The Tender Mercy of God

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The Gospel according to Luke

Date: July 21, 2019

Speaker: Jeff Breeding

Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Scripture: Luke 1:57–1:80

The Tender Mercy of God

You can think of our passage today like a rich tapestry of Scriptural truth. I’m sure you’ve seen a tapestry before – those magnificent fabric constructions that are woven together with thousands of colorful strands, all combining to give you one stunning picture. Our passage is a bit like that – it’s a Scriptural tapestry that weaves together numerous truths into one glorious picture. You may have picked up on this as we read because, quite honestly, it’s hard to miss. Here in these verses, Luke brings together material from all across the OT. There are references to David and to Abraham, two of the most important figures in Israel’s history. There are catchwords like covenant, salvation, promise, and forgiveness. There are titles such as horn of salvation and prophet of the Most High. And there are references or allusions to no less than 9 OT books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 2 Samuel, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi – and I’m almost definitely missing others. All of that to say, this passage is rich, like a Scriptural tapestry, woven together with so many threads of history and truth.

And that means, on one level, we’re not going to unravel all the fascinating threads running through this text. It is simply too rich to cover every single insight. But, on the other hand, that’s actually ok because as with an actual tapestry, the purpose of such a wonderful construction is not so much all the individual threads, but the unified picture that all the pieces produce together.

And here in our passage, that unified picture has to do with the mercy of God. From beginning to end, the threads of this text combine to highlight God’s mercy. You can see this in the passage. The text basically has three sections – vv57-66, vv67-75, and then vv76-80. And there is one thread that runs through each of those sections – mercy. Notice it with me – v58, the people hear of the Lord’s great mercy; v72, God shows mercy as he promised the fathers; and then v78, tying it all together, the tender mercy of our God. Three sections woven together with numerous threads of truth, but all united in one grand picture of the mercy of God.

And so, as you might expect, that is the theme that will help us as we go through the text. I’d like to draw your attention this morning to three acts of God, one from each section, but most importantly, each one flowing from God’s mercy for his people. #1 – in his mercy, God faithfully keeps his Word. #2 – in his mercy, God faithfully provides a Redeemer. And #3 – in his mercy, God faithfully calls us to Christ. Let’s consider this rich tapestry of truth, beginning in vv57-66: In his mercy, God faithfully keeps his Word.

 

In His Mercy, God Faithfully Keeps His Word

We mentioned at the outset that this passage recounts Zechariah’s song of praise to God, but before we get to that song, we need to see the reason why Zechariah can sing. And that’s what Luke gives us in this opening scene. You’ll remember Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, received a promise from God. They would have a son, whom they were to name John. This all sounded great, except for the fact that Elizabeth was barren and Zechariah was old. And so, you’ll remember, Zechariah struggled to believe God. On some level, he doubted God’s word, and in response, God struck Zechariah mute for the duration of the pregnancy. All of that took place at the opening of chapter 1, and now here in vv57-66, we finally come to the resolution.

And that resolution is remarkable, even if Luke reports it in a rather matter-of-fact way. Notice v57 – “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” Don’t let the brevity fool you. Here we find the merciful God of heaven doing exactly what he said he would do. Despite Elizabeth’s barrenness, despite the couple’s old age, despite all the unlikely circumstances – God has done precisely what he promised. He has kept his Word.

But God’s not finished making his point. He makes it again in v58, this time from a different perspective. Notice v58 – “And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.” Now, do you remember what Gabriel said to Zechariah way back in v14 of chapter 1? Gabriel said, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” What do we have here in v58? We have many people rejoicing at John’s birth. Do you see it? Again, God is saying to his people – to Elizabeth, to Zechariah, to you and to me – God is saying, “My word is certain. I always keep my promises.”

