Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church
Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:5-25
His Name Shall be Called – John
Christmas Cousins-Part 1
by Stephen Davey.
Gospel: Luke 1:5-25
There are no manuals provided to new moms and
dads in the delivery room on how to perfectly raise
the perfect child.
And it isn’t long until every new mother or father
realizes they are in for the ride of their lives.
I’ve learned from our children’s staff that around
60 babies were born this year to families who attend
Colonial – 60 new babies this year in the nursery.
And for 60 families – many of them parents for the
first time, life has changed forever, right?
And do children ever think differently than you
do – or not yet think at all – which takes some
getting used to.
Someone from our congregation sent me that
moment when their three-year-old was putting his
shoes on all by himself and his mother noticed that
he had put his shoes on the wrong feet. So she said,
“Honey, your shoes are on the wrong feet.” He
looked down for a moment, then up at her with a
strange look and said, “Mommy . . . I know these are
I was tipped off that parenting daughters
wouldn’t be quite the same on the very first day of
kindergarten for our oldest daughter whose now 24.
On her first day of school, I decided to walk her to
her classroom – this was going to be one of those
special daddy-daughter moment. As we walked
from the parking lot – lunch box, backpack, new
shoes – we saw there were news vans in the parking
As we walked down the sidewalk, hand in hand,
a man pointed his camera at us and snapped some
Now what probably looked like a sweet picture
was far from it. You see, the whole way down the
sidewalk my daughter was talking. But she wasn’t
saying, “Daddy, I’m so glad you spent these last few
moments with me and it means so much to me that
you’re walking me in to school today . . . and I love
you so much – I can’t bear the thought of being
away from you and Mom.” Oh no . . . she was
actually saying, “Daddy, would you please go back
to the car. I can do this all by myself – I’m fine –
please let go.” And I’m saying, “Listen young lady,
you might be fine, but I’m not . . . I’m taking you in
there whether you like it or not.”
When we got to her classroom there was a
camera man from channel 5 inside the room with his
camera focused on the classroom door. We ended
up being filmed and put on the news that same day –
we watched it later that night. It struck me – we
were both smiling there at the door – but in reality,
we were smiling for entirely different reasons. I was
smiling because of this moment together and she
was smiling because I was about to leave, and she
could be on her own.That wasn’t exactly how I
pictured the moment.
Like that afternoon 20 years ago when our twins
were around 5 years of age. My wife called me at
the office with panic in her voice. She said, “Honey,
one of your sons . . .” Now whenever she says
they’re one of my sons, I know it’s going to get
interesting. “She said, “One of your sons is in the
backyard – in broad daylight – jumping on the
trampoline, wearing his little sisters one piece
bathing suit . . . what do I do?” I said, “Get the
Take pictures now . . . we’ll bribe him later!
Oh, those are great pictures too and we have
howled with delight over them.
When our twin sons were around 5 and their little
sister was around 3 and ½ - our youngest hadn’t
been born yet, Marsha would have some of the day
organized around the alphabet. This was her way to
creatively survive 3 preschoolers.
And this particular day was G-day. And so the
kids made gingerbread houses, dressed up and acted
out animals that began with the letter G.
Then they were told that a wedding party
included the letter G – G for groom.
So why don’t the three of them dress up like a
Benjamin evidently won the toss –as the oldest
twin – and he got to dress up like the groom. But
who would be the bride? Not little sister – oh no –
she didn’t get to vote.
Marsha took the picture; it’s become a family
You can see that Benjamin is wearing my suit
coat which reaches down to his feet. He’s not
wearing a shirt. He has around his neck one of my
favorite neckties – one of my former favorites!
And you’ll notice that his brother is the blushing
bride. There he is, wearing a white nightgown with
some kind of fabric for a veil – and if you can see
clearly enough – he’s beaming behind that veil.
He’s happy about this . . . this is fun.
Their poor sister is relegated to Maid of Honor
and she doesn’t even get to hold the flowers.
