We once again have arrived at the beginning of what many called the Advent season. The Advent season is the four weeks before Christmas. In Latin the word Advent means “coming or arrival.” The origin of Advent is not in the Bible, but comes from church history, as early as the fourth century. We know that at the Council of Tours in 567 AD monks were ordered to fast each day in the month of December until Christmas as a time of preparing their hearts for the celebration of Jesus’ “coming.”
While we won’t be fasting every day in December, Advent is a time to drawback from the rush, the noise, the stress of our lives and once again allow God to turn our hearts back towards Himself. A time to refocus our lives on the Christ child in the manger. A time to evaluate our priorities and the direction of our lives and make the needed changes so that we can once again draw near to God.
That will be our focus for the next four weeks as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s coming. Join us today as we begin this four-week journey together.
Can you think back to a time when you desperately wanted to hear God’s voice? Maybe it was about a job, or the choice of a mate, or during a battle with cancer or being bullied at school, or when the bank account was almost empty, or when you could not have children or could not be freed from a habitual sin. You went to church. You read your Bible. You prayed. You did everything you knew to do and yet God seemed to say nothing. . . complete silence. So, what did you do? Did you turn towards God or against Him?
The Jews were very familiar with this idea of “the silence of God.” We read in the Old Testament that God had spoken through the prophets promising a day when a Messiah, a Savior would come to deliver His people. The final words of the Old Testament in Malachi 4:5-6 even told them what to look for.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 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.”
With these words the Old Testament ended and the silence began. So, they took these words and they waited. Generation after generation, century after century, but yet there was no sign of this Savior, the Messiah. The “waiting” lasted 400 years. This was the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament. During this time the Jews were conquered by the Greeks and Alexander the Great, and eventually by the Romans. As a nation they also continued to drift away from God. They heard nothing from God. Some chose to forget the prophecies but others held on to the ancient scriptures and continued to pray for the day that the Messiah would come. Finally, the silence was broken. The Bible tells us the story in Luke 1.
Luke 1:5 tells us of a man named Zechariah. He was a priest and was married to a woman named Elizabeth. All priests were descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron (Exodus 28:1-3). Elizabeth, his wife, was also a descendant of Aaron. That meant that her grandfather, her father, her brothers and her uncles were all priests. The service of God was the purpose of her entire family. On top of that they named her Elizabeth which was the name of Aaron’s wife which means “My God is Faithful.” (Exodus 6:23). Zechariah’s devotion to God was not just outward religion, it was authentic faith in God.
Luke 1:6 tell us that, “They were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” It does not say that they were just righteous in the sight of man, they were righteous before God, the God who sees everything. They did not just look religious from the outside they were righteous in the secret recesses of their hearts on the inside. Some might argue, “but have not all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God?” How can they be righteous? The same way it always happened. Remember in Genesis 15:6, "And he (Abraham) believed God and it was counted unto him as righteousness." They believed God and He counted them as righteous. Even though God was silent, Zechariah the priest, and his wife Elizabeth believed in God’s faithfulness and His promises, and continued walking faithfully with God.
In this time of history there were about 18,000 priests in Israel. They were divided into 24 divisions. Each division would minister to the people in the villages where they lived. But two weeks a year each division would serve in Jerusalem to carry out the religious rituals and functions at the temple. This was a privilege for the priests to be able to handle the sacred things of God in this way.
That is what was happening in Luke 1. Zechariah was in Jerusalem working in the temple with the rest of the priests from his division. By a process of casting lots he was chosen to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. This meant that at the given time he would take coals from the altar of the burnt offering and place them in a gold bowl. As the crowd watched and bowed to pray, Zechariah would then walk up the steps and enter into the temple. This would be the first and last time he would ever have opportunity to enter the temple of God. It must have been a truly special day in his life.
After entering he would have walked to the far end of the temple, to the golden altar of incense. This would have been right next to the curtain of the Holy of Holies. As Zechariah stood in that place he would have been a few meters from the very presence of God. There he would dump the burning coals into the golden altar of incense. He would spread them with a utensil and then place the incense on top of the coals. Immediately a column of smoke with the fragrance of the incense would have risen and begun to spread throughout the temple. It was at this moment that the 400 years of silence was broken.
Luke 1:11-16 describes it this way.
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. 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. 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. 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.”
As God broke His silence through the words of the angel He spoke the same words with which He had ended the Old Testament. It clearly shows us that the New Testament is not the beginning of a new story, but the continuation of a story that has its beginning all the way back at creation in Genesis 1.
The scripture then continues with the story.
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.” 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.” 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. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
In the days following Zechariah and Elizabeth would miraculously have a son. They named him John as the angel had instructed them.. He would be great before the Lord. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. “And he would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he would go before Him in the spirit and the power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.”
In Mark 1, this John, the son of Zechariah, is spoken of as, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Through the message of the angel and John’s miraculous birth Luke is tying John to Jesus as the forerunner, the “Elijah” who was to come. Once the people understood that John was the promised forerunner then all they had to do was follow him to the Messiah.
This John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, would grow up to be known as John the Baptist. As one followed him he would eventually be led directly to Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Savior and Messiah. We read about this moment that occurred 30 years later in John 1:29, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
For those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, God had given them a way to confirm the coming of the Messiah. John the Baptist had come to prepare the way of the Lord.
Malachi was not the only prophet who had foretold of the coming of John the Baptist. 800 years earlier, John had been prophesized about by Isaiah in Isaiah 40:3-5. “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
In Isaiah’s time in history the roads were much worse than they are today. When a king wanted to travel from one city to another, he would send out hundreds or even thousands of workers. They would clear the road of stones and fallen trees. They would level out the tough terrain. They would do whatever was necessary to “prepare the way for their king.”
Spiritually speaking John played a similar role in preparing the hearts of the people for the coming of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. John was the forerunner and herald of Jesus Christ. He came and called people to repentance. He called the Jews away from empty religious rituals and back to an intimate relationship with God. As Jews turned their hearts back towards God they would now have spiritual eyes to recognize, and follow Jesus once He arrived.
We, also, are to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah.
So the question is, “in the midst of our hurried lives, how do we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord?”
Living a God-sensitive Lifestyle comes in many different forms. It depends on your season of life, your work situation, your family responsibilities, your time in history and much more.
As we prepare our hearts for the celebration of the coming of the Christ child at Christmas here are some things we should consider… Are there any unconfessed sins that are keeping you from walking near to Christ? Are there any areas of rebellion or disobedience that are keeping you from feeling at peace in Christ’s presence? Is there anyone who you need to apologize to or forgive? Is there any attitude of yours that is not becoming of a child of God? Is there anyone to whom you need to express thanks? Is there anything that you need to make right financially? Is there anything in your life that is drawing you away from God from which you need to distance ourselves? How can you make unhurried time with God’s Word and prayer this Christmas season? What people do we need to make time for this Christmas season How can we be generous with our finances or material possessions this Christmas season? How can you use any vacations days to put you in a better place to be sensitive to what God is doing in and around you? How can you draw near to God during these days? How can you turn your family’s attention more toward Christ this Christmas season? How can you spend quality time with your family this Christmas season? Is there anyone with whom you need to sit down and strengthen your relationship or share Christ? Is there anyone that you can invite to the church’s Christmas events this month? Should you host a Christmas gathering at your home to build relationship with neighbors, coworkers or friends? Can you use Christmas to bring up spiritual conversations that you need to have with others?
Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of the babe in the manger, the coming of Christ into our lives, and the second coming of Christ. May we use these days to drawback from the rush, the noise, the stress of our lives and once again allow God to turn our hearts back towards Himself. A time to evaluate our priorities and the direction of our lives and make the needed changes so that we can once again draw near to God.
Let us consider once again what we learn about God in the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John. From the repeated phrases ending the Old Testament and the beginning the New Testament, 400 years later, we see that. . .
- God is sovereignly in control as He moves this story to its proper end.
Regardless what you are facing at this time, be confident that our sovereign God is still in control.
- We see that in the midst of the silence God can still be trusted.
We must not forget that the preparation for Christ that came through John the Baptist was preceded by Zechariah and Elizabeth’s “faithfulness in the midst of God’s silence.” We see similar faithfulness in the midst of silence in the life of Joseph after he is sold into slavery by his brothers. We see faithfulness in the midst of silence as Moses cared for sheep in the wilderness for 40 years. We see faithfulness in the midst of the silence as David continued to flee the threat of King Saul. We see faithfulness in the midst of the silence as Ruth left her people and honored Naomi her mother-in-law. We see faithfulness in the midst of the silence as Daniel was dropped into the lion’s den. We see faithfulness in the midst of the silence as the followers of Christ prayed in the upper room in Jerusalem, waiting for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost.
- We see the value of preparing our heart so we will be prepared to meet with Christ.
It is a time to put aside whatever is hindering our walk with Christ. During this time of Advent, let’s evaluate our priorities and direction of our lives. Ask God to help us make the needed adjustments and ask God to turn our hearts back towards Him. Ask God to reveal if there is any impure way in us and trust Him to remove it. James 4:8 instructs us to draw near to God and He will draw near to us.