Sunday, September 13, 2009

[Matt's Messages] "The 'Back-Story' of Jesus"

“The ‘Back-Story’ of Jesus”
The Gospel of Luke
September 13, 2009
Luke 1:5-80

Last week, we looked at just 4 verses. Luke 1:1-4. Today, we’re going to look at 76 verses! Luke 1:5-80, to the end of the chapter.

There is a lot here, and we could slow down and spend a month or so, relishing each paragraph–but I think that we’ll get the story better here if we take some big chunks together.

Last week, we learned Dr. Luke’s purpose for writing his gospel–that we would be CERTAIN of Jesus. Verse 4, “[I write] so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

And then he gets started right away in verse 5 telling the story.

We started our worship this morning with “Tell Me the Story of Jesus...Write on my heart every word.”

And that’s my prayer for us as we dive into this chapter.

Actually, this is kind of the story before the story, isn’t it? The story of Jesus doesn’t begin with Caesar Augustus and his census decree, does it?

Well, that’s not where Luke begins.

Fiction writers have a category that they call the “back-story” which is “the history behind the situation at the start of the main story."

Luke 1 is Luke’s version of Jesus’ “back-story.”

What I want us to do this morning is to simply read down through the chapter and try to capture in our minds and hearts what was going on.

These are very familiar words. And familiarity can breed not just contempt but blindness.

We can be so familiar that we can’t see what is really there.

So, let’s (to the best of our ability) try to read these words like it was the first time we have ever read them. I’ll stop along the way and try to help us feel and understand what Luke is trying to get across.

And then, when we’ve read the whole chapter, I have 3 quick lessons about God that I want to apply to our lives.

Luke 1, verse 5. Luke begins with the historical setting.

“In the time of Herod king of Judea [note: King Herod reigned from 37BC to 4BC. This story takes place then...] 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 upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.”

We’re introduced first to a couple who was blameless but barren. Godly but no offspring. Priestly folks who lived out their faith but had no progeny.

And immediately, those who have read their Old Testaments are supposed to get excited!

Ooh! Ooh! Who does this remind you of?

Abraham and Sarah? Yeah. The parents of Isaac?
Manoah and his wife? Yeah. The parents of Samson?
Hannah? Yeah. The mother of Samuel?

God’s up to something again.

But that’s not how it seems to Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are faithful believers in YHWH and try to live out their faith.

But life has been pretty disappointing for them. And they are not young.

Life has been disappointing for Israel for more than 400 years. There have been no prophets in Israel that have declared the word of the Lord.

God has been silent.

But the biggest day of Zechariah’s life has come. He has been randomly chosen to offer the daily incense at the temple. It’s a once in a life-time occurrence for a Hebrew priest.

And I’m sure that Zechariah was excited. This was the biggest day of his life.

But he didn’t know just how big it was going to be! V.8

“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 [into the Holy Place] and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.”

This incense was a symbol of intercessory prayers wafting up from God’s people to God’s presence.

I used to think that Zechariah was in the Holy of Holies, but that was something that only the High Priest did and that only once a year. This was the daily incense offering offered both morning and evening. But there were so many priests (at least 8,000 upwards to 18,000) in those days that they took turns serving and only a few got randomly chosen to offer this incense.

Do you think that God is sovereign over little things like random choices? V.11

Right “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.”

Yeah! Can you imagine?

When I’m studying for sermons, I print out the passage that we’re studying and mark it all up. And I don’t know how many times I wrote the words, “Yikes!” in the margins of my notes in this chapter!

I almost titled this message, “Yikes!”

It’s amazing that Zechariah didn’t have a heart attack.

“[A]n 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 give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 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 from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”

Wow! Yikes! What a message!

Zechariah’s prayers have been heard. Now, I think that includes prayers for a child.

But I think it’s more than that. I think that Zechariah has been praying for Israel. That’s what this incense he’s burning stands for.

God has heard his prayers and is giving him the answer. A son. And more than a son. A son who will be “great in the sight of the Lord...filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth[!]”

And he’s going to have a ministry of repentance and reconciliation. People are going to turn from their sins and turn towards each other.

And they’ll be getting ready for something even greater–for the Lord Himself.

How do you respond to a message like that? V.18

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

Wrong answer. V.19

“The angel answered, ‘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. [When God’s angel gives you a message–you believe him!] 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 proper time.’ [Zechariah will be silent like God has been silent for 400 years.] 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. When his time of service was completed, he returned home.”

God is up to something. Something BIG! V.24

“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.’”

God is keeping His promise.

But that’s not all He’s doing.

This angel, Gabriel, mentioned only here and in Daniel chapters 8 and 9, has one other mission.

Gabriel has one other baby to announce. V.26

“In the sixth month [the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, [in the middle of nowhere! More nowhere than Pinchatoulie!] to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. [A young lady, maybe as young as twelve. Betrothed but not yet married. More than engaged not yet living together. Gabriel comes to visit HER???!!!] The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’


I mean, you might expect to meet God in the temple, but what is an angel doing in “the sticks?” And talking to this young lady?

What’s going on? V.29

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. [Yeah!] But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. [Not, you’re full of grace to dispense to others, but that God wants to give you grace. Wants to pour out his special favor on you. Listen...” You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’”

Yikes! What? What’s going to happen?

Me? Here?

All of the promises of God in the Old Testament are going to be fulfilled in a baby boy that I’m going to carry? ... How?

“How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ [I can’t have a baby. I’m not even married yet.] The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.’

Yikes! Can you imagine?

We’ve heard these words so many times. But it’s almost unbelievable, when you think about it.

Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. ...

Mary asked, “how can this be?” but she must have had more faith than Zechariah. She just wanted the details.

And she didn’t really get an explanation. Just that God would do it. And that nothing was impossible with God.

Do you need to be reminded of that today? “Nothing is impossible with God?”

Put yourself in Mary’s shoes. How would you respond? V.38

“‘I am the Lord's servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.’ Then the angel left her.”

Good answer! Mary has faith.

A lot of people make too much of Mary. They want to make her into all kinds of things that she’s not.

But she is this–she is one of God’s servants who truly believed.

She’s a beautiful example of the faith that we should have.

“You said it, Lord? Okay. Count me in.”

She couldn’t begin to understand what she was getting into! But she knew and trust God. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Now, these two stories of very unexpected pregnancies begin to come together. V.39

“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. [Have I got news for you!] When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. [Jesus is probably just a zygote right now. And John is at six months gestation. And he goes wild! And then Elizabeth calls out in a loud voice. Catch this. V.42] 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 what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’”

Wow! I should have named this sermon, “Wow!”

Elizabeth gets it. She knows the score. Her son is going to be great in the sight of the Lord. And Mary’s son is going to be her Lord!

And how blessed is the she (or anyone) who believes what the Lord has said will be accomplished.

Do you believe?

Then this story gets lyrical. Mary breaks out in song.

I don’t think that this was some kind of a first century dramatic musical like “Les Mis.”

I think that this is kind of thing that Mary felt and said and then probably took time to write out in full for Luke’s records.

Mary’s song (verses 46-55) is like a New Testament psalm of praise to God and wonder at the amazing turnarounds that God is bringing about in Jesus. V.46

“And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior [notice that Mary needs a Savior, too. And she has one!], for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.’”

Back in 2003, I preached on Mary’s Song. It’s often called “The Magnificat” from the first few words of the Latin version.

It’s beautiful, and I’d love to talk about it more. But for now, I just want you to notice how much she praises God for turning things upside down.

“[H]e has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

God is turning everything upside down. Mary ought to know!

She’s part of “the humble” that God is lifting up.

It’s time for John to be born. V.56

“Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned 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.’ [I love this part!] They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ [Isn’t it going to be big Zech and little Zech Junior?] Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. [Apparently, Zechariah was dumb and deaf. He was totally silent and they had to use sign language to speak to him.] He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone's astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ [He did believe.] Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. [Wow!] 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.”

Zechariah knows what this child was going to be. And so, he composed his song. The Latin name for it is the Benedictus, but I like just call it Zechariah’s song (v.67):

“His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us– to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child [John!], will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’”

Wow! Isn’t that beautiful language?

“The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

This is a song of salvation, isn’t it?

Salvation by the Davidic King.
Salvation promised from long ago.
Salvation from our enemies.
Salvation that issues into service.
Salvation that comes from the forgiveness of sins.
Salvation that comes from the tender mercy of God.
Salvation that is made known through the ministry of Jesus’ forerunner–John.

And here’s how Jesus’ back-story concludes in chapter 1.

“And the child [John] grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”

We’ll meet him again in chapter 3.

He does just what his daddy said he would do.

Now, let’s try to summarize some of this with three brief points.


I think that’s clear in this story, isn’t it? That’s a big part of what Mary’s Song is all about.

And it’s clear in her story and Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s.

These were humble people. Humble in circumstance and humble in faith.

And God was good to them. He gives them mercy.

I love that word “mercy.”

Do you need mercy?

Mercy is all over this chapter!

And it’s for the humble. Not the proud.

Herod is proud. We haven’t really met him yet, but he’s going to figure into the story pretty soon. He won’t get God’s mercy.

Mary’s song basically says that God opposes the proud (Peter and James do say it that way in their letters!).

God opposes the proud. Yikes!

I don’t want to be that!

But so often I am.

This last week, there was one night that I could hardly sleep because I realized that I had been very proud that day–and I was experiencing the opposition of God.

It was his discipline on me. Kind of like his discipline with Zechariah.

Are you proud or are you humble?

Mary said, “[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts...but has lifted up the humble.”

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.


That one shouldn’t surprise you, if you’ve been around here for awhile!

Remember all those promises that God gave to Abraham?

God does! God remembers them. Both Mary and Zechariah mention Abraham.

God may have been silent for 400 years, but He hasn’t been failing!

He has been sovereignly working His plan to keep His promises.

Down to who does the prayer of incense on a specific day!

God promised Zechariah a son.

Zechariah got a son.

God promised Mary a son.

Mary will get a son.

God promised that Zechariah’s son would be great and turn people back to God and to each other in harmony.

It’s going to happen.

God promised a Messiah that would rescue Israel and Kingdom that would never end.

It’s going to happen!

“Nothing is impossible with God!”

Believe it. Believe His promises.

Do you know His promises?

Do you know what He’s said He would do?

He’s got “great and precious promises” in this Bible for us. And they’re all true. And they’re all “Yes!” in Christ.

And nothing is impossible with God.

Do you need to hear that today? I do.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”


That’s what this whole “back-story” is all about, isn’t it?

Jesus is coming. And Jesus is bringing salvation.

That’s the message of Zechariah’s song!

Once his tongue got loosed, he couldn’t stop singing about God’s salvation that’s on the way.

And his own son would run forward with the news. V.76 again.

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him...” [That’s right out of Isaiah 40!]

“ give his people the knowledge of SALVATION [how?] through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God.”

Now, Zechariah didn’t know about the Cross. But that’s how this was fulfilled.

John is coming to say that Jesus is coming. And Jesus is coming to bring forgiveness of sins because of the tender mercy of God.

Do you know the tender mercy of God?
Do you have forgiveness of your sins?
Are you saved?

The “rising sun” has come to us “from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death”–that’s us!–“to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Turn from your sin and trust in the Savior.

May the rising Sun of Jesus shine salvation on you.