7. And so it begins

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 7: And so it begins

Lk 1:5  there was a priest named Zechariah

(Additional Reading: Lk 1:5-25)

Preparations: The years have passed and we arrive at that year in history when three people have angelic encounters, two face to face and one in a dream. I once heard someone say if you hear the audible voice of God you are probably in deep trouble if you need that. Reading about Abraham I was surprised to note that years would have passed and there are actually just a few number of times when God spoke to him. For him, we assume he heard God in the quiet thoughts in the mind (it may have been other ways, we just don’t know), but his was a time of building an embryonic relationship with God. Moses, by contrast, knew all about the history his people had with God and perhaps, because he felt so low about himself after all those years in the desert, he needed the audible voice plus the burning bush – and he had a pretty big job ahead, so he really needed that clarity of encounter.

Silent Days: The fact is that for most of us, I suspect the days go by, just like Abram, with hearing little from heaven. We may be those who sit silently before the Lord each day, waiting upon Him, but even then, I guess, if we can be really honest about it, it is a real mix of those days when we just don’t hear anything (most often), the days when He seems to draw near and there is a holy sense of His close presence (rare), and those times when it feels like He is down the other end of the universe (more than we’d like to admit).

And Zechariah:  I think I’ve probably written it before, but I think we often give Zechariah a bad press but, hey, remember he was an old guy, and he’s been a priest for many years and has done the stuff that priests do and lived the life that priests live, for decades, and nothing has happened. In fact God has been silent in Israel for over four hundred years. Now familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly dulls expectations, so if I suggest that Zechariah was seriously surprised when the angel Gabriel turns up that is probably the understatement of the year.

And would you have been fearful when an angel turned up? Quite possibly, because such an encounter is so out of the ordinary, and sometimes we’re not very good with ‘out of the ordinary’!  But it gets worse because he is told that his aging wife (past it!) is going to have a baby. Right! That is really beyond a bridge too far when it comes to belief!  That also suggests a tricky conversation when he gets home. So was the angel Gabriel being unkind when he made him dumb for nine months? I don’t think so really. The Lord wanted Elizabeth to be pregnant and an encouragement to her niece Mary soon, and so Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth too) needed a little nudge forward and that certainly did it!

We must pray! “Lord, I have to confess when I think about Zechariah it leaves me feeling vulnerable. I would like to think I would have responded more positively but I think I may be kidding myself. Lord, if I am honest, those seriously pious individuals who go on about ‘total commitment’ feel a bit unreal. Lord Jesus, you said that, “apart from me you can do nothing,” (Jn 15:5) and you know I really want to be available to you and be used by you so that I will “still bear fruit in old age,” (Psa 92:14) and so, Lord, I really need your help to achieve that.  Please help me Lord. Thank you. Amen.”

2. Lottery Winners?

The Impossibilities of God in a Broken World, the story of Christmas, Meditations:

2. Lottery Winners?

Lk 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.

 Luck?   One of the mysteries of life on this planet is about ‘luck’. Just what is luck? An online dictionary defines it as, success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.’ Millions of people, who really can’t afford it, play the lottery. It is said, I believe that the odds of winning the National Lottery in the UK is 1 in 45 million, but people think, ‘Why shouldn’t that one be me? Imagine 45 million of you crowded shoulder to shoulder on a small island – well, not such a small island! And somebody on a passing boat who happens to have a catapult fires a small stone into the air. How safe are you? Pretty safe. The odds are that it is going to hit someone else.

Zechariah’s odds:  We find early on in the Christmas story an aging priest called Zechariah. Now every male directly descended from Aaron was automatically a priest and at this time there were likely to have been about twenty thousand of them, divided into twenty-four divisions. Each division served in the Temple in Jerusalem for one week twice a year. Burning incense in the temple happened twice a day and, as it was considered a special privilege, the person doing it each time was chosen by lot. Because there were so many of them, often a priest would never have that privilege but if it did occur, thereafter the priest would be considered special, “rich and holy”. Work out how many times in a year and the number in your division and the odds are something like 1 in about 50-70. No wonder most never had the opportunity.  (An aside: You and I were not chosen by God in a lottery.)

