Sunday, 24 December 2017

Joy for the Helpless

Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.  Luke 1 v 78, 79.

An Expectant People?

One of the many things missing from our faith in 21st Century Scotland is a sense of expectancy.  Most of us don't expect very much at all.  We don't expect our situation to change any time soon, we don't expectantly look for God to work in a powerful way in our lives or in our churches and if most of us are honest we don't expect God to show up in our family life most of the time.  We don't think that our prayers will be answered  Most of us plod along, going to church, listening to sermons with little sense of expectancy.  

I wonder if this was Zechariah's problem in Luke 1?  Does this explain his reluctance to hear the good news the angel brought? He was a faithful man but not an expectant one.  

A Priest of the order of Abijah
Luke tells us quite a bit about this man whose incredible song at the end of Luke chapter 1 beautifully encapsulates what will happen when Jesus is born.  We know that Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah.  There were 24 different priestly divisions who helped out in the temple so he would only have been on duty for one week twice per year.  Zechariah was married to a priests daughter called Elizabeth.  Luke tells us they were both old and they were childless so beyond the age of hope for children.  The last thing we know about Zechariah and Elizabeth is that they were righteous and blameless.  So far so good.

A Priest without a Platform
Zechariah had been chosen to offer incense in the temple.  This would have been a career high point for the priest.  Other priests would have gone in to the holiest place but then they would have retired and left him alone.  It is here, all alone, that Zechariah comes face to face with a messenger from God.  We are told that the angel was Gabriel who said 'I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.'  Gabriel says this after Zechariah had questioned the news that he and Elizabeth were to have a son called John but by then the damage was done.  Zechariah had questioned God's messenger and therefore God's message or 'good news'.  So the priest is struck dumb.  God switches his microphone off.  He becomes a priest without a platform. 
Somehow he had domesticated God.  He believed that the messiah was coming, just not today, or this week or this month.  

Zechariah reminds me a little of Gideon in Judges 6.  In verse 7 the people of Israel cry out to the Lord on account of the Midianites.  The Lord sends a prophet to call them to repentance and then sends an angel to call Gideon.  God answers their prayers but how does Gideon respond?  'Please, Lord, how can I save Israel?  Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my fathers house.'  When the Lord answers the prayers of both Zechariah and Gideon one responds with doubt while the other responds with self pity.  

I don't know about you but that speaks powerfully to me.  We like a fairly predictable Christianity without too many surprises.  The last thing we want is for God to call us to fulfil his purposes.  We don't want to be pushed out of our comfort zone.  Zechariah's faith although real, had become domesticated.  His God was too small.  As William Phillip says in his wonderful book 'Songs for a Saviours Birth': ‘He [Zechariah] had lost sight of the sheer size and scope of God’s designs on this universe of ours’.  Somehow in all his rituals and routines, Zechariah had lost his sense of God working in his everyday experience.

A Promised Visitation
After a few months, Zechariah's tongue us unloosed and he breaks into song about the coming messiah.  By faith he saw that the coming messiah was the one that had been promised over many thousands of years.  The Israelites were an oppressed people and they were longing for a messiah.  They could echo the hymn writers words;

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Jesus had been promised and now he was coming!  Far from being a departure from the Old Testament, Jesus was the fulfilment of the everything.   As it says in Luke 24 v 44 ‘Then he (Jesus) said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’  The incarnation, the en-fleshing of God, is all about God keeping his covenant promises made through Abraham and David.  This is a God who can be trusted and followed.  He promises a redeemer and he sends one.

Sunrise on a beautiful frosty winter day 4 by MT-Photografien

A Powerful Visitation
What do we need to be saved from during this visitation?  Well Luke 1 tells us that we will be saved from fear and death (Luke 1 v 74 and 79).  Isn't it amazing how often the words 'fear not' are repeated during the incarnation?  We have an angel appearing to Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and the shepherds and each time they are told to 'fear not'.  Jesus has come to banish fear.  So why do we so often live our lives in a spirit of fear?  Why do we some Christians continue to attend churches here there is a climate of fear?  This is not why Jesus came, he came to set us free from fear.  Jesus is the fulfilment of Zephaniah 3 v 15-17: 'The King of Israel is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.'

The wonder of the incarnation is that this powerful deliverer will visit us from on high. Zechariah is seeing the powerful fulfilment of Malachi and Isaiah who both prophesied about the dawning of this great light: 'The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them the light has shone.  Isaiah 9 v 2.

A Personal 
Zechariah’s great song of praise is about a new dawn for the whole world.  But Zechariah’s song is not just about ‘out there’ is also about ‘in here’ – in our hearts, in our personal experience.  This is where the ‘Christmas card’ version of the incarnation and the Biblical account part company.

You see this baby didn’t just come to be born and live a good life.  He didn’t come so we could all have sweet sentimental carol services and nativity plays. He came to die for sin.  His birth must always be linked to his mission. We must never talk about the incarnation without talking about why Jesus came into this world.

He came because of darkness and sin – he came as the sunrise to dispel the darkness.  The incarnation is God coming into our midst – coming near to us so He could save us.  Christs visitation from on high enables many visitations into the hearts of those who, Like Zechariah, believe the good news about Jesus.  Who trust in Him and follow Him.  The incarnation – God dwelling amongst us is to give light to those who sit in darkness.

The incarnation is a glorious doctrine, but it is more – it is personal invitation.  The child in a manger became the Saviour on the cross.  There is a path all the way from Bethlehem to Calvary.  This baby had a mission and that was to save sinners like you and me.  It was all because of the tender mercy of God – literally Gods ‘inner parts’ were moved with love to send Jesus as the sunrise that would light the whole world.

Renewing our sense of Expectancy 

Zechariah's song is wonderful but it only happened after the Lord chastised him for his lack of faith.  While he was righteous and blameless I think Zechariah had stopped looking, had stopped expecting that the messiah was actually going to show up in his lifetime.  The news that his son was to be the forerunner to this incredible saviour was a total shock to Zechariah.  He was shocked that his prayers had been answered - he was shocked that the Lord was to perform a miracle in giving a long awaited child to Elizabeth.  I wonder if you have stopped expecting God to show up in your life?  Have you lost your sense of expectancy?

Is there joy for the helpless?  Absolutely!  The incarnation is all about hope for the hopeless.  In this dark and evil world we can sing with joy:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

As William Phillips says:

The message of Christmas is both simple and beautiful: God is calling out from heaven and saying, ‘Come to the sunrise! Rejoice in the light of my beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and the sun will surely rise in your life, bringing the dawn of a new day that never ends, of a sunset that never comes, of a light that is everlasting.’

Jesus came as he promised, he came powerfully and today he comes to you personally.  He is freely offered to you in the gospel.  Receive Christ with the empty hands of faith.  Whatever gift you receive this Christmas will not compare with this Saviour.  Maybe like Zechariah you have rejected his words in the past, but today God, in His tender mercy is offering you the most precious gift of all – the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has visited from on high – but the great question is – has He visited your heart?