You know, in a world full of broken promises, this is a reminder we cannot hear often enough. What God says is as good as done – it cannot fail. And his promises kept in the past are the assurance of his promises kept in the future. This is mercy, brothers and sisters. How kind of God this morning, right from the start, to use two little verses – 57 & 58 – to say to each us, “I’ll always keep my Word, and therefore, you can trust me.” No circumstance, no hardship, no seemingly immovable obstacle – nothing will stand between God and the fulfillment of what he has spoken. If faith feeds on the word of God, then what better nourishment can there be than this simple but glorious truth – that God, without fail, will always keep his word, and therefore, we can trust him.

But there’s another point about God’s word that we need to note in this opening scene, and it is connected with Zechariah’s faith. In v59, we see that everyone assumes the boy’s name will be Zechariah because that’s what you do in Israel – you name the son after his father. But in v60, Elizabeth breaks custom. She has apparently communicated with Zechariah about Gabriel’s message, and she says the child’s name shall be John.

But that’s when the confusion kicks in. V61, no one else in the family is named John, so why are we breaking family tradition? Confusion sets in, so v62, they turn to Zechariah, who cannot speak, mind you, and very likely also cannot hear, considering the fact that they have to make signs to him. They turn to Zechariah, thinking surely Zechariah will set things straight.

Now, remember the context. When Zechariah first heard God’s word through Gabriel, he didn’t believe. He questioned God, and for that, God struck him mute. For nine months, Zechariah has had to live with his unbelieving response to what God said. For nine months, he’s had to face, every day, the evidence of his unbelief. And now, silent Zechariah is asked, “What is the boy’s name?”

And in v63, Zechariah answers. Notice his firm, decisive response, v63 – “And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they all wondered.” What a change. There’s no doubt from Zechariah at this point. He says, “His name is John,” because the question has been settled for nine months. Zechariah has gone from doubting God’s word to now obeying God’s word. Brothers and sisters, Zechariah’s unbelief was not the end of the story. God has used this entire situation to change Zechariah and to bring him to humble submission.

And in fact, Luke makes it clear that God is the one at work here. V64, immediately Zechariah’s speech returns, and what’s the first thing he says? He blesses God. He praises God’s name. And this, in turn, gets everyone’s attention. Notice v65 – “And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea.”In Luke’s Gospel, fear often indicates that God is at work. And that is the sense here in v65. Everyone recognizes that God is among them. This is no ordinary child. This has been no ordinary nine months for Zechariah. This is God’s power, fulfilling his word, just as he promised.

Now, I want to be clear, brothers and sisters – the primary takeaway of this section is the faithfulness of God, and I hope you’ve been encouraged by that truth. But I also think we should be encouraged by what has happened here in Zechariah’s life. I mean, aren’t you glad that Zechariah’s initial unbelief was not the end of the story for him? Aren’t you glad that in his mercy, God used this entire process to bring Zechariah to the point where he did have confidence in God’s word, where he did submit himself fully to what God had said? Those nine months were God’s discipline on Zechariah, and yet, God has used it for his good. God didn’t waste the silent months, did he? God didn’t give up on Zechariah. Instead, he taught Zechariah to trust him, to submit him in faith.

This is how God works, brothers and sisters. This side of the new creation, we’ll always have unbelief mingled with faith, and yet, God doesn’t leave us there. God will use any means necessary, including discipline, but whatever God does, it is for our good. Whatever God does, it is to bring us to the best place in this life, and that is submission to his Word.

We should be encouraged, brothers and sisters, that God always keeps his Word. But we should also be encouraged as we witness Zechariah move from doubt to belief. We should be encouraged because it reminds us that the faithful God doesn’t waste anything, and that even his discipline, even adversity, is designed by his merciful hand to do us good.

 

In His Mercy, God Faithfully Provides a Redeemer

That’s the first merciful act of God here in our passage – God always keeps his Word. The second act takes us into Zechariah’s song, specifically vv67-75. In his mercy, God faithfully provides a Redeemer. You’ll note in v67 that Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, so his song is both praise and prophecy. Again, there are so many threads of redemptive history running through these verses, but we can find the overarching theme right away in v68. Notice this opening line in Zechariah’s song, v68 – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Right away, you can see the theme of Zechariah’s praise. The theme is redemption – God’s work to deliver his people, to bring them out of bondage and bring them into the saving presence of God.

