Psalm 105:8, 9; Luke 1:72-75 (text)
December 14, 2014 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: Last Lord’s Day, we began our study of the Song of Zechariah in Luke Chapter 1. Zechariah prophesied that “a horn of salvation” promised by the prophets of old would come to visit and redeem God’s people. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus, the cousin of his yet to be born son, John the Baptizer.
In our lesson for today in verses 72-75, Zechariah’s prophecy continues with God sending this “horn of salvation” to “remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (v 73). Like many Jews since the exiles returned from Babylon 400 years before, Zechariah the priest had waited for the Consolation of Israel, the Messiah, that Isaiah had prophesied, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1; see also Luke 2:38; 23:51).
This Messiah would be the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to their forefather Abraham. What were these covenant promises that all Jews had been waiting for for ages? When God made his covenant with Abraham, did he not also confirmed it with signs?
Today, we will focus on the “holy covenant” in Zechariah’s song. Under the theme “To Remember His Holy Covenant,” we will consider three things: (1) Which Covenant?; (2) What are the Covenant Promises? and (3) How is the Covenant Confirmed?
In saying that this “holy covenant” is “the oath that he swore to our father Abraham,” Zechariah recalls the prophecy of Micah 7:20, “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” Even while Israel was unfaithful and disobedient to the LORD, the LORD was faithful to their fathers Abraham and Jacob. His love for their fathers was steadfast.
God’s covenant with Abraham goes all the way back to Genesis 12:1-3, when God called Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land which God would show to him. So Abraham obeyed, taking his whole household to the land of Canaan.
Some time passed, and God appeared again to Abraham in Genesis 15, saying, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Gen 15:7). The LORD God, the one who sovereignly brought him out of his homeland to the new land, reaffirms his promise to give him the land. When Abraham was 99 years old, the LORD appeared a third time to assure him again of his covenant promises, saying, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly” (Gen 17:1-2). Here, the promises are conditioned upon those who walk with God and are blameless.
And yet, God’s covenant with Abraham is also unconditional: he will fulfill his promises even if his people are disobedient. When the Israelites were slaves under the cruel yoke of the Egyptians, God heard their cry and he “remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exod 2:24). This is because Abraham proved faithful when God tested him on the mountains of Moriah. He obeyed God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac, knowing that Isaac was the promised covenant son. Because Abraham passed his test, God affirmed his covenant, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you” (Gen 22:16-17). God remembers his covenant with Abra-ham because “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3).
This is why the psalmist says, “He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he com-manded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham…” (Psa 105:8). These words recall Genesis 17:7, when God made a covenant with Abraham, “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Whenever we witness the baptism of our covenant children, God’s covenant promises to Abraham and his children after him ring true for all of us. These words point forward to Peter’s preaching on Pentecost Sunday in Acts 2:38-39, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…”
Therefore, God’s covenant with Abraham is an unconditional and eternal covenant, a covenant he fulfills to our children and our children’s children, throughout our generations.
What are the Covenant Promises?
Our text says that God’s “holy covenant” is “the oath that he swore to our father Abraham.” And what oath did God swear to Abraham? In Genesis Chapters 12, 15 and 17, God made two main promises to him: a multitude of children and a land where they would dwell.
In Genesis 12:2, God promised him, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” In Genesis 15:5, God reaffirmed his promise, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be” (see also Gen 22:17). And in Genesis 17:5-6, God promised to make him “the father of a multitude of nations… exceedingly fruitful… and kings shall come from you.”
Since God’s Word never fails, his promise of a great number of descendants was fulfilled when Abraham’s grandson Jacob took his family to Egypt. There, his family multiplied from 70 people into a great nation, “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exod 1:7). Fearing that they would be stronger than them, the Egyptians made the Hebrews into slaves.
Related to the promise of a multitude of descendants is also the promise that Abraham will be a blessing to all the nations, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). How did God fulfill this promise to Abraham? Paul has the answer in Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring… who is Christ.” Since Jesus is Abraham’s offspring, Matthew 1:1 says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
And all those who believe in Christ are Abraham’s children, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29). This is why John says that all who receive Christ are given the right to become children of God (John 1:12). They will inherit all the covenant promises God made to Abraham. This is also why the angels announced the birth of Jesus as “good news of great joy that will be for all the people… and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:10, 14) God is pleased with the multitudes who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. In the end, these multitudes of Jews and Gentiles from all nations will be praising God in heaven (Rev 5:9).
