Reading – Luke 1:57-80
St Michael’s and St Barnabas 21st December 2014
So today is the 21st December. There are only four days left to Christmas, and for many people I know this is a particularly stressful time of year. At home there are just so many last minute preparations to be made, maybe even presents still to be bought. At work, there are deadlines to be met before you can pack up for your Christmas break. Maybe we face long, difficult journeys to see those we love; maybe we are to about to have an unexpected visit and there so many things to get ready.
Today is also the shortest day of the year and I know how difficult many find these winter months. With the cold weather and the long nights, plenty of folk struggle to manage their own health or care for someone they love. It’s often a time of anniversaries when we become profoundly aware of those who are no longer with us this Christmas. And for some the sheer absence of warmth and sunshine simply drags them down and makes each day more of an effort than usual.
Yet we know this is also supposed to be the season of good cheer. We are called to rejoice in the birth of a Saviour, and to celebrate the love of family and friends. And I guess for many people there is a real tension between how they are feeling and how they believe they ought to feel.
So this morning I want to ask – what place should praise have in our lives? And how can our praise make a difference to all these situations I have just outlined?
Let’s turn to our gospel reading this morning, which is the second part of the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We were introduced to him two weeks ago and if you were here, you will remember that he was a good, respectable man who served as a priest in the Lord’s temple. Outwardly he and his wife lived the sort of exemplary moral life that showed real commitment and obedience to the Lord’s commands. But as we saw, Zechariah was someone who on the inside was struggling with the Lord’s promises to come true. He was waiting for a child; he was waiting for his turn to burn incense in the Holy Place – a once in a lifetime opportunity; and he was waiting for the Messiah.
And after so many years of waiting Zechariah had given up believing that the Lord would ever fulfil his promises. Not even when he is finally chosen to enter the Holy Place and an angel appears to him. Not even when the angel speaks and promises not only a child, but a very special son who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. So after the angel finishes speaking, all Zechariah can say is: How can I be sure of this? (v.18) Zechariah had become so certain the Lord had passed him by, his heart was simply unprepared to accept the good news that the angel gave him.
Now it’s nine months since the angel visited Zechariah in the temple. Nine silent months as Zechariah has been struck dumb for his refusal to believe. No-one is ever quite sure that he will ever speak again, and Zechariah is getting used to communicating in other ways. But these months have been anything other than quiet. Elizabeth has to everyone’s surprise fallen pregnant. There’s been a most unusual visit from her cousin Mary. And now Elizabeth has given birth to a strong, healthy son. There’s a bit of an argument about what the son should be called. Everyone turns to Zechariah who writes down the boy’s name, and then suddenly Zechariah starts speaking again.
And what a contrast we find between the Zechariah of nine months ago and the Zechariah of today! Then Zechariah was cautious, perhaps even slightly cynical. Now Zechariah is exuberant, believing and full of praise. Then he was full of questions: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” Now he is full of bold declarations of faith: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people (v.68).
So why exactly does Zechariah praise God so extravagantly?
First of all, he is profoundly grateful for God’s mercy.
As we saw now just now, the angel struck Zechariah dumb when he refused to believe his message. But it could have been a lot worse. During those long silent months, Zechariah must have reflected on the many occasions in the Old Testament when the Lord struck down those who refuse to believe in Him. He would have considered how God’s people were defeated and driven into exile because they no longer trusted in the Lord or worshipped Him alone. And yes, it was certainly an inconvenience not being able to speak. But it could have been a whole lot worse. The Lord had been kind and merciful to him, even though he had not deserved such kindness.
Do we, I wonder, ever reflect on the Lord’s kindness and mercy to us? In Romans 6:23 the apostle Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. Paul doesn’t mean that the Lord zaps us every time we do something wrong, although He could if He chose to do so. What he does mean is that when we refuse to trust in the Lord, our relationship with Him is affected, and we end up cut off from His love and His mercy. That is a kind of spiritual death and it is one that we all deserve, because none of us have loved the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Yet the story of Christmas is that God does not deal with us as we might expect. As Paul goes on to say: the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That is the unexpected mercy that God shows to us, and it is the first reason why we also should praise Him.
Secondly, Zechariah gives thanks for God’s faithfulness.
Why is Zechariah so insistent that his son should be called John? Very simply, because that’s what the angel said his name should be. Verse 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. Zechariah has come to understand that his son is a gift from God, just as the angel has promised. And although he has to learn the hard way, he has discovered that when God says He will do something, He will do it. It may not be in the way we expect. It may not be at the time that we want. But we have a God who can be trusted.
How do we know that we can trust God in the same kind of way? The answer lies in a manger in Bethlehem. This is the ultimate proof that we have a God who is with us and who is on our side. All the promises that God has made and will ever make are fulfilled in Jesus who is the same, yesterday and forever. There is no situation we face where Jesus is not present with us; no situation where Jesus will not hear our prayers; no situation where His Holy Spirit cannot fill us. We can rely on God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, wherever and whenever we find ourselves. He is utterly faithful to us, and for this reason too we should give Him thanks and praise.
So Zechariah gives thanks for God’s mercy. He gives thanks for God’s faithfulness. And, thirdly, He gives thanks for God’s salvation.
Now I realise that every year as we celebrate the Christmas story we talk a lot about a Saviour and salvation. And I think we can sometimes take it for granted that everyone understands exactly what we are talking about. But just because we talk about something an awful lot doesn’t automatically make it clear. Indeed we can assume that we use a word like salvation, the person hearing us understands it just like we do, which in fact may be far from the truth.
Let’s then, take a little time to look at the song of Zechariah, to see what we can learn about this word “salvation”.
How many people belong to a Christmas savings club? Or maybe save up their Clubcard or Nectar points for the big holiday shopping trip? If you do, you will know what it means to redeem your savings. You take out all the moneys you have put away over the past year, or convert the savings points you have accumulated to buy something that you really want.
Now the Bible often uses the image of us being in debt. We all owe to God and to each other a debt of love that we can never fully satisfy. Whatever else sin might mean, it does mean that we so often put ourselves and our interests before any concern to honour God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. But Jesus satisfies that debt by dying on the cross in our place for our sins. He deals with all our selfishness and greed so that when we believe in Him we have a new relationship with God as our loving Heavenly Father.
That’s why we can say confidently with Zechariah: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and has redeemed his people. Jesus has paid the debt of love we could never meet by ourselves. He has bought us to be God’s own people, not by cashing in loyalty points, or taking out savings, but by shedding His own precious blood. That’s what we mean when we talk about being redeemed.
So salvation is about being redeemed. It is also about being rescued.
In his song of praise Zechariah mentions about being rescued from the hands of our enemies (v.74). For the people of Israel at that time it was pretty clear what that rescue would be all about. It would be deliverance from the Romans, and restoration of their nation. But of course, if you know the story of Jesus, you will know that one thing Jesus failed to do was change the political situation of the time. And indeed, one reason why Jesus was crucified was because precisely He did not turn out to the sort of Messiah that the people were expecting. Instead of defeating the Romans, the Romans nailed Him to a cross. In what sense, then, did Jesus come and rescue us from the hands of our enemies?
I guess, the answer lies in the fact that so often we see the biggest threats we face as being purely physical. And that is not surprising, when you are living with the tyranny of an unjust government, or persecution from those who oppose your faith. But the Bible teaches us that beyond the purely physical threats, there are dark powers that are working against us, that we are involved in a spiritual conflict where for a little while the evil one is able to cause chaos and suffering in this world. The rescue mission of Jesus is to defeat the power of the evil one once and for all.
And even though at present we may experience fear and anxiety and suffering, the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus tells us that ultimately we will share in His victory. That is why, as Zechariah goes on to say in verses 74 and 75, we are able to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Because, very simply, when we believe and trust in Jesus, we are on the winning side. There is nothing or no-one powerful enough to break our relationship with Him. We are His forever.
Salvation is about being redeemed. It is about being rescued. And it is about being remembered.
What does Zechariah mean he talks about God remembering his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham? (verses 72-73). It’s not, as we might sometimes believe, that God is forgetful or that He overlooks His promises. When the Bible talks about God remembering, it means that He looks upon our plight and He acts. Not, as we have seen, because of our own goodness, or because we deserve His love, but because of His kindness and His mercy. The coming of Jesus fulfils the promises made hundreds of years previously to Abraham (verse 73) and to David (verse 69).
And this is important to us because it reminds us that we have not been forgotten by God. When God makes a promise, it will come to pass. So we need to learn the promises of God, claim them and to live by them. We can really use them as a solid foundation for our lives each day because we can know they are trustworthy and sure.
But let’s go back to where I started. As I said at the beginning, it is 21st December. It is a time of great stress for many, and for others a very difficult time of year. Yes, we have thought this morning about some of the reasons we should praise God. We have seen that in every situation we can praise God for His mercy, His faithfulness and His salvation. We have seen that we have been redeemed, rescued and remembered through Jesus Christ and have a relationship with our Heavenly Father that can never be broken.
But perhaps for some of us even that sounds a little theoretical, a little remote from the situation that you are facing. Perhaps you are still wondering if you really have a reason for praising God this morning. And I am certainly not going to stand here and minimise the difficulties you are facing.
What I am going to do, however, is simply draw your attention to the end of Zechariah’s song, where he likens the coming of Jesus to the rising of the sun from heaven to, verse 79: shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. And if today you are living in darkness or the shadow of death, then my simple prayer for you is that you might even now experience that same light and peace of Jesus Christ right there with you. Because that is where God’s mercy and faithfulness and salvation leads to, the assurance that, even though you may not feel it at the time, His presence will be with you in the darkest place and deepest valley.
That why is ultimately we can offer God a sacrifice of praise today. We have been redeemed. We have been rescued. We have been remembered. And because Jesus has come to us we can know that thanks to Him – as Paul writes in Rom 8:39 that neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen!