The Historical Jesus has changed lives

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A long time ago in a land far, far away a baby was born. Today we are going to take a look at the Christmas story. If you’re new to Christianity or if this is your first time ever in church, then you’re probably thinking to yourself, “How on earth does a baby that was born thousands of years ago in a totally different part of the world make a difference in my life?” You’re just trying to make it through the week. You’re just trying not to kill your family over the holidays. How is this going to make a difference in your life? We’re going to start today looking at the first couple of chapters from the book of Luke with a look at this story about Jesus’ birth. I hope today you see what happened thousands of years ago in a land far, far away has an immense impact on your life today. In fact, every human being that’s ever lived, their destiny is decided by this boy born thousands of years ago.

In order to set the story up, we have to find out about his forerunner about the voice that will declare to the world the coming King. We’ll learn a little bit about the birth of John the Baptist today. We’re going to start the story from Luke by looking at who Luke is and who he is writing this book to.

I. Luke was thorough.

One of the things that I want you to see from this story from Luke is that this guy is incredibly thorough. We’re not just using this account from Luke because it shows up at the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas movie. It’s a really, really thorough story that Luke gives us. Right up front he tells us who he’s writing this letter to and why he’s writing this letter.

Luke 1:1-4
Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. 3 Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, 4 so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

This letter was written thousands of years ago by Luke. He wrote it to a very specific person, a guy by the name of Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “friend of God”. It’s a Greek name which means the guy was probably of Greek descent. He’s almost certainly heard some of the stories about Jesus. Perhaps those stories really haven’t taken root in his soul like some of you in this room. So Luke set out to write a letter and he’s really, really thorough in this letter. Some of Luke’s details are still mind blowing and we’re still trying to figure out the evidence that supports the details that Luke gives us. There’s a title that’s associated with Theophilus. In your translation it may say ‘most excellent Theophilus’ or in the New Living Translation it says ‘most Honorable Theophilus.’ Almost everybody agrees this guy was important. This is during the height of the Roman Empire so maybe he is a Roman official and Luke is trying to influence the influential people about Jesus. Theophilus has heard the stories but now Luke doesn’t want him to just hear the stories but to know the stories are true. True to the point that it changed Luke’s life and Jesus could change Theophilus’ life too.

Luke says, “I put a lot of time and a lot of attention into this account. I carefully investigated. Then I wrote a careful account of it so that you can understand what you heard it was all really true. By the way, I heard it directly from the eyewitnesses.” This isn’t secondhand information. Luke is really trying to tell Theophilus that he can’t ignore the guy who says, “I am the resurrection and the life, no one gets to the Father but through me.” You can’t ignore this guy and you also can’t dismiss him like its no big deal. You can’t treat him like a good moral teacher. You can’t call him a prophet when he claims to be God in the flesh. You have to deal with the claims that Jesus makes in this book. Luke goes to extraordinary detail. I hope to show you today how hard Luke works just to try to influence this one guy about King Jesus and the difference that Jesus can make in his life.

Luke is trying to influence the influencers. Over the last couple of years, we’ve tried to be very strategic about our mission’s efforts. We are trying to influence the people who are right now influencing the world or who are going to influence the world. That’s why last year we took a trip to New York City, perhaps the most metropolitan city on the planet and tried to influence that city for King Jesus. That’s why this year we went to Atlanta, Georgia, which is now becoming the second biggest movie producing place in the world. We’re trying to influence the influencers in the movie industry because they’re influencing the world. We try to be very strategic about what we’re doing and influence the people that carry a lot of influence around the world. Today before this service is over I want to ask you to be very strategic and very specific about influencing somebody during the Christmas holidays.

II. Luke was an outsider.

This is an epic story that he’s writing. Like any epic story, it needs a prequel. You need to know who were the main players before the real superhero shows up, King Jesus. Today Luke introduces us to a few people that were really important in this story before Jesus shows up. He’s going to talk to us about John the Baptist’s parent.

Luke 1:5-10
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. 6 Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7 They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old. 8 One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. 9 As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.