What is the second main promise? Again, we go back to Genesis Chapters 12, 15 and 17. In Genesis 12:1, God commanded Abraham to leave his country and “go to the land that I will show you.” In Genesis 15:18, God defined the boundaries of this land, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt, to the great river, the river Euphrates…” And in Genesis 17:8, we learn that his children will have the land “for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to show him this land. And after the Israelites conquered all the land of Canaan under Joshua, the LORD declared that he has fulfilled every word he promised to Abraham, “Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers… Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Josh 21:43, 45). But is this the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham?
Hebrews 11: 9-10 tells us that there is even a greater fulfillment. While sojourning in Canaan, Abraham did not consider it as his permanent home,
By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
Like Abraham, we also are “strangers and exiles on the earth” looking forward to our own land of promise, our heavenly dwelling-place (Heb 11:13). There, in the new heaven and new earth, God will fulfill his promise to Abraham, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3). In the end, the baby born “Immanuel, God with us,” will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to dwell with his people and be their God.
How is the Covenant Confirmed?
Three chapters after God first made his covenant promises to Abraham in Genesis 12, God again appeared to him in Genesis 15. A few months or years after God first made his promise of a multitude of descendants, Abraham was concerned that Sarah, who was barren, has not conceived. But God again confirmed his promise, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (v 4). But Abraham also wanted to have a confirmation from God that his promise of a land for his descendants is true, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (v 8)
All of God’s covenants with man have a sign and a confirmation. The sign is a visible token of his promise. The confirmation involves a ceremony with vows made by the parties of the covenant. Beginning with God’s covenant with Adam, the sign is the Tree of Life; if Adam passed the covenant provision, he would inherit eternal life. This would have been confirmed by Adam eating of the fruit of the Tree of Life before God.
What sign did God give to Abraham to confirm that his children are included in the covenant promises? It was the sign of circumcision, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:10-11). All of Abraham’s household and their descendants are to receive the sign of circumcision to be confirmed as members of his household. We already mentioned that water baptism is the New Testament sign of membership in God’s chosen people in the covenant of grace.
How did God confirm his promises? We read in Genesis 15:7-21 of a strange ceremony in which a smoking pot and a flaming torch passed between pieces of animals that were cut in half. These were symbolic of God himself passing between the bloody animals cut in pieces. What did this ritual mean? It meant that God swore to Abraham that if God broke his covenant with him, God would allow himself to be cut into pieces by Abraham. Obviously, this is an impossibility, not only because man has no power to do so, but more so, because God cannot be a covenant-breaker. His promises are always true and perfect.
In God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai in Exodus 24, the sign is the blood of the sacrificial animals offered for the sins of the people before they can come near to God for worship. After Moses read the Book of the Covenant, with all its laws and stipulations, the people made a vow, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (v 7). Then Moses sprinkled the blood on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v 8). After this, the 70 elders of Israel representing all the people went up the mountain. There, Moses says, “They beheld God, and they ate and drank” (v 11).
In the new covenant, the sign is the blood of Christ that he willingly poured out for the forgiveness of the sins of his people. As Hebrews 9:22 says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
Today, the confirmation and renewal of our membership in God’s covenant of grace with his chosen people is the Lord’s Supper, when we partake of Christ’s body and blood, spiritually by faith. So Jesus, the Lamb of God who was born to save his people from their sins, uses the same words that Moses used at Sinai, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ: When Christ came down to earth from heaven to be born as a human being like us, God fulfilled his promises to Abraham. Christ the God-Man showed his mercy to Abraham and all his true children, the Church, the Israel of God.
No one deserves God’s grace and mercy, but he is true to his promises. Because of his faithfulness, Abraham received God’s steadfast love, and his faith was counted to him as righteousness. It was not his own righteousness, but the perfect righteousness of our Savior Jesus Christ counted to us who are unholy and unrighteous. As in Zechariah’s song, we are “being delivered from the hand of our enemies” (Luke 1:74). Satan and his wicked host tempt us to sin, but the Spirit of Christ will always deliver us from the tyranny and power of sin.
How are we to respond to this deliverance? This Christmas, let us be mindful that we celebrate the birth of our Savior, not only with merrymaking and gift-giving. But he delivered us from sin, first, so that we “ might serve him without fear” of the devil and his evil kingdom (v 74). Second, we have been saved so that we might live our lives “ in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (v 75). And when we walk with God, be comforted with the promise of Psalm 25:10, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”
In our difficult pilgrimage in this world of sin and suffering, let us remember the LORD’s comforting words and sure promises from Isaiah 54:10, “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”
Like Zechariah and Abraham, this season, let us also look forward to our Promised Land, the heavenly city, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14).