Last year we gathered to give a couple’s shower
to our Benjamin and Caroline – his bride to be – and
we put this picture up on the screen and our MC said
to Caroline, “Listen, we really hate the break the
news to you at a time like this, but you need to know
that Benjamin has been married before!”
This picture is now one of our family favorites.
So, for all of you new parents out there – you’re
in for the ride of your life . . . just don’t forget your
And you need to expect many of the pictures to
look a little different than you anticipated.
When Malachi the prophet put down his quill,
God put away the prophetic word. And for more
than 400 years, the word from God was not heard.
When God finally spoke again – through his
messenger Gabriel – two families lives were turned
The Christmas story will actually involve one
extended family and the lives of cousins – Elizabeth
and Mary – and their baby boys, John and Jesus.
Most people think that Gabriel’s first message
from God – about the birth of a baby boy – was to
Mary. It wasn’t.
The angel came first, to the husband of Mary’s
This extended family was about to begin the ride
of their lives. And some of the pictures in the family
photo album were gonna look different than they
could have ever imagined.
Let’s back up for a moment and start at the
Turn to the Gospel by Luke, as Luke the doctor
delivers the news in the first chapter of not just one
miraculous conception – but two of them. i
Luke chapter 1 and verse 5. In the days of
Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named
Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a
wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name
was Elizabeth. 6. They were both righteous in the
sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the
commandments and requirements of the Lord.
Listen, at the very outset we’re given the
historical context of the Christmas story. This is
taking place during the days of Herod the King.
He was also known as Herod the Great –
appointed King of Judea by the Roman Senate
around 37 years before the birth of Jesus.ii
By the time these cousins are born, Herod was
already known as a brutal man. He had already
ordered the murder of the Jewish high priest simply
because the priest was more popular with the people
than he was.
He clung to his title with vicious power – King of
the Jews – was his claim and his alone – which is
why less than 2 years after these events he will order
the execution of every little boy in and around
Bethlehem – for one of them had been identified by
visiting Persian dignitaries as the King of the Jews
Herod was already 70 years old when these
events took place. Before he died he would have
two of his sons murdered simply because he
couldn’t stand the thought of them taking his place.
He imprisoned his third son and then had him
executed after his son’s attempt to escape from
He was petty, insanely jealous and brutal, but he
had accomplished one thing especially that had kept
his ratings sky high – and immense favor with the
He had expanded and lavishly refurbished the
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian tells
us that this temple project involved 10,000 Jewish
laborers under the direction of 100 priests.
He wrote that the Temple was refurbished with
imported cedar and white marble.
Much of the temple, including massive double
front doors, was overlaid with plates of solid gold.
Josephus wrote that the sun was no sooner up
than it radiated so fiery a flash that people were
compelled to look away – as they did if looking
directly at the sun. To approaching strangers it
appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain;
for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest
This was all designed, by implication, to fulfill
what their last prophet had promised – just before
the darkness and the silence of God enveloped the
land and people.
Malachi had prophesied that the brilliance of the
sun would one day rise upon the nation – the sun of
righteousness would rise with healing in its wings.
The people were waiting for – and hoping for –
the sunrise of righteousness – of hope and healing.
But for 400 years now it had only been darkness
and despair and confusion and corruption.
No wonder Zacharias says in his response to the
birth of his son, John – “the sunrise is finally
coming to shine upon those who sit in darkness” –
Luke chapter 1 at verse 78.
The darkness is beginning to lift and the sun is
beginning to rise.
But not for everyone – Herod the King would
only deepen the darkness in his own heart. For him,
the sun would never rise.
And he is immediately contrasted with this godly
couple Luke introduced to us in verse 5.
We’re told that a priest named Zacharias was
faithfully serving in his division of priests.
We know from history that there were around
10,000 priests serving at this time who lived in and
around Palestine. They were divided into 24 groups.
Each of the groups was assigned to work for one-week
periods, twice a year. iv
Luke informs us that the division of Zacharias
was under the heading of Abijah.