In fact, notice in v68 where Zechariah says God has visited his people. This is one of those threads that stretches back to the OT. The idea of God visiting his people comes from the exodus, when God brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt, when God saved them by his own mighty hand. And Zechariah understands that something like the exodus but also greater than the exodus is happening now. John’s birth signals that the time of deliverance is at hand – not because John is the redeemer, but because John is the forerunner, the one who prepares the way for the Lord to come. Deliverance is coming, Zechariah sings.

But just to drive this home a bit more, look down at v71, where Zechariah makes this very clear, v71 – “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Again, this is language that recalls Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Psalm 106, in fact – God rebuked the Red Sea, the psalmist says, and saved his people from the hand of the foe and redeemed them from the power of the enemy. Zechariah understands that salvation has dawned. The time of deliverance is at hand. A new and greater exodus is about to occur, and that’s why Zechariah sings. His theme is redemption.

But Zechariah is not finished. As he continues, we also see that this redemption is personal. Notice v69 – “and he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” Here is another OT thread that gets our attention. That phrase horn of salvation is an image of strength. Think of a mighty bull with sharp horns that is able to drive off any danger. That’s the idea here in v69 – a strong warrior, able to fight and protect and deliver.

But you’ll notice this horn is then linked with King David. In fact, David himself used this same phrase in one of his songs, Psalm 18. And that, brothers and sisters, is really the key. Zechariah is speaking here of the Messiah, the promised Son of David who would be mighty to save. Zechariah understands that redemption is not merely an idea or a thing that God gives to his people. Redemption is personal. It comes through a Redeemer, even the Messiah himself, the promised Son of David.

Note what is happening here. John the Baptist has just been born, and already, it is clear what God is doing. Already, Zechariah can see where this is going. Messiah is coming, and he comes to redeem the people of God.

Still, Zechariah has more to sing. His theme is redemption, that redemption is personal, but also this redemption is rooted in past promises. Look again at v70, where Zechariah connects the present with the past, v70 – “as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” This is rather stunning. Zechariah understands that God’s present work of raising up a Redeemer is fundamentally rooted in God’s past promises. Or, to say it another way, the Messiah whom we know as Jesus Christ – he is the culmination of everything God said and did in the OT.

In fact, notice where Zechariah goes in vv72-73. He goes to the Patriarch of Israel, the man of faith – Abraham himself, v72 – “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.” Zechariah’s point is that the Redeemer will fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham. Remember Genesis 12, God promised to bless Abraham, and through Abraham to bless all the nations of the earth. How is that covenant going to be fulfilled? Through the Messiah, Zechariah says. That is what God is doing. He is fulfilling his past promises in the present through the work of a Redeemer.

I want to pause here for just a moment and make a clarifying comment about how the OT and NT relate to one another. This is a massive issue, and we’re not going to solve it here. But I do hope this adds some clarity. On the one hand, Zechariah’s song should teach us that there is continuity between God’s past promises in the OT and God’s final provision in the NT. There is continuity, so that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s Word to Abraham and to David and to Israel. Or, to say it even more sharply, Christ himself is the faithful Israel of God. You know, in the OT, God called Israel his son, and he expected Israel to be faithful to him. What happened time and time again throughout the OT? Israel was unfaithful. And so, Christ comes, and he stands where Israel failed. Christ is the faithful Israel of God. He is the One in whom all those OT promises find their yes and amen. When we connect OT and NT, we need to recognize there is some level of continuity.

But on the other hand, we need to also recognize there is some level of discontinuity as well. Listen, what God is doing here in Luke 1 is truly and gloriously new. The coming of the Messiah is the dawning of a new era in redemptive history. The New Covenant established in Christ’s blood – that new covenant is actually and honestly new. The old covenant, including the Law, is fulfilled in Christ, and the new covenant now stands as the epicenter of God’s dealing with the world.

