Scripture: Luke 1:5-25, 57-66
I suspect if most of us think back to last Christmas we’ll agree that we didn’t lack for much. Unless we didn’t have the one thing that truly makes Christmas.
Even those who have everything are missing one thing.
God’s answer to the world’s fundamental longing.
How prayer loses its power.
Three things Luke wants us to think about this Christmas.
Last Christmas was wonderful when I think about it. We celebrated in a warm, safe, and secure house. We had great food in abundance. Our house was decorated in an uplifting holiday theme. All over the house we had reminders of family and friends. Of course there was the joy of gift-giving and receiving. And with a five and one year old, our Christmas included the wonder of childhood.
It could also be said of Zechariah and Elizabeth that they had everything. He was a priest from the lineage of Abijah, who was high priest when David was king of Israel. She came from the family of Aaron, Moses’ brother and the first priest in Israel. Luke tells us they were righteous and blameless. So when it comes to having it all, Zechariah and Elizabeth did—except for one thing. They were childless.
In the biblical world, being childless meant that there was a constant emptiness in your life that couldn’t be filled with any amount of fame or fortune or good name. And from the biblical perspective, the entire world suffers from this manner of being “childless.” At Christmas, we celebrate God’s answer to the “childless” world: the birth of the Christ-child.
The poet Isaiah best articulates the longing of the world for God’s Christ-child answer:
Isaiah 7:14. Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 9:6-7. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 11:6. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
And when the angels proclaimed the good news to the shepherds when the Christ-child was born, the message was “Unto you in the city of David is born a savior who is Christ the Lord.”
For Luke, Zechariah represents this universal world-wide longing.
When the angel Gabriel appears to him, he says, “Zechariah, your prayer has been answered.” “Which prayer,” Zechariah might ask. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child,” Gabriel clarifies. “Oh, that prayer.”
How long had Zechariah been praying that prayer? Luke tells us they were already old, and verifiably unable to have children. It must have been a long time. We know it was long enough that Zechariah no longer thought his prayer would be answered. Not only is he surprised by God’s presence when Gabriel appears, but he asks how he might “be certain” that what the angel said is true. His doubt is on full display by his reaction to God’s answering his prayer.
Many of us have been praying for something for long enough to stop believing. The “childless” nature of our existence causes us to seek God, but the pain is so great that we eventually resign ourselves to going through the motions of praying, but we no longer believe it matters.
As I look ahead to Christmas and the giving of the Christ-child in 2011, I have to ask myself the following questions.
Will shopping and gift-giving jeopardize my receiving of God’s gift?
Will I attend every party to which I’m invited but in the process fail to show up at Christ’s birth?
Will I throw so many parties that I neglect to invite Christ into my holiday?
Will my familiar routines void my prayers and steal my faith as they did for Zechariah?
Because without Christ at Christmas, we all end up feeling childless at Christmas.
With this story about Zechariah and Elizabeth, what might Luke be trying to teach us?
One thing he’s saying is, “Don’t stop believing in your prayers.”
We don’t know when God will answer our prayers, but if he’s terribly delayed, our faith must remain intact so when God shows up, we don’t miss it.
Another thing Luke is telling us is that to be best prepared for the coming of
the child in our lives, we may need to be silent for a while.
Zechariah was struck dumb from the time he doubted to the time his son John was born. God built in that silence so Zechariah would recognize God’s faithfulness when it manifest itself in the birth of this child. Before Christmas this year, we may need to self-impose some silence.
Finally, I think Luke is telling us that the longing we all fundamentally feel
for the birth of the “child” in our lives is a longing that can only be
satisfied with the birth of Christ in our lives.
Zechariah and Elizabeth got their prayer answered—they were having a child. But the birth of that child was merely the prelude to the birth of the child that would indeed satisfy their longings, namely, the birth of Christ.
In Luke’s masterfully narrative style, he has the angel hint at this. John, Gabriel says, must abstain from wine. Only in this way will John serve to prepare the way of Christ’s entry into the world. In the same way, we may need to abstain from some things in our lives if, come Christmas, we will recognize when Christ enters in.
Thoughts for Further Reflection or Discussion
As yourself today what you want Christmas 2011 to look like. Do you want it to be chaotic and exhausting? If so, do nothing different; follow the currents of the culture. If not, decide this week want you need to do to ensure a meaningful Christmas this year.
Like Zechariah, exercise silence. Set aside some time each day just to listen to your life, to the Spirit’s movement, to God’s word guiding you to a meaningful Christmas 2011.
Prayerfully make your Christmas lists, but different kinds of lists this year. Aside from making gift lists, write down various activities you will do, and more importantly, some you will not do. Only by having lists like these prepared in advance will you be able to preserve enough space this Christmas to welcome the Christ-child into your life.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the Annunciation to Zachariah Sunday
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