St Barnabas 27th November 2011
So who is ready for Christmas? Do yo have everything sorted already? Are you one of those organised people just waiting for 25th December to come along? Or are you, like me, rather surprised how quickly Christmas has come this year and have you still got loads to do?
Write a list of some of the Christmas jobs you haven’t done yet. Just how many pages does it cover?!
Judging from most lists, it seems that very few, if any of us, are ready for Christmas. We know it’s coming each year, and we know what we have to do. But somehow it always seems to come more quickly than we imagine, and no matter how much we get organised, there’s always more to prepare.
Of course the first Christmas was a very different affair. There were no glitzy celebrations, no public holidays, no massive parties. Nobody even knew the exact date on which Jesus, the Son of God, would be born. But the Bible makes it clear that the people of God should nonetheless have been ready for this great event. For hundreds of years they had heard of wonderful prophecies about the coming of a king, and the birth of a child, Emmanuel, God with us. They might not have known how precisely these words were going to be fulfilled, but they should have been looking for, and expecting, something very special to happen.
But when the actual time came, who was ready for that first Christmas?
Certainly not Herod. He was happy being king of Judea. He liked having power and authority over his country, and he enjoyed his friendship with the Romans. He certainly didn’t want anyone or anything to upset his position. And when some wise men came later from the east looking for a new-born king he was not only surprised, but extremely angry. As far as he was concerned that first Christmas was a threat and a challenge, and something to be suppressed at the earliest possible opportunity.
What about Zechariah? After all, Luke tells us in verse 6 that both he and his wife Elizabeth were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. Surely if anyone was ready for the coming of Jesus, it had to be Zechariah. He lived a good life and he carried out all his priestly duties conscientiously. And yet…when an angel told him that his wife Elizabeth was expecting a child, what was his response? Verse 18: How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years. Zechariah was deeply religious, but he lacked the faith to believe that God could act. That’s why he too wasn’t ready for the first Christmas.
So if not Herod, if not Zechariah, what about the people of God? They had been taught well over the years, many of them knew the promises of Scripture by heart. Could it be they were ready for the first Christmas? Well, no, not if we look at the words Gabriel spoke to Zechariah about his son. Verse 17: And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. Clearly if the people had been living the kind of lives God was expecting, then this work would have been unnecessary. But instead they were disobeying God’s law and rejecting God’s wisdom. There was strife in families, fathers falling out with children, and children with fathers. They were focused not on God’s promises but on serving themselves.
That’s why before Jesus was born God sent John the Baptist. His mission was, as Gabriel goes on to say in verse 17: to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. For truth be told, no-one was really expecting that first Christmas. No-one was ready to receive Jesus as their new-born king. So before Jesus could begin His public ministry, John had to get the people ready through the preaching of repentance and baptism, so that they might begin to look forward to the coming of the Messiah.
And amazingly, this had always been part of God’s plan. Hundreds of years earlier the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed the coming of the Lord to God’s people and preached that wonderful message of comfort we heard in our first reading. But the Lord knew that the people would not be ready to receive such wonderful news, indeed the more you go on from this point in Isaiah you more you realise how they doubted the ability of God to save and act. And so John the Baptist’s role would become a vitally important one, a voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God”.
But of course that was then, and this is now. And I suppose the key question is: how is John the Baptist’s message relevant to us today? After all, we know all about the birth of Jesus Christ. Whether or not He was born on 25th December, there is a fixed time of the year where we gather to celebrate and rejoice that a Saviour has born. How does the message of a rather strange person calling out in the desert 2000 years ago then relate to us? Why is it that every December the church still lays such great emphasis on preaching and teaching about his ministry?
Well, let’s go back to those characters Luke introduces in our reading today. First up there is Herod. Not the same Herod we looked at on our Christianity Explored course, but an earlier version, with the same faults and failings. Now I am not suggesting that anyone here is directly like Herod – at least I hope no-one is – but let’s just think about him a little more.
After all, he wanted to be the boss of His own life, to remain in control of the little part of the world he ruled. I wonder, isn’t there a little bit of that attitude in each and every one of us? Yes, we are happy to think about baby Jesus being God’s Son, but are we actually prepared for that radical step of actually accepting Him as Lord and Saviour? If we’re honest with ourselves, can we really say this is something we are willing to do? Or would we be more honest to say that it is just one step too far?
