St Michael’s 20th December (Carol Service)
Reading – Luke 1:5-38
How do you get ready for Christmas? Are you one of those organised people who buy all their presents in the January sales and eleven months later simply unpack them all from the wardrobe? Or you rather more of a last-minute person who enjoys ploughing through the madding crowds on Christmas Eve as you remember just in time you’ve forgotten Aunt Ethel’s present? Or do you simply leave most of it up to another member of your family and hope it will all come right on the day? Maybe the best way to get an honest answer to this question is to actually ask that other member of your family and see how well they think you are organised. Or maybe not, if we do actually want this to be a season of peace and goodwill …
But seriously though, no matter what method we adopt, one way or another we have to prepare for Christmas. We have to sort out where we are going to spend Christmas, who we are going to see, what we are going to eat, what presents we are going to buy, and 101 things as well. Christmas doesn’t just happen, it requires thought and planning and preparation. Rather like that first Christmas all those years ago. Because the birth of Jesus didn’t just suddenly happen because of a bright idea God had one day. It was an event which in one sense had been planned since the beginning of the world. It was something foretold hundreds of years earlier in the Hebrew Scriptures which we now know as the Old Testament. Every circumstance, every detail had been laid out from the very beginning, which makes it all the more remarkable that God should chose a virgin birth to an unmarried woman in a cattle shed in a small town called Bethlehem.
However the question I want to ask this evening is this: when did the immediate preparations for the birth of Jesus actually begin? The surprising answer is that they started some 15 months previously with a series of events that happened to an elderly priest called Zechariah. Now in many ways Zechariah was a most unlikely choice of person for God to use. He was a country priest who according to the custom of the day had served faithfully for many years both in his local area and on the duty roster of the temple in Jerusalem. His life was very similar to that of any other priest of the time, with a regular pattern of weekly, monthly and yearly services that he had observed for many, many years. He had no real reason to expect that this routine would ever change, and he certainly must have thought the time for God to do something great in him had passed.
But then something happened. One day the lot came up for him to go into the Holy Place on his own to burn the ceremonial incense. For us to realise how important this day was, imagine that there was a lottery system in place which allowed any vicar just once in their life to celebrate Holy Communion at Canterbury Cathedral. That’s how special and important an occasion this was to Zechariah. How did he react? There’s no way of knowing but I expect that when the lot was drawn there was both great joy and sadness in his heart. Joy, because this would be the pinnacle of his career as a priest. But sadness because at this point he knew there was no son to whom he could pass on the thrill of the moment, no son he could train and prepare to be a priest to follow in his footsteps.
So when his division of priests went up to the temple to perform their offices and the others shut the doors behind him so he could approach the altar of incense, Zechariah felt in every sense of the word alone. It was one of those occasion in your life when you find yourself on your own before God and you have to nothing to offer but the cries of your heart. But it was precisely at this point that the second surprising thing happened to Zechariah. An angel of the Lord appeared to him.
Now when it comes to the Christmas story we tend to think of angels as sweet, pretty little things who flutter around harmlessly singing the praise of God. But if you look closely, every time angels appear in Luke’s gospel – to Zechariah, to Mary, to the shepherds – the reaction of the people who see them is one of fear and terror. Because actually to meet with the Lord is a serious thing and we’ll come back to that thought later on.
It wasn’t however simply the appearance of the angel of the Lord that startled Zechariah. It was also the words the angel spoke. Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. Really, after all these years? After waiting so, so long for your hopes and dreams to be realised? After Elizabeth has been generally written off as too old by all the other women in the village? Yes, Zechariah, you will have a son. And not just any son. His name will be John – God is gracious. And right from birth he will be a special child to get God’s people ready for the coming of the Lord. He will be the agent of God’s grace preparing them to meet with the Messiah promised all those hundred of years ago. Through him that hope you and your people have been clinging onto through exile, occupation, and war will start to be realised and you yourself will see the Christ.
That’s some message isn’t it? Imagine being told that all your hopes, all your dreams, all your aspirations were surely going to come true in one single, miraculous event. Wouldn’t you be pretty excited? So how then, do we explain Zechariah’s reaction? “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” After all, in some ways it’s a very odd response. I mean, if an angel of the Lord came and spoke to me, there couldn’t really be much doubt that what he said was the word of God Almighty, could there? But maybe Zechariah’s answer reveals more than simple doubt. Maybe he had grown used to the same old routine, maybe he was resigned to living on his own with Elizabeth. The thought that the Lord would actually change his way of life and disturb his quiet, comfortable existence was just too much to handle. Sometimes, you see, even change for the better can seem the worse option than simply staying as you are.
Of course, Zechariah wasn’t wrong to ask questions. Even Mary, when she was told she was going to have a baby boy, asked questions. As we read in Luke 1:34: “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” But there is an importance difference between Zechariah’s reaction and Mary’s. Mary was prepared to accept the change God would bring to her situation, even though she didn’t understood how He could do it. Zechariah, on the hand, wasn’t. Yes, he was right to mention the fact that both he and Elizabeth were getting on years. But he turned that into an excuse to doubt and disbelieve the angel’s words, and that is why Gabriel silenced him, to teach Zechariah a lesson he needed to learn about accepting the Lord’s will for his life.
But then, again, would we have any reacted any different to the angel’s message? So let me ask you again: how ready are you for Christmas? I’m not talking here about the physical preparations, like getting the turkey or decorating the tree or writing all the cards. Nor am I talking about getting into the spirit of Christmas by attending a nativity play or a carol service like ours tonight. I am asking you how ready are you to respond to the message of the angels that you hear year on year. You see, I think the problem we have with the Christmas story is not that it’s all a big surprise. The problem is, we’ve become so familiar with it that we let the words wash over us and do not really take in what they are saying.
So let’s listen again to the words Gabriel spoke to Mary about her son 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 the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end. Because if these words are true, if they really are what the Lord Almighty has Himself promised, then it changes everything. It means that Christmas is not just the story of a tiny baby born in a manger 2000 years ago, but about the coming of a king who has set up a kingdom that still lasts today, a kingdom of authority and power to which we ourselves are called to submit. And if this is the case, then the message of Christmas is one that we too need to take seriously.
Because if the Christmas story contains God’s words to us, then we need to consider what we need to do to accept Jesus as king. We need to allow Him to disturb our comfortable routines. We need to be open to the possibility that He might want and change our lives for the better. We need to surrender to him our hopes, our dreams, our fears. All that and more is what is involved in accepting Jesus as king.
So who then will we be like this Christmas – will we be like Zechariah or will we be like Mary? Will our worship of Jesus in the manger be like Zechariah’s offering in the temple be the same old routine of years gone by? Or will we this Christmas like Mary say “Yes” to Jesus and allow Him to fill our hearts and minds with His Holy Spirit so that He can dwell in us as Lord and King and Saviour?
So let me ask again: how ready are you to meet with Jesus this Christmas?