From these relatively insignificant comments,
we’re actually able to learn significant things about
this old priest.
In fact, we’re able to determine that Zacharias
wasn’t one of the elite members of the priesthood.
These priests in his division didn’t even `live in
Jerusalem. They were not among the well connected
families of priests. He wasn’t among the priestly
Zachariah would have been referred to as an
ordinary country priest – one of 8,000 who lived
outside the city limits. v
We’re also told in this verse that he was married
to Elizabeth – a direct descendant of Aaron – Israel’s
first High Priest.
A priest who was married to the daughter of a
priest was considered a distinct blessing – but for
Zacharias, it was even doubly so, for she had
directly descended from Israel’s high priestly family.
And her son, John, by the way, would act in
many ways as a High priest should act before the
people – calling them back to repentance – preparing
their hearts to hear the voice of God.
Luke describes this couple with glowing terms –
verse 6. They were both righteous in the sight of
God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments
and requirements of the Lord.
They weren’t perfect – we’ll see that in a
moment, but they were passionate about God and
That’s why the next phrase is so startling. Verse
7. But, they had no child, because Elizabeth was
This is shocking news.
You would have expected the next phrase to
read, “And they had 12 children.” “And they were
exceedingly blessed and prospering, just as the God
of the Abrahamic covenant had so promised to His
That’s what you’d expect to read.
Not – they were childless.
The religious culture around them would have
been unforgiving in their prognosis. Faithful
believers could expect to participate in the
Abrahamic covenant blessings of prosperity and
A barren woman in the Old Testament covenant
would have assumed she had been somehow
abandoned by God’s grace for some fault of her own
– in fact, everyone around her would conclude the
That’s why Rachel finally bears a son she
names Joseph and then says in Genesis 30 that God
had taken away her reproach.
That’s why Elizabeth will say later in Luke
chapter 1, God has taken away my disgrace.
The Rabbi’s were teaching by the time of Christ
that several people were unable to enjoy close
communion with God – one of them was a Jewish
man who’s wife was unable to have any children.”
In fact, barrenness was considered valid grounds for
divorce in this culture. vi
And so who does God choose to communicate
with? Get ready – God is going to turn everything
upside down . . . the sun is about to rise.
Don’t overlook the last phrase of verse 7 – Dr. Luke
knows we need to understand the extend of this
miraculous conception of the cousin of Jesus. Luke
adds this footnote, “they were both advanced in
Your translation may read, “They were well
stricken in years,” which is a good translation simply
because the Jews categorized old age with several
They believed the commencement of old age
began at 65. So a 64 year old wasn’t old – but at 65
he began to enter old age.
I don’t know how that makes you feel – I hope it
makes you feel young.
At the age of seventy, he was said to reach
“hoary-headed age” – in other words, at 70 a person
was now among the grey haired and wise. After the
age of 80, they were considered “well stricken in
Zacharias and Elizabeth are in their 80’s! Their
age spotted hands would never hold their own child.
By the time we’re introduced to them, they
weren’t praying for a child . . . they had stopped
praying for a child decades ago.
They were faithful to God and to each other –
even though God, for some unknown reason to
them, wasn’t listening.
They weren’t in sin – they weren’t hiding
rebellion – they weren’t out of fellowship – they
hadn’t abandoned their heritage or their faith.
They were in the middle of God’s will – even
though God had never given them their greatest
The name, Zacharias means, “God remembers.”
The name, Elizabeth means, “The promise of my
Oh how the enemy must have whispered many
times to them, “God remembers His promise? Oh?
He evidently doesn’t remember His promises on
I can’t help but stop here for a moment and ask
the question – what does it take for you and me to
stop serving Him – to stop trusting Him – to believe
the lie that God doesn’t care about you – that His
promises are for everyone else but you.
Like Joseph Parker, the London pastor of the last
century who recorded in his journal one day, “Oh
God why is it that your hand of blessing is on
everyone else but me?”
Ladies and Gentlemen, what I love about the
rising sunshine of God’s redemptive light is that
God chooses an ordinary country priest – someone
who really never made much of a contribution to the
priesthood – in the eyes of his peers and his
neighbors he was now just an old man about to reach
an age where he would not be able to make the trip
to Jerusalem to perform his duties.
He was married to a descendant of Aaron, but
everyone knew that even though this couple was
living of life worthy of respect and appreciation,
they were obviously under some kind of Divine
disapproval and displeasure . . . we don’t know what
it is, but obviously God can’t bless them.
And the remarkable thing to me is that Zacharias
didn’t resign. Elizabeth didn’t say, “Listen, God
hasn’t paid His fair share . . . why bother . . . we’ve
been living and serving God under this cloud of
suspicion for 50 years Zacharias . . . it hasn’t been
worth it . . . let’s hang it up.”
Oh man, that’s what I would have expected to
hear them say by now.
But instead, this priest from the country would
gather his clothes and get someone scheduled to look
after his homestead and his wife while Elizabeth
packed his food and patched his robes and prepared
for a week of her own silence as her husband went
off to serve a God who seemingly wasn’t all that
interested in them.
But they stayed at it . . . serving and worshipping
God – only by now, at the age of 80, they had
stopped praying for certain things – like children and
I couldn’t help but think of William Carey the
great missionary to India who spent more than 20
years translating the Bible in to several Indian
dialects. His biographer recorded how one day his
warehouse caught fire and literally burned to the
ground. He lost his manuscripts; entire translations
of several Bibles in production; the type setting
characters used in the presses had literally melted
down into clumps of metal. The next day was
Sunday and Carey was supposed to preach. He
stood and said, “My text for today is Psalm 46:10,
Be still and know that I am God.”
He went on to say to his congregation that he was
confident of two things – first, that God has the right
to dispose according to His will as He pleases; and
secondly, that our duty as believers is to acquiesce to
His will. That didn’t mean it was all roses and
whistling songs for Carey. In fact, he would write to
a family member that this was a heavy blow – he
wrote, “Oh, the providence of God is dark.” viii
There doesn’t seem to be any light . . . it’s dark . .
. there isn’t a sunrise in sight. It doesn’t make sense
. . . you can’t figure it out!
Be still and know that He is God.
All of that is about to change – so fast you can’t
hardly believe it.
Notice verse 8. Now it happened – I love that –
it just so happened – that while he was performing
his priestly service before God in the appointed
order of his division – in other words, he’s in
Jerusalem for his week of service; verse 9. He was
chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and
burn incense while the whole multitude of the
people were in prayer outside at the hour of the
Listen – here’s what’s happening.
Hundreds of priests never had the lot land on
their name. Thousands of priests over the years had
never had the honor of entering the Holy Place – that
inner sanctuary just outside the Holy of Holies – to
burn incense before God – a symbol of prayer
ascending to the very presence of God.
This was the ultimate culmination of his priestly
office – he would represent the entire nation in
prayer before God.
Here’s how it happened. Zacharias would be
able to choose two friends – two other priests who
would accompany him into the Holy Place.
Between the three of them, one of them would
remove the remnants of the previous offering of
showbread and then reverently back out of the Holy
Another would clean the golden altar of incense
and remove the ashes from the previous coals. They
would bring hot coals from the outer brazen altar
where the animals had been sacrificed and place
them on the grid of the golden altar. Then, the
second priest would also back out of the Holy Place
And, then, at that moment, all the priests and all
the people outside the temple would kneel and pray.
Zacharias – all alone – walked over to the golden
altar of incense with his liquid frankincense and no
doubt with his heart racing and his hands quivering,
he poured that costly liquid perfume over the
He was immediately engulfed in billows of this
sweet smelling smoke – it was a symbol of the
sweetness of prayers ascending to God – implied, by
the way, in the gift of frankincense given to Christ as
a child by the Magi – you remember.
That was a symbol of the coming sweet
intercessory ministry of prayer on our behalf by
Jesus Christ our High Priest.
