December 9, 2018
This is the dawn that brings the light of the world.
I. Rejoice in the anticipation of God’s grace. (Luke 1:57-66)
II. Praise the arrival of God’s redemption. (Luke 1:67-75)
III. Prepare for the preaching of God’s forgiveness. (Luke 1:76-80)
Astronomical polar night is a period of continuous night with no twilight. There is no sign of the sun even on the horizon. During the astronomical polar night stars of the sixth magnitude, the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye, will be fully visible. This happens when the sun is between 18 and 23.5 degrees below the horizon. These conditions last about 11 weeks at the poles. So this time of year the north pole experiences unbroken night from about November 14 to January 29. At the South Pole it’s mid-May through July
Okay, you have to close your eyes and imagine this. All day every day, all night every night all you have is midnight black. Maybe stars, maybe clouds, but no hint of daylight. On top of that subtract, in your imagination all electric power, all man-made lighting except maybe a fire. Indoors or outdoors, pitch black dominates. I suspect it feels like it claws away at your eyes as you’re always striving to see. Think how focused you’d become on the promised coming of dawn. The scientists among you would calculate it, the poets would describe it, the artists would sketch it, and as the hour approached, you would wait with intense longing, for the first sight, no matter how dim, of natural light.
This feeling, of a long, long, night, and the anticipated coming of the light, is the feeling that the Bible gives us about the coming of Jesus. And so it is appropriate here in the first chapter of Luke, that the birth of John the Baptist is seen as the dawn, the light that appears before the sun rises. This moment, Luke chapter 1 verses 57 to 80 is the dawn that brings light to the world. We look at these verses to see what they teach about how we respond to the light.
The first response is to rejoice in the anticipation of God’s grace. Luke 1:57-66 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. They would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61They said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65And fear came on all their neighbors. All these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Mary came to visit Elizabeth when Elizabeth was six months pregnant. She stayed with her three months, and then she left, probably before the baby was born. When Elizabeth had the child, it was a baby boy, just as the angel had said. This brought joy. All the people in that hill country town knew that God had shown Elizabeth great mercy. Literally they heard how God had magnified his mercy to her. Magnified mercy is a pretty good definition of grace. God magnifies his mercy to us. In dealing with us he emphasizes his character quality of mercy. It is their sense of this grace that causes Elizabeth’s relatives, and her neighbors, to rejoice with her. This the kind of thing we get to do when we pray and praise. We hear the good things God is doing, and we rejoice. This is the kind of thing Jesus was talking about in his parables. Rejoice with me! For I have found my lost coin, my lost sheep, my lost son. I’ve seen God’s magnified mercy. Share my joy.
More than that, joy is one the key themes in Luke 1 and 2. Over and over the people who witness the birth of the Messiah, are filled with joy. In Luke 1:14, when Gabriel announces the coming of John, he says: He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth. John himself, though an infant, has already experienced joy in his mother’s womb. Mary has rejoiced in God her Savior. And when the angels come to the shepherds, the news they bring is good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Joy is a constant factor in the coming of Christ. So it’s okay for you to be joyful and rejoice in this Christmas season. One of the reasons I’ve called this message “dawn” is that dawn on a clear cool day, like we had earlier this week, is a source of joy to me. But this dawn, of the messiah, this dawn of grace is a greater joy.
This baby is born, and eight days later, when they circumcise the child, the neighbors assume that the baby will be named Zechariah. Couple of funny things there: Up to this time in the Bible it was never implied that you wait until the eighth day to name a baby. Yet we see the same thing happen in the naming of Jesus. It may be a custom developed in the time between the Testaments. Further, it was not common to name a child in Israel after his father. Most often he would be named after his paternal grandfather. Finally, it was unusual for neighbors to have anything to do with the naming. They may have felt that Zechariah was so out of it, being unable to speak, that they needed to play his role in the choice of a name. In any event, Elizabeth insists that this baby will be called “John” We don’t have to assume that Elizabeth had received the name by special revelation. We’ll see in a minute that John is perfectly able to communicate by writing on a tablet, and as one of the commentators said, we can assume that that tablet had been busy during the past nine months.
So Elizabeth knows the baby is to be called John, but the neighbors and relatives don’t, and they make signs to Zechariah, to find out what he wants to name the child. By the way, the fact that they make signs to Zechariah indicates he may have been deaf as well as unable to speak. We don’t know. But Zechariah does understand the question, and he writes very emphatically on the tablet: His name is John. Next it would have been natural for the people to ask “Why John?” Remember, in the Old Testament significant people had significant names. Abraham’s name meant “father of many.” Judah’s name meant “praise.” What does John mean? We discussed it once before. The Hebrew source for this name, “Ye han na,” means Jehovah is gracious. John’s name pointed to the graciousness of God, just as Mary’s favor with God did.
