THE SILENCE IS BROKEN (1): HOW GOD USES NOBODIES
Introduction – Luke 1:5: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” It is a small phrase, but it is fraught with meaning. These were dark days in Israel. They had been under Roman bondage for more than 60 years. Israel dreamed of deliverance, but there was no indication things would change any time soon.
God spoke uniquely to Israel as His chosen people, but now God had gone silent for more than 400 years. Hope was in short supply. But all was about to change. Appearances to the contrary, God, as always, was right on time – about to enter human history in a manner no one would have ever imagined. The silence was about to be broken. Luke records in verse 78: “the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” But the whole manner of the sunrise is unprecedented and unanticipated. It involves people and methods that were unimaginable to the religious elite. God’s ways are not our ways.
The result in first century Israel was that many individually found their Messiah and Lord and Savior, but the nation as a whole missed Him. They rejected and killed their deliverer – their Messiah. That did nothing to thwart God’s ultimate plan, but it did spell condemnation for those who missed Him. Luke wrote this gospel so Theophilus, and we as well, not miss God’s redemptive plan. It teaches us about God’s ways and God’s message. We start with Zechariah, through whom God broke the silence. He exemplifies the kind of person God uses in some remarkable and startling ways.
I. He was Forgettable
That’s an interesting start, isn’t it? We see it right away in verse 5: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” This was Herod’s time, not Zechariah’s. Herod made the headlines. No one would have dreamed that Zechariah was more important than Herod – but he was! Herod the Great died shortly after Jesus was born, but his legacy cast a giant shadow over 100 plus years of Jewish history from the time he gained power in 37 BC until Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. Herod is mentioned only twice in Scripture (here and in Matt 2) – other Herods (Antipas, Agrippa, Philip and Archelaus) are his sons – but Herod dominated this era. His father gained a political appointment from Julius Caesar to rule Palestine. Herod was politically astute and curried favor with Caesar Augustus who named him king of Judea in 37 BC. He consolidated military power by ruthlessly killing the families of previous rulers, drove all enemies out of Palestine and became, under Rome, an absolute monarch. However, Herod was an Idumean -- a descendant of Esau. His Jewish constituency, sons of Jacob, hated being ruled by a son of Esau.
Herod, therefore, was desperate to ingratiate himself to the Jews. He married Mariamne, a nice Jewish girl from a prestigious Jewish family. A prodigious builder, he curried favor with public projects all over Palestine – building whole cities, like Caesarea Maritime, Herodium and others. He built hippodromes and sporting arenas, and public buildings, many of which remain to this day. But, aside from two palaces for himself, the pinnacle of his building was the temple in Jerusalem finished long after his death. It was known as Herod’s temple, renowned for its beauty. It had been 46 years in building during Christ’s ministry with 14 yet to go.
But Herod had a dark side. He started well, but became increasingly ruthless, and merciless. Paranoia gave way to insanity. He murdered his own beloved wife in response to false rumors that she had been unfaithful, her brother, her mother, and 3 of his own sons. No wonder upon hearing of someone “born King of the Jews” (Mt 2:2), he ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. He ordered the killing of several prominent Jews at the time of his death to insure mourning in Jerusalem. Herod was the headline maker.
But when God spoke after 400 years, it was not to Herod – nor was it to the corrupt Roman appointed high priest, Annas. God by-passed the obvious and chose a little-known and suspect priest – suspect because he and his wife had no children, usually taken as a sign of divine displeasure. They didn’t even live in Jerusalem. But it was to this humble, country priest that God broke His silence. Completely forgettable. A nobody. Except – that’s who God chose. He chose a nobody – because God uses nobodies!
Zechariah’s name means “God remembers” and Elizabeth means “His oath.” They were common names. But it was no accident that God chose a couple whose combined names mean “God remembers His oath.” Twice a year Zechariah, made his way from the Judean hills, to Jerusalem for a week of priestly duty. But he was just one of 20,000 other priests. He was leader of nothing -- a nobody. Forgotten by the world – but remembered by God. God remembers faithful people, and chose to use forgotten Zechariah to get things moving again. Aren’t you glad God uses nobodies?!