Like any good prequel, we’re introduced to some of the main characters in the story. If you were a Jew thousands of years ago, you were expecting God’s promised King, the Rescuer of Israel. Verse five would be exactly what you thought you would read. You hear about King Herod. God’s about to send his Son as the King, a Rescuer for Israel. Certainly he’s going to show up in King Herod’s house right? You learn right up front in verse five, no God doesn’t send his Son to the king. In fact, next week we’ll hear of the most unlikely of all people in Israel that God is going to send his Son through. You may be sitting there thinking to yourself, “Surely if he’s not going to be born to the King then the future King of Israel who is going to be a Rescuer, a Savior, saving people from their sins then he’ll be born into the priest’s line right?” Zechariah and Elizabeth must be his parents, right?  We learn today that they’re not his parents either. Zechariah and Elizabeth will become the parents of God’s fore messenger, his Herald about the future King. These two aren’t the family of God’s Son either.

We do know a few things about this couple. We know that they’re a good godly couple. They’ve done their best their whole life to try to live a life that honors Jesus. They are old. We don’t know how old but you get this Abraham and Sarah kind of sense about Zachariah and Elizabeth. Through no fault of their own they can’t have a baby. Some of you women in this room understand the pain and the difficulty that goes along with wanting to have a child and not be able to conceive. It’s inevitable for people to make stupid statements about your faith or about your lifestyle and that’s why you can’t conceive. However, we read from the Bible today that’s not why. In fact, this was God’s plan all along that Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to have a baby. Zechariah is not just a good and godly man but he has a very public office, which means he hears about it probably regularly that they’re not able to have a child. Can you imagine the shame and the difficulty that this couple has been through over and over and over again wanting to have a baby and can’t conceive?

Here’s what I want you to hear from me church. They are right where God wants them this whole time. They are pouring their heart out to him. They’re saying, “God, I want to have a child. God, this doesn’t make sense to me. God, this isn’t fair.” He has them right where he wants them. They have everything going for them. Zechariah’s comes from the perfect family. He has the perfect pedigree. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a marriage that God blesses. In fact, in Zechariah’s day it wasn’t just acceptable it was expected that if you were a priest you would marry somebody in the family (not a close family member but in order to keep the priest bloodline pure you would marry an extended family member). Elizabeth comes from the elite family in Israel. She comes from the direct descendants of God’s first high priest of Aaron. There is no explanation for this other than God has them right where he wants them. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t seem fair but they’re not able to have a baby.

If you’re struggling in your marriage or if you’re struggling at work right now, you’re doing everything right and it’s still not getting better maybe God has you right where he wants you for this time. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair. Maybe it doesn’t make sense but perhaps God has you right where he wants you right now and it’s for a reason. Like Zechariah, hang on. Don’t give up! Don’t give in! It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you just because things are not getting better right now.

III. Luke was transformed by Jesus.

Let me tell you a little bit about Luke. Some of the stuff that we know about Luke we learn from other books of the Bible. Luke doesn’t tell it about himself but Luke is a guy who’s transformed by Jesus. We know this from Colossians chapter four First Corinthians chapter 10, and several places in the book of Acts. By the way, Luke writes the book of Acts to the same guy for the same reason. Luke is not a Jew. He’s not writing this letter to a Jew. He’s writing this letter to a pretty influential Roman guy who was born Greek. A lot of Luke’s language is distinctly Greek in this letter. We learn from the book of Acts that Luke was introduced to Jesus by the great missionary and great apostle Paul. Luke’s life was so transformed that he leaves home, goes on the road, and becomes Paul’s traveling companion. He probably spends the rest of his life on the road. Luke grew up in a town called Antioch in Syria. Do the math… that makes Luke a Syrian refugee. Everywhere that he goes he’s telling people, “Jesus transformed me and he could transform you too.”

Luke 1:11-20
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. 13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. 14 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,* and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” 19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

New Testament scholar Robert Stein says that in Zechariah’s day there were about 18,000 priests so this is literally the opportunity of a lifetime. The priest’s families circulate around when they get the opportunity to go into the Temple and to offer incense on the people’s behalf. By lot a specific priest is chosen. So quite literally this is something that Zechariah has been waiting for his entire life. Here’s how this thing goes down typically at the end of the day. At dusk there’s an evening sacrifice and while that evening sacrifice is going on lots of people from Israel come to the temple. They’re praying as the animal is being sacrificed outside the Temple. As all of that is going on, one of the priests is selected to go inside the Temple and to clean out the incense altar. This is quite literally one of the most holy spots on the globe. This is one of the most sacred places in the Temple. He cleans out the old incense altar and puts new incense in and lights it on fire. The people that are praying see the smoke of this incense rising up and they think about their prayers rising up to God. It’s incredibly prestigious to be asked to do this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As Zechariah is in the Temple doing his priestly duties, probably looking forward to this event his entire life, an angel of the Lord meets with him. Here is something that you are going to learn in the next few weeks from us. For 400 years God has been silent. For 400 years no angels have shown up. God has not spoken to his priests. Got has not had a prophet in Israel. For 400 years the people have been longing to hear from God and they’ve heard nothing. Now an angel shows up on the scene for the first time in 400 years he meets with Zechariah in the Temple. He has this incredible message, “I know you’re an old man. Your wife is a really, really old woman. (I won’t tell you her age in this room because like a southern woman nobody is supposed to know that). You’ve been waiting your whole life for the opportunity to minister in the Temple and to have a baby. God has heard your prayer. Actually, he heard your prayer along time ago Zechariah. Now God is ready to act on it. Not only is he going to give you a son but let me tell you exactly what this child is going to be like.”

Now the name Zechariah itself means ‘the Lord remembers’. God heard that prayer a long time ago. He’s remembered it. He didn’t forget it. It felt like he forgot but he didn’t forget. The name Elizabeth means ‘God’s oath’. “God made a promise to his people Israel,” the angel says and, “Your son, Elizabeth, is going to be the preparation for God’s promised One.” The name John means ‘God is gracious’. The name itself literally means gracious. God will be incredibly gracious to his people and he will start to call people out of their sin and back to a relationship with him.

The angel says, “God is going to give this baby power like nobody has seen since the days of Elijah. God is going to give this child a voice and the power to go along with it. People from all over the land will be drawn back to God because of this child that you’re going to have in your old age.” Gabriel is reminding them it may have felt like for decades God didn’t hear them but God heard their prayer and now he’s ready to act on their prayer. Basically he’s reminding Zechariah that God’s timing is always perfect. He’s never ever late but it also means he’s never early. He acts exactly when it’s the right time to act not when you and I want. Of all the people you would expect from Zechariah this message of faith and acceptance but instead Zechariah can’t believe it. He’s not questioning God and asking for another sign like Gideon with his fleece. No he’s saying, “God, I’m too old. This just doesn’t happen. I can’t believe it!” Since he can’t believe it God is going to punish him. In a very public way God is going to punish Zechariah for his lack of faith. This priest of all people should believe God is big enough to do what he said he’s going to do. Next week when you come back you are going to hear how incredibly opposite this is when the same angel comes to a young girl and tells her something even more incredible. She immediately believes God and acts on it. When God is silent it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care. Luke goes through incredible efforts to communicate us that God is at work even when it doesn’t seem like it.

Luke wrote this book and the book of Acts. Together those two books become 27% of your New Testament. Luke spends an immense amount of energy to try to convince one man that Jesus is real. Jesus transformed Luke’s life and he can transform your life too. Luke’s mentor in ministry, the great apostle Paul, personally writes 32% of the New Testament. Put these two guys together and that’s 60% of your New Testament. We benefit today from the hard work and the great efforts that Luke went through just to try to influence this one guy. Luke was transformed and he wants Theophilus to be transformed too.

IV. Luke wants others to be changed by Jesus.

Luke didn’t set out to write a history book but there’s a lot of history in this. Back in verse four he says, “Theophilus the reason why I’m writing this is so that you’ll be changed by Jesus. I want you to know that it’s true what you’re reading and not just true but your life to be impacted by it.”

Luke 1:21-25
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long. 22 When he finally did come out, he couldn’t speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures and his silence that he must have seen a vision in the sanctuary.
23 When Zechariah’s week of service in the Temple was over, he returned home. 24 Soon afterward his wife, Elizabeth, became pregnant and went into seclusion for five months. 25 “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children.”

Imagine that you’re there it’s close to evening and you’re there praying as the sacrifices are being made as Zechariah is in the Temple. It’s incredibly holy. It’s a distinct privilege to be in there. Nobody else gets a chance to go in there. Cleaning out the incense altar and putting more incense on there doesn’t take very long. So you’re standing outside with a whole bunch of other people and your start to look at your watch and notice something is not right. In fact, the longer that you wait the more you realize something really bad must have happened in there. Probably what’s going through your mind is your thinking, “Zechariah is a really old man so he probably went in there, had a heart attack, and died. We have to do paper, rock, scissors to see who’s going to go in there to pull his dead body out. Its been way too long. He should have been out a long time before now.” Remember 400 years and nobody’s heard from God. Nobody has seen visions. No angels have showed up. This hasn’t happened for generations. People are realizing God is up to something.

