December 1, 2013

God's Miraculous Plan of Salvation - Dec 1, 2013

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If you’ve ever seen a fireworks display put on by a large city you know how it works. The pyrotechnics that begin the show don’t come close to matching those that erupt at the finally. But, if you watch those early explosions closely you’ll be able to gauge how big the finally will be. The colors, the size of the blasts, the shapes of the blasts, and the height of the detonations—all foreshadow what’s coming.

The same is true of the events preceding the birth of Jesus Christ. The birth of Christ was an unprecedented event. God had never been human before. When the Son of God was born in a stable in the outskirts of Bethlehem, it was a miracle to rival all miracles.

And to prepare the world for the birth of its Savior, God arranged a succession of lesser miraculous to occur. These miraculous events have been recorded for us in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This year, as we go about making all of our outward preparations to celebrate Christmas, we’ll also pause to prepare our hearts as well by reading about the miracles that preceded our Savior’s birth.

Each of the miracles we’ll be examining is marked by the appearance of an angel of God. These messengers were sent from heaven to give people details about how God was carrying out his plan to save mankind from sin and hell.

Today’s angel appears to an old priest named Zacharias.

Luke 1:5-12 (NASB)

    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.
    7   But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.
    8   Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division,
    9   according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
  10   And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering.
  11   And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.
  12   Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him.
We’ll pause there for now.

Luke has just given us the background on which to see a miracle take place. The time is around 6 B.C. King Herod is reigning. The place is Judea. Jerusalem to be exact, where the temple of the Lord stood.

Luke introduces two characters in this drama—Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. A priest and his wife. Luke describes these people as “righteous in the sight of God”. That is to say, they were true followers of the God of the Bible. They trusted in him and ordered their lives according to his word as well, as any sinful human couple can.

Interestingly, Luke includes the fact that they had no children because Elizabeth was unable to bear children. And while there might have been hope for children earlier in their lives, now that hope was gone—for they were now well beyond their childbearing years.

Have you figured out what miracle God is about to do? Luke is pretty much telegraphing what’s going to happen. And in a way, so is God. You can almost imagine God’s train of thought…

“Hmm. I’m going to need someone to get the people ready to meet their Savior. I know!  I’ll have this someone born to parents who couldn’t have a child without a miracle happening. That’ll get the people’s attention. That’ll help them see MY hand is at work here. That’ll warm prepare them for the even more miraculous birth of my Son.”
After painting the background, Luke sets out the scene for Zacharias’ meeting with one of God’s angels.

Luke says that Zacharias was part of the priestly division of Abijah. There were a lot of things to take care of at the Lord’s temple. People came to worship and offer sacrifices to God on a daily basis. So, a lot of priests were needed. The different divisions of priests were essentially “worship teams” who took turns serving at the Lord’s temple.

One of the great honors for a priest was to be selected as the one who got to go into the Holy Place of the temple to burn incense to the Lord. Zacharias was chosen at random for this task. This was a pretty exciting thing for Zacharias. This might happen once in a priest’s life.

And so up the stairs he went, bearing the incense and the fire, and in through the door of the temple. This wasn’t a public event. Only priests were allowed into the temple proper. Everyone else had to wait outside. And when the incense was offered, only the selected priest was there. It must have been quite a sobering and awe inspiring experience for Zacharias.

And though he did not know it, Zacharias had already been touched by the miracle working hand of God. It wasn’t mere luck which had caused Zacharias to be born into the family of Aaron, the only family allowed to be priests in Israel. It hadn’t been mere chance which had brought the division of Abijah to serve during this week of the year. It wasn’t just the “luck of the draw” that caused Zacharias to be chosen at random to offer incense on this day. The Lord had wanted Zacharias here, in this empty room, on this day. He had an important message to give him.

In the book of Psalms David wrote…

“...all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalms 139:16 NIV).

God did not create the universe just to yield it up to time and chance. He is active in his creation. With purpose and a plan he drops opportunities into our lives and moves us from one place to another. In the same way that God brought Zacharias to that altar of incense, he has also brought us to this place of worship today. Through his guiding of our lives, and through his powerful Word, the Lord intends to bless and effect us.
So much for the little miracles of time and place in the life of Zacharias. Let’s get to the bigger, more obvious miracles. Verse 11…

Luke 1:11-13 (NASB)

  11   And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.
  12   Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him.
  13   But 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.
  14   “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
  15   “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.
  16   “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.
  17   “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
If you were to ask Zacharias if he had ever experienced a miracle, he’d probably mention that one time when he got a visit from one of the Lord’s angels. But there’s more miracles going on here than just that. When the angel opened his mouth to speak, a flood of prophecies came out. Prophesies that would later come true.

First of all, his old wife was going to have a child! The angel said that his prayer had been heard and would soon be answered with a resounding, “Yes.” How long ago had Zacharias prayed for that blessing? We have no way of knowing. But we can guess it wasn’t just yesterday! We ought to remember the flabbergasted Zacharias when we feel like God isn’t listening to our prayers. He marks each and every request from his followers. And he answers in his own time, according to his own plan, and in the way that his supreme wisdom deems best.

Not only would Zacharias have a son of his own, the angel told him that his son would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” right from his beginning. This was a miracle in itself. The Spirit of God would be with this child! Endowed with God’s power and presence, he was to serve the Lord.

And this child would perform miracles of his own. He would “turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.” Human beings are born into this world as sinful creatures. Creatures infected with sin, whose hearts are set against their creator. But John would turn sinners back to God through the stern preaching of God’s Law, and the joyful preaching of God’s forgiveness which comes through the Christ.

And while many prophets of the Lord had performed this task through Israel’s long history, John would be special. He was to be the “forerunner” of the Savior. He would get the people ready for the Lord’s arrival in the flesh.
In years to come, people would look back on all these prophesies and see that they came to pass just as the angel had said. And this fact would strengthen their trust in the God of their salvation.

Today, this story moves OUR hearts to trust more fully in God’s plan of salvation. What God says, he does! Through prophecy and fulfillment in the past, God encourages us to trust him to keep his promises about our future. Through his faithfulness he penetrates our hearts and changes the way we look at the world. If he says something is sinful and damaging, we ought to believe him. If he says that our sins have been forgiven through the sacrifice of his Son, we ought to believe him.

But the hearts of mankind are hard and unfeeling when it comes to spiritual truth. And that much is seen here in Zacharias. For in the face of all these joyful and miraculous promises, Zacharias could only see the impossible. Verse 18…

Luke 1:18-20 (NASB)

  18   Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
  19   The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
  20   “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
There he stood, chosen to offer the incense at the Lord’s temple for what would probably been the only time in his life. There before him stood an angel of God, again, for what would probably be the only time in his earthly life. God promised him that he would have a son in his old age. Moreover, that son would be a servant of God and would precede the Savior’s entrance into the world. And yet among all these miraculous promises Zacharias seizes on one thing: the physical impossibility of his barren wife conceiving and giving birth to a child.

In the presence of God’s promises, doubt is an ugly thing.

I’m not sure if angels feel distain for human doubt. But you can at least sense a tone of unbelieving rebuke in the angel’s response to Zacharias.

“I’m sorry, maybe you don’t understand who I am, or who I come from. So let me make it clear. I AM GABRIEL. I spend most of my time next to the throne of GOD. But now I’m here because the GOD OF THE UNIVERSE has dispatched me with a bit of GOOD NEWS for you.”

Perhaps it was at this time that the needle on Zacharias’ “fear meter” started to redline. But it was too late. What was said, was said. And now he would receive a firm, but gentle, rebuke from God’s messenger. He would be unable to speak until the things Gabriel foretold had taken place.
Did you see what happened to God’s plan when Zacharias threw his “doubt” grenade? Nothing.

God had promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Savior to erase the fate their sins had attached to them. But God wasn’t about to back out on his promise because of some doubting Judean priest. Like Gabriel said, all these things would be “fulfilled in their proper time.”

And we can take a lesson from this. God’s miraculous plan of salvation was not stopped by human doubt, because God’s plan of salvation doesn’t depend on us. It’s a promise God made, and God fulfilled.

And when it comes to our own doubt, God has more than enough power to overcome that ugly wart. When the world causes us to doubt the reliability of the Bible, God says, “Compare what I’ve written to what you see in the world. You’ll see that it matches perfectly.”

When the world causes us to doubt the existence of a God who is active in human history, God says, “Check out all the prophesies about my Son’s birth, life, death, and resurrection from the grave. You’ll see that they’ve all been fulfilled.”

And when the devil himself causes us to wonder if God really forgives our darkest and ugliest sins, God says, “Who you gonna trust? The one who brought sin into the world, or the God who sent his own Son to save you from hell? Are you really forgiven because of what Jesus suffered in your place? You bet you are. That’s what all these miracles I’ve been doing are meant to show you. I’m bigger than your doubt. I’m your Savior. And what I say will be, will be.”
When you see the fireworks display for the first time as a child, there’s nothing quite like it. It dazzles your eyes and opens up a world of wonder in the sky above. And the next year you go out to see it again.

It’s the same with Christmas. We’ve seen in before. We’ve seen the fireworks that come before, and we’ve seen the finally. But don’t let that mute your amazement. Instead, as we move through these days of Advent, let’s think on how God has laid miracle after miracle before our eyes through the Scriptures. And all of them to point us to the miracle forgiveness that comes to us through his Son.

This Christmas, may God bury our all our foolish doubt with the miracle of his forgiving love, laid to rest in Bethlehem’s manger.


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