What would you think if I were to say to you this morning that the first baby of Christmas was not, in fact, Jesus?
And what if I were to suggest that the miracle of Jesus’ birth began to unfold long before that holy night when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem; even before the Angel Gabriel brought the news of his coming to Mary – how about if I told you that the true and complete “untold story” of Christmas actually has to do with an old man who discovers that where God is concerned, it’s never too late to have a baby!
Now, lest you think I’m offering up a revisionist version of the gospel story, this is in fact how Luke begins his nativity story – and while it’s not a part of this story we spend a lot of time on as Christmas draws near, I would suggest to you that the passage of scripture we just shared is crucial to our understanding of the miracle of Christ’s coming; because with God, that which comes before has everything to do with what’s to come.
Walter Wangerin, Jr., in his wonderful little book of meditations entitled Preparing for Jesus, explains this very well when he writes that “every present moment is well-rooted in the past …even the miracles of God, so sudden seeming, have been nurtured in love through the ages to the moment of their appearing …God, you see, is God of history: weaving its past and its future together; designing the times by overseeing the intricate patterns of human events; granting meaning to the whole of humankind, and thereby making any single moment, also, incandescent with meaning …even so did God prepare for the entrance of the Savior into the world …even so, in Luke, do these few verses about one humble old man” indicate the miraculous coming of the infant Jesus.
His name was Zechariah – a Hebrew name that means “God remembers.” Zechariah was a temple priest, married to a Levite by the name of Elizabeth; and both, as scripture succinctly puts it, were “getting on in years.” Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth had long prayed for a child, but this had never come to pass, and now they were much too old; so Zechariah’s life pretty much revolved around serving God by taking care of the temple according to faith and tradition. And there was honor in that, to be sure – but even Zechariah would have said there was really nothing all that remarkable about him or his life.
But then came the angel. As Luke picks up the story, Zechariah is at the temple, lighting evening incense at the altar of God, at the place deep within the temple called the “Holy of Holies,” making ready for the prayers of the people to God, who were assembled outside – this was a sacred duty for which Zechariah had been chosen by lot to perform, and he was ready. But even Zechariah was unprepared for what was to happen in that moment: “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense” – and if that weren’t enough, the angel was calling him by name: Zechariah! And he was terrified; because every temple priest understood that one could not expect to experience the glory of God in this fashion and live – and yet, this angel was not only bringing comfort in the midst of his fear, but also incredible news: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
It’s a divine gift, not only to this couple but also to the world – a child who will not only “be a joy and a delight” to his parents, but one for whom “many will rejoice at his birth;” one who will grow to be a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit; a messenger to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord. His name, the angel says to Zechariah, will be John, which means, “God has given grace” – the one we’ve come to know as… John the Baptist.
Now, keeping in mind this idea of how the past and the future intermingle in God’s plan, think about all the connections here: how Zechariah and Elizabeth bring to mind another biblical couple – Abraham and Sarah, two people who were also of advanced age and yet were promised the blessing of children. How in both cases, the promises of the past are fulfilled while the bright promise of a future is set in motion; and how God’s ultimate plan is revealed slowly, gradually in and through seemingly unrelated circumstances and in the hearts and lives of God’s faithful people.
Or consider the fact that in just a few short months, Elizabeth’s young cousin, a girl named Mary, will come to visit her in the hill country of Judea, bringing amazing baby news of her own; and “that when Elizabeth [hears] Mary’s greeting, the baby [leaps] in her [own] womb, and Elizabeth [is] filled with the Holy Spirit.” Or consider how many, many years out, these two children will again meet as adults on the edge of the River Jordan, and one will baptize the other. Yes, amazing things are starting to happen; and there in the temple in the presence of old Zechariah, God’s amazingly graceful miracle in Christ was starting to unfold.
And how does Zechariah respond?
Well, how do you expect he’d respond? I mean, not only has the angel of the Lord appeared to him; not only is he told that he’s to have a son when such a thing could never happen; but also that this son is going to have a name, and a purpose, and a link to God’s sure and certain promises to a world that’s desperately aching for the Messiah. This is news of monumental, cosmic importance – the hope of the whole world has just been announced to him in the temple of the Lord. So what does Zechariah say?
He says, “No way.” Can’t be… get out of town… yeah, right!
