by Rev Bill
Scripture: Luke 1:5-25
Christmas is coming.
The goose is getting fat – and so am I. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I am getting fatter.
All you have to do is look around you and you’ll know that Christmas is near. The Sanctuary is decorated beautifully for Advent. One of the candles on the Advent Wreath has already been lit. We’re making plans for parties, for the Joy Gift program and other activities, and having a special Wednesday night program in a few weeks. The Choir and Praise Choir are practicing special Christmas music. The pace has indeed picked up a bit. You need a calendar to keep up with everything we’re doing here at Hopewell this month!
When you add in everything else December brings – decorating, Christmas shopping, parties, family gatherings, etc., etc. etc., — well – there is very little doubt that Christmas is coming!
But — with all the activities — there is also a sense of hope.
Children – and some adults – may be hoping for a certain gift from Santa.
Some may just be hoping that it will all end soon.
But this is a season for hope.
A season for hope.
This Advent we’re going to be looking at the first and second chapters of Luke – and seeing how God’s gift of Himself gives hope – and raising the question:
Are you ready for Christmas?
Are you ready for the coming for Christ?
Are you ready for God’s hope coming into the world?
Listen to God giving hope in Luke 1:5-25
Most of us have heard of Billy Graham. Since the 1950s, Dr. Graham has conducted hundreds of evangelistic crusades throughout the world. Most of us have seen him preach on TV; we’ve seen how thousands walk the aisle in that moment of decision.
But what some of us may not realize the amount of preparation that goes in to bringing Billy Graham to a city. Only after extensive research is a crusade placed on the calendar, and that’s most often done years in advance. And then Graham representatives come to the city and begin to work in the community months in advance. They put in countless hours promoting the crusade. Thousands of counselors are trained. Hundreds of prayer meetings are held. All this takes place because they believe that, without preparation, the event itself will fail.
Well – it’s no different with Christmas.
In order for the event of Christmas to be successful, there has to be some preparation.
Some have written off Christmas. For some it brings up too many old issues that we would rather not have to deal with. Some are sick of the commercialization of it all. Some feel like every day ought to be a celebration of the birth of Christ — so why make such a big deal out of December 25?
I’m not ready to give up on Christmas. I’m not ready to give up on it because, as creatures bound in time and space, we need real time and real space markers in our lives that remind us of the great events that define our faith. But — I also believe that, if our Christmas is to be spiritually successful, we’re going to have to fight for it – and one way to do that is through preparation.
That’s why we celebrate this strange thing called Advent starting four weeks prior to Christmas. Advent is all about preparation. Sometimes we forget that, before God sent His Son into the world, He saw to it that the way was prepared. Jesus arrived on the scene only after 400 years of silence from God—silent preparation. He arrived only after numerous people were visited by an angel named Gabriel – that was part of the preparation. God even saw fit to prepare the way for His Son by sending a man named John to call people to repentance. All these things were part of the preparation that God made before Christ came. All this had to occur before God could bring His hope to the world in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.
So – are you prepared for Christmas?
I don’t mean do you have your tree up, or have you done your shopping. But are you really prepared? Are you prepared – spiritually — for the arrival of God’s Son?
You might wonder how you do that. How do you really prepare – spiritually — for Christmas?
Luke helps us. He helps us by telling the story of an old Jewish priest and his wife. We’re introduced to this couple in verse 5–7:
5In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Zechariah was a priest, and Elizabeth was a descendant of priests. That’s not all that unusual. The priesthood was divided up into 24 divisions in those days, which amounted to about 18,000 priests. Most of them worked small farms and were poor. But this was an unusual couple. They were righteous in God’s sight. They kept His commandments. This doesn’t mean they were without sin but it means they were examples of genuine faith.
They were examples of faith.
The fact that they were examples of faith is significant because of the other thing Luke tells us about them: they had no children. Elizabeth was barren, and the days of hoping for a child were long over. Thankfully, being childless does not carry the stigma or economic problem today it carried forZechariah and Elizabeth – but in those days — to be barren was thought to be a sign of a spiritual defect in the wife. They didn’t have fertility specialists back then — they simply believed God closed a woman’s womb because he held some grudge against her. So a barren woman was a disgraced woman – a very unfair and even inappropriate stigma in most cases, butthat’s what they were considered nonetheless.It wasn’t uncommon for a husband to divorce his wife because of her supposed flaw. In essence, Elizabeth was forced to walk through life with a sign hung around her neck that read “sinner” – even though that was certainly not the case!Think how she must have felt!
And though Zechariah didn’t have quite the same stigma to deal with, he still lived with the deep disappointment of having no child to carry on the family name—a tragedy for a man in those days. And in those days children were to care for their parents as they got older.But they had not children.Who would care for them?
Many of us have something in our lives like this – having to live with something that rightly or wrongly brings disgrace, like an empty womb brought to Elizabeth.
Maybe there’s something in your life that you feel ashamed of – and you feel everyone is blaming you for – like Elizabeth’s empty womb.
It could be something you’ve done in the past.
It could be an addiction you battle every day.
Maybe you’ve been divorced.
Maybe we’re going through a divorce or separation now.
Maybe you’re not going through a divorce or a separation — but things at home are n just not what we might want them to be – for whatever reason.
Maybe you’ve been fired from a job.
Any one of those things – or so many other things — can feel like a sign around your neck for all to see.
Maybe you feel like Elizabeth.
Or maybe you’re like Zechariah.
Maybe you feel you’ve been ambushed by some tragedy or disappointment that you never could have expected.
Maybe a loved one has died – and you wonder if you will ever be able to really enjoy life again. Just this week I heard about a young woman who died of cancer. She’s so much better off now — but think of her husband trying to pick up the pieces and raise his family.
Life does things like that to us.
It does things like that even to good people; people who are trying to follow the Lord – people like Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Maybe like you.
At least for Zechariah there was his work.
Luke tells us in verses 8–10 that while Zechariah was doing his priestly service in Jerusalem, he was chosen by lot to enter the Holy Place in the temple and burn incense, which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. While he was inside the temple, the people would be outside offering prayers, waiting for him to come out. He would cast incense on the altar, prostrate himself, and then leave.
But — on this day Zechariah didn’t come out for a long time.
Look at verses 11–13:
11Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.
Our tendency is to read this like he had a visit from an old friend – but this was an angel — and it scared him to death! Nevertheless, this angel comes with some good news: Elizabeth would give birth to a son, whom they were to name John, and he would bring joy not only to them, but to many others as well.
But I’m struck by how the angel puts this in verse 13. He says,
” your prayer has been heard”
Maybe at his old age Zechariah had forgotten about his prayer for a child – but God hadn’t — though it sure took him awhile to answer it.
Maybe the angel also had in mind another prayer.
As a righteous man, Zechariah would have prayed for the Messiah to come. In verse 15–17, the angel says that his son’s mission and purpose would be to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Have you ever been promised something that was beyond your wildest dreams; something so out-of-the-box that you can hardly believe it?
That’s what this was for Zechariah. Look at verse 18:
“Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
I love how he says, “I’m an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” That’s a tactful way of putting it. That’s a smart man! In essence, Zechariah is saying: “Because my wife and I are so old, I’m going to need some proof—a sign that this is really going to happen.”
Well, the angel didn’t like that. If an angel is scary, think about what a mad angel is like. The text says in verses 19-20:
19The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Gabriel was a famous angel who would have been well-known to Zechariah. So not only did he have an angel — a famous angel — before him – but a mad, famous angel. Gabriel says – in essence:
“Don’t you know who you’re talking to? Don’t you know where I’ve been hanging out? What kind of sign did you want?”
And then he says: “If you want a sign, I’ll give you a sign. You’ll be unable to speak until my promise is made good.”
So Zechariah is left in the temple with nothing to say – or unable to say anything. Literally speechless.
Meanwhile, the people outside were wondering if he’s had a heart attack in there. When he finally does come out, he’s unable to speak, so he starts signing. Imagine him trying to describe what had just happened to him using sign language! Finally, when he is all done with his priestly duties, he goes on home.
The story picks up in verses 23–25:
23When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people
Think with me about these two.
First, there is Zechariah. Here is a man who is righteous. He’s old. He’s a priest. He knows God. He knows what it means to serve God. If there ever was a real saint, it’s this guy.
But, he still had some growing to do.
I mean, God sends the angel Gabriel to him. God makes a marvelous promise. But what does he do? He doubts God. He underestimates God. The angel says it flat out: “You did not believe my words.”
This is serious. Underestimating God is just as serious as rebelling against God. Look at the gospels—the thing that frustrated Jesus the most was a lack of faith. Zechariah is an example of a person who has known the Lord for a long time. He goes to church. He gives his tithes. He reads the Bible every day. He does all the right things in all the right places in all the right ways. But when God comes along and challenges him to a new level of faith, he’s not ready.
Zechariah was on “spiritual cruise control” so to speak — going down the highway of life – going about his religious duties—he could do it all with his eyes closed—but God chose to throw him into traffic—he had to switch the spiritual cruise control off — and he was not ready.
On the other hand, think about Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s response to this gift is set in contrast to that of her husband. He’s forced into silence; she chooses solitude. He can’t speak, but she can. When she speaks, she speaks about God’s grace and mercy to her — of how he had taken away her shame and disgrace among men. She had felt disgraced; she had felt shame. But she hadn’t lapsed into bitterness. She had continued to serve God. She seems much more prepared than Zechariah was to believe and receive God’s gift.