Zechariah comes out and he can’t speak. Everybody realizes something crazy happened in there. Zechariah goes home, and perhaps because he’s one of the few people in Israel that can read and write, he communicates to his wife, “I’ve seen the angel of the Lord and we’re going to have a baby.” She gets pregnant and she leaves for five months. We’re not exactly sure why she does this but perhaps it’s because after five months when this really old woman comes back into town she’s got the baby bump. It’s pretty obvious God has just done something miraculous because nobody at her age gets pregnant. She now gets a chance to explain to everybody what God is up to when she comes back into town five months later. What is she doing for those five months? We don’t know exactly but we do know this she’s giving thanks with a grateful heart for all that the Lord has done for her. Maybe for decades she’s been waiting and God has been silent. Now God’s ready to act but because of her husband’s lack of faith he’s being punished and he’s silent. He doesn’t get a chance to utter a word again and can’t do his job. For a preacher that’s a pretty extreme punishment until she has this baby.

This is an epic story in human history. John the Baptist is the forerunner to King Jesus. John the Baptist is the guy who the entire country is coming out to hear his message and to see his miracles. When Jesus shows up on the scene John looks at the crowd and says, “That’s the Son of God. I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.” John the Baptist is transformed by Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth are transformed by Jesus. Luke was transformed by Jesus and he wants you to be transformed by Jesus too.

I heard a story last year about churches that are going to extraordinary lengths to try to introduce people to Jesus in our state. In North Georgia there is about 76.5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. So churches that are located close to the Appalachian Trail are trying to reach hikers that are on the trail. Sometimes they’re bringing food to hikers. Sometimes they’re bringing toiletries. Often times they’ll get hikers off the trail at night and bring them to their church. They’ll give them a shower, a chance to get cleaned up, and then bring them back to the same spot on the trail. They are doing this as a way of trying to minister to the hikers that are passing along the Appalachian Trail.

Last year I heard from a guy who did this. He said that he set out to start walking up and down the trail just hoping to introduce himself to somebody who didn’t know Jesus as they were hiking. This guy from a church in Georgia started walking with a guy who didn’t know Jesus and had never given his life to Jesus. They started walking together and 1200 miles later this man had the privilege of leading this guy on the Appalachian Trail to pray to accept Jesus Christ. You heard Jesus say that if somebody compels you to go a mile go the extra mile; well this guy took it 1198 miles farther than 1200 miles just to introduce one guy to Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of lengths that Luke goes through to introduce this one guy to how Jesus can change his life.

Here’s what I’m asking of you, church. I would ask you to go to those same kind of lengths this Christmas season. Take a look at the third Next Step. You’ll see a blank line. I want you right now start to thinking and asking God this, “God give me the name of somebody in my life who I’m not sure whether or not they know Jesus. During this Christmas season God, I’m going to go to great lengths if necessary to introduce them to Jesus.” Once that name comes to your mind, I want you to write that first name down on that little blank. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Jeff, I’m thinking about it and no name comes to mind because I’m not sure I know somebody who doesn’t know Jesus. I’m not sure that I do know somebody who isn’t already a Christian.” Then I need you to start to pray that God would help you change your lifestyle. About 75% of the city doesn’t know Jesus. If you literally don’t know anybody who doesn’t know Jesus, maybe you need to make some minor changes to your lifestyle so that you do come in contact with people who don’t know him. You can then go to the same extraordinary lengths that Luke was willing to go to. You do it individually, whatever fits for you and the person that you’re trying to reach. Go to some extraordinary lengths to introduce somebody to Jesus.

Next Steps

  • I need to be changed by Jesus. Today I turn from my sins and trust Jesus as my Savior.
  • I want to make a difference in our city. I will make an effort to connect with people that are not like me so that I can introduce them to Jesus.
  • Pray with me for ____________ to be changed by the birth of Jesus this Christmas.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your favorite Thanksgiving tradition?
  2. How do you plan to recognize Jesus this Thanksgiving?
  3. Who introduced you to Jesus? Explain the details.
  4. Who are you currently trying to introduce to Jesus?
  5. How can you get involved with a group of people in our city that are different than you?
  6. Pray for the people in your group to honor Jesus this Thanksgiving.

Further reading

Acts 8:1-4

May 5, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. The Gospel has always been under attack Acts 8:1Saul agreed with putting him to death. On that day a...

Acts 7

April 14, 2019Pastor Jeff Struecker Sermon Notes I. God calls a people Acts 7:1-8 “Are these things true?” the high priest asked. 2...