God’s Best in God’s Time – Luke 1:5-17
By: Northern Seminary
Through many years of pastoral ministry, I lost count of the times someone would tell me about their children and add something like, “Then there’s little Suzie. Now, she was quite a surprise!” “Ah,” I’d reply, “Wanted but not expected…?” and the person would smile in agreement.
A baby who is not expected seems to be quite a common occurrence. But probably no surprise babies have been less expected than the two described in Luke chapter 1. One is Jesus, but first comes John, known later as John the Baptist.
The first part of John’s story is our study today.
5 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. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 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. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
I will highlight four points from the story, and then draw out two lessons.
- Zechariah and Elizabeth are a godly couple.
These are good people. Zechariah is a priest married to the daughter of a priest, and that is seen as a special sign of God’s favor. But God’s blessing was not only about Zechariah’s priesthood or Elizabeth’s background. Luke says, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (v. 6). Not for a moment is he saying they were sinless, but they were committed to honoring God in all things. Their lives were his.
- They are childless.
The general belief was that God would bless faithful servants with children, so childlessness was considered a sign of God’s displeasure and had become an allowable reason for divorce.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children so those around them thought they were out of God’s favor. Maybe, some would suppose, they were not as faithful in their worship and service of God as they seemed. Later, when Elizabeth does conceive, she will thank God that “He has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (v. 25).
- Zechariah is called to duty at the temple.
Every male descended from Aaron was a priest, so there were about twenty thousand priests in total. With so many priests and only one Temple, they took turns to serve there. Each ‘division’ of priests served for one week twice a year. With almost one thousand priests in each division, they cast lots to see who would perform the most sacred functions. One of the greatest privileges was offering incense. That meant going into the holy place of the Temple and being left there alone to burn the incense. It was such a sacred function that no priest ever had that job twice.
That week, Zechariah is chosen, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other priests escort him into the holy place, then they leave and go outside with other worshippers in the outer court. He is now alone.
- Zechariah gets a message he could never have expected.
Zechariah finds he is not alone. An angel appears right beside the altar of incense. Later he learns his name is Gabriel. Zechariah is terrified! The angel reassures him and brings him a message. His prayer has been heard. What prayer? I used to think Zechariah must still have been asking God for a child but almost certainly that is not right. It would be too self-serving for a godly man like Zechariah, and also everything else in the story suggests he knows they’re too old for children.
More likely Zechariah has been praying constantly for the redemption of Israel. In other words, he was praying for God to send the Messiah. Gabriel says God has heard and will answer. How? His wife Elizabeth will bear a son whom they will call John. John will not be the Messiah but he will be special. He will turn many back to the Lord and prepare the way for the Lord’s coming.
What a message! What a promise! Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited all their lives for a son. Now they will have a son with a unique and significant role: preparing the way for the Messiah himself. It is hard for us to understand just how overwhelming that message must have been in Zechariah’s ears.
There are two exciting and important lessons we can learn from this first part of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story.
1) After years of faithful service but never feeling their prayers or lives counted, now this couple are at the heart of God’s redemption plan.
Their whole lives have been given to God. They have lived rightly before him. They’ve been diligent in studying the law, observed all the feasts, kept the commands, and loved their neighbors. Their lives have belonged to the Lord.
They did not grudge a minute of all that but, also, what did they have to show for it? All that devotion and all that service. But for what? Had God ever really seen their actions or heard their prayers, because, after all, where is his blessing? Like their neighbors, Zechariah and Elizabeth believed that children were a sign of God’s blessing. And they are childless.
More than one retired pastor has said to me: “I served God faithfully for decades, but sometimes I wonder if any of it really mattered… Did anything actually make a difference?” It’s not just pastors who think like that. Someone else says, “Has God ever used me? Have I done any good? Have I influenced anyone for the gospel?”
I tell all these people that God has certainly been with them, and, whether they know in this life or the next or maybe never, God has absolutely promised that his Word or his work is never in vain. He has used them. But still they wonder.
Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered. Was God never watching and never listening?
God certainly had been watching and listening. Oh yes, God had. And they would have a son, and his name would be John, and he would bring many people back to God, and he would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Year after year after year this faithful and good couple had questioned: “Is God hearing us? Will God do anything special with these lives?”
It’s not an unusual prayer. And the lesson: God always has a purpose, a plan which is good for us and for others, and often it is greater and more significant than anything we would have invented for ourselves. That should lift our faith and bring us great encouragement.
2) The scale and scope of what God would do with the son to be born was greater than anything this couple could have imagined.
I count at least eleven promises or prophecies about John. They are not small things. For example:
- He will bring Zechariah, Elizabeth and many others great joy.
- God will think of this boy as great.
- He will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
- He will turn people back to God and to each other.
- He will make ready a people for the coming of the Lord.
In other words, a very special and unique servant of God will be born, clothed in God’s power from his youngest. He will be a person who will bring people to know God, people prepared for the Lord’s coming among them. If anyone had ever thought the days of the prophets were over (and many did think that), they’re back! With John God will speak and act in ways greater and more significant than any time before.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, through all their years together, would have been content simply to have a baby. Now, in their old age, they are having a baby. And not just any baby, but the one who will prepare the way for the Lord himself to step into this world among his people. What a promise Zechariah hears from the angel.
The lesson here? There are many lessons, but maybe especially this: never underestimate what God can do at any time of his choosing.
We have our own sense of what God should do, and of when he should do it. We want what we want and we want it when we want it, as if a soldier could choose which battles he would fight and when he would fight them. Armies could not win victories if everyone did as they pleased – we know that – but all too easily we slip into feeling the Commander in Chief of our lives should take our orders and fit our timetable for their fulfillment. Is our wisdom really greater than his?
God will decide both the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ of everything. Trusting him – believing he knows best – is hard. We are programed from childhood to take responsibility and to make things happen. Letting go is difficult.
It is, but much less so when we know that the one to whom we let go is both Lord God Almighty and our loving Heavenly Father.
Jeremiah brought a message from God to very troubled people, a message to trust that God will do only what is right and best for our lives, and what he does will be greater and more wonderful than anything we could have chosen.
Jeremiah 29:11 – “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
That was a promise to Israel in the hardest and most impossible of times. Zechariah and Elizabeth found God also had wonderful plans for them. For us too. God has only the very best for our lives and we can trust him for what that is and when he will do it.
 The name John means Yahweh has been gracious.
 1) A son will be born to be called John; 2) he will be a joy and delight to you; 3) many will rejoice because of him; 4) he will be great in God’s sight; 5) he will never drink wine; 6) he will be filled from before birth with the Spirit; 7) he will bring many of Israel back to the Lord; 8) he will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah; 9) he will turn the hearts of parents to their children; 10) he will turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous; 11) he will make ready a people for the Lord.