We are taking a break from Samuel to focus for the next two weeks on the Nativity and the lessons that comes from it.
Lessons from the Nativity: 1: Open for the Unexpected
Luke 1:8,9 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
It is a sad thing, I believe, that the verses found in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts rarely seem to be preached on or even hardly mentioned at any time apart from the annual carol service. This is a shame because there are a number of really sharp lessons that come from those two wonderful accounts, and in the next ten meditations I hope to pick up on some of those lessons.
Although ‘the Nativity’ is strictly all about the coming of Jesus, Luke intertwines it with the account of the conception and birth of John the Baptist, and so we are going to start our reflections back with Zechariah, his father. I have to warn you that I am not going to do a verse by verse study of the accounts taking in all the details, but I am going to simply spring a lesson out of a particular part of the story and then reflect on that.
The first small but significant thing that I have found grabbing my attention is the position of Zechariah and how he came to encounter an angel, which we’ll look at more in the next couple of meditations. But for the moment, it is this man, a priest, an ordinary priest going about his daily duties which for most of the time, because there were likely to have been hundreds of priests, were probably fairly mundane. Think of some big cathedral you might know and think on the occasional clerical figure you have seen wandering around the building. Indeed because there were so many of them they were divided into divisions, twenty four of them, and each division was on duty only twice a year for a week at a time. What he spent the rest of his life doing I don’t know but for two weeks of the year he had to be in Jerusalem serving in the Temple. Jobs appear to have been handed out by lot and one of the most prestigious, the lighting of the candles for burning incense which happened twice a day, occurred only once in a priest’s lifetime and for some, never.
We are told some significant things about Zechariah. First he is old (1:7) and second that he is childless with a wife beyond child-bearing age. By that time in life his twice annual pilgrimages to serve in Jerusalem had occurred many times. Thoughts of having children must have receded long ago and although there was always the chance that his name might come up in the lottery to light the candles, the fact that so many years had passed without it happening, again probably dulled hope. And as for having any encounter with God? Yes, they were the people of God but they were overrun by the most powerful army on earth and were subservient to Rome. People of God they might have been but the Lord has been silent for over four hundred years. The last prophetic outburst had been long back. Try to imagine the end of the 1600’s from our vantage point today. That is as far back as any word from God had been for this people. Suggest to Zechariah that he might be the first recipient to hear from God for over four hundred years and he would probably have told you off for being irreverent.
Now put all those things together and you have a man (and his wife) locked into a way of thinking that says, today will be the same as yesterday and tomorrow with be the same as today, and nothing will change. The fact of his name coming up to light the candles meant that, well, maybe, this is one last pleasure before I die (once they had done it they were never allowed to do it again). Lighting the candles thus became one last thing where there had been hope; now there was nothing left to hope for, except to wait until death eventually came. This is not being pessimistic, it is being real.
Now here is the question: if we are really honest about life, I wonder how many of us Christians are actually locked into the same mentality? Some of us no doubt are in churches where we have been told that God doesn’t speak any more since the completion of the New Testament canon. Miracles don’t happen, God isn’t really concerned with me, I am stuck where I am and nothing is ever likely to change. Yes, week by week we have nice sermons that encourage me that I am saved, but I am saved to go to heaven sometime. Yes, I can pray but in all honesty I don’t see too many answers to prayer. I have things I would like healed but God doesn’t seem to be in that business any more. Church is for Sunday services, prayer meetings and Bible studies and that is it.
If any of this find echoes within you, then may I encourage you to think about Zechariah again. In many ways he is like Moses after Moses had spent forty years in the desert looking after sheep. He was eighty years old and had no aspirations for the future – if there was much of one left. And then of course came the burning bush, the voice of God and a commission that would involve him in miracle after miracle and a ministry that would last another forty years.
‘Settled’ is a terrible word. It is another word for unbelief when it comes to so-called believers. People who have settled, are people who no longer believe in a living God, an active God, a God interacting with His world all the time, a God who could take and use them to bring changes in this world. Zechariah, may I suggest, (and I base this on his reactions which we’ll look at) has settled in his way of thinking. He’s got good reasons to think like that and perhaps it’s time, age and experience that have dulled his spiritual awareness. Have we allowed ourselves to be put to spiritual sleep by the lies of the enemy and the witterings of the world? The first lesson of the Christmas story says, wake up, something wonderful is about to happen and if you take notice of what it is, you’ll never be the same again! Ready?