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MESSAGE FOR CHRISTMAS DAY, 2005 FROM LUKE 1

 

          One of the more depressing news items to appear in the past two weeks was the story recently reported that indicated that several mega churches, including some claiming to be evangelical had decided to cancel Christmas morning services.  One news story reported, Pastors are canceling services, anticipating low attendance on what they call a family day.”  David Wells, theology professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary assessed this development and said, “This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient..,” Last night we discussed one reason why we in the church can become lukewarm about the incarnation.  This morning we want to look at another reason why not only our attitude toward Christmas, but our walk with God in general can become lukewarm.  As we look at Luke chapter one and the two main characters there, we see another reason why the things of God can easily lose their luster for us.  These two people in the incarnation narrative illustrate the truth:  The absence of true, child-like faith keeps us from responding to God in obedience and wonder.   Let’s look for this truth in the lives of Zechariah and Mary.  As we look at these two, be asking yourself the question, “which one most closely resembles where I am with God?” We see this truth first negatively illustrated in an incident in the life of Zechariah.

          These verses give us important information about this man, Zechariah.  Verse five tells us, “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.”  Zechariah was a priest.  When we think of a priest, we may think of a full time, professional clergyman.  That’s not the kind of priest Zechariah was.  These priests did ministry on a mostly part time basis.  They served two weeks a year on a full time basis and they again worked full time during the major religious festivals.  They were on-call at all times, but they seldom ministered except when “their rotation came up.”  Nearly all the priests during the time of Jesus had another job where they earned most of their money.  Zechariah was a priest but he was not daily serving God in the temple.

          Verse six tells us Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth “…were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”  These people were good Jews.  They took the law very seriously and they were in many ways doubtless well suited to parent, “the greatest man born of woman”—John the Baptist.  Luke describes their relationship with God in purely legal terms—how they related to the law.  Their relationship with the law was good, but context rules and we must interpret that comment about their spiritual condition in light of this narrative. The rest of this story indicates that even though Zechariah was a good Jew, his faith had some serious weaknesses.  Verse seven tells us Zechariah, along with Elizabeth, “were both advanced in years.”   These people were probably past middle aged and moving into their senior years.  They were almost certainly past the age of child bearing.

       Verse nine tells us Zechariah, “…was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.”  The law required that the incense be burned to the Lord in the “holy place” twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.  There were about 18,000 priests at the time of Jesus and each priest was permitted to make this daily offering only once in their lifetime and many were never chosen to have this experience.  The holy place was a room just next to the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies where the ark of God rested.  In fact, the poles used to carry the ark were visible in the holy place because they stuck out of the curtain separating these two rooms.  The holy place was also known as the “royal guest room” and three articles were kept there—the bread of presence, the lampstands and the incense altar.  These articles symbolically represented the very presence of God.  The adjoining room, the Holy of Holies was the literal earthly throne room of God.  God in some way manifested Himself over the Ark of the Covenant.  The incense altar where the priests made their incense offering was within a few inches of the curtain separating them from the very presence of God and Zechariah had one chance in a lifetime to do this service and Luke captures it for us in this narrative.

          Think about the sense of anticipation Zechariah must have had as he entered the holy place.  He was entering into the second holiest place in the world, with only inches separating him from the very presence of Yahweh and he would see this place ONE time for only a few minutes.  This once-in-a-lifetime encounter with the Holy One of Israel would have been without doubt the pinnacle of his priestly career.  Verse 11 tells us his experience must have surely exceeded his wildest expectations.  “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.”  Zechariah goes into the holy place and meets a supernatural being!  A genuine, honest-to-goodness angel appears for the purpose of having a private meeting with him.  This revelation understandably knocks Zechariah for a loop.  Verse 12 tells us, “… Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.”  As almost all angels in the Bible do when they meet fallen humans who are terrified by them, this one responds with words of encouragement and comfort, [v.13] “…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.” 

          We discover something else about Zechariah.  That is--he had been praying for a son and in this culture that equated fertility with the blessing of God, we can assume this priest had been praying for a son for a long time.  In the next four verses, the angel tells him with a remarkably high degree of specificity what this son who will be born to him will do and be.  He spells out not only this child’s monumental mission in life but also his intensely pious lifestyle.  This is no general or vague forecast—“God will surely bless this child”–the angel spells it out in amazing detail.  Now, let’s pause here to summarize what we have seen thus far.  Here is Zechariah, a priest, carefully schooled in the law and the things of God.  He had not only read, but most likely had taught, (dozens of times) the story of Isaac’s miraculous conception.  He was also doubtless very familiar with God’s repeated gracious rescue from barrenness women like Hannah and others.   He and his wife had doubtless spent their entire marriage repeatedly asking God for a child—they had doubtless prayed for a child hundreds of times.  Zechariah followed the law—he was no flagrant rebel or even what we would call a nominal believer.  When we meet him here, he was in the middle of the most anticipated spiritual experience of his life—in the holy place within inches of the manifest presence of the Lord of the universe. 

And if all that were not enough to make this a ripe opportunity for great faith to be present in him, he meets a real life, honest-to-goodness angel.  And as we discover later on, this was no garden variety angel.  This was an archangel—the highest ranking messenger angel in all of Scripture, who personally assures him that his decades-long prayer has been answered.  And what’s more, he goes into some absolutely astonishing detail about who this Elijah-like child will be and what he will do.  He is standing in the holy place at the most sacred moment of his life in the presence a holy and supernatural being.  Every detail has been orchestrated to provide Zechariah with a mountain top spiritual experience the likes of which had not been seen for at least 400 years—everything is in place for that.

And so, with that ponderous build up, all the preparation made to give this man of God a faith-enlarging, genuinely profound spiritual encounter, what is his response to this message?  In verse 18 Zechariah says, “…How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years."  One translation has it, “Do you expect me to believe this?”  At the apex, the zenith of this spiritual symphony orchestrated by God and masterfully brought to this grand crescendo, Zechariah let’s out this ghastly belch of unbelief right in the face of this archangel.  He just ruins everything here!  God has taken all these astonishing measures to create a glorious moment of divine revelation and in the midst of it, it turns out that Zechariah is from Missouri.  “Show me!” is in effect what he says.  This is an absolute train wreck and the angel responds quite appropriately to this dismal display by Zechariah.  This is the only place in sacred scripture of which I am aware where we see an angel in shocked dismay.  He is so incensed by this epic display of unbelief he feels obliged to trot out his spiritual resume. 

“And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  20And 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."  We can praise the Lord that God is not handcuffed by unbelief—either Zechariah’s or ours, but we must concede that this is a truly mammoth blunder on Zechariah’s part.  And the reason he fails here is not because he was theologically ignorant—he was a theologian in some sense.  It wasn’t because he was living an overtly carnal life—they were blameless according to the law.  No, what spoiled it for him is the same thing that spoils it for us at times—his lack of faith.  In the midst of this intensely supernatural context, Zechariah is stuck in the natural realm, quizzing the angel for a natural explanation for this miracle and that is a sure symptom of unbelief.  In spite of Zechariah’s long-standing relationship with God—in spire of his obedience to the law, Zechariah had a devastating blind spot in his relationship with God and that brings us to our first point.  That is—Unbelief, seen in our silence about God, causes our walk with God to become lifeless and formal.

In spite of all God’s training and conditioning of Zechariah—in spite of his theological knowledge, Zechariah’s faith had shriveled to the point of uselessness when it really mattered.  He had placed God in a very comfortable, anti-supernatural box that fit well within the context of the dead ritualism that made up much of Judaism at this time in history.  Zechariah’s relationship with God had become routine.  Zechariah did what he was supposed to do—follow God’s law at least in a general sense—and God had been doing what he was “supposed” to do (at least in Zechariah’s eyes).  That is, meet his daily needs but not challenge any of his faith-bereft notions about God and how God works in the lives of people.  Zechariah’s conception of God had not been conditioned by the Word of God and we know that because when the word of God came to him through Gabriel, he faltered.  His understanding of God was far more conditioned by the spiritually lukewarm waters in which he had been swimming within Judaism than by the book.

God had been silent for 400 years and Zechariah lived with the assumption that God didn’t talk to people because God didn’t do that anymore.  There was not one Bible verse to authoritatively support that notion, but because that had been his experience, that was his reality.  “Here’s the way God dynamically acts in the lives of people…He doesn’t”   What happens to Zechariah as a consequence of his unbelief is a pattern of what happens to any believer who knows ABOUT God, but is suffering from a lack of faith—they shut up.   Unbelief shuts your mouth and it’s surely not coincidental that Gabriel—in response to Zechariah’s unbelief--makes him a mute for the next nine months.  The relationship between a person’s unbelief and their silence about God has been replicated countless times in church history.  Zechariah is simply the “poster child” for the truth that unbelief shuts your mouth.

Zechariah is typical of much of what we could call the best of North American evangelicalism.  The best within our midst are devout, not living in rebellion, keeping short accounts with God and working to do what they believe God wants from them.  But if God were to really begin to manifest Himself in our lives or our church, we would find that to be quite uncomfortable.  The reason is because even though we know God can and does in some parts of the world act in very overt and dynamic ways, and we will argue with anyone who says otherwise, he doesn’t do that in OUR lives or OUR church and if someone were to tell us that God were going to do that, our response would probably be something along the lines of, “Do you expect me to believe that?”  Many at Mount of Olives and around the Twin Ports are praying for revival.  What if God brings it?  Do you know what kinds of things happen in these unusual movements of God’ Spirit like the Great Awakening?  God does all sorts of very different things in people’s lives.  They pray all night—they fast all day, they cry in brokenness for hours.  The Sunday morning order of worship gets thrown out the window as people run to the microphone to publicly confess their sins.

How would you respond to that if you walked in late to a worship service and saw that kind of thing going on?  Would you want to turn around and walk back out the door?  That’s Zechariah. Are you like Zechariah at that point?  Let’s take a test to discover.  God has spoken to you through His Word in Second Thessalonians 1:8 and other places and told you that Jesus Christ will appear in the sky with his might angels in flaming fire for his second advent to claim his church and bring fierce and rapid judgment on all those who have not placed their trust in him—have not entered into a personal relationship with Him.  If I were to ask for a hand count of how many people in this room believed that, most every hand would go up.  We are like Zechariah in the sense that we know the Biblical teaching.  But let’s find out HOW MUCH we are like Zechariah.  How many people are you telling about it?  How many people have you recently told that Jesus is coming back to claim his church and judge those who don’t follow Him?  If you have not shared this good news with others--there may be other reasons--but we dare not rush to assume we are not afflicted with the same mouth-shutting unbelief we see in Zechariah.   One way to know whether you genuinely believe something is whether or not you are telling others about it especially since we, unlike Zechariah have been given a commission to tell others the good news.

Now let’s look at the other person in this chapter who lives in sharp contrast to Zechariah.  That is—this teenage girl named Mary.   The contrasts between these two could hardly be more pronounced.  Mary is quite obviously not a priest.  She was betrothed to be married, which would have made her an early teen in her culture—15 or 16 at the oldest.  She had received no formal theological training.  According to verse 26 she was from Nazareth—not a neighborhood known for producing spiritual giants before the time of Jesus.  She was everything Zechariah wasn’t—an uneducated, teenage girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  But notice her reaction to Gabriel.  Gabriel appears to Mary not in the holy place in the temple, but probably in some sort of domestic setting.  Gabriel greets her in verse 28, “And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!"  29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”  Notice, Luke says Mary was troubled NOT by the fact that an angel appeared to her, but she was bothered by the angel’s greeting.  She had trouble comprehending that she—a lowly peasant girl could have any special favor in God’s sight.

We know that is what bothered her because in verse 30 Gabriel repeats it, “And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  That was Mary’s concern.  Following this exchange, Gabriel goes on for three verses giving specific detail about HER child—the one she was going to carry as a virgin and Mary says, “How will this be since I am a virgin?”  Unlike Zechariah, she does NOT question the believability of this prophecy.  In fact, her question assumes that she believes it.  She is however understandably curious as to how God is going to pull this off.  This is remarkable!  She has been given far more unbelievable news than Zechariah.  At least he had the examples of Abraham and Sarah to strengthen his faith—opening barren wombs was no new thing for God.  But a VIRGIN giving birth had never been done before.  So, Gabriel spells it out for her and rightly so, because had this conception not been miraculous, it would have required Mary to commit sexual sin.  She had good reason to know how God was going to do this without her sinning. 

Again, we see clear contrasts with Zechariah.  The news that Gabriel brought to Mary would bring shame, disgrace and perhaps even physical harm to her—unwed mothers were NOT treated well in the Ancient Near East.  The penalty for adultery under the law was death.  By contrast, the news that Gabriel delivered to Zechariah would place him and his wife in the same category as some of the greats of the Hebrew faith.  This development would put a huge feather in his priestly cap.  As an elderly man, he would be able to point to his wife’s enlarged belly with no small amount of pride—a miraculously conceived son in his old age!  It just doesn’t get much better than that for a Hebrew male.  By contrast, what was going to happen to Mary would make her the object of ridicule.  She had not spent her life praying for a son.  Mary had reason (humanly speaking) to be scared about this and she had far better reasons on a human level to reject this news—this was going to put her in a very difficult position. 

But notice Mary’s response after she gets the necessary clarification.  This is one of the most beautiful, faith-radiating responses to a promise of God in all of sacred Scripture.  Verse 38-- “And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.”   She doesn’t utter a word of complaint at the peril or inconvenience this will bring her.  She doesn’t doubt the message or the methodology.  She simply says, “I am the servant of the Lord” Mary illustrates for us a wonderful example of faith.

The truth we see manifested in Mary’s response is-Child-like faith shows itself when we accept God’s will with worshipful trust in Him.  In the face of probable shame and ridicule she by faith accepts God’s word to her.  At a bare minimum Joseph, being a righteous man would almost certainly divorce her.  But she looks all of that right in the face and says with a heart filled with worship, “Lord, I’m yours—do what you have in mind.”  In her child-like faith she chose to focus on the amazing privilege she had been granted rather than on the hardships that would come with it—those she leaves with God.  We know her heart of worship because in verses 46-55 as a teenager she pours out one of the most heralded expressions of worship recorded in Scripture.  She explicitly quotes the Old Testament more than a dozen times in this God-centered, God-exalting hymn of praise we call the Magnificat.

Mary is an inspiration and in the wondrous providence of God we learn much more about child-like faith from this teenager than we do from the aging priest.

As you look at these two people and their very different responses to God—where to do you find yourself by comparison?  Have you settled into a comfortable, entirely predictable, even routine relationship with God?  Would you accept and do you even long for a special movement of God’s Spirit in your life and in this church?  Each week, we have projected on our walls the words of Isaiah 43:19.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  How would your respond to a “new thing” from God—in unbelief like the theologically informed but faith-impaired Zechariah or in child-like faith as Mary did?  And the application should not just be in the out of the ordinary, dynamic moves of God’s Spirit.

Unbelief silenced Zechariah and it has a muting effect on us as well.  Who are you telling the good news to in light of the commission we have?  As you think about the return of Christ—is the reason you are not telling other people about it because deep down inside your heart is saying to God, “Do you expect me to believe this?”  May God in his grace give us the child-like faith of people like Mary so that as he reveals himself in our life and as we live with the commission he has given us, we will respond in wonder and the obedience that comes from faith.

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Page last updated 12/25/2005