Are you ready for Christmas?
Are you ready to receive the gift of God – God’s gift of hope – through Jesus Christ?
Zechariah and Elizabeth remind us that it really doesn’t matter how long you’ve known God, or how well you’ve obeyed God, or how faithfully you’ve served God — there is always room for growth. And God is committed to stretching and growing the faith of people like Zechariah and Elizabeth – and even people like you and me.
Zechariah wasn’t prepared for the coming of Christ because he didn’t believe that God could step into his life and answer long-forgotten prayers in out-of-the-box ways.
Like old Zechariah, many of us just do what we’re supposed to do, never really believing that God is at work in our life to bless us in ways that will blow our minds.
How about you?
Do you believe God is able to step into your life and bring joy and blessing where there has been disgrace and disappointment?
That’s what the coming of Christ really means for each one of us.
That’s what Christmas really means for each of us.
What Elizabeth says in verse 25 is true of each of us because God has sent His Son – God has looked with favor on us – God has come to take away our disgrace among men – God has come to bless us.
Do you believe that?
You may believe that God could do that for someone else, but not for you – but the truth is that God can look with favor upon you – and take away your disgrace.
Maybe at this point you’re thinking:
You don’t know what I’ve done.
You don’t know what I’ve gone through.
You don’t know how hopeless my situation is.
Maybe I don’t – but God does!
Some of us have become so cynical and jaded by life that we no longer believe that God is at work to bless us. But – friends – if we’re stuck in our unbelief, we’re not ready for God’s gift – not ready for Christmas – not ready for God coming into our world through Jesus Christ.
But God has some interesting ways of getting through to us.
James Dobson relates a story of an elderly woman named Stella Thornhope who was struggling with her first Christmas alone. Her husband had died just a few months prior because of a slow-developing cancer. Now, several days before Christmas, she felt terribly alone, so much so that she decided she was not going to decorate for Christmas. Late that afternoon, the doorbell rang, and there was a delivery boy with a box.
He said, “Mrs. Thornhope?” She nodded.
He said, “Would you sign here?”
She invited him to step inside and closed the door to get away from the cold. She signed the paper and said, “What’s in the box?” The young man laughed and opened up the flap, and inside was a little puppy, a golden Labrador Retriever. The delivery boy picked up the squirming pup and explained, “This is for you, ma’am. He’s 6-weeks-old and completely housebroken.” The young puppy began to wiggle in happiness at being released from captivity.
“Who sent this?” Mrs. Thornhope asked.
The young man set the animal down, handed her an envelope, and said: “It’s all explained here in this envelope, Ma’am. The dog was bought last July while its mother was still pregnant. It was meant to be a Christmas gift for you.” The young man then handed her a book, How to Care for Your Labrador Retriever.
In desperation, she again asked, “Who sent me this puppy?”
As the young man turned to leave, he said, “Your husband, Ma’am. Merry Christmas.”
She opened up the letter from her husband. He had written it three weeks before he died and left it with the kennel owners to be delivered with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. The letter was full of love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. He vowed that he was waiting for the day when she would join him. He had sent her this young animal to keep her company until then.
She wiped away the tears, put the letter down, and then, remembering the puppy at her feet, she picked up that golden, furry ball and held it to her neck. Then she looked out the window at the lights that outlined the neighbor’s house, and she heard from the radio in the kitchen the strains of “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come.”
Suddenly, Stella felt the most amazing sensation of peace washing over her. Her heart felt a joy and wonder greater than the grief and loneliness.
“Little fella,” she said to the dog, “it’s just you and me. But you know what? There’s a box down in the basement I’ll bet you’ll like. It’s got a little Christmas tree in it and some decorations and some lights that are going to impress you. And there’s a manger scene down there. Let’s go get it.”
Advent and Christmas are God’s ways of sending a signal of hope to remind us that life is stronger than death. Light is more powerful than darkness. God is more powerful than Satan. Good will overcome evil. Joy is stronger than disappointment. That’s the message of Christmas.
The question is, are you prepared for it?
Are you able to believe that God is acting for you in ways you never could have imagined to take away your disgrace – your disappointment your sorrow?
So – let me ask you –
What are you hoping for?
What disgrace – or disappointment — or sorrow do you need God to take away from you?
Whatever it is, keep hoping.
God is acting for you in ways you never can imagine to take away whatever disgrace or disappointment or sorrow you might feel – to give you whatever it is you might be hoping for.
Yea – the message of Advent and Christmas is that life is stronger than death — light is more powerful than darkness — God is more powerful than Satan. — good will overcome evil — joy is stronger than disappointment.
Whatever it is you’re hoping for, the message of Advent and Christmas is that God is with you.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Annunciation to Zachariah Sunday
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