Putting the OT and NT together, what do we have? We have both continuity and discontinuity. What, then, holds those two realities together? The answer is the person and work of Christ. In Christ, the old covenant is fulfilled, and in Christ, the new covenant is established. In Christ, God’s promises find their yes and amen, and in Christ, God’s people are identified and defined through union with him. Any understanding of Scripture that does not put Christ at the center ultimately falls short. In Christ, all things hold together, Paul tells us in Colossians 1, and that includes how we understand redemptive history across the covenants.

I know that doesn’t solve all the questions, but I hope it does provide some clarity. When it comes to understanding OT and NT together, where do we start? Not with the nation of Israel, and not with a theological system, but with Christ himself.

Now, back to Zechariah’s song. The theme is redemption, that redemption is personal and rooted in past promises. One more piece to see, v74-75 – this redemption is purposeful. Notice what Zechariah says, v74 – “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Again, we see redemption connected with deliverance, but what I want us to note here is the purpose. Why is God redeeming a people through the Messiah? So that those people might serve him with lives of godly character that glorify his name. This too is one of those OT threads. Why did God call Israel to himself? So that they would be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests who would lead the nations to know and serve God. Israel failed at that task, but now through the Messiah, God is bringing that purpose to pass. In Christ, God’s people are being called out, made holy, and then sent out into the world to serve God in righteousness.

Brothers and sisters, do you see here your calling as a Christian? You exist as a believer in order to make God known through a life of holiness and devotion to the Lord. This is why the NT epistles put such an emphasis on killing kin and growing in holiness. It’s not so we’ll be better than all those pagans out in the world. No, it’s so we’ll be lights in the darkness, pointing other people to the God who saves.

Listen, one of the reasons I believe our Christians lives are often so anemic is that our perspective is too small. Our focus is too inward. But when we see God’s purpose, like here in v75, our lives as Christians take on an entirely different and much bigger dimension. It’s not just about me and my life and how I can avoid all the bad stuff God doesn’t like. It’s bigger than that. It’s about holiness that points to God. It’s about service, work, and ministry that leads others to see there is Savior who can make unclean sinners like us clean again.

Brothers and sisters, let’s put away those small, anemic visions of what it means to live as Christians, and let’s renew our efforts to live with this grand, God-sized purpose! Reading God’s Word, gathering with the church, killing sin, growing in godliness, sharing the gospel, working heartily as unto the Lord – none of those are small things, and in the end, they’re not even ultimately about us. There’s some freedom in that, do you see it? It’s not about us. It’s about putting God on display in lives of holiness and righteousness. 

This is why we’ve been redeemed, brothers and sisters – so that God’s glory might shine out in the darkness through us. In his mercy, God faithfully provides a Redeemer, so by his grace let’s resolve today to live in step with this glorious purpose.

 

In His Mercy, God Faithfully Calls His People to Christ

We’ve seen the first two merciful acts of God, and now we come to the third, which is really a summation of all that we have said. Vv76-80 – in his mercy, God faithfully calls his people to Christ. Looking at Zechariah’s song, you’ll notice a shift in v76. Zechariah goes from praise to prophecy, as he looks forward to the ministry of his son, John the Baptist. You can see John’s role very clearly there in v76 – “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” It is striking that Zechariah has waited this long to mention his son. But it is fitting as well, isn’t it? Above all else, what will John do? He will point people to the Messiah. He will prepare the way.

And in v77, Zechariah clarifies how, exactly, John will prepare the way, v77 – “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” As a prophet, this is what John will do. He will proclaim God’s word, and his preaching will signal that salvation is coming. That’s the knowledge in view here. Salvation is coming, and it will entail the forgiveness of sins. Now, as we’ll see in a few weeks, this knowledge of salvation also includes a clear call to repentance. Forgiveness is at hand, and therefore, people should repent. That’s how John prepares the way – by preaching a message of repentance – and that is what his father, Zechariah, anticipates now in this prophetic announcement.

