St Barnabas and St Michael’s 18th December 2011
Reading – Luke 1:57-80
Have you ever received an offer that is too good to be true? If you happen to be on the Internet, or have a mobile phone, the chances are you receive these offers almost daily. You know the sort of thing, the text that tells you you’ve been chosen in a special prize draw, or an e-mail promising you an unbeatable way of making money. I hope everyone here either filters them out, or presses the delete key once they arrive. Because if an offer seems to be too good to be true, then the chances are, it is, and you may find yourself getting involved in something extremely unpleasant.
For example, I once knew of a man who was promised a substantial sum of money if only he agreed to bank a cheque for £100,000 from a Nigerian businessman. (This was about 20 years ago). As you might expect, the cheque bounced, and his commission never arrived, but he did get a visit from the local police who quite understandably wanted to ask a few questions.
But it’s not just dodgy e-mails from strangers that can catch us out. I don’t know how many of you saw the recent Panorama programme about the special deals supermarkets use to entice us in. While some, if not most of them, may save us money, some of them do not. Yet they rely on the fact we are so dazzled by their promotions we often don’t stop to think what it is the best value.
Quite rightly we don’t trust offers that seem too good to be true. But what about God’s offer to us? If you’ve been part of this church for some time you know that I regularly preach about the grace of God, how He offers forgiveness of sins, eternal life and a new relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ. Indeed I will return to this subject later on in the sermon. But let me ask up front: how have you responded to all that you have heard? Have you been listening? And if you have, what difference has God’s offer made to your life?
Zechariah was someone who heard God speaking to him. The angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple with the astonishing news we read about in Luke 1:13: 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. You see, Zechariah had been waiting for a son for his whole married life. The years had gone by, and humanly speaking the time had passed. Yet now an angel appeared to him – not only to say that he would have a son, but that this son would have a special place in God’s saving plans. And what was Zechariah’s response? How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.
As far as Zechariah was concerned, this news was too good to be true. He hadn’t realised the essential difference with God, that when God says something is going to happen, it will. So for the next nine months plus a few days he is struck dumb. Imagine what it must have been like for Zechariah during that time. Each day as Elizabeth grew bigger, as the back ache started, and the baby began to move for the first time, Zechariah would have been living with the fact the last words he had spoken were to question the angel Gabriel’s message. He could only watch on helplessly as Elizabeth went into labour and was delivered of child. He had no words to say as his son was laid in his arms for the first time. We can only speculate but during these long months Zechariah must have been doing serious business with God, repenting of his own unbelief, learning afresh the promises God had made with His people.
And then the time comes when in accordance with the Law of Moses the child is brought into the local synagogue to be circumcised. As a priest this was the sort of ceremony Zechariah himself may well have performed many times before. But of course he cannot speak. He can only look on from the sidelines as the service proceeds. Everyone else is saying the same familiar words he knows, yet he cannot join in. And then it comes to the part when the child is to be named. It seems that the boy’s going to be named after his father, Zechariah. Everyone is nodding to each other in agreement, then almost as an afterthought they turn to him – making signs, as if he were deaf, as well as dumb.
But Zechariah by now has learnt the angel’s message must be trusted and acted upon. So he writes down on a tablet – one made of wax, not an i-Pad, of course – “His name is John”. And as everyone looks at him in astonishment Zechariah suddenly finds he is able to speak again. In fact praise is just pouring out of his mouth. Questions, doubts and unbelief have given way to trust and hope and confidence, and above all a new sense of the Holy Spirit at work in his life.
So what does Zechariah gives praise for? There is a clue in the very name the child is given – John. Because the very name means “God is gracious”. Zechariah has learnt the hard way that God’s special offers are never too good to be true. Even his own lack of faith has not proven an obstacle to God working out His plans and purposes. But notice Zechariah’s song of praise is actually not about himself. And I think there’s something really important to learn here. Because when it comes to praising God, I know that so often I want to thank God for the things he has done personally in my life, as if they were the most important things.
Sometimes however we need to stand back and look at the bigger picture. After all, what’s most important in the biggest scheme of things is not how God has answered my prayer, but what God has done, not just for me, or for this church, but for everyone, everywhere. And that’s what Zechariah focuses on in his prophecy.
First of all, he rejoices in the fact God has acted:
Verses 68-69: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.
We have a God who takes decisive action. I think this is an important point to make at this time of year when we gather again to celebrate the Christmas story. Because for many people the Christmas story is just that, a story. It is simply a load of words we listen to once a year, a script for a nativity play, perhaps, or the text for a YouTube video. There is no appreciation of the fact that Christmas is about God acting decisively once and for all in human history, and that He still makes a difference today.
And how has God acted? Zechariah uses what sounds at first like a rather odd phrase borrowed from the Psalms of David where he talks about God raising up a horn of salvation. But imagine for a moment you are faced with a rhinoceros charging towards you. What’s the thing about the rhinoceros you would fear most? That’s right, it’s his horn. The horn stands for strength and for power and when a rhinoceros decides to use it, little can stand in his way. That may be a silly picture, but think now what Zechariah is saying about the coming of Jesus. Jesus is not just a little child in a manger, all meek and mild. He is a strong Saviour, a mighty Deliverer. Nothing can get in His way when it comes to His plan of salvation.
Now on the one hand, that can be a great comfort. To know that Jesus is there, always able to save, always able to hear our prayers, is just about the best news going. But on the other hand, it does mean that when we do business with Jesus we have to recognise He is so much greater than we are. He is the one with all authority and might, not us. And for quite a lot of people that fact is simply an inconvenient truth. We’d much rather be in control of our lives, rather than hand ourselves to Jesus and acknowledge He’s the boss, the number one. But as Zechariah learnt the hard way, the Lord is in control whether we like or not, and actually there is no better thing that any of us can do than submit to His plans.
God has acted. Secondly, God has remembered.
There are plenty of occasions in the Bible where it talks about God remembering His covenant – going all the way back to Noah and Gen 9:15. Again, this seems at first a rather odd expression, as if God was indeed the rather forgetful old man He is sometimes made out to be. But that’s not what is meant by God “remembering”. Rather when God remembers, He acts in accordance with His promises. His words point forward to His actions, and His actions reflect His words.
Why is this such a great reason to praise God? For the very simple reason, we can know what God is like and how He is going to act. There are so many people who spend their whole lives wondering what God is like. They may try all kinds of methods to get in touch with Him, from crystals to meditation to anything else that’s fashionable at the time. But if we want to know what God is like, we simply have to look at His word, and indeed at the Word made flesh in a manger in Bethlehem.
The apostle Paul wrote these words to the church in Colossae: in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Col 2:9).Not just a little bit, or some partial revelation, of God – but the whole, absolute fullness. So if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know God’s mercy and forgiveness, then look at Jesus. If you want to know God’s power to – using the language of verse 74 – rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear – then look at Jesus. And what we find when we look at Jesus should not surprise us because it is entirely consistent with the promises he made beforehand to Abraham, to Moses, to David. God has acted in accordance with His promises, and now all these promises are gloriously and wonderfully fulfilled.
God has acted. God has remembered. God has sent.
Of course, it’s all very well to say that God has taken decisive action, and kept His every promise. But how do others learn that this is so? The answer is, because God sends people to share the good news. Now of course in one sense the part John was going to play in his adult life was unique. His job was to prepare Israel at a very particular point of history for the coming of the Messiah. But in another sense the mission John was given is one that is given to all who to profess to follow Christ today. Verses 77-78… to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God.
God, you see, has the most amazing plan to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t send out lots of e-mails or text messages, or broadcast lots of advertisements. Rather He sends out people, ordinary people, like you and like me to share what Jesus has done in our own lives. And before you say that sounds all rather scary, and it’s something you could never possibly do, think for a moment about the people who gave you knowledge of salvation. Because the reason why any of us are sitting here this morning is that someone dared to tell us more about Jesus, to teach us about the forgiveness of sins, and the tender mercy of our God. How often, do we praise God, for these people who led us to faith? They, so to speak, played the part of John the Baptist in our lives and we should be deeply, deeply grateful for them.
Not only that, but their example should also be one we are inspired to follow. The chances are, whoever led you to faith was probably quite an ordinary person, a family member, perhaps or a friend. They may not have let on, but they were probably quite nervous or scared as they answered your questions. They might well have felt out of their depth, and they may have wondered if what they were saying was any help at all. But God used them nonetheless, in spite of their own faults and failings.
What about us? At Christmas time it seems to me that behind all the celebrations there are so many people wrestling with big questions such as: Will anyone forgive me for the mess I’ve made this year? Can I be free from my addiction? Does anyone actually care for me? If we cannot use this opportunity to point to the manger and the empty cross, then, brothers and sisters, what are we really all about? God is not asking us to give all the answers, to present a coherent, theologically sound, and completely articulate statement of faith. But He is asking us to show others Jesus, to show that God is there, that He has acted, that He has made Himself known. Because that is the very essence of the Christmas story we are celebrating, and it is one that God calls all of us to share.
And this seems an appropriate note on which to finish our Advent sermon series. Over the past few months as we have looked at Jesus’ stories in Matthew’s gospel and the first chapter of Luke we have focused, and rightly so, on being ready both to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ birth and his return as King and Judge over all. But now as we are about to celebrate Christmas for ourselves, what are we going to do to tell others about the good news which really is true? Will we be silent like the old Zechariah out of fear and unbelief? Or will we be like the Zechariah we read about today, praising God in the power of the Holy Spirit so that others too accept God’s offer for themselves?
God has acted. God has remembered. And now He is sending you.