Friday, December 9, 2016

Your Prayer Has Been Heard (Luke 1:5-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Is Christmas about buying gifts?  Is Christmas about shopping?   Columnist Dave Barry writes:

“Your normal man, at this point in the Christmas season, has purchased zero gifts.  He didn’t even manage to get an acceptable gift for his wife last year.   He did give her something, but he could tell by her reaction that she had not been dreaming of a car emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model with booster cables and an air compressor.  Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him.”

“A survey on men's attitudes about Christmas shopping may provide useful information for women.  Many men dread holiday shopping so much, that instead of going Christmas shopping, 89 percent would rather see their favorite sports team lose.”

And yet according to the Bible and our Christian faith, Christmas was originally not about our giving gifts to others.    We get so focused on giving to others at Christmas, on what to give our children or grandchildren, or friends or worthy organizations, that we forget the original intent of Christmas

The first Christmas was about getting ready, about preparing to receive, to receive the gift of the coming Messiah.  The focus on the first Christmas was this - God is a giver.  God gave to the world His Son.  God gave the gift of salvation through sending Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as the Savior of the world.  Christmas is about preparing our lives spiritually to receive, to celebrate, to honor God’s amazing and loving gift.

Christmas asks the question – what does it mean to receive the gift of Jesus as your personal savior and the savior of the world?  The heart of Christmas is about being beneficiaries, about fully embracing God’s astonishing gift, God’s promised Messiah, named Jesus, the greatest gift humankind has ever received.

Which leads us to our story about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  They were getting on in years.  They came from good families.  Zechariah held a respected position as a priest in Jerusalem.  They were righteous before God, they had a good reputation in the community, they had a good marriage.    They knew God had greatly blessed them.   But buried beneath it all was an unyielding desire – the desire for a child.  No, they were not unique in this desire, many people before and since, can identify with it.

One day Zechariah was chosen to enter the holy temple of the Lord and burn incense while a gathering of people prayed outside.  This was an esteemed honor.  As he was going about his priestly duties, suddenly the angel Gabriel appears to him.  Zechariah was afraid, which you would only expect if you were confronted by an angel.  Gabriel announces to Zechariah: “Your prayers have been heard.”  His wife Elizabeth would bear a son and they were to name him John. 

Gabriel exclaims: “You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.” Zechariah responds, “How can this be? My wife and I are old. How can it be that my prayers are answered?” Rather than shouting: “Praise God, thank you Lord, my prayers have been answered, hallelujah,” Zechariah replies, “Really, I just can’t believe, I rather doubt it, my wife and I are too old.”

Zechariah makes two big mistakes: never doubt the word of an angel, and never comment on your wife’s age.   He is totally skeptical as we might be too.  Zechariah had reluctantly accepted the fact that their time to be parents had passed them by. He and his wife had come to accepted their fate.    Gabriel announcement sent a shock wave into their world.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that since he did not believe this good news, he would lose his voice and not be able to speak until their son John was born.   Now that was serious.  I mean how can a priest do priestly things without a voice; I can relate to that.   And anyway, shouldn’t a priest, a man of God, believe that God has the power to answer prayer?  I mean who wants to listen to a priest who has more doubt than faith, who questions whether God can truly answer prayer?

It was the custom for the priest after being in the holy of holies in the temple to go out and declare to the people the great blessing of Aaron. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”   But not that day, there would be no Aaronic blessing, because Zechariah could not speak.

I don’t know about you but there is something about Christmas which takes one’s breath away, words escape you.  The God of the universe became one of us and one with us as a human being in Jesus of Nazareth full of grace and truth.  Yes, this certainly qualifies as an ineffable moment.

So Zechariah does not utter a single word for nine months.  But perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse, but ultimately a blessing.  For sometimes we can only truly appreciate a spiritual moment, when we are quiet, when we are listening and not so busy talking.   Sometimes only in a time of silence is it possible to reflect upon, to appreciate and behold a miracle of God.

Maybe God wanted Zechariah to ponder his encounter with Gabriel in depth?  Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah something: never give up on God, never question what is possible with God, never lose faith and hope in the power of prayer. Maybe God was testing this religious man.  What do you think?

Have you ever stayed up late at night and stared at Christmas lights?  Have you ever walked around your neighborhood in the quiet of night to look at the stars and lights and decorations around you?   Have you ever sat at a table for Christmas dinner, surrounded by people who are laughing and telling stories, and in a private moment, you realize that these people too are Christmas gifts?   Sometimes it takes silence to truly appreciate God’s miraculous gift at Christmas.   Yes, perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse after all.

I suspect Zechariah as a husband and priest, underneath it all, had lost his ability to hope, to hope in God.  A life without hope is a dreary life indeed.  And God wants us, God wants you and me, to be a people of hope, a people who share hope, who perceive God’s blessings, and who bless others, and encourage others to believe in God and to believe in prayer.  Thus, the question for this season is: What does your life speak to those around you?  Does it speak of disappointed expectations or does it speak of blessing and hope?

Don’t allow these coming weeks to be filled with just busyness and noisy activity and talking.  Find some quiet moments, spend some time in silence, receive the gift of Christ once again into your heart and see the miracle of what Christ is doing in your own life.  And may your life and the words you speak be of hope, faith, love, peace, encouragement and wonder.  The world needs believers, not only at Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

During your Advent and Christmas journey, may God bless you with moments of silence as well as with shouts of joy.  For this is a season to prepare for the promise of the Messiah.  Amen!

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