How the heart of Zacharias must have thrilled at
the pleasure of this unique ministry on behalf of the
people. To a man who never seemed to be notice –
and certainly to a couple who seemed to have been
overlooked by God – this was an incredible blessing
and confirmation of his life’s work.
But it wasn’t about to end here.
As the smoke cleared, Zacharias suddenly
realized he wasn’t alone in there.
Notice verse 11. And an angel of the Lord
appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar
of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw
the angel and fear gripped him.
That’s the biblical way of saying, “He was totally
freaked out. He was petrified out of his gourd.”
He’s in there alone with an angel – and the angel
will identify himself later as Gabriel – the angel who
had visited the famous prophet Daniel centuries
And Gabriel said to Zacharias what angels
typically have to tell human beings when they first
encounter them – verse 13 – Don’t be afraid,
“Okay . . . I’m not afraid . . . I’m not afraid . . .
I’m not afraid . . . but, what are you doing in here?”
Listen – no word from God for centuries . . . no
angel sightings for 400 years . . . suddenly . . .
daylight is coming.
Now watch this – And the angel said to him, “Do
not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been
heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
and you will give him the name John.”
Your petition has been heard!
Wait a second. This wasn’t Zacharias’ petition.
He was in their praying for his nation – the coming
Messiah – redemption – national holiness.
He was more than 80 years old. He wasn’t
praying for a son.
He had prayed that prayer 50 years ago.
He had offered up that petition to God a
million times 40 years ago.
He and Elizabeth had cried together often,
praying for a child, 30 years ago.
And they had finally stopped praying about
Zacharias – God heard your prayer – 50 years
ago. He knew Elizabeth’s feelings of disgrace 40
years ago; He knew all about your longing and your
tears 30 years ago.
And when you finally stopped praying about that
He knew when you stopped praying too.
Gabriel is delivering this stunning revelation to
this old priest –and to every one of us.
Listen, Zacharias, just because God never
answered you, doesn’t mean He didn’t hear you.
He knew you wanted children – and He knows
that you now can’t have children . . . unless He
performs some radical internal surgery that turns the
clock back on both of you.
Zacharias, the sun is about to rise . . . you and
Elizabeth are a part of the coming daylight of God’s
Your physical inability is now the perfect
platform for God’s supernatural ability.
Can you imagine these family pictures – 80 year
old Elizabeth and Zacharias . . . shopping for baby
clothes . . . can you imagine the family portrait?
This was not exactly what they had expected in life.
And their son was to be named, John. Which
means, “the grace of God.”
John would become a daily reminder to them that
God’s grace had indeed been sufficient to help them
persevere through the darkness of their own
nighttime when the voice of God had been silent.
And His grace would be sufficient to help them
enter the challenging days of parenthood, one day at
a time . . . one snapshot at a time . . . one challenge
at a time.
Put their three names together and you have this
statement: God remembered His promise . . . and
His grace was just enough.
Oh, and by the way, no one will be able to miss
the fact that the Messiah – and the Messiah’s
forerunner – these cousins, Jesus and John – are both
– in their own unique way . . . nothing less than
i Warren W. Wiersbe, Luke: Be Compassionate (Victor Books, 1988), p. 9
ii R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Augsburg Publishing House, 1946), p. 37
iii R. Kent Hughes, Luke, Volume 1 (Crossway Books, 1998), p. 19
iv Hughes, p. 20
vi William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 10
vii John Phillips, Exploring the Gospel of Luke (Kregel, 2005), p. 61
viii S. Pearce Carey, William Carey (The Wakeman Trust, 1923), p. 288, 291
ix Phillips, p. 60
Source: A sermon preached on 12/04/2011 by Stephen Davey.
- One married woman who couldn’t get pregnant
would be told that she would be.
- Her unmarried cousin who shouldn’t be pregnant
will be told that she is about to be.
© Copyright 2011 Stephen Davey. All rights reserved.
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