Mind you, that’s not exactly the biblical translation – as we heard it this morning it’s, “How will I know that this is so;” but make no mistake, it’s an answer dripping with utter and unrestrained disbelief! The Message translation actually cuts to the heart of it: “Do you [really] expect me to believe this?” No matter that this is “Gabriel, sentinel of God” speaking– Zechariah is not buying it! And, honestly, most of us can understand why! I mean, old people having babies, little kids growing up to be messengers heralding the coming of the Messiah, God coming to the world? For that kind of thing to happen, it would have to be… a miracle! And miracles just don’t happen every day, not for Zechariah anyway; and certainly not for you or me.
You know what happened next: Gabriel finally says, well, it’s all true, Zechariah, but since you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word about it – or anything else, for that matter – until the day of your son’s birth. Maybe this will remind you “that every word I’ve spoken to you will come true in time – God’s time!” So now Zechariah can’t even share this experience with anyone, much less announce it to those praying for a Messiah outside the temple walls; and sure enough, if you read ahead in Luke’s gospel, it isn’t until months later and little John the Baptist is born that Zechariah’s “mouth [is] opened and his tongue freed, and he begins to speak” – in fact, the first thing Zechariah does is to sing in wholehearted praise and thanksgiving, as if making up for lost time! Now, at last, Zechariah quite literally embraces this utterly unlikely miracle in his life, and is compelled to sing and shout to everyone everywhere of what God has done and about what kind of child this was going to be!
It’s a great story; kind of a Christmas story “prequel,” if you will, one that gives the events of the nativity a somewhat broader perspective – but even more than this, Zechariah’s story serves to remind us of how unlikely and miraculous a thing Christmas really is, and of our need, most especially in this time of waiting and watching, to embrace for ourselves this miracle of what God has done and promises yet to do.
Remember, in this season of Advent we are called not only to prepare ourselves for celebrating the birth of Jesus, but also and perhaps even more importantly, to prepare our hearts and lives for his return in “God’s time.” There’s a simple verse of scripture, a stated promise, which comes at the very end of the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible: “Surely I am coming soon.” (22:20) This is the truth we proclaim as Christians, the promise of faith that’s central to the miracle of Christmas – I am coming soon! But in that proclamation there’s a question for each one of us; and it’s, “What do we do with this?”
Do we let this miracle of the Christ Child fill up our being; do we have it direct and inform our celebration of this and every season of the year? Will this miracle make all the difference on what we choose to say and do with and around others? Will we, like Zechariah before us, sing and shout and actually live like we believe? Do we truly embrace the miracle?
Or, do we live in the posture of doubt? Do our attitudes and behaviors deny the possibilities of what God can do in the world and in our hearts? Do we carry ourselves in this life; worse, do we carry ourselves as Christians in such a way that says that this is all there is and that can ever be, and that miracles can never happen? Are we one of those people who looks at what God sets before us, only to respond, “Show me and prove it, and then I’ve believe it and support it?”
Granted, I think we all understand that doubt is part of how we’re wired as people, and a healthy bit of skepticism is not altogether a bad thing – but Zechariah’s story warns us that when we let our doubts become a sign of our mistrust in God’s promises, we risk losing the possibility of what God can do for us, within us and through us by those promises. And that would be tragic, for these promises of God are precisely what gives us what we need to face the challenges of our lives and this world; it’s what will drive us in daily matters of faith, courage and love, and it’s what will lead us along the pathway of his kingdom.
Friends, it’s crucial in these Advent days and most especially in the times of uncertainty and doubt in which we live, that we step back and behold for a moment the larger view of God is working – because when we do we will find that God is indeed still speaking and that all things are moving by God’s intent toward the ultimate good; and it is affirmed in Christ’s own spoken promise: “Yes! I am coming soon!”
May our response to that promise be the same as that of the little baby who grew up to be John the Baptist: preparing the way of our hearts, and embracing the true miracle to come! For when we do, to quote Walter Wangerin again, “[Our] joy, [our] present beauty, [our] complete sense of assurance and belonging – these shall be signs of the Lord’s trustworthiness and of our trust, signs of his love until he comes in glory.”
He comes soon and very soon, beloved. Soon and very soon! So let us live expectantly unto his coming, and let us embrace the miracle with lives of faith and joy!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry