Week 3 – When God Has Something to Say, A Child Is Born
Luke 1:5-20; 57-66
When God has something to say, a child is born.
God had something particularly important to say when Jesus’ cousin John was born to an old priest and his barren wife.
Yet I can’t think of any Christmas carols fa la la-ing about John, the family oddball who ate locusts out in the desert.
John is never cast in the Christmas pageant.
Look around the Nativity: there’s Joseph, Mary, shepherds, wise men, even some cattle but no John in his camelhair clothes.
So, who invited John to the Advent conversation?
Well, the gospels did – all four of them, in fact.
His birth was foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
Mark 1:2-4 “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
In Matthew and Mark, Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry until the mantle was passed to him when John is arrested.
John had built quite a following and some of his followers felt threatened when people began leaving their movement to follow Jesus.
But rather than feeling deflated or threatened, John used the analogy of a wedding to explain:
John 3:28-30 You yourselves can testify that I said, “I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.” The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.
Can you imagine a wedding where the best man edges the groom aside to take center stage?
Of course not, because the best man’s job is to help the groom with preparations and then to be excited for him.
He helps rent the tuxedos, he organizes the bachelor party, and he makes sure everyone is on time for the rehearsal dinner.
Then at the wedding ceremony his job is to just step aside and be thrilled for the groom.
In rather boldfaced language John the Baptist called people to confess, repent, and cleanse their souls so that they would be ready to receive the Messiah.
Mark 1:5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
In his own way, John was calling people to just what Advent calls us to make way in our cluttered life for the Messiah.
Think of it as a Marie Kondo of the soul.
Christmas is different from President’s Day because it is more than just commemorating Jesus’ birth.
The birth of Christ is a turning point in history, and Advent invites us to be ready for Christ to change everything in our life as well.
The Advent drama begins with the world in dark confusion.
Israel was occupied by the oppressive Roman Empire.
People were struggling to get by and had little hope except for distant promises of prophets like Isaiah that a savior would eventually come to save them.
On the Advent stage, a solitary figure is illumined who calls us: Prepare the way of the Lord.
Look around, be aware, see beyond the struggles of the day so you can be ready and not miss him.
We’re halfway through Advent now as slowly but surely, just as on our Advent wreath, the circle of light builds until on Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit.
As in the days of John the Baptist, on all levels of life, the world is still threatening to extinguish love.
Internationally, the Washington Post just released an extensive study based on thousands of pages of previously secret Defense Department and State Department interviews and reports about our involvement in Afghanistan.
It is sobering that from the top levels of three administrations – Democrat and Republican – senior and midlevel military and civilian officials have been arguing for years that we should end the incursion.
Eight years after killing Osama bin Laden, we still don’t have a clearly defined mission there.
Yet even the top brass at the Pentagon say that after the deployment of more than 775,000 U.S. troops – 2,300 of whom were killed and 20,589 of whom were wounded – and massive PTSD and suicide rates among our men and women returning from combat, essentially nothing has been accomplished.
But as with past experiences, by our country and others, war rolls on under its own momentum.
Meanwhile, in our country poverty grows and the middle class is being squeezed.
I was talking with someone the other day who must choose which of three critical medicines to buy because they cannot afford all three.
I was listening to an interview the other day with a man who had spent two decades in Africa and the Middle East installing telecommunications and satellite systems.
One of the first things that struck him after he returned home was how bitter and unhappy Americans have become.
He was struggling to understand how this could be.
While we have so much more than most countries, our happiness index is low and our depression rates are soaring.
In fact, compared to 2013, depression rates increased 23% for senior adults and 47% for young adults.
So, at all levels of life – internationally, nationally and personally – we join the call for a Savior.
John is our reminder to prepare the way for the true Savior whose arrival comes in startling ways.
Luke begins by establishing his narrative as in the reign of King Herod.
Herod had the ear of all the rich and powerful in the region.
But God did not choose to speak through Herod.
The high priest Caiaphas held the reigns of religious power, but God did not choose to speak through Caiaphas.
Instead He came to an elderly priest and his barren wife… righteous but not powerful.
King Herod and Caiaphas had probably never heard of old Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth.
They had led respectable lives, both even were from priestly families, but they had long felt shame that God had left them childless.
In their culture, people believed that being childless was a divine punishment.
Did you notice that Elizabeth said that she was disgraced – removed from God’s grace – because they had no child?
Think of how people feel dis-graced today.
Being gay, transgender, addicted, poor, overweight, unemployed, homeless, depressed, anyone who holds a different political point-of-view … we are quick to label people (even ourselves) as unworthy of God’s grace.
But it was through this supposedly dis-graced couple that God chose to move.
One day Zechariah was selected to enter the Temple’s inner Court of the Altar to offer prayers – an honor a priest would likely only have once in his lifetime.
The tradition was that as a priest did this, the people would gather around the Temple in community prayer.
As he entered this sacred spot, I wonder if he was aching to ask God why he’d never answered his years of prayer.
I imagine he was especially aware that he didn’t have children and grandchildren whom he could tell about this honored experience.
But suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared and said, Luke 1:13 Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son….
Zechariah makes a very human response.
Luke 1;18 “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Zechariah and his wife had spent their lives praying for a child, and now at the pinnacle of his priestly career, ministering just outside of the most sacred space in the world, with priests and other people surrounding the Temple in prayer he essentially says, “No way! And let me give you all the reasons why this plan of yours will never work”.
He says, “I’m old, my wife is barren, life’s gone by, it’s too late for us.”
What would you say at that moment?
Some of us are better at asking than receiving.
We pray for the Advent promise – hope, peace, love, and joy – but don’t really believe we will receive them.
Maybe you’ve thought that you don’t deserve the blessings you dream of.
Or that your troubled past has left you too scarred to experience a peaceful life.
It’s easier to get comfortable with our unfulfilled longings than to actually get an answer from God.
We’ve become comfortable telling ourselves that life just hasn’t worked out for us, that our dreams are mere fantasies.
So, we settle for falling in line at the mall with all the others who are hoping to buy enough stuff to bring a little love and joy into their home.
But during Advent, we are called to prepare ourselves to hear the angel who brings the hope that our prayers actually have been answered.
Since Zechariah chose to doubt, he lost his ability to speak.
Luke 1:20 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.”
After all, who wants to listen to a priest who doubts that God answers prayer?
When the baby was born, Zechariah and Elizabeth took him to be circumcised on the eighth day as was Jewish custom.
Tradition assumed the boy would be named after his father Zechariah, which means “God will remember.”
But Elizabeth spoke-up and said, No! “He is to be called John.”
The shocked crowd turned to the old priest and asked, “What do you have to say about this?”
Zechariah took a tablet and to everyone’s shock wrote down, “His name is John”.
The text tells us that everyone was astonished… but probably not just because Zechariah didn’t pass his name on to the boy.
More than that was the name itself — John, which means “God gives grace,” or “God is gracious”.
With this birth, the generations of unfulfilled longing had been interrupted.
We now pass from the era of Zechariah, “God will remember,” to the era of John when “God (now) gives grace”.
With that act of faith, Zechariah’s mouth is opened, no longer to lament unanswered prayers, but to praise God.
As you know, in that culture, names were taken very seriously, so you can imagine everyone wondering, “What has God planned for a child named ‘God is gracious’?”
I wonder what God would choose to name you.
What started out as fun, soon became serious business as Kerstynn and Matt have gone about choosing a name for their baby.
At first was just what name sounds cool – like Roger, for example.
But then they also looked at the meaning of each name.
They don’t take names as seriously as the Ancient Near East did, but don’t we still think there might be some power attached to a name?
What name would God choose to represent your purpose in life?
For those of us in later years of life, we might think that we should just cruise to the end … that our days of purpose are behind us.
But life keeps going, and your voice is still needed – no, expected.
It may be different from when you were twenty or thirty and just starting out in life, but if you’re still breathing, you still have a purpose for living.
There are still people who need you – and you need to be needed – we are wired that way.
A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that a ten-year study tracking the lives of senior adults shows that people who have less sense of life purpose are 2.7 times more likely to die of heart conditions.
Living with purpose is also associated with lower rates of mental decline and disease, digestive tract conditions and other health issues.
Regardless of what name your parents chose for you, from the moment of your baptism God proclaimed a new name for you… this week, consider what that might be.
What name did God have in mind for you that would describe your true mission in this life?
There is still time to get it right… so what are you going to do?