This is the first Sunday of the season we call Advent. Advent consists of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. It is a time of preparation that reminds us that God has come and that this is but the first of two comings.
As we prepare for Christmas this year we are going to look at the Call of the Angels in the lives of Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds. Each was called by the angels to do something.
We don’t spend a lot of time talking about angels although many different religions reference angels and that adds to the confusion. The truth is, we don’t know a great deal about angels. Much of the information we believe about angels is wrong. For example: people do not die and become angels! It Angels are created beings, and are categorically different from people. We continue to be people in Heaven, angels continue to be angels. It is also not true that every time a bell rings an angel gets their wings. There is also no reason to think you can pray to an angel and get any kind of response at all. It is surprising how many people draw their beliefs from what they have heard or seen on television rather than from the Word of God.
The Bible speaks of angels in over three hundred different places. They existed before God created the earth. There is apparently a hierarchy of angels because we learn about the Archangel Michael in the book of Daniel. In Revelation, it talks about Michael and his angels. Gabriel, who we will learn about in the Christmas story, says he stands in the presence of God which appears to indicate he is a high-ranking angel.
The book of Hebrews tells us that angels are ministering spirits who are sent to care for believers. The Bible also pictures angels standing around the throne of God giving Him praise and worship. Also in Hebrews, we are told that we should not neglect hospitality to strangers because they might be angels in disguise! The point is that we have likely encountered angels without even knowing it.
This morning we look at an account that tells us of a time when Zechariah had a meeting with an angel. We find his story in the gospel of Luke. Before we get to Zechariah, let’s look at the first words of the gospel. We often skip over the first verses of Luke but that is a mistake because we learn some important things here.
Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Theologian NT Wright points out that the beginning of Luke’s gospel is almost identical to that of the Jewish historian Josephus. In other words, Luke is writing a well-researched historical account. Most likely Luke interviewed some of the principle parties (like Mary) and learned about others from the “storytellers.”
In Bible days, they couldn’t look things up on the Internet. They didn’t have newspapers, public libraries or anything else. Whenever an event took place (like an earthquake or the arrival of a unique teacher and miracle worker) the word would be passed along verbally. The “storytellers” were the historians of the day. They did not “spin yarns” or engage in exaggeration. Once the original story was shared others were around to make sure the story remained accurate. They had the sacred duty of preserving history. There was a nice “check” on this. Since others had heard the story they would also know if it was being repeated incorrectly
Let me give you an example of this I found in my reading this week. At this time of the year many people read, “Twas the night before Christmas.” It is not a new story, everybody knows how it goes and the rhyme that is part of the story. So let’s say someone was telling the story to say, a bunch of children. They start off, “Twas the Night before Christmas and all the through the house, not a creature was stirring except for the mouse.” What is going to happen? One of the children is going to say, “That’s not Right!” It should say, “not even a mouse,” you had better start over.
The point of all of this is for us to realize that what we hear about the angels this Christmas season is not fables, it is carefully researched history.
Luke next turns to Jerusalem where the temple of Israel resided. It is here we are told, the story of Zechariah, an elderly Jewish priest. In Zechariah’s time, there were better than 20,000 priests. Anyone male who was a direct descendent of Aaron was a priest by birth. Because there were so many priests, in the time of David, the group of priests was divided into 24 divisions Zechariah belonged to the priestly division named after Abijah. Twice a year each division would serve at the temple for a one-week period.
One of the most sacred jobs for a priest was to offer incense in the temple of the Lord (this happened in the morning and late afternoon) in the presence of God. However, this was a one-priest at a time job just like several of the others that dealt with the interior of the temple. Since there were so many priests, these specific jobs were chosen by lot (think of drawing your name out of a hat). As I understand it, once a priest had served in this one of these jobs his name was taken out of the hat. This allowed as many priests as possible to serve in the temple itself. However, many if not most, of the priests were never chosen for the honor.
One of those who had never been chosen was Zechariah. He was getting near mandatory retirement age and his opportunities were dwindling. This year, however, Zechariah’s name was pulled from the hat.
This was especially good news because Zechariah and Elizabeth were unable to have children. Most people saw this as a curse from God. Zechariah’s selection must have seemed like a little bit of vindication.
What happened next is recorded in verses 11-20,
11 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. 13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. 14 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 16 And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. 17 He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
19 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
So Zechariah is having the greatest privilege in his life (to this point) and while he is doing what he was trained to do and angel appears. The angel frightens Zechariah. I am pretty sure the angel would have unnerved us also.
The angel, in verse 19, identified himself as the angel Gabriel. So, God sent one of his top angels to visit Zechariah in the temple. What the angel told Zechariah was completely unexpected. He told him that all those prayers that he and Elizabeth had prayed wanting a child, had been heard by God. He said, God was going to answer that prayer.
We need to stop for a second here to point out a historical fact. No one in Israel had had any communication with God for 400 years! The very fact that God had manifested Himself through the angel was pretty big news to start with. And what the angel said was almost too good to be true. When the Old Testament ended there was this promise,
Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
Gabriel told Zechariah that his son was going to be the person mentioned in the last verse of Malachi before the Lord’s self-imposed silence. Not only would this child be in the spirit and power of Elijah he would serve as the forerunner (or table-setter) for the long-awaited Messiah. The child’s job was to get people ready for the Messiah (Jesus).
This is a lot to take in for an old man who came into the temple to do his job. (it is interesting to observe how often it is someone just like this; someone doing His regular job that has an encounter with God.
Zechariah basically says to God, “my wife is old, she is past child-bearing age. . . how can I know this is really true? It was an innocent question. It wasn’t that Zechariah didn’t believe . . . He wanted to believe but he didn’t know how it could be possible.
Because Zechariah asked for answers instead of simply taking God at His word, Zechariah wouldn’t be able to talk about what had happened in the temple. So, for the next nine months, Zechariah could not speak. I suspect either through writing or pantomime he shared what happened with his equally surprised wife Elizabeth.
Sure enough, nine months later their child was born. They named him John. We know him better as John the Baptist.
What Are We to Learn?
Zechariah and Elizabeth were told by the angel Gabriel that they were going to be part of preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Their son, was the one who was to ready the people for the coming of the Messiah.
Our job during the Advent season is to prepare for the coming of Christ once again in our hearts and lives. Christmas is a time when we remember what God has done for us in sending us His Son. It is the time we are humbled by the reality of the sinful condition of our soul which necessitated a Savior,
Allow me to give you a few suggestions for how we can better prepare for Christ in our homes and our hearts this Christmas.
First, we must slow down. Busyness is the greatest barrier to worship and for a significant relationship with God. You cannot turn your heart to the Lord if you spend all your time looking at your To-Do List or checking messages on your phone.
I know it seems counterintuitive to suggest slowing down when “there is so much to do,” but in our rush to do, we often miss the one we are supposed to be celebrating and following.
I have shared the illustration before of the family who invited all their family and friends over to celebrate the dedication of their child to the Lord. It was a big day! Lots of hors d’oeuvres, a host of family members, people from the church, and many friends came to the house on a chilly fall day to celebrate the gift of a child that had been given to their friends. As the family and friends arrived they were all greeted warmly. They threw their coats on the bed and celebrated. Finally, someone said, “Where is the guest of honor?” The parents said, we laid him on our bed to sleep. When they went to find their child he was buried under all the coats. He had suffocated and died.
It seems at times that this is what happens to Christ at Christmas. We gather to celebrate Him but He gets buried under parties, gift-buying, family gatherings, and preparing special meals. We are more concerned about our budget (which is a good thing normally) than we are concerned about our heart.
I encourage you to prepare and renew your heart this Christmas by making time. Make time to
- Repent of sin. Confess your idols of work, family, or even your obsession for making it on your own.
- Reflect on Scripture. It might be good to read through the story of the Incarnation in Matthew and Luke but it doesn’t matter where you read. Read, listen, and then obey. God speaks to us most clearly in His Word. Find a spot in your home and your heart to enjoy the fellowship of the Lord through reading His Word.
- Re-tell the story to others. Christmas is an invitation to talk about Christ. You can re-tell the story with your children. Remind them that Jesus was a real man born to all people, to help us to know God and His forgiveness and new life. You have family members who do not understand the true Christmas Story. They may have grown up in church but they never understood what was being said. This is the time to share the story. You can use Christmas traditions, Christmas Carols, specials on television, elements in a special program, Christmas cards, gifts, and many other things as a starting point to point people to the real story of Christmas. Point them to Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1 and 2. Who knows? They may read further in the story to learn about the baby who grew into a man and gave His life as a payment for our sin.
- Take the time to honor the Lord who is behind the joy of Christmas.
Second, Listen anew to the Christmas story. I find that one of the dangers I have in reading the Bible is that I find myself at a familiar passage and I read the words but the familiarity of the text may shift my mind into neutral. I believe I know what the text says, so I don’t really need to concentrate on what I am reading.
The same thing can happen at Christmas. It is such a familiar story that we no longer pay attention to it. The challenge each year is to see the story with fresh eyes. We try to do this in our preaching because the same thing can happen to us: we can tell the story without allowing the impact of these events to touch our heart.
Let me give you some ideas on how to do this,
- Read the Christmas story in a different translation of the Bible (like the Message)
- Put yourself in the shoes of the principle characters. In other words, imagine what it was like to be Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, the Magi . . .and even Herod and the other residents of Bethlehem.
- Write down a paraphrase of the story (I did this when I talked about drawing names out of a hat instead of casting lots). In other words, write it as if it were happening today. For that matter think about these events as if they were happening in La Harpe.
- Take some time and try to think God’s thoughts with Him. Why did God do this? Why did He do it this way? Why does He love us after all we have done in opposition to Him?
- Read a book on the Christmas story. There are several great books. Max Lucado has written a couple and Tim Keller also has a good one. These can help you see Christmas from a little different angle.
- Think about the Christmas story as something God did to reach you. Imagine where you would be without Christmas. Allow the wonder of this to overwhelm you all over again.
It is hard to imagine the joy and anticipation that was in the heart of Zechariah and Elizabeth as they went through their amazing journey. The silent God has spoken . . . and He had spoken to them!
God also wants to speak to you this Christmas. He probably will not send an angel to you, but, if you are listening, He will speak. It may be through a child, a stranger, a song, a sermon, or through the newly energized familiar words of His Word. And of this one thing you can be sure: if you listen when He speaks . . . it will change your life forever.