Sunday 21st December @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
What a difference a year makes
Christmas is a time when we tend to catch up with people we see only once a year, when we meet those relatives who aren’t quite so distant that we only see them at weddings and funerals, but aren’t quite so close that we visit them regularly. And of course the thing about seeing someone only once every twelve months, is that even before exchanging news you can see the changes that the past year has brought. Little Johnny is now six inches taller than last Christmas; uncle Bert has turned grey, and as for Great-Aunt Matilda, well, it’s clear she has a new set of dentures. A year really does make all the difference, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and it’s no more evident than when we go visiting at Christmas.
Now in our reading this morning from Luke’s gospel it’s nine months since we last came across Zechariah and what a difference those nine months have made! Nine months previously he came across as an old man, concerned with his duties in the temple, burdened by the terrible worry there was no child to succeed him. And look at him now! No mention at all of his age, no sign that he is in any way an old man. The years have literally rolled back and here he is praising and worshipping freely in a way quite unheard of for a priest. And what is the cause of this change? Well, if I was being mischievous I would suggest that after being silent in a household of women for such a long time, it might be due to the fact he is able at last to get a word in edgeways. More seriously, of course, it’s the gift of a fine, healthy baby boy after so many years of longing and waiting. But even the gift of the child doesn’t in itself explain why Zechariah is just so exuberant and full of praise. No, something deep and profound has being going on in Zechariah’s heart during those long months of silence, something best explained by the name Zechariah gives the baby boy – John, which means “God is gracious”. Zechariah, you see, has learnt an important lesson since the angel turned up in the temple and struck him dumb. He has learnt that despite his doubts and his unbelief the Lord has been good to him, and he wants to express his thanks with every fibre and every bone of his being.
A lesson in praise
And Zechariah’s song has been written down and preserved for us so that we too can learn to fully praise God for His goodness. I think one of the dangers in celebrating Christmas in the way we do is that we tend to focus on the small details of the story – the stable, the manger, the ox and the cattle – things barely even mentioned in Scripture – and we fail to see how Jesus’ birth fits into the big picture of God’s salvation. Zechariah’s song however takes us right back to the point and the purpose of the season, and reminds just why the nativity is such good news.
The promises of God
Because, first of all, Christmas is all about God keeping His promises.
Now it may be an obvious thing to say, but you won’t find the Christmas story at the beginning of your Bible. In fact, if you have a church Bible you find the New Testament actually starts on page 965, on the opposite side to a blank page, and after a title sheet saying “The New Testament”. So the question is, what’s in the previous 962 pages and why does it matter anyway?
Well, maybe the way to answer that is to think of your favourite film or story. Whatever the exact plot, I can almost guarantee that somewhere in the middle is a turning point on which the whole story revolves. Up until now it seems the bad guys have been winning, and the hero is in mortal danger, but now something happens, and you can at last start to see how the good guy might come out on top. It doesn’t mean the film ends there and then. There are still plenty of twists and turns on the way, but at the key moment you realise there will despite the odds be some sort of a happy ending.
And very roughly that’s how the Bible is written. The first 962 pages are taken up with various promises which God makes to His people, that one way or another never quite seem to reach their fulfilment. So, for example, the oath he swore to our father Abraham, which Zechariah refers to, is the promise God made way back in the book of Genesis to make through Abraham a people who would possess the land of Canaan and bless all nations on the earth. Which is all very well, but by the time we reach the end of Genesis God’s people only number 70, are living in exile in Egypt and only legally own one small piece of Canaan.
Or again if you leap forward to the book of 2 Samuel you will find God promising to David that he would always have a king who would sit on the throne in Jerusalem and whose reign would last forever. But again, by the time we get to the end of 2 Kings, the Babylonians have destroyed the city, sent the king and the people into exile, and put their own governor over the land. It’s little wonder that by the time we reach the book of Isaiah there is such a longing for God to intervene on behalf of His people. All these promises have been made, but all of them remain unfulfilled. The city is in ruins, the temple a burnt-out shell. How long, O Lord, before you do something? How long before your word finally comes to pass? Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!
And the good news of Christmas is that God finally has come down to this earth – although not with the trembling of mountains and the rending of the heavens. But He has come down, and become one of us. And the first reason why we should praise God is that at last all His promises have come to pass. In Jesus we have a king whose reign will last forever, and who is seated not on an earthly throne, but ascended and risen in heaven as everlasting Lord and Saviour. Through Jesus we now have a family of people drawn from many nations who act as a blessing to others, called the church. And although on one level it may not be strictly necessary to know what has happened in the previous 962 pages, at another it enables us to see that this moment when Jesus is born in Bethlehem is actually the turning point not of a story or film, but the whole of human history where, if I might put this way, we start to see how the good guy will win through. And the fact that God has kept His promises, and keeps them still today, should, as I said last week, be one of the major reasons why we turn to the Lord in praise and worship. So what does all this mean for us personally?
The purposes of God
Well, the second reason Zechariah praises God is for His purposes. If you want to know how the Christmas story makes a real difference to your life, then verse 68 gives the answer: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. Now I know that people find the word “redeemed” a long and complicated word, but the idea behind it is really quite simple. The word “redeem” means to buy back. So for example, if I went out tomorrow and bought a house with a mortgage, I would spend the next 25 years paying off the mortgage, and only after every last penny had been paid would I actually own the house. Up until that point, it legally belongs to the bank who lent me the money in the first place, and I have to redeem the mortgage before I can own it. And the same idea of buying back lies behind the common Biblical theme of redemption.
You see, the reason why God appeared to wait so long before fulfilling His promises was not because He was slow to act, or didn’t really care for His people. No, the real problem was at the end of the day the sin of His people. Instead of loving God with all their heart and soul and strength they loved other things and other gods a whole lot more. Instead of loving their neighbours as themselves they put themselves first and ignored the needs of others. Just as, in fact, all of us still do today.
And again, unless you understand the purposes of God you will never really understand the Christmas story. You see, the reason why Jesus was born was not to provide us with a pretty story that we can tell once a year, in order to make us feel better when the nights are long. No, Jesus was born in order to be a Saviour, someone who would pay on our behalf that huge debt we all owe God on account of the fact we neither loved Him as we ought or our neighbour as ourselves. And although we don’t like to think about this fact, Christmas is really just part of the preparation for Easter, where this same man born 33 years or so previously is nailed to a cross for you and for me. Not because God wanted His Son to suffer and die, nor because He was some cruel, angry dictator but because this was the only way you and I could be redeemed, saved, ransomed – bought out of the slavery of sin into the fullness of life with Him. And it is only because of the manger, the cross and the empty tomb that we are, borrowing from this song of Zechariah, rescued from the hands of our enemies and enabled to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
God’s means of preparation
So how then are we able to access this salvation? Well, if we move on in Zechariah’s song to verses 76-77, we will see that the third reason he praises God is for His preparation of His people. Now in the first instance Zechariah is of course referring to His new-born son, John, who will give the people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins and you may well remember how John the Baptist did just this as in his adult life he led people to confess their sins and be baptised in the Jordan River. But as a prophecy Zechariah’s words, it seems to me, have a far wider application which is also relevant for us today. Because, if we are to ask how we can know Jesus as our Lord and our Saviour – here is the answer. Confess your sins, believe in Jesus and accept His gift of eternal life. It really is as simple as that. For if we turn to God honestly, openly, seeking a fresh start with Him we will indeed find that tender mercy Zechariah talks about in verse 78. We will indeed be counted as those who have passed from darkness to light and from death to new life – verse 79. And we will have the living Lord Jesus who will be with us day by day to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Two Christmas challenges
And this is why we too are called to praise God. For the fact He keeps His promises. For the fact that in Jesus He has achieved His purposes of salvation. And for the fact that we can access that salvation through preparing to confess our sins and shortcomings.
So let finish by giving you two challenges: Firstly, how full of praise are you this Christmas? Are you focusing on the small details or on Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord? What time are you making this Christmas amidst all the pressures and the rush and general commotion to sit down and reflect on the stupendously good news that a Saviour has been to you, and you have this amazing privilege of receiving eternal life in His name? Let’s not leave Jesus as a tiny baby in a crib high up on a shelf, or as a pretty picture on a Christmas card, but let’s really welcome into our hearts, even if and especially if it happens to be your first time.
And when you have welcomed Jesus into your heart, what difference will He actually make to your everyday life? Wouldn’t be great if when you do your Christmas visiting, or maybe when you return to work afterwards, people could, without us even saying anything, see something different about us? May Christmas not be a time when we are as stressed and worried and busy as the next person, but a time when the light of Christ shines in us and through us so that others too learn to praise His name.