These are my favorite Christmas cookies.
Butter, flour, sugar and more sugar.
Then a little dusting of sugar.
Now it’s Christmas.
I’ve been taking a holiday.
December is a good month to sit quietly, sip something warm, and reflect.
I like to look back at the lessons and gifts of the passing year.
I like to think about what to pray and hope for in the coming year.
But mostly I like to listen.
To the quiet.
This Advent season, I feel a holy shushing.
So I’m taking a happy holiday from my words to hear the Word.
There has been the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
Will I be prepared?
There will soon be the voice of one crying out in the manger.
Will I hear it?
“And he will go on before the Lord….to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:17
I can just imagine what Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, thought when he returned home from the temple with big news.
“But Elizabeth, honey, an angel told me. We have to try again.”
No immaculate conception for this couple.
They had to have a baby the old fashioned way.
“Zechariah, dear, are you sure you didn’t sniff too much incense?”
This child would have a single purpose — get the people ready. Elizabeth’s baby would grow up to be the opening act, warming up the crowd for the coming of Mary’s baby, the headliner: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
John had a one-sentence sermon to prepare people for the Savior:
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
So that’s how we get ready for Christmas.
That’s how we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.
Repent. Christmas is at hand. People, get your hearts ready.
I’ve still got cookies to bake, cards to send, presents to wrap and floors to mop.
But there’s a voice calling in the midst of all that.
“Prepare the way for the Lord! Make straight paths for him! Fill in the valleys! Level off the mountains! Straighten out the curves! Smooth out the bumps! Savior is coming!”
Privates shouldn’t question a general’s command.
Errand boys shouldn’t challenge a CEO’s decision.
And evidently, humans shouldn’t doubt an angel’s words.
After appearing to Zechariah in the temple, the angel Gabriel delivered a lengthy message to the elderly priest. The detailed description of what was about to happen even included the name heaven picked out for the coming baby — John. A plain name for an extraordinary infant. According to the angel, the baby would be
“great in the sight of the Lord“,
“filled with the Holy Spirit“,
and “in the spirit and power of Elijah“.
This child would do great things.
“He will go before the Lord“,
“turn the hearts of the fathers to their children“,
and “make ready a people prepared for the Lord“.
Since Malachi prophesied the final words of the Old Testament, there had been silence from God for 400 years. No “thus sayeth the Lord“, no angel visitations, no visions. Gabe’s big moment had finally arrived and it was met by questioning unbelief. In Zech’s mind, this idea (and baby) was inconceivable.
“How will I know this is going to happen?” CEV
“By what shall I know and be sure of this?” AMP
“How can I know that what you say is true?” Exp
“How shall I know if this is so?” GN
“Do you expect me to believe this?” Message
Unfortunately, Zechariah didn’t stop there, but felt he needed to explain to the heavenly being the facts of the situation. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” What did he expect the angel to say? “Oh, I didn’t know all that. Well then, never mind”? Actually, Gabriel got a little irritated with the human being and put him on mute for the next nine months. Very effective. “Zechariah paid a price for his unbelief. His unbelief did not make God take his promise back; it just kept Zechariah from enjoying it. When we do not believe God’s promise for our lives, we do not necessarily destroy the promise; but we do destroy our ability to enjoy the promise. What made this such a severe punishment was that Zechariah had such great news to tell.” David Guzik
Mary also got a visit from Gabriel with equally startling news. Mary also asked a “how” question — “How will this be?” But she received a straight-forward answer and no reprimand because her question was not laced with doubt. “Mary’s question is logical. She asks basically the same question Zechariah asked but his question was asked in skeptical unbelief, her question was asked in wonder-filled faith.” David Guzik
Lord, may my questions be free from skeptical unbelief
and filled with awe-inspired faith.
And go ahead and shut me up when You need to.
The thing about prayer is — there is no expiration date.
So, sometimes I have to go back and undo foolish requests.
“Oh God, You know that thing I said I wanted? I changed my mind. I don’t want it anymore, so please don’t give it to me.”
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah in the holy place,
Gabriel’s words might have thrown the elderly priest off a bit.
“Your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:13)
Ummm….which prayer is that, exactly?
Evidently, one that he had prayed a long time ago.
“Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.”
I suppose Zechariah and his wife had prayed for children during the early years of their marriage, probably into their 20’s and 30’s. Perhaps the fervency picked up in their 40’s, but surely now that they were well along in years, those prayers were abandoned.
The thing about prayer is — God knows better than we do what’s good for us and when we’re ready for it.
Sometimes we need time to grow into our prayers.
Still, I wonder if any 30 year old prayers of mine might be answered today.
When our kids were teenagers, they used to watch scary movies with their friends in the basement of our church. It was one of the many perks of being a PK (preacher’s kid). One night, PB decided to enhance the experience so he stealthily sneaked into the sanctuary and tip-toed up to the pipe organ. As the kids were glued to a frightening dramatic scene, directly above them came ominous discordant sounds. Somebody pushed pause on the TV remote. PB gave the organ full throttle and the lower register notes rattled the windows. He was fully prepared to hide in the crawl space under the altar if the kids came upstairs to check out the mysterious music. But that wasn’t necessary. They were gone — running down the street toward home.
I’ve been alone in a church at night and to be honest — I don’t like it. Not one bit. I know it’s God’s house and all, but there are lots of dark shadows and creepy noises and reflections in windows. There’s a reason we are told to be “children of the light”. Dark places are spooky. So I can empathize with Zechariah. I just bet that the hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He was alone in the inner court, illumined only by flickering candlelight. This was his one and only chance to enter into the holy place, so close to the very presence of God. It was one of those “goose-bump” moments.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” Luke 1:11-12
Anyone suddenly showing up in that chamber would have been unsettling. But an angel of the Lord? “Startled” might be putting it mildly. “Gripped with fear” sounds a little more like it. Zechariah was just doing his duty — lighting the incense and saying some prayers. Just like every other priest had done in the days, months and years before. The angel Gabriel showed up at just the right time — in the midst of a blameless servant’s offering of worship.
Lord, when I go into my room in the dark, shadowy hours of morning,
startle me with Your presence.
Grip me with awe.
Luke 2 is the go-to scripture for Christmas sermons. The complete nativity cast is there — Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels. The words of the familiar narrative practically roll off the tongue. But Luke begins his gospel with eighty verses of backstory that is full of really good stuff that I almost missed. Thankfully, PB preached on Luke 1 last Sunday, opening my eyes to the fact that there is a prequel to the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. I’m going to linger in Luke’s first chapter awhile and see what led up to the good news of great joy.
God didn’t just jump into the world unannounced. He provided the whole backstory starting with creation. And then, as time was drawing close for the big arrival, He sent an opening act to get the world ready. Luke’s account begins with an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zech was a priest who spent his life serving God with dedication and excellence; Elizabeth was not able to have children. That was their story, which tells me some things about them.
1) Just because Zechariah committed himself to a life of ministry didn’t mean all his prayers were answered.
2) When his prayers didn’t get answered, Zech didn’t quit his devoted service to God.
3) Zechariah and Elizabeth had a love strong enough to withstand disappointment and heartache.
4) Zechariah knew how to wait. He was an old man before he was finally picked to enter the holy place for the burning of incense, but that didn’t make him jealous or bitter.
5) This lovely couple thought they were obscure and insignificant, however, they didn’t know what was about to happen.
We all have a backstory. Unfortunately, most of us don’t know much about each other’s journey. We jump into people’s lives without the benefit of knowing what has led up to that moment in time. Having some background would help explain some things. For instance, that person sitting next to you in the pew wiping away silent tears? She’s afraid her marriage is crumbling. The guy who seems kind of grumpy? He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a week. The irritating kid in your class who seems so arrogant? Things at home are out of control and he’s feeling insecure. The reason you can’t seem to break through the walls around your friend? She’s learned to protect herself from potential pain.
The thing is — our backstories may explain us, but they don’t define us.
And by the grace of God…..
there’s also a forward-story.