As soon as Zechariah wrote down the name, his mouth was opened. He could talk. I suspect it was his faithful declaration of the name that opened his mouth, just as his expression of disbelief was what had closed it. As soon as he begins to speak, he praises God and prophecies. We’ll study what he says beginning in verse 67. But seeing the baby, and hearing John’s prophecy, the neighbors are filled with awe, and the word and the wonder spreads all throughout the hill country, because it is clear that the Lord has been involved in this event.
You see, this is the dawn. For four hundred years there have been no prophets, no prophecies, no direct, lasting words from the Lord. But now, in the birth of John, a long night is ending. Light is growing. The awe of the people came, in part, because they were so unaccustomed to light. Not only had God been silent for four hundred years, but the faith of the Jews had slowly eroded to a religion of works and merit. The battles John and Jesus would face with the Jewish leaders showed that many had forgotten God’s grace and mercy, caring only about the cleanliness of their hands, and conformity with their standards.
The people are like cave fish. which have lived in the dark so long their eyesight has atrophied. But if you take those fish out into the light, then the genes that control their eyesight fire up again, and within a couple of generations, you have fish that can see. This is the dawn, these people are being brought into light. They’re struggling to see. But here they take first step is to rejoice in the evidence of God’s magnified mercy. So too with us, a big part of Christmas is remembering and rejoicing in God’s magnfied mercy. A second is to scripturally praise God for what the dawn implies, specifically redemption.
Verses 67-75: His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
These were words of praise and prophecy, given by the Holy Spirit to Zechariah. Yet at the same time, I’m convinced these were words he’d been composing in his head for months. Even more than Mary, Zechariah had quiet time and opportunity to study Scripture. He was a priest with access to the Word. He saw how what was happening fit. A partial list of verses he alludes to includes 1 Kings 1:48, Exodus 4:31, Psalm 111:9, Isaiah 43:1, Psalm 18:2, 2 Samuel 7:11-13, Isaiah 9:6-7, Jeremiah 23:5, Zechariah 7:7, Amos 3:7, Psalm 106:10, Micah 7:20, Leviticus 26:42, Psalm 105:8-9, Genesis 22:16-18, Zephaniah 3:15-17, Psalm 24:5, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3-5, Psalm 40:10, Jeremiah 31:34, Nehemiah 9:31, Malachi 4:2, Isaiah 60:1-3, Isaiah 9:1-2, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 42:6-7, and Isaiah 52:7. I’m not going to mention all these today. But they’re all there, and more. Zechariah had immersed himself in Scripture, and his prophetic words about John and Jesus never get far from Scripture.
Verse 68: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited his people” This is a typical line of praise from the Psalms. Zechariah and the Psalmists recognize the special relationship the Lord has to Israel. The phrase “He has visited” is also an Old Testament phrase, used regularly to indicate the presence of God in a special way to bless or to judge. The same word is used for the coming of the Messiah in verse 78, and used later in Luke when the people recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Here the Lord has visited his people with redemption.
Redemption means to save at a cost, to rescue at a high price. Again, this is an Old Testament concept, which began when God redeemed his people from Egypt and bought them out of slavery. In the law, God gave instructions on how relatives should redeem one another. If someone was sold into slavery, if someone’s property was lost, even if someone’s husband died, the effort you made or the cost you paid to set them free was the price of their redemption. We see this in the redemption of Ruth by Boaz. But Old Testament imagery reaches its culmination in Isaiah where the Lord repeatedly takes for himself the title Redeemer. Isaiah 48:17 “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.’” Isaiah 54:8 “’In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer.” Isaiah 59:20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,”
So the Lord himself is our Redeemer. He has visited and redeemed his people. How has he done this? “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” The horn is a symbol of strength and victory, the strength of a fighting animal. So this is a mighty salvation. But it comes from the house of David. Notice that. Don’t miss it. Zechariah is not, in this verse, talking about John. John, the baby was from the tribe of Levi. His father was a priest. He’s talking about the Messiah, the baby who was promised to Mary, the one who would sit on the throne of His father David. He is the redeemer.
The next several verses give both a national perspective and an individual one on the role and work of this Messiah. From a national point of view he says that the Messiah comes “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Israel had been surrounded and subjugated for 500 years, by foreign forces who at times willed her destruction. So the people in this darkness yearned for national freedom and security. And God will do it. Verse 72, he will “show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham,” delivering us from the hand of our enemies. The mercy and covenant faithfulness of God will lead to national salvation. He will not forget his promises, nor will he deny his character, but just as he has magnified mercy and given grace to Zechariah and Elizabeth, so will He bring redemption to the descendants of Abraham. In many ways that hasn’t happened yet, but Jesus is the fulfillment of it.
Because there is a personal as well as a national aspect to this redemption. Verse 74: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” God is not concerned simply with setting up a nation, but in establishing a kingdom of redeemed individuals, a righteous kingdom. So those who are redeemed by this Messiah will be free from fear. On one level this is freedom from fear of what the world can do them, or to us. But more significantly, it’s freedom from the fear of God’s judgment. In his redemption he declares us to be holy and righteous, God has made a way, through the messiah, for people to be holy, to be qualified for eternal life, and to escape the penalty of sin. The Apostle Paul will later pick up on this truth, saying that “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Just as Zechariah sees the dawn of God’s redemption and gives praise, so we should see in Jesus Christ the full light of redemption, the fulfilment of God’s promises, and give Him praise.
In the light of this dawn we rejoice to anticipate God’s grace, we praise the arrival of God’s redemption, and we prepare for the preaching of God’s forgiveness.
Verses 76-80: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 80And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
Now Zechariah begins to address his psalm to his own son. You, my child, “child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” This is the second time we have run across this allusion in reference to John the Baptist. For someone familiar with the Old Testament the verses alluded to would be obvious. Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is the mission of John the Baptist. He prepares the way for the Lord. God works in people’s hearts through John so that they are ready for Jesus. He has been sent, verse 77, key verse “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” One sometimes suspects that people in Jesus’ day were not prepared to be forgiven. That is, the religious people of the day, the scribes, Pharisees, teachers didn’t seem to have a healthy conviction of their own sin. A key role for John the Baptist was to call people to repentance.
Like the Old Testament prophets of whom he was the last, John the Baptist reminded people of their sin, and of God’s forgiveness. This Old Testament truth had been largely forgotten in Zechariah’s day. But it’s there. Think of Isaiah 44, where God defines what it means to redeem: Isaiah 44:22 “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Or Micah 7:18-20, a great passage often alluded to. “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 19 He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. 20You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” The Bible had promised salvation through forgiveness of sin, but they weren’t even aware of their sin.
It reminds me of many in our culture today. The Gospel is offered as light to many who don’t even know they are blind, as water to many who don’t even know they are thirsty. If you don’t accept the reality that you are separated from God by sin, how can you accept the reality of his forgiveness? So John had come to teach people about their sin. He would use baptism as their visible symbol of repentance. But John himself recognized that water baptism was not able to grant forgiveness, He said: “I cleanse you with water, but one is coming after me who will cleanse you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Thus he prepared the way for Jesus, who did forgive sin, who would die to obtain forgiveness of sin for these same people. But that’s getting ahead of our story.
What Zechariah saw was his son, the forerunner of the Messiah, giving people this knowledge. And all of it, he says, is because of the tender mercy of our God. Tender mercy is a Greek phrase meaning the gut feeling of mercy. In other words God had a heart full of mercy, which motivated him to forgive the sins of sinful people. It is through this tender mercy that the dawn will come to us from heaven. You’ve been wondering where I got this whole idea of dawn that I’ve been talking about, haven’t you? Well, here it is. Verse 78: because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Even this has several Old Testament references. In the oracles of Balaam, Numbers 24. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” The star that will rise, or the sun that will rise is the Messiah, Jesus. He is the dawn which comes from heaven through God’s mercy.
He will shine on those living in darkness, and in the shadow of death. This is an unmistakable reference to Isaiah 9. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” What light? The light of a child. Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.
Zechariah is once again talking about the Messiah. He is talking about the child who will be born, not about John but about the child who will reign on David’s throne. He is talking about Jesus, to whom David’s throne has already been promised. Jesus is the one who comes to us and for us. He is the light of the world for us who live in darkness, and who live under the shadow of death. He is the one who guides our feet into the path of peace and who grants us holiness and righteousness through the forgiveness of our sins.
Jesus is the light. Luke leaves it to John, the Apostle of Light and Love, to tease out what it means that the light has come. Luke is content to tell us of the dawn.
When Gail and I went to West Texas in October I worked hard to sleep in, to not get up quite as early as I had been here. But the first day I just couldn’t sleep. So I got up, there in the Davis Mountains, about two hours before dawn. The stars were amazing, just incredibly bright, though there was a tiny sliver of an almost new moon setting in the west. I’d been working on a song text. It’s about loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. But the metaphor that I wanted to develop in the song was the stages of dawn. So I sat there in the night working on sermon plans, but watching the progression of dawn and writing what I saw. I won’t read you the result. It’s still half-baked. But the coming of dawn just absolutely thrilled my soul, from the faint light on the horizon to sharp dark silhouettes against the growing brightness, to the first hint of pink, to a growing recognition of a world with colors, to the birdsong that greeted the first rays of light.
That’s where we are in Luke. It’s the dawn. The light of the Son who has not yet even risen illuminates our forgiveness, and our redemption, and our rejoicing.