Now, let’s pay a visit to the village of Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee in late AD 25. Several fishing vessels come ashore and the men begin to unload their catch. They reek of fish and sweat and sea water. The language is a little salty as well. They are bringing to market the catch of the day, drying their nets on nearby rocks, thinking no further than doing the same thing next day. They expect nothing more out of life – ever. I say, See those 4? Over the next 40 years, those guys are going to turn the Roman empire on its ear. Their activities are going to reach the attention of the emperor himself and the faith they help establish is going to far outlive the Roman empire. Simon, Andrew, James and John are going to change the world. You’d have replied, “You’re crazy! Are you kidding me? Those guys? It’s not possible. They are nobodies!” Exactly – nobodies – and therefore perfect for the Master’s use.
God used nobodies all the way through Scripture? Abraham was a Gentile nobody living a comfortable upper middle class life in Ur – until God chose him and made promises to him like He made to no one else in history. Abraham’s part? Father a child at age 100, when he was too old so God got the glory. God chose a nobody to kick it all off and made him into somebody – a father of nations.
When God sent Samuel to anoint a new king for Israel from Jesse’s family, Samuel got enamored with the looks the oldest brother, but God reminded him in I Samuel 16: 7 “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” God chose David, the youngest and least likely to succeed in his own family just to look at the boys. God takes nobodies and slays giants with them.
There were a lot of nobodies in God’s arsenal. Jacob was a 77-year-old momma’s boy, a cheat and liar, when God chose him, changed his name to Israel and named a nation after him. Gideon was shaking with fear, and God made him one of the great military commanders in history. Mary was a forgettable teen-ager when she bore the Messiah. Matthew was a hated tax collector; Jonah was bitter runaway; Simon was a political radical; Balaam was an unbeliever, and his donkey was – well he was a donkey. Nobodies all – and God used them every one. Aren’t you glad God uses nobodies?
Years ago there was a cook in Newmarket, England who loved to study the Bible. But she taught a young colleague who later wrote, "I learned my theology, from which I have never swerved, from an old woman who was a cook in the house where I was an usher. She could talk about the things of God. I learned more from her instruction from anybody I ever met with since." Charles H. Spurgeon, history’s greatest preach since Paul, learned his theology from Mrs. King – a nobody in God’s powerful arsenal. God really can’t use somebodies – but I’m thankful he uses nobodies, aren’t you?
Moses tried to save Israel on his own – ended up 40 years herding sheep before God called him. He spent 40 years thinking he was somebody, 40 years learning that he was nobody and then 40 years seeing what God can do with a nobody. Aren’t you glad God uses nobodies?
I’m glad God uses nobodies. Who would have ever thought that God would take a divorced, 60-year-old, retired nobody of a businessman and sent him to Eaton, CO to help shepherd this little group of people because they were praying for a Bible teacher? Who would have thought? It’s only because God uses nobodies. And He wants to use you, too – maybe big; maybe small. Doesn’t matter. If you’re nobody, you’re perfect. God broke 400 years of silence through a nobody priest – and He will use you too – to break the silence for someone.
II. He was Faithful
Verses 6-7: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” God calls Zechariah and Elizabeth righteous and blameless. He had a reason for that. Everyone thought their barrenness a sign of God’s displeasure. The opposite was true. God wanted to be glorified in their faithfulness.
Blameless! Sinlessly perfect? Of course not. So how can a holy God call them blameless? The answer is they were blameless in heart – offering by faith offerings for their sin. They knew they fell short of the moral law of God, so they faithfully obeyed God’s sacrificial law that looked ahead to the lamb of God who was coming. And on the basis of their faith, they were forgiven, declared righteous and blameless – just as we can be – only their faith anticipated a Christ they didn’t know; ours looks back at Christ!
Zechariah and Elizabeth had hearts of faith which made them useful to God. Zechariah knew Genesis 15:6 where God said of Abraham, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” How was Abraham declared righteous? By faith. How was Zechariah declared righteous? By faith. How are we declared righteous? By faith. Rom 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It has never been any different. We are justified by faith alone. But once justified, that faith displays itself by how we live.
How are we saved? Eph 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved the moment we accept God’s gift of grace by faith and ask Christ into our lives. Nothing more; nothing less. We trade our sin for His gift – by faith. That’s it. But all too often we stop at verse 9. Paul did not stop there. The Holy Spirit did not stop there. They go on to verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” When God saves us, He recreates us in Christ Jesus for good works. This is how God takes faithful nobodies and makes us into somebodies. If there are no works, there is no salvation. Not because the works save us, but because they show the faith is real. Out of that heart of faithful response, God carves a glorious tribute to Himself – a tribute consisting of how we live!
One of God’s forgotten nobodies was born in a poor English village in 1761. A skin affliction prevented outdoor work, so he apprenticed as a cobbler. He did poorly so opened a school which also did not go well. He got into an unhappy marriage, went bald from an exotic disease and saw his baby daughter die of the same disease. Called to pastor a small church, he had trouble getting ordained because of his boring sermons. But he got a vision for overseas evangelism. His idea was mocked at a denominational meeting. He was called “a miserable enthusiast”, and the man who had baptized him told him, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” So, he wrote a book: An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathens in which the Religious State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of Former Undertakings, and the Practicability of Further Undertakings, are Considered. Not a best-selling title, but it led to the formation of the world’s first missionary society. William Carey was sent to India, inaugurating the modern era of missions. A forgotten but faithful nobody who God turned into the Father of Modern Missions. Beloved, it’s not talent that counts – it’s faithfulness.
III. He was Fearful
V 8: “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 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. When Zechariah was chosen by lot to burn incense, it was no accident. With 20,000 priests in his day, this was a privilege that many never got, and no one got it more than once. To enter the Holy Place for morning or evening sacrifice and burn incense was the pinnacle of a priestly career.
Joyfully, Zechariah entered the Holy Place for his one and only time. He prayed and then prepared to leave. But suddenly, the impossible happened. Through the smoke of the burning incense, Zechariah became aware of another presence standing at the side of the altar. The word translated “troubled” speaks of acute emotional distress. Fear overtook him. He was scared out of his wits. No doubt Zechariah knew he was in a divine presence. His fearful reaction was common to everyone in the Bible who meets a divine presence, whether an angel or some manifestation of God.
The truth is, we all have fear – usually either the fear of man or the fear of God. We need the fear of the Lord to help us not minimize the fear of men. Beloved, we need not fear the service that God has planned for us. He has prepared good works for us that take full advantage of our individual talents, personality, giftedness and personal inclinations. Serving God will, in the end, delight us. That’s just the way it works. Zechariah is about to find that out – and so will we.
IV. He was Favored
Verse 13, “But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, (then here comes the bombshell) 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.” Zechariah’s response must have been, My wife is going to have a what?! Are you kidding me? My wife is 60 years old. Zechariah was astounded, and for good reason.
Question: what prayer has been heard? Perhaps the angel is responding to this couple’s age-old prayer for a son and saying, Your prayer has been heard and you’re going to have a baby. But I think more is in view here. Verse 7 says they were advanced in years suggesting that they were beyond the age of childbearing. It is likely that Zechariah and Elizabeth had long ago accommodated themselves to a No answer. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Zechariah would have been using his one and only time to offer incense to pray for a personal need. Far more likely that he was echoing the prayer of the whole nation for a deliverer, for Messiah. So, Zechariah is getting two-for one! God answers his immediate prayer for national blessing in the most spectacular fashion by indicating that not only is the Lord coming (verse 17), but he’ll be announced by Zechariah’s son! How spectacular is that? Two for the price of one. Isn’t it interesting that once in awhile – not often, but once in awhile God answers our prayers in a spectacular way. That’s when we know that our timing has lined up with His and it is wonderful.
Zechariah is getting his boy – who will bring joy and gladness to many. And God chooses his name. He will be called John – “God has been gracious” or “God has shown favor”. God uses favored people. And guess what? Every single believer is a favored person. Every single one. Listen to Romans 12: 6 “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” What that verse is teaching is that every believer has been gifted to serve. We all are favored by – literally graced by God. The issue is, will we gift Him back by using His gifts to serve? That’s what true believers do. That’s who God uses. Nobody to this world; highly favored to God.
Conc -- One man had absolutely run out of gift ideas for his mother-in-law, so for her birthday he got her a large plot in an expensive cemetery. Next birthday he didn’t buy her anything and she really let him have it. When he could get a word in edgewise he said, “What are you complaining about? You still haven’t used the present I got you last year.” I’m afraid many of us are in that boat with our wonderful Lord. We complain and wonder and grouse that He is not delivering what we want. Meantime, the gift with which He has blessed us for service goes unwanted, unused and unappreciated. Yet that is the very means by which He is turning nobodies into productive, happily engaged and highly blessed somebodies. We may be nobodies, and we may be fearful, but we are also highly favored. Let’s return the favor by being faithful -- using His gifting for His glory. Let’s pray.