in Luke. God is about to fulfill His promise of sending a Messiah. The way is being prepared. A couple thousand years of hopeful prayers are about to be answered. God will do what God says He will do, in His time.
Let’s look more closely at what that preparation looks like. Look again at verse 17:
17 and he will 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 for the Lord a people prepared.
This is a reference to Malachi 4:6, a prophecy about John. It says:
And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
What does this mean, the turning of hearts between fathers and children? This is rather unexpected, because it is so specific. But it makes sense when you think about it.
How did the original promise of a Messiah come to the earth? To Adam and Eve about a son of promise. How did it come again to the Israelites? To Abraham and Sarah about a son of promise. How did it come to Zechariah and Elizabeth? A son of promise.
The story of the whole Bible can actually be told through this lens – the lens of families and more specifically of fathers and their sons.
Perhaps the greatest curse a land can bear is broken relationships between fathers and sons… and we should know this. We’re living it out in modern America. There are more than 18 million kids growing up without a father in this country.
These kids are twice as likely to die in infancy. 4 times more likely to live in poverty. 5 times more likely to commit suicide. 9 times more likely to drop out of school. 20 times more likely to experience behavioral disorders. 20 times more likely to commit serious crimes.
90% of all homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes.
This is a very significant problem – and it’s a very complicated problem. But like every social problem, it is caused by sin. It’s a curse.
And this is just one of many reasons why we need Jesus, but it’s the one God chose to highlight on page one of Luke’s Gospel. Why? Because God wants us to see His heart for the fatherless.
Psalm 68:5 – Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
James 1:27 – Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Isaiah 1:17 – Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
The Gospel is the answer to many problems, but close to the heart of God is a promise of hope to the fatherless. And the church is meant to be the place where this particular promise of the Gospel begins to manifest itself. This is where Jesus starts to repair families.
What have we been saying all along? What does Jesus want for us? What are we learning from Luke? Jesus has a perfect relationship with His Father and He wants to bring us into it!
God is our Father! We are His children! There is certainly a good application here we can make for earthly fathers staying and loving and caring for their own children. Break that generational curse!
But the best motivation to do that is the sacrificial love we find in the Gospel. Jesus died to break the curse of sin and death and to bring us into the family of God. This is the Christmas story so many need to hear – especially the fatherless.
God is your Father and in Jesus He says to you, “You’re mine. I love you. And I’m proud of you.”