Good morning, Friends!
I hope you’re all OK this week. I appreciate you all so much for being here.
Part of why we come to worship on Sunday is to hear the Word. But part of why we come is simply to see some other people, and remember that we still have some friends who care for us.
The Bible readings during the Christmas season are all familiar ones. We hear most of them every year.
The Bible could simply say, that even though God is almighty and all-powerful, that God needs our cooperation and help. But that would be too easy for us to forget.
So, instead of telling it out straight, the Bible tells the truth in stories. And those stories have more power to make us remember, than all the books and lectures and sermons in the world.
I’m going to read a part of the Christmas story in just a second. I know you’ve probably heard it before. Might be you’ve heard it many times. But it always says something new to us.
If we just wanted to tell it out straight, we’d have to say that God does some pretty amazing things sometimes. And we’d have to say that God’s will isn’t always easy for us to understand.
But the Bible doesn’t always tell it out straight. The Bible introduces us to people. And we hear their stories, and we imagine their feelings. And then the Bible tells us what they did.
This is a long story. Let me read to you now, from the gospel of Luke.
In 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.
Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But 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 call him John.
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “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. And 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 appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When Zechariah’s time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.
“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.”
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Then Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Then Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name!
His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.Luke 1:5-56
There’s so much that’s going on in this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. And almost all of it is strange.
Maybe Christmas is the holiday when we acknowledge that God does amazing things. God works in mysterious ways.
Christmas is a time of wonder. No matter how well we know the Christmas story, it always has something new to tell us.
Last week, we looked at John the Baptist, and his powerful message to prepare the way for the Savior. But even before John or Jesus could start their work, amazing things needed to happen.
Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted children, and they weren’t going to have any. That’s something that happens, and for many people it’s a source of pain and grief. They long for children so much!
And instead of people sympathizing with them, they often have to bear the burden of blame and hurt from family members and other people who ought to know better. People say, “There must be something wrong with you,” or “God must have something against you.” It’s so hurtful!
Maybe that was on Zechariah’s mind, as he went to perform his duties at the temple that day.
In the ancient world, people always burned incense when they prayed. People believed that it was the smoke of the incense, that actually carried their prayers all the way up to God.
So Zechariah was burning incense that day – a lot of incense, because he was presenting the prayers of the whole nation to God. Maybe he added an extra pinch of incense for himself and his wife.
And suddenly, Zechariah’s prayer was answered, in a way he never expected.
As the incense quietly burned, out of the midst of his prayer, an angel appeared. And the angel told Zechariah that his deepest longing would be answered, that he and Elizabeth would have a son.
The angel said their son wouldn’t just be an ordinary boy. Their son, John, would turn people back to God. He would be God’s messenger. He would prepare people for the coming of the Savior.
Zechariah was terrified. Most of us never expect to see angels. And most of us don’t expect to have our prayers answered, either with angels or without them.
So the first thing the angel said to this old man was, “Don’t be afraid. . .”
That’s a message we’re going to run into again. “Don’t be afraid. . .”
We spend so much of our lives being afraid of God. What if we say the wrong thing when we pray? What if God really knows what’s in our heart of hearts? What if God sees the things that we do? What if God’s going to punish us for being bad, or hold back from helping us because we’re not perfect?
There’s no suggestion that Zechariah was a perfect person. In fact, he talked back to the angel. Instead of saying, “Wow, that’s great! I’m going to be a papa!” he said, “That’s impossible! How could this ever be?”
The angel said, “Because you didn’t believe my word, you’re just going to shut up until after the baby’s born. You’re not even going to be able to speak, until it’s time to praise God for answering your prayer!”
Then the angel left him.
It took a long time for Zechariah to come on out of the temple after that. Maybe he was still frightened. Maybe he was trying to talk. But he stayed way long past the end of his normal shift.
He came out, and he couldn’t speak. He kept making signs, and nobody could understand what happened. So he waited until his team’s turn was over, and then he went on home.
We don’t know what Elizabeth said, when her husband came home and couldn’t speak. Do you think she was a little scared, too?
But then it says that by and by, Elizabeth knew that she was going to have a baby. And after all those years, her joy was so great, that she hid from everybody for five months, giving thanks to God, till her baby bump started to show.
And then, the story starts talking about Mary. Mary was Elizabeth’s cousin. Mary was probably a much younger cousin, since she wasn’t married yet. Elizabeth was probably in her 30’s or 40’s. Mary was probably still in her teens.
And the angel shows up again. Same angel as the first time. Says to Mary, “Hey, there! The Lord is with you!”
Mary was some kind of scared. An angel was literally the last thing she ever expected to see.
Then the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary!” There’s that fear thing again. “You have found favor with God!”
I don’t think Mary knew what that meant. I wracked my brain this week trying to figure it out.
Normally, to say that someone has God’s favor means they have a good job, a happy family, a nice home, good health, and a retirement plan. It might mean they’re popular, attractive, and well-adjusted.
The angel didn’t seem to mean any of these. Instead, the angel was saying that God was going to do something wonderful, and Mary was going to be a part of it.
Something God had planned for hundreds of years, for the whole world, was about to happen. And God wanted Mary to help. Something strange and new and awesome was going to take place, and God needed Mary to say “Yes” for it to happen.
That’s pretty scary. What would any of us say? How would we have felt, if an angel delivered that message to us?
And let’s be real clear. Both times in today’s story, both times, when the angel spoke, the angel said that something impossible was going to happen. Impossible is a big part of the Christmas story.
The first time, it was to tell a barren couple that they were going to have a child. The second time, it was to tell a scared young woman who’d never even slept with anyone, that she was going to be a mother – the mother of someone who would save the world.
Both of these things were impossible. But maybe God deals with impossibilities. Maybe Christmas is all about having impossible things happen, things that bring joy where there was no joy before.
As we get ready for Christmas, we need to start looking for joy in unlikely places. Be open to strange new things happening, things you never believed in before. Expect the unexpected, or at least, don’t run away when the unexpected happens.
Don’t be afraid if you think that God is speaking to you. Listen. And think over what God is trying to say.
Both of these Christmas stories – the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the story of Mary – have to do with children being born. Maybe for us, this Christmas, the message is that there are miracles inside us all, just waiting to be born.
There’s a seed inside you that no one, not even you yourself, knew was there.
And God needs you to say yes to it. God needs you to say yes to your miracle. God needs our yes sometimes for miracles to happen. That’s what Christmas means, too.
All through this season, be listening for angels. I don’t know what angels look like. Maybe they wear wings and white robes. Maybe they only whisper in our heart.
But don’t be afraid, when it seems like something impossible is going to happen, something good, something wonderful. Don’t be afraid, when something miraculous seems to be growing in your heart. Say yes to it.
And have a merry Christmas.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.