This morning we begin a little series of worship gatherings leading up to Christmas--a series that will include messages, and hopefully some conversation, a little series that I'm calling "REAL Joy": Real Joy in contrast to the false "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the yuletide gay" attempt to manufacture good times in this season; joy that comes from the truth of God, his love and his promises.
During December we'll be reading through the first chapter of Luke, and this morning we'll read chapter 1 verses 1-25 and hear about the angel Gabriel who came and announced the birth of Jesus' cousin, John.
The angel spoke to Zechariah, the one who would be John's father. He spoke to Zechariah in the temple of God:
"Do not be afraid... your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you. Many will rejoice because of his birth. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. He will bring many of Israel's people back to the Lord their God. He will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."I'm hoping we can stop revel a bit in those wonderful promises God gave Zechariah, promises that are made sure because of what God has done through Jesus. (1) Not to be afraid! (2) Prayer has been heard! (3) A son in old age like Abraham and Sarah! (4) The name John meaning "God is full of grace/mercy!" (5) Joy and delight for you and (6) for many! (7) Great in the sight of the Lord! (8) Set apart for God's Spirit... parents worry about their kids but there'd be no reason to worry about this one! AND NOW THE BIG PROMISES of transformation--causes for great joy! (9) Israel's people turning back to God, (10) fathers turning toward their children (11) and peoples disobedience to God changed to righteous wisdom-- (12) that the nation would prepared for God.
What an opportunity he had to tell the good news! What joy! As an experienced priest of God, Zechariah had credibility and respect. He was well known to be a faithful and patient man, having been a part of the Jewish religious ceremonies for decades. Having heard the great news of God, great news for the whole nation, great news that would be believed because his not-too-young and childless wife would become pregnant. He could take that good news and bring it out to the people with a new blessing! He could bring the news to his fellow priests and scholars could examine the scriptures and understand more fully that the Messiah of Israel, the Savior--he was just about ready to arrive! So many would have great joy and many would believe because He, a respected elder among the people, would announce it!
What joy there would be! The rituals and prayers of Israel would be energized because the silence of God had been broken. It would be understood that no matter how long the wait was for the answer to prayer, that the answer would be SURE to come. There would be no more meaningless prayer! The fervor of God's people and their joy would be increased because of Zechariah's testimony. Revival would break out! People with lost relatives would be standing out on porches waiting for their loved ones to come home, children would know that they were loved and secure, life-long rebels would turn to their wise elders for advice and truth, and, instead of watching for signs of a deteriorating society, there would be groups dedicated to seeking signs that the nation was truly turning back to God.
I think of myself and what I and we have learned in the past few months at this particular church. God has spoken to us so clearly, showing us that what we are about as a church is not just about doing religious things but about loving God and loving each other so the world will know God is real! God has come to us through His Word just as the angel Gabriel brought God's Word came to Zechariah in the temple. He has told us that our days of being religious spectators are at an end! And we have acted in faith! Prayer and faith are increasing! More love is being shown! We have a long way to go, but we have experienced a bit of the joy that he promises to those who believe.
That's the only question, you see. There's no question about God's good will toward us or his ability to do great and mighty wonders among us. The only question is if we will believe, if we will trust God's word that goes against our long experience of "church as usual." If we will trust that God is indeed doing great things, bringing hundreds and thousands back to God, people we would never expect to ever believe--if we will trust God and proclaim the good news, letting others know of the signs of God's love we have seen, even if they are small, if we will trust God and say "Hallelujah Lord!" to the ways we see God at work, real joy will break out among us that we will not be able to contain.
The promises the angel brought to Zechariah in the temple were the beginning of the great work God would do in Jesus. And Zechariah got to hear it first.
But he did not believe. It says that in verse 20: "You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words..." Zechariah didn't believe that his wife could get pregnant. It had been too many years of waiting. He didn't believe they could have children--not even when the angel told him he would. He didn't believe he could give his non-existent son a name. He didn't believe that this son would be a joy and delight, that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that he would bring Israel's people back to God, that he would have the spirit and power of Elijah, that God's people would return to Him, that fathers' hearts would be turned to children, that disobedient would be changed, or that people would be prepared for the Lord.
Like so many before him, and so many since, Zechariah couldn't believe that God was really going to do something great, something different. His attitude was that of old King Solomon, who after years of disappointment and compromise would say "All things are wearisome, more than one can say... What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun." The world turns again and again. Seasons come and go. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine's, St. Patrick, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years... 'round and 'round and 'round we go.
Is that your attitude? Are you going through the motions? Or are you expecting God to speak and act and bring newness? I think of myself and what I and we have learned in the past few months at this particular church. God has spoken to us so clearly. Will I believe that God is doing a new thing among us? Will I act on what God has told us and say yes, this IS a new day? Will I believe God is actually forming us into a new community of faith that acts as if we really believe in God? Or will I pull back into religious patterns of preaching and praying without expecting a response?
As we move on to another season of the so-called "church year," will we advance according to what God has said, finding JOY in trusting God and acting on that faith, or if we will retreat into patterns of "going to church" and "going home."
Like Zechariah, we know God's Word, and we are learning more. Many of us are elders--and all of us are priests of God. We know the words of the prophets. We know the power of God as He has worked in us and through us. Most of all we know Jesus who defied every expectation and brought total victory out of death. We have every reason to believe God can do a new thing.
So we will not fall into any Zechariah like patterns of religious life. We will set up Christmas trees, put up lights, share in worship, give offerings, speak God's Word, pray and share communion NOT just to "do" things that we think we should do, but because through those things we bring the good news of God to the world.
God wants us to share real joy! Real joy -- not joy that comes from going through the motions of Christmas -- but joy that springs from the expectation that the nations will be turned back to the Lord, that the hearts of neglectful and cruel fathers will be turned toward their children, that disobedient will be saved through Jesus and receive a new righteousness, and that multitudes will be prepared for the Lord! (Luke 1:17)
And we will expect that God will act now, in December 2014, to do these things in our midst and throughout the world.
When we do, we will live with tremendous joy.
So what have you seen in the temple? What good news has come to you?
Let's spend some time sharing the truth of God as it has come to us.
How has God encouraged you in the last week or month? How have you seen Him at work?
Let's share so the joy can be known near and far.
(At this point we'll do some sharing and testifying to the work of God that we have seen and the Word we have heard.)