Destiny? So the odds were remarkably better than winning our lottery but still pretty unlikely. At this point people start muttering about ‘destiny’ and we start getting into what power, if any, makes something happen, fate if you like. And then again we come back to luck, chance or good fortune? Or does God have a hand in it all? Well there is something we can say about this when it comes to the Bible and that is that there ARE clearly times when God does intervene, act or speak, and there are times when it seems a bit of a long-shot for something to have happened without it being God, and there are times when it just does seem chance, stuff that happens for no discernible reason. Sometimes things do happen as consequences of other previous things.

Here in the account about Zechariah it doesn’t say God made Zechariah win the lottery. Yes, he’s in it because he is of the family of Aaron and yes, it’s the turn of his particular division but beyond that we really can’t go any further. Often people ask, “Why did that have to happen?” and it is an unwise person who tries to give a specific answer. If you drink too much and then stumble into the road and are run over by a passing vehicle, you don’t need to be a brain surgeon to suggest that alcohol had a part to play in it.  Yet often things do happen for no apparent accountable reason, but when you start looking at other factors in the equation, that’s when it starts getting interesting!    

Life is not always kind: For instance, let’s consider Zechariah. You probably know about him if he has been included in your Advent readings. He is a good man and he’s got a good wife. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6) You can’t ask more than that! But merely because you are good doesn’t mean to say that life will always be kind to you: “But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (v.7) In a society where children were important that meant heart-ache. “Don’t you see that children are God’s best gift? the fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior’s fistful of arrows are the children of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you parents, with your quivers full of children!” (Psa 127:3-5 Message version) When you live in that sort of culture, the inability to have children must raise questions, and certainly cause heart-ache, and maybe even a sense of shame at not being able to have children.

No Hope: The fact that they were both “very old” also suggested that now there was no hope of there ever being that possibility. Time has gone, we’ve missed the boat, we are second-class citizens, we always have been and always will be. The Lord gave me a word for someone the other day: “Don’t take anything as fixed”. Over the years I have twice had the privilege and joy of imparting the word of God to childless couples, “You will have a child within a year,” and they did. In both cases I had not known that the couples previously had been told they would remain childless. Jesus taught, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Lk 18:27) or, as put in Matthew, “With God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26), and as the angel later said to Mary, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Lk 1:37) (An aside: Let’s never take what we see as the final, ‘This must be’).

Timing & Purpose: Now we are going to see that God is going to change this for this couple and give them a child and the question naturally arises in the mind, “Did God stop Elizabeth conceiving up until this time so as to reveal a miracle birth?” There is no indication of that and there is certainly no indication in Scripture that God has stopped all childless couples having children. It is simply the fact of living in a Fallen World where things go wrong. Yet one cannot help but wondering about God’s strategy behind all that is shortly going to take place. Was it pure chance that a childless (but righteous) priest gets the lottery and ends up in the Temple, the place where God was said to reside?

Expectation: But did Zechariah expect anything more from this experience beyond the fact that he could say he had done it? I doubt it. His response when the angel turns up and conveys God’s will is not a ‘full-of-faith’ response. And yet here is a significant lesson. We don’t have to be full of expectation for God to turn up. It does help sometimes but the bigger message that comes over in the Bible again and again is that God is the initiator. Moses was definitely not full of faith when God turned up at the burning bush (Ex 3) and similarly Zechariah is not full of faith here. In fact it may be that the disappointment of not having children had meant that his expectations of God were very low. No doubt he had prayed and prayed, but nothing had changed – until now, but now it is too late. It’s a broken world and sometimes it seems you just have to live with that – until God turns up and says otherwise, which is unlikely, we think. (An aside: Again, with God with us, let’s never say, “I’m stuck”.)

A problem: Now we are going to have to face a problem. We said in the first of these studies that this is not always a comfortable story, it’s often difficult and scary. Perhaps because we know the story too well we take things for granted. Zechariah is a good man and he is religious. His life is focused on the Temple, on serving God, and that describes many good Christians many of whom it could be said, “they were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”   Unfortunately that is good only up to a point. Why do I say that? Because Zechariah is just about to have a ‘God encounter’ and he’s not going to handle it too well. I have lived long enough to have seen the Lord turn up with ‘God encounters’ a number of times and I have to tell you that the people of God don’t always handle that very well. It is one thing to go to church, to be a ‘good’ Christian but how open are we to God turning up and doing something unexpected? That is the challenge that is about to come here. Are we ready for it? Dare we be honest about our likely response? I did say this story isn’t always comfortable. Now do you believe me? No longer an aside: When God comes and initiates an encounter with us, let’s see if we can simply say, “Yes, Lord.”

11. A Poor Choice?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 11.  A Poor Choice?

Lk 1:5-7   In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

I have been a Christian and part of the Christian community for fifty years, and in that time I have lost count of the times I have heard various aspects of the Nativity story, and I must have written about it more than a few times. Yet, I find myself approaching these thing with new eyes, eyes that wonder afresh as I have been seeking to go beyond the familiar and see something more of the reality of the words we find in our Bibles. The focus is to be Jesus Christ but in so doing this, there are people and prophecies surrounding him who shed light on him and who, therefore, we need to examine because they are truly part of his story.

John the Baptist is going to be one such person who acts as a magnifying glass as we gaze upon the One who is Christ but before we get to John we need to look at his parents and see that his coming into the world also had a divine dimension to it. However, as I put the above verses on the screen I am suddenly struck with a new train of thought to anything I have pondered in the past in respect of Zechariah, and this train of thought flows on as a tributary of this main river we have been following – the mystery and questions surrounding the coming of Jesus.

Now so far in this second Part we have considered three people or groups of people who were up front in being told about the One who is coming – Simeon, the shepherds and the wise men (we’ll come to Mary & Joseph later) – two of whom have been wondering for some time about the Coming One and one (the shepherds) who just had the news dropped on them in the middle of the night. Now Zechariah may or may not fall into the category of the ‘expecting ones’ but, even as we have commented before, there is a difference between knowing the theory of the Coming One and coping with the reality. I’m not sure how I would react in similar circumstances so I would like to try to NOT be too hard on Zechariah.

It starts, 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.” (Lk 1:11,12) Surprise or being ‘startled’ indicates a reaction to something not expected. Now scholars suggest that your name coming up to burn incense in the temple was a once in a lifetime event, but he would have known many of his colleagues in his division of the priesthood and so far, although they might have said how wonderful it was to be performing that rite, none had even reported an encounter with an angel, so scary, quite possibly, simply because of the surprise element.

But the angel seeks to put him at ease (v.13a) and goes on to tell him that, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (v.13b) Now because of the fact that he is now old, I would suggest that he probably stopped asking for his wife to be able to conceive long back, but the Lord knows he did pray.  Now he’s a good man, this Zechariah, for the record says that both he and his wife “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (v.6) Nevertheless, and this is his stumbling block, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v.7) so a) he no doubt prayed a long time and b) nothing had happened so now c) they are both old people, way beyond child-bearing years.

Now I want to be honest, because those of us in this sort of situation need to be, because I suggest that you need a lot of grace if this is you, not to feel at least slightly gritty about being childless – especially when you have prayed your socks off! So why did the Lord choose this particular priest who He must have known would be a bit on the gritty side when it comes to mentioning children?

The angel goes on to explain to him that this son, John, is going to have a great and significant ministry (v.14-17) but unfortunately Zechariah isn’t listening to the “this is how great your son will be” side of the news, he is just stuck with the reality of being childless in old age: “Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) Oooops! By the angel’s response, this is Zechariah basically saying, “You’ve got to be joking! Go away” Not a wise thing to say to an angel of God who gently reminds him just who he is: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (v.19) Reading between the lines, a translation: “You idiot, I’m one of God’s top angels and this is a top-flight task I’ve been given, so don’t mess with me!!!! Don’t you realise this is wonderful news?”

Zechariah is clearly still not jumping up and down with joy and so the angel continues, “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” (v.20) Now however you look at that, it is a word of chastisement. OK smart religious guy, you want a bit of reassurance to help you when you go back to your wife? Very well, with your mouth you uttered folly, so to make sure you don’t get into any more trouble, until the child is born, you’ll be dumb. End of this part of the story. The end of this bit is that John is born and Zechariah’s mouth is opened to prophesy (see v.57-).

So look, here is my problem and I say again, I think familiarity has blinded us to the realities of what was going on here. So let’s think wider. First, God knows all things and God knows that this childless old man is likely to be bit gritty and so might not come up with the perfect response to the good news. God knows all this before it happens. Second, God could have enabled Elizabeth to conceive years before but didn’t. Third, God could have chosen a less ‘complicated’ couple to have John, but didn’t. Fourth, when Zechariah gives his less than perfect response the angel could have gone off to find someone else, but he didn’t. Fifth after that response the angel could have said, “OK, it’s going to happen anyway so go home and just get on with it,” and left Zechariah wondering and then sharing with Elizabeth and then trying for a baby, but he didn’t, he made him dumb.

So what is the answer to this apparently poor choice of a father to John the Baptist. Mere speculations, simple suggestions. First, these are good people and will provide a good family upbringing for this prophet-to-be. Second, Elizabeth is related to Mary so there is going to be a family link between the two boys. Third, God isn’t averse to a little ‘supernatural activity’ (temporary dumbness and an amazing conception) to encourage His people on. Fourth, this is simply the start of a whole stream of supernatural activities culminating in the arrival of His Son. Fifth, the Lord knows that in the end Zechariah is going to be a true believer – see him prophesying!  Poor choice? No, right choice!

There is an application here that we would do well to observe. At first sight Zechariah doesn’t come out of this encounter very well. By the end, he does. What applies to Zechariah can apply to us. We may get it wrong, we may not respond well to God’s words to us and faith may be slow to blossom, but the Lord does not give up on us. He knows what the end can be, with us as well as with Zechariah. Don’t let temporary failure or setback mean you don’t go on to get God’s grace to come out good.

To reflect: are we open to the Lord still, when the years have passed with His silence? Are we open to His supernatural activity or have we accepted the lie that He stopped being God when the canon of Scripture was complete? Where does it leave us today?

37. Sin Conscious

Meditations in Romans : 37:  Conscious of Sin

Rom 3:19-20   Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The human race is a strange animal!  Seriously, when you look at us carefully, there are some things about us that we take so much for granted but which are actually quite strange. They are even more strange if you believed the atheist who says this world is just chance and there is no meaning or purpose behind it. There are two features of every human being that strike me as very strange in the light of that dogma.

The first is the tendency of most people to have a sense of failure or inadequacy. Oh yes, people cover it up and in fact they spend much of their life covering it up, but if you can catch them at a rare moment of honesty they will confess to you that they are not the great person that they would like the world to believe they are. No, they will confess their inadequacies and even their failures (but you will need to get them at a rare point of honesty). All of us have this particular awareness even though, as I’ve said, we go to great lengths to cover it up. Why should people who are, according to the atheist, random acts of chance, worry about such things, but worry we do!