But then in v78, Zechariah’s focus shifts again. He moves from John back again to the Messiah. Notice vv78 & 79 – “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” For one last time, we see the thread that ties this entire tapestry together – the tender mercy of our God, as Zechariah says. That phrase implies a kind of mercy that wells up from deep within a person, down in depth of the soul – a kind of mercy that is warm and rich, mercy that is deeply moved by the needs of others. That’s what God’s mercy is like for his people. He doesn’t have to conjure up feelings of mercy. He is merciful, and that mercy is tender towards his children. Again, over all the events of this opening chapter, Zechariah is telling us, “Look at the wonderfully rich mercy of God for his people! All of this,” Zechariah says, “is mercy.”

And that mercy rescues God’s people from darkness and leads them, v79, into the way of peace. If you think about it, ever since the Garden of Eden, God’s good creation has been without peace. There is strife between humanity and God, there is futility in the creation, and there is heartache and hardship in each of us. Since Eden, we’ve been without peace.

But very soon, Zechariah says, that warfare will be over, and there will be peace again, just as God intended. It’s an image of salvation that closes Zechariah’s song. That’s what God is doing here in Luke 1. He is preparing to redeem his people and bring them into his peace once more.

But there’s a phrase in v78 that I want to close with this morning. In v78, Zechariah speaks of the sunrise visiting us from on high. What is this sunrise? Not surprisingly, the answer comes from the OT, Malachi 4 to be exact. Now, Malachi 4 also speaks of a prophet like Elijah who will preach repentance to prepare the way for the Lord. John the Baptist’s ministry is predicted there in Malachi 4.

But in that same chapter, the prophet Malachi also speaks of the sun of righteousness rising over God’s people, and when that sun rises, it means salvation for the people of God. When that sun rises, God’s people will be delivered from the day of God’s judgment.

Now, look back to Luke 1, and follow the progression. Remember Malachi 4 anticipated a prophet like Elijah and the sunrise of salvation. Follow the progression here in Luke 1 – v76, a prophet of God Most High who will prepare the way of the Lord; v77, the knowledge of salvation for God’s people; then v78, the sunrise that visits God’s people from on high. Prophet-preparation-sunrise – Zechariah is speaking here of the Messiah. The sunrise of God’s salvation is the Messiah himself, the Lord Jesus Christ. When he comes, he will lead God’s people into the way of peace by making peace himself on the cross. When Messiah comes, he will dispel the darkness because he is the Light of the World. And when Messiah comes, he will chase away the shadow of death by conquering death in his own resurrection. Zechariah speaks better than he knows. This is a prophecy, you remember? Zechariah anticipates the work of Christ. All these threads, like this one from Malachi 4, they’re all coming together in this beautiful tapestry of God’s salvation.

Brothers and sisters, it is absolutely fitting that here in the song that follows John’s birth, all the attention is really on the Messiah. Isn’t that fitting? From the beginning, this has been John’s role – to point God’s people to the Greater One to Come. If you don’t know Christ this morning, then God’s Word is calling you to turn from your sin and trust that salvation is found in Christ alone. It’s the best news in the world – that forgiveness of sins is provided for sinners like us through the blood of Jesus Christ. Won’t you trust him today? Make today the day that you bow before God, confessing your sin and your inability to save yourself, and trusting that only Christ can redeem you from your sin.

If you are trusting in Christ today, my sincere prayer is that this beautiful tapestry of Scriptural truth has deepened your love for Christ, and that in response, you are renewed in your desire to live for him. Listen, brothers and sisters, I’ve barely scratched the surface in this text. There’s so much richness left to see, so much glory that remains to satisfy our souls. Won’t you go to God’s Word yourself, and read and taste that he is good? And then, having tasted that the Lord is good, won’t you go out into the world and use your life to help others see that the sunrise of God’s salvation has come, and his name is Jesus Christ?

May God be praised, brothers and sisters, for he has visited and redeemed his people.