Or what about Zechariah? I guess many of us love the familiar, traditional services that happen around Christmas time, and for good reason. But what if during one of those services God spoke directly and very personally to us? Especially if He told us He was going to do something completely surprising or unexpected? Yes, we would like to think we have the faith to accept what God was saying, but what actually would our response be? Again, I suspect there is rather more of Zechariah’s attitude in us than we care to imagine.
Or then again, we may not like to think we were actually disobeying God’s law like the people of Jesus’ time. But surely we are fooling ourselves if we think that our lives are pleasing to God in every part. None of us have hearts that are radically set on total trust and faith in God’s promises, none of us have a desire to surrender ourselves completely to His will.
And that’s why it is so necessary for us to have the season of Advent. Now I know the shops have had their Christmas stock in for weeks. Every year we have stories of Christmas getting earlier and earlier, sometimes even in August. And I know by this time of year everyone seems to be busy counting down the days to the big day itself. But I would argue there is a sense in which none of us are spiritually ready for the actual heart of the Christmas message, to worship Jesus and say: Here is your God. We need to reclaim the season of Advent, to step aside from all the hustle and bustle, and prepare ourselves to receive afresh the earth-shattering news that the very Son of God has come in human form.
So how do we do this?
Let’s go back for a moment to some words from our passage in Isaiah: A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever.”
Now that’s a cheerful message to share just before Christmas, isn’t it? Yet it is simply one that’s too important to ignore. Because so often we live as if what we are and what we do lasts forever, that in the grand scheme of things it is our achievements, our successes that count. Yes, we may say the word of God is important, but in practice we all too often ignore it or fail to live by it, because we don’t actually remember what it is, communication from the truly and living God, addressed personally to you and to me. All too often it ends up unopened or unread, or even worse, simply disobeyed. We behave as if we were the centre of the world and often try to push God out to the edges.
And if that’s our kind of attitude, then Isaiah tells us we have got things profoundly wrong. For in fact our achievements, our successes are in reality very small against the full sweep of human history. When the review of this year’s news events comes round at the turn of the year we will have already forgotten many of the headlines from last winter or spring. But what will stand firm is the word of God because God is the same yesterday, today and forever.
That’s why we need to take seriously the call of John the Baptist out in the desert, as Matthew records it (Matt 3:2): Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Now repentance is a big long religious word that we often use without really understanding what it means. In essence it quite simply means a change of heart. It involves taking the word of God seriously and recognising that He needs to be the centre of our lives. Not our work, our relationships, our hopes, our daydreams – but the living Lord Jesus Himself. And that involves practical action. It means letting Jesus take control, of bringing our daily lives under the control of Scripture, of allowing the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out.
I hope then you can start to see why each year we focus on John the Baptist in the season of Advent. It’s so that when it comes to celebrating Christmas we are found – in fulfilment of the angel’s message to Zechariah – as a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17). A humble, obedient people who recognise for ourselves this baby as their king, and who spread the true meaning of his birth for us.
So please don’t just take today’s passage as some kind of introduction or warm-up act for the main event. Rather, take some practical action so you too are ready for Christmas.
For example, take some time to read through the whole Christmas story from beginning to end. If it’s a little too familiar to you, find another version, or watch a DVD about it, such as the BBC series the Nativity, or take some time to discuss it with a friend. Don’t just let the Christmas story be just a story. Engage with it for what it is, as the living word of God, alive and active, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Then, when you’ve done that, reflect on what the message of the Christmas story means to you today. Think how it might relate to your busy lives day by day. Are there areas of your life might need to change? Indeed might there a cause for you to say sorry to God, and to repent?
Finally when you have done all that, of course don’t forget to rejoice. Because in a world where there is much pain and suffering we have good news. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
For the wonderful thing is, that’s not just a message to Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time, or the time of Jesus. It’s a message for us. The comfort of sins forgiven, salvation secured, eternal life won forever. So let me ask one more time, are you ready to receive it?