The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:
3. Oh help, it’s God!
Lk 1:11,12 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
Really? One of our dangers in the modern church is that we talk about ‘God’ too easily. I have to confess that applies to me as much as anyone else, whether it be in these studies or when I am teaching people to listen to God. Moreover, I believe when we read the Bible, so often we read through rose-tinted glasses and see ourselves as wise responsive Christians who could never act like some of the clowns we read of in Scripture. Now that may be slightly over-stating it, but we are often not far from that. Take what I was saying at the end of the previous study, that we may be ‘good Christians’ but we don’t always handle ‘God encounters’ well.
For Example: It’s quite likely that many of us have never really had a ‘God encounter’ (except at new birth) because they are relatively few and far between for most. I was around in the days of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at the back end of the last century, the time when God started turning up and people started laughing a lot and often appearing drunk in the Spirit, and many were falling down in the Spirit. I won’t go into long details of how we, as a church, were first introduced to what was happening, suffice it to say at the end of one Sunday morning, in the early days of it, as a response to what was preached we invited people, who felt the need, to come forward for prayer. Already the manifestations I referred to just now had started to happen and so on this morning the expectation of many was high – but not me. I was struggling with it as the leader of this church. I invited various of our leaders to come and pray over the ones who had come forward and I stood back and watched.
Yes, various stuff started happening and nearest to me two of my guys were praying their hearts out, clearly wanting this person to come under the power of the Spirit. After a few minutes of nothing happening, I was not amused and stepped in and they stepped back to let me pray. Without thinking I stretched out my hand and managed to get out, “Dear Lord, please…..” and the person went straight down under the Spirit. Now I am being completely honest when I say my reaction was to look to heaven and think, “How did you do that, and why?” For the next six months it continued like that. I felt uncomfortable but I only had to pray a few words and the power of God fell. It took that six months for me to get to, “OK, Lord, if this is what you want to do, use me as you will,” and felt comfortable with it. If my memory is right it lasted for about a year and a half, during which our prayer meetings were always full and our people, young and old, were reading their Bibles like there was no tomorrow and all rejoicing and worshipping like they had never done before.
And Zechariah: Now I mention all this because so often (and I’m just as guilty) we give Zechariah a bad press. What an idiot! Fancy dissing an angel! But this year I find I am looking afresh at this and I find myself thinking more widely across the Bible. Fear of God – or at least mentions of it – appears early in the Bible (see Gen 20:11, 22:12, Ex 1:17 etc.) and especially when God turns up, which is why so often the person has to be reassured (see Ex 3:6, Judg 6:22,23, Isa 6:5, 41:10,13 etc.) When God turns up, it is natural to be afraid: “he was startled and was gripped with fear.”
It is a sign of the lack of God’s presence in the life of Israel at this time when Zechariah went into the Temple, that no one expected to actually meet with God there. Stories of the Tabernacle or the Temple being filled with the glory of the Lord had just been consigned to the distant past of the Old Testament scrolls. We see the same thing some thirty years later when Jesus enters the local synagogue, teaches and casts out a demon and the people respond, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’” (Mk 1:27) Powerless religion at the hands of the local rabbi was all the people knew – until God turned up in the form of Jesus.
And Us? We should not pass by on the other side here but stop and face the challenge with which we are presented. Is Christmas for us simply a materialistic time of celebration with food, drink, presents and parties, or perhaps do we go a stage further and attend all the various services the church lays on, mostly services which are essentially an entertainment which we watch, appreciate and can walk away from unchallenged? Do we see Christmas as a time when God invaded the earth in the most low-key invasion ever known, but an invasion never the less? The heavenly presence starts here with Zechariah and he wasn’t expecting it and so it was scary. Do we see the challenge here, as to how we might have responded if we had been in Zechariah’s shoes? Or even closer to home, are we open to God coming and invading our personal space with fresh challenges to become part of His strategies for the earth today?
Zechariah’s Alternative: For that is all that is happening in this ‘forerunner story’ about Zechariah. God is inviting him to become part of His strategy to bless the earth through the coming of His Son. Put aside Zechariah’s negative response which evokes a disciplinary response from the angel; suppose Zechariah had responded positively and simply said, “Great bring it on.” The only difference would have been that the distraction (which God would use) of his disobedience and subsequent dumbness would have been removed from the story, but the end outcome would have been the same. God was going to enable this elderly couple to have a son anyway!
The funny thing is that all it required was for Zechariah to go home after his time serving in the Temple and persuade his wife that they weren’t too old to make love and leave the rest to God. He needn’t have gone home and said anything but just let nature and God take their course. Now, instead, he is made dumb, just as a little encouragement along the way, and so has to explain by sign language or perhaps in writing, why he is dumb and what God has said. He has been forced out into the open. But doesn’t God do that sometimes, manipulates circumstances so we have to come out into the open and declare our faith?
The divine perspective: The truth is that God has chosen Zechariah knowing, I suggest, all about him, knowing he is righteous, knowing he is religious, knowing he is not expecting divine encounters, know he is not full of faith, knowing he is old and knowing he is childless, and so He is going to take all these things and weave them together into a tapestry that will be clear and obvious for all to see and which will have the neighbours talking, and will remain in the family memory for a long time to come. Whether John’s parents were still alive when John started his ministry or whether they had already passed on, we don’t know, but whatever the truth is of that, John would have been told and John would have that foundation even before the Spirit started to stir him into his ministry in the days to come.
Weaving the Tapestry: Oh yes, this is going to be a beautiful tapestry built upon this man’s righteousness, challenging his religiosity and low expectations and low faith level, provoking him into faithless questioning and receiving a heavenly rebuke in return that meant he would be dumb, which in turn would necessitate him explaining and testifying to what had happened and becoming a sign for all the onlookers. Yes, this is God breaking into the happy experience of an aging, childless, righteous and religious man to completely upset his apple cart as we might say today, as he enjoys his big moment serving in the Temple, completely disturbing his peace and quiet and normality, to make him a figure of history. I suspect if we ever could meet him in eternity and ask him about it, he would look down and with a smile reply, “Yes, well, I was obviously having a bad day in the Temple. I thought it was a great day but I didn’t realise the challenges that would come with it.” And then looking up would add with an even bigger smile, “But the Lord got me there in the end!”
And so, the Big Picture: Finally note the stages of what happened. Stage 1: Serving in the Temple. Great! Stage 2: Chosen to offer the incense. Wonderful! Stage 3: God turns up. Help!!!!!! Stage 1 he saw coming. Stage 2 he probably didn’t expect but was delighted about. Stage 3 he definitely didn’t see coming and initially didn’t like, but stage 3 was exactly that, just a further stage in God’s plans for this man, plans that have a much bigger panorama, the first stage of preparing the way for the arrival of His Son. And of course Christmas in itself is just the first stage in the plan of redemption, or perhaps we should say a further stage because the first stage took place before the foundation of the world when the Godhead agreed it, the second stage was it being drip-fed through the prophets, and so what we have been considering today is actually the third stage of the plan. But isn’t that how life with God is? We think the present moment is THE big moment, but it isn’t, it is just a further stage in the ongoing plans of God involving us, so perhaps that can be the last of a variety of lessons that come out of this story. Enjoy your next stage that is today.