Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: Zechariah and Elizabeth

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: Zechariah and Elizabeth

Luke 1

Today is the first day of a new year, not in the regular calendar but in the church calendar. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which begins the church year. Throughout the world, in churches and in homes, people have been lighting the first Advent candle, as we have done here today. Observance of the liturgical calendar was required for Israel in the Old Testament, but it is not required for the church in the New. Why then do we pay any attention to a liturgical calendar? Because for 1500 years the church has found the church year to be a useful tool for remembering history. We remember that God remembered. He remembered his people and visited them. But that visitation was for the benefit of more than just his people Israel. It was for the benefit of the whole world, so that eventually, as stated in our call to worship:

All the nations you have made
 will come and worship before you, Lord;
 they will bring glory to your name. (Ps 86:9)

So, as a portion of “all nations,” we are gathered here this morning to worship the Lord and glorify his name for who he is and what he has done.

The church year commemorates, keeps alive the memory of, the central events of history, when, in the middle of time, God intervened in the affairs of the world in the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and in the subsequent gift of the Spirit. For the next four Sundays, the four Sundays of Advent, we will pay attention to the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. This year we have picked as our theme the people who were gathered around the cradle, those who were the closest participants in the births of John and Jesus. As I was thinking of this motif of gathering around the cradle, I had in mind Rembrandt’s painting The Adoration of the Shepherds. The baby Jesus, lying in a bed of straw, is bathed in light as the shepherds kneel in worship.

It is convenient to consider these holy worshipers in four pairs: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, the shepherds and the Magi, Simeon and Anna. We will also note those who were not present: the chief priests, the Pharisees, King Herod. They did not come to the cradle to worship. In contrasting those who were present and those who were not present we’ll see the truth of the Beatitudes, which begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Luke begins his history of Jesus by introducing us to a priest and his wife:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years. (Luke 1:5-7 TNIV)

The primary responsibility of the priests was to serve in the house of the Lord, first in the tabernacle, then in the temple, where they represented the whole nation before God. David, as he made preparations for the temple which his son Solomon would build in Jerusalem, had divided the priests into 24 divisions. They were to take it in turns serving in the temple for one week, twice a year, to perform the service which the Lord had earlier commanded Aaron. The eighth of these divisions was that of Abijah (1 Chr 24:10).

One of the priests of this division was Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth was also from the priestly line. Luke names both of them, and they carry significant names. Zechariah means “The Lord has remembered”; several men in the Old Testament carried this name. Elizabeth is the Greek transliteration of Elisheba, which can be read as “My God has sworn an oath”; this was the name of Aaron’s wife (Exod 6:23). This was a godly couple: they were both righteous, walking blamelessly in God’s commands. But there was a shortcoming in their lives: they were childless because Elizabeth was barren. Furthermore, they were too old to expect to have any children. Many would have interpreted this barrenness as God’s judgment on sin, but Luke says otherwise. This couple was faithful to God. Luke presents them as exemplary people, as models of faithful living. He presents them as modern-day counterparts to Abraham, who was the model par excellence. Abraham was a righteous man whom God had commanded, “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). And Abraham’s wife was barren.

Zechariah and Elizabeth shared company not just with Abraham and Sarah. Five women in the Old Testament were barren: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife and Hannah. God had overcome the barrenness of each of these women to birth a son who would be instrumental in advancing God’s purposes for his people: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson and Samuel. Would God now do the same for Elizabeth, the sixth barren woman? Would the Lord remember? Would God be faithful to the covenants he had made, to the oaths he had sworn?

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. (1:8-10)

Zechariah and his wife did not live in Jerusalem, but in the hill country of Judea. We don’t know where, but tradition identifies the town as Ein Kerem, now in the western suburbs of Jerusalem. When it was the turn of his division to be on duty, Zechariah went up to Jerusalem to serve in the temple for a week, from one Sabbath to the next. It would be a busy week. The temple was the focal point of Jewish life. Herod the Great had rebuilt it into one of the most magnificent buildings in the world. It was a hive of activity. It has been estimated that each division of priests contained 300 men, assisted by an even larger number of Levites. All their duties were important for they had all been commanded to Aaron by God himself. But two events each day were of special importance: the tamid offering each morning and each evening.

In the temple, as in the tabernacle before it, were two altars. On each one an offering was to be made twice a day, morning and evening, regularly or continually (tamid). On the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard a lamb was to be offered every morning and every evening (Exod 29:38-42). On the incense altar inside the Holy Place incense was to be offered morning and evening (Exod 30:7-8).

By the time of Zechariah the twice-daily tamid had become a carefully choreographed event. Participation was decided by lot, four lots in the morning and one in the evening. The priests gathered before dawn, and the first lot was drawn for the priest who would prepare the altar of burnt offering. He would clear out the ashes and lay fresh wood. The priests gathered again for the second lot for the priest who would slay the sacrificial lamb. He was assisted by twelve other priests who would enter the temple to tend to the lampstand and to prepare the incense altar. The priests assembled for a third time for prayers, after which the third and fourth lots were drawn. The fourth was for the priest who would lay the pieces of the slain lamb upon the altar. But it was the third lot that was the most important: the lot to choose who would offer the incense on the altar in the temple itself. This third lot was so important that it was repeated for the evening service. The priests chosen in the other three lots repeated their service that evening, but a new priest was chosen for the third lot. No one could perform this service twice in his lifetime, and such was the number of priests that many never were chosen. The priest chosen was assisted by two other priests. One filled a golden censer with incense; the other took burning coals from the altar. Together the three of them entered the temple, where the assistants arranged the coals on the incense altar then withdrew, leaving the chosen priest alone in the Holy Place.

This helps understand some of the imagery of Revelation. John saw the twenty-four elders holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (Rev 5:8). Later he saw that

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth. (Rev 8:3-5)

Here as elsewhere incense is closely identified with prayer. The offering of incense in the Holy Place was the climax of Israel’s worship, morning and evening, for centuries. The incense symbolized the prayers of the people, rising to God. What were they praying for? That the Lord would remember his people, that God would be faithful to the covenants he had made, to the oaths he had sworn with their forefathers. Solomon understood in his prayer of dedication that the temple was a house of prayer. As our Scripture reading this morning showed, Solomon called on the Lord to listen both to his prayer and to the prayers of future generations:

“Yet, Lord my God, give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive.” (2 Chr 6:19-21)

Morning and evening, day after day, week after week, 730 times a year, a priest had stood here before God and burnt incense on the altar, gathering the prayers of the people and presenting them to him. But had God heard? When would he respond? He had been silent for centuries. Today it was Zechariah’s turn. Would it be any different this time?

It was different! This time the Lord showed up:

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…” (1:11-13)

An angel appeared, standing right next to the altar of incense. It had been a very long time since the Lord had sent an angel to earth as his messenger.

Zechariah responded as all people in the Bible do when an angel appears: he was afraid. But the angel assured him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son…” This son was not merely to rectify the barrenness of Elizabeth, just as the sons born to Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife and Hannah were not merely to satisfy their personal desires for a son. God gave these sons to advance his saving purposes for his people. The angel told Zechariah that this son would prepare the people for the Lord. And the angel told Zechariah the name he was to give this son: John, in Hebrew Johanan, “The Lord has been gracious.”

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 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 appointed time.” (1:18-20)

When we are taken by surprise we don’t always say the wisest things. We can feel much sympathy for Zechariah when he blurted out, “How can I be sure?” This was understandable: he and his wife were indeed old, beyond the age for having children. But Gabriel interpreted Zechariah’s response as a lack of faith. When Gabriel later announced to Mary that she too would have a son she would ask, “How will this be, for I am a virgin (have not known a man)?” (1:34). But Gabriel did not criticize her response. Wasn’t he being unfair? Why was Mary’s question acceptable but Zechariah’s not? Mary’s situation had no precedent. The Lord had never before overcome the barrenness of virginity. But the situation of Zechariah and Elizabeth did have precedent. Abraham and Sarah were old, well along in years. But the Lord overcame Sarah’s barrenness and gave her a son. Zechariah, as a son of Abraham, should have had the faith of Abraham. Gabriel gave him a sign so that he might know the truth of this: he would be silent until the day of fulfillment. It seems clear that his silence rendered him not only dumb but deaf as well. For the next nine months he would live in a world of silence.

Zechariah was still inside the temple, and the worshipers outside were getting anxious:

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. (1:21-22)

Finally Zechariah came out, and the service continued. He had some important words still to say. He would have stood at the top of the steps outside the temple, where he was joined by the other priests who had earlier entered the temple. After the fourth-chosen priest had arranged the slain lamb on the altar, the incensing priest, in this case Zechariah, would pronounce a blessing over the other priests gathered at the foot of the stairs, over all the worshipers gathered in the temple courts, indeed over all Israel. The blessing he was supposed to say was the priestly blessing, given by the Lord to Moses for Aaron:

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

“ ‘ “The Lord bless you
 and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
 and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
 and give you peace.” ’

“So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” (Num 6:22-27)

But Zechariah was speechless. He kept motioning to the assembled worshipers, but the harder he tried the more it emphasized his silence. The biggest moment of his life, and he couldn’t talk! The one time in his life when he would put the Lord’s name on his people in blessing, and not a word would come out. He couldn’t say, “The Lord be gracious to you.” But the Lord had been gracious: he was giving him a son named John, Johanan, which means exactly that: “The Lord has been gracious”!

When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “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.” (1:23-25)

At the end of the week Zechariah went home to his wife. He was unable to tell her what had happened, and unable to hear her questions. But soon Elizabeth would have sensed a great difference. The unimaginable happened: Elizabeth, old beyond any possibility of conception, was pregnant. We don’t know why she kept herself hidden for five months, but it meant that no one else knew of her pregnancy. Instead of rushing out to tell the neighbors she directed her thoughts to the Lord in praise. He had seen her! He had taken notice of her. He had taken away her reproach.

Five months later the angel Gabriel again appeared, this time to Mary in Nazareth, announcing that she, too, would bear a son. He answered her question also with a sign: her aged relative Elizabeth was now in her sixth month of pregnancy, “For nothing is impossible with God.” And so Mary rushed off to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (1:39-45)

Gabriel had told Zechariah that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. And so the unborn baby, empowered by the Spirit, immediately recognized the arrival of Mary, who would bear the son for whom he would prepare the way. Elizabeth, too, was now filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed over Mary, praising both her and God.

Mary stayed for three months until it was nearly time for Elizabeth to deliver, then she went home.

When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” (1:57-63)

Gabriel had told Zechariah that many would rejoice over his son’s birth. Since Elizabeth had hidden herself the neighbors presumably had not known that she was even pregnant. But as soon as the baby was born they rushed to rejoice with her.

As faithful Jews the parents prepared to circumcise the child on the eighth day. The neighbors started calling him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth overruled them, insisting he be called John. The father added his confirmation. Only then, after a silence of nine months, was his mouth opened.

Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
 because he has come to his people and redeemed them…” (1:64-68)

The first words out of Zechariah’s mouth were words of praise, blessing God. Like his son and his wife, it was now his turn to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The neighbors had asked “What then is this child going to be?” Zechariah knew, for Gabriel had revealed it to him in the temple. And so Zechariah poured forth the prophecy that we know as the Benedictus, praising God that he had visited his people, that he had remembered his covenant.

Luke has portrayed Zechariah and Elizabeth as model Israelites after the pattern of Abraham. They are models also of those whom Jesus exalted in the first beatitude:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
 for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

Who are these poor in spirit? Our call to worship was a cry for the Lord to listen to the prayer of the poor and needy:

Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
 for I am poor and needy.
Hear my prayer, Lord;
 listen to my cry for mercy. (Ps 86:1, 6)

The poor and needy were originally those who were materially poor, often as the result of oppression. But the term “poor and needy” came to refer to those who were spiritually poor, who recognized their need for God, who looked to him. These are the people Jesus acclaims. Their reward is a place in the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, where God’s will is done. This is a suitable reward because what they are looking for is God himself, what they are longing for is to be with God. The poor in spirit have a low view of self but a high view of God, and so it is to him and not to self that they look. Such were Zechariah and Elizabeth. Such also were the others in Luke’s infancy narrative: Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. These were the little people, unnoticed by the powers that be, but noticed by God. God remembered them and on them he showered mercy because they looked to him.

Zechariah was a godly priest, but not all priests were godly. The chief priests were far from godly. The office of high priest had long been corrupted and politicized, just like ecclesiastical office in the medieval Catholic church. The chief priests became wealthy and lived lavishly in Jerusalem. Archaeologists have excavated some of their opulent houses. They enjoyed close relations with the Roman authorities upon whom they were dependent for their high office. They were poor in neither spirit nor body. And they were not looking for the kingdom of heaven. The chief priests were Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection. They didn’t want resurrection because they were busy pursuing their reward in this life. They believed that God helps those who help themselves. And they had helped themselves nicely to power, position and riches. Thirty years later they would make the temple a marketplace, turning it from a house of prayer into a den of rebels.

Both the nativity stories and the Beatitudes are rebukes to people like this. God passed over them and sent his angel Gabriel to little people, to Zechariah and to Mary. It was the godly barren wife of a godly country priest whom God chose to bear the one who would prepare the way for his Messiah. Zechariah, like Simeon and Anna, understood that the temple was not a place to enrich oneself but a place to call out to God in prayer, looking for the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

No longer do we gather in the temple to pray. No longer do priests offer up incense continually on our behalf. Not because prayer no longer works. Not because God no longer listens. But because of what God has done in sending first John and then Jesus. He has heard the prayers of his people and he has remembered. But what he has done goes far beyond what anyone was praying for. He has provided a new high priest who has rendered the temple obsolete. Jesus, our high priest, has passed through the veil, not just the temple veil but what it represented. He is now at the Father’s right hand where he has his ear. God’s eye and ear and heart are more open than ever. They are now open not to the temple but to his Son. And so we can pray in Jesus’ name, knowing that our prayers are heard. And when the Father hears the Son he forgives.

At Advent we remember that God remembered, and we celebrate that God was faithful to his covenants, faithful to the oaths he had sworn. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)

The Lord bless you
 and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
 and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
 and give you peace. (Num 6:24-26)

© 2010 Peninsula Bible Church Cupertino