There is one question come Christmas time that I’ve found can make the vast majority of us grumble, or at least begin to run off a to-do list several pages long. It’s a question that can make the cheeriest, Christmas-carol loving celebrator turn Grinchy. It’s this question: “So, are you ready for Christmas?”
Ask that question, and most people will roll their eyes, and verbally scroll down their list of chores and things to do, or launch into tales of journeys to find that year’s elusive hot gift—remember Cabbage Patch kids?—more recently American Girl dolls? What is it this year? I did a Google search, and here is one result:
Once in a while, you come across that organized friend—you know, the one who did their shopping months ago, getting the best deals–even 30% lower than your Black Friday bargain–and sending out Christmas cards early because they planned ahead and took the family picture on their summer vacation to Bora-Bora.
You end the conversation as quickly as possible with that friend.
Our lives are already busy. Our regular responsibilities often keep us running from one place to another.
And then Christmas comes and can make it feel worse.
What I think is sad about Christmas is that we feel pressure to add to our already busy lives this extra activity. And, in the midst of that, we can easily lose the joy. There is shopping to do, cards to send out, family pictures, family tradition to uphold, family picture to take—”Will everyone just stand still and smile for one moment?”—there are stocking stuffers, should I get the guy in the cubicle next to me a gift?
So most of us groan when someone asks us the question: “Are you ready for Christmas?”
What if in the midst of our hectic running around, trying to make Christmas perfect—what if God had a message for us? What if God wanted to tell us something?
What if He was saying something like this: “I know you feel busy. I know you have a lot to do. But in the midst of your duties, I want to tell you something important. Listen.”
Are you ready for God?
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at a few groups of eyewitnesses–eyewitnesses of the majesty of God coming to earth. Two of them were just going about their lives when God came to tell them something. Their names were Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Luke’s gospel begins by talking about eyewitnesses. He opens his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus like this:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
So the story begins with eyewitnesses to the story of God choosing people to tell His story to the world.
Here is the story:
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, 9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
Luke anchors his gospel in names and places. Real names, real places. Our faith is rooted in history. Pastor and Bible teacher Alistair Begg says we would be wise to remember that the gospels revolve around three words: history, divinity, and mystery.
Some history: Herod. One of the most wicked kings history has ever known. Killed his wife Marianne when he suspected she was plotting against him. Also had three of his sons convicted in court of plotting against him, and they were sentenced to death by strangling. Herod’s reputation was such that the Roman Emperor Augustus was quoted as saying, “It would be a better thing to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”
Into this region dominated by tyranny and wickedness, God came.
Luke’s gospel begins by subtly confronting the idea that good people should only have good things happen to them. We’re introduced to a couple who have done right, but are holding onto the sadness of having no children. But their names–Zechariah and Elizabeth–had meaning.
Zechariah’s name=The Lord Remembers.
Elizabeth=My God is An Absolutely Faithful One, OR, My God is An Oath
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s names in themselves are a sermon. The Lord Remembers. The Lord is absolutely faithful.
But the sadness of Elizabeth being barren goes way beyond what we might think. Part of the culture that Elizabeth was in measured her worth by whether or not she could have children. Because having someone preserve the family line was the only way for someone to leave a legacy–for the family to live on. For people who may not believe in everlasting life, life continued through one’s children.
Can you picture what that might have meant for Elizabeth? Waiting, trying, month after month, but never experiencing the joy of having a child? Perhaps seeing the other women in the village whisper, cast judging looks? Important to recognize that there were those that believed that barrenness was the result of some sin–that Elizabeth couldn’t have children because God was punishing her.
And yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth remain faithful–to each other, and apparently to God, because they are described as righteous and blameless in obeying God.
Zechariah is going about his duties as priest. God sends an angel. Tells him his prayer has been answered. And that Elizabeth would bear him a son. Zechariah asks a question, and Gabriel tells him he will be silent until his son comes.
There is irony here. Bible scholars tell us that there were some 400 years of “silence,” the time between the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, and the beginning of the time of the gospels.
The angel Gabriel comes to proclaim that God is doing something new. Zechariah’s response: “How can I be sure?” Response: silence.
Can we blame him? When we haven’t heard from God in some time, isn’t our natural response to question whether it is really Him speaking?
I thought a bit about this whole silence thing. A priest who can’t talk. That’s a miracle if I ever saw one! Perhaps attendance at services tripled during that week Zechariah was on duty. Can you imagine the talk that went around during that time of Zechariah’s silence? “Shortest services, ever,” they said. “He can’t talk! We’re out of there in ten minutes, tops.”
Enough about Zechariah’s silence. There is someone else affected by all this.
Elizabeth: “God has taken away my reproach among people.” The shame of her barrenness is no more.
NT Wright writes, “The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is—the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us in so many ways throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of smaller human concerns as well. The drama which now takes centre stage is truly the story of God, the world, and every ordinary human being who has ever lived in it.” NT Wright. Luke for Everyone
Such is the grace of God. God’s purposes are ultimately fulfilled, and along the way, the human concerns of Zechariah and Elizabeth are answered and folded into God’s story.
The whole story reminds us how important it is to God to prepare the way. The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will raise is not God’s Son and anointed king, the Messiah—he is the forerunner, the one who announces that God has come to save the world. He is, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, the one who is a voice calling out in the wilderness—prepare the way for the Lord.
What I noticed: In these two characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth: Zechariah represents the priesthood. The system of temple sacrifices. That goes silent.
Elizabeth represents those that have been kept on the margins. Ridiculed, living in shame. As God’s plan unfolds, she is moved from the shadows to the center.
As Jesus began his ministry, that kind of thing happened much more. Remember the woman, suffering on the margins of society because of her illness—who spend everything she had on doctors who made her worse. She had the courage and faith to simply touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and was healed. And Jesus called out, “Who touched me.” And the woman has been healed, and her shame is taken away. She is known.
Elizabeth moves from the reproach and shame in her culture of being barren to bearing John the Baptist, the prophet who would bring many back to faith in God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is a glimpse into the gospel story.
The religious structures and systems will be brought down at the birth of Jesus.
The ones living in darkness and shame—they have seen a great light.
In the darkness, into an evil time, while people were going about their regular lives—God came.
Are you ready?
This season we call Christmas is about God fulfilling His promises. To be the God who rescues and redeems. Who doesn’t forget our pain. Who never leaves us alone.
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is for all of us, just going about our already busy lives, who perhaps have given up on the idea that God might want to do something different. Who might have stopped believing He would answer our prayers. That all God really wanted from us was our duty, and not to complain about it. To take our lot in life and just be happy we didn’t have it worse.
Into that, God says, “Watch this.” Your prayers have been answered. Your shame is taken away.”
You weren’t ready for that, were you?