The second strange tendency, which goes with the first one, is the concern to be seen to be good. We feel bad about ourselves deep down, and yet we want everyone to see us NOT as a failure. We want others to see us as successes. We want to be thought of as nice people, good people, people who get it right and do well. Of course those descriptions vary according to the social group we belong to but we know the standards that our particular group has and we want to live up to their standards so they will think well of us. You see it in any and every social grouping, but why should it be if we are just random chance creatures with no meaning or purpose. Everything within us challenges that assessment of us. We measure ourselves and our assessment is important!

Now the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day, were one such social grouping and within that cultural or social group was a sub-group who made the rest feel it was important to abide by a certain set of life-rules, the Law of Moses. They were the people that people refers to as under the Law.” The Law was the standard by which they assessed one another. If you were good, you kept the Law. For instance Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (Lk 1:6); that was the assessment of people who knew them and later told Luke about them.  Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father was described as “a righteous man,” (Mt 1:19) which would have meant that he was a man who sought to keep God’s commandments; hence his action in wanting to quietly divorce Mary.

The not-so-nice people of that society didn’t bother about the Law. They were lawbreakers or sinners and were looked down upon by those who did adhere to the Law. Now if you lived in a society where this Law prevailed, where you were very much aware of it, even though others adjudged you righteous, you knew deep down that that meant righteous in most things, for there would always be a little something somewhere where you didn’t come up to the mark. Indeed with some it is difficult to know if you come up to the mark. For instance, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:5)  Could you ever be sure that that was how you truly loved God? You kept the practical commandments you were aware of, but was that enough to ensure you could say that you loved God like this?

Suppose there were laws that you didn’t know about? Perhaps you weren’t keeping them? No, the truth was that you could never boast of being a perfect law-keeper, which is what Paul meant when he said, so that every mouth may be silenced.” Yes, you were never quite certain and so it was better to remain quiet. Yes, you knew that deep down, just like were considered at the beginning of this meditation, you had something that left you feeling inadequate and as such you would be “held accountable to God.” Oh yes, you could never stand before God with a totally clear conscience. You feared that future where you knew that one day you would have to stand before him and be answerable for your imperfection!

Thus Paul can conclude, Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Yes, if you are going to measure me by the Law I can never say I am totally perfect and therefore I can not say with a clear heart that I am righteous. All focusing on the rules has done, has been to make me more and more aware of the bits where I fall short.

This is it, isn’t it? Whatever set of rules we have to abide by, the Law of Moses or the laws of our little group in society, we fear failure, and we are constantly struggling to achieve approval of others who measure us by the rules, but deep down we know they will judge us because we are not perfect and will fail even their expectations of us! No, if you base life on keeping to a set of rules or even expectations upon you, know that you are doomed to a life of failure and the only way to cope is to pretend you’re not, while all the time knowing you are. What a deception!

5. Mary Considers

5. Mary Considers

(Warning: In this little series of ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

I am a mother! I really am a mother! It’s strange, I knew I was pregnant, there was no doubt about it, but somehow I almost didn’t believe it until he arrived last night, and now here I am, a mother! And I have a son!

And here we are, the three of us. Three of us! We’re a family! Me, my Joseph and now our baby, Jesus.

I almost feel that I have been living in a dream this past year. Did the angel Gabriel really come to me? Oh yes, it was so real, so vivid, I’ll remember it until the day I die. I’ll never forget his words to me. Initially he scared me for I wondered why God should send an angel to me, a twelve year old girl. What had I done? Was he about to tell me off? But no, it had been exactly the opposite for he said I had found favour with God. I remember being taught in synagogue about Noah, and he had found favour with God. I wasn’t sure that ‘finding favour with God’ was a good thing, but when he told me I would have a special baby I was overjoyed. And yet I wasn’t yet married so how could such a thing be? That’s when he told me it would because God would enable it to happen. How could such a thing happen? I had never heard of it happening to any other girl. Was this just a dream, a silly dream? But no, it was so real and I was wide awake. And then I started feeling sick and I realised it had happened, I was expecting a baby.

After the initial shock, Joseph was wonderful – with a little help from God, he told me.

Then I had gone to Elizabeth and stayed with her until she had her baby.  That was an amazing time as well. It was clear that I was not the only one who had had dealings with God. But it was still all very dreamlike.

The reality hit when I returned home and tongues were wagging when they saw me, for it was quite clear what my condition was. I knew why, but few others would believe it when I told them.

Then came the orders from the Romans to go to the town of your family and so Joseph had to come here to Bethlehem to be counted like sheep. Then we ended up in this stable and my Jesus was born. Why does that expression ‘a little lamb’ stay with me? How very appropriate that a lamb was born in a stable. But he’s not a lamb, he’s going to be a leader, a ruler, the angel said.

Oh dear, what is the future going to hold for us? How are we going to live? I assume Joseph will carry on his father’s carpentry business and we would expect Jesus to follow in his father’s footsteps, so I don’t know where all this stuff about him being a ruler comes in. Carpenters aren’t rulers.

I don’t know how long we’re going to have to stay here for the census. I don’t know what we do about that. I suppose there must be a census house somewhere here in Bethlehem that we’ll have to go to and be registered.

It’s convenient that we’re near Jerusalem though. We’ll be able to go and make an offering for our little one as the Law requires, before we return home.

Yes, it all seems a bit dreamlike, but those men turning up last night were very real. I couldn’t get to sleep for some time after they left, wondering about all they said. More angels? Angels telling them to come and see my Jesus? There’s more in all this than we realise. What is the future going to hold for us? What will it hold for my son? I really don’t know and yet one thing seems very clear: with all of these angels appearing – to Zechariah, to me, to Joseph, and now to the shepherds – it seems like God is closer than we’ve ever known before. Somehow it feels like He’s really with us.

Reading for today’s story: Luke 2:19

2. Elizabeth & Mary

2. Elizabeth & Mary

(Warning: In this little series of  ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

The young girl toiled up the hill towards the house on the edge of the town. She had left the caravan on the road below. The journey had been tiring but at least the feelings of sickness had stopped now. As she worked her way up the path her mind ran back over the recent months. If I hadn’t felt these changes within me I would have thought I was dreaming it, she thought. Had I been right to tell Joseph? His response had been cold but I wonder what else I might have expected? It was a lot for him to take in. For a while she had felt utterly alone – until he came with his own story of an angel in a dream. How amazing is all this angelic activity! Why is it happening like this? God has seemed so distant from our nation for so long. It was clear that some had thought He had given up on us. But now?

She arrived panting at the house. Thank goodness I’ve got here at last; it’s been a long journey. The door was flung open and her elderly cousin’s husband stood there beckoning her in. Why can’t he say something to me, the girl thought. And there was her cousin, larger than Mary had ever seen her.

“Elizabeth, how lovely…” she began.

Her cousin gasped as she saw Mary and clutched the bump that showed the presence of a baby, but then she laughed with joy. “Indeed, how wonderful child, that you too carry a child, oh, a child who will be our Lord! But why are you here? Why should we be so favoured? We weren’t expecting you, yet as soon as you spoke the child I am carrying seemed to leap for joy. He has been making movements for some time but this was a leap that seemed to recognise you and the one you carry. How has this come about?”

And so the two women, one so young and one so old, shared their experiences. Elizabeth shared about her dumb husband’s experience with an angel back in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Mary spoke about the angel who came to her in the room of her home. Elizabeth laughed at what the neighbours had said when they heard that she was to have a child. Mary shared about the difficulties she had encountered back in Nazareth when she shared that she also was expecting a baby.

The responses had been mixed and when Mary’s mother had suggested she spend some time away at her elderly mother-to-be cousin’s home in the south, it seemed so right and confirmed what the angel had said, so that she had gone willingly. Now she knew why.

Who are these babies, they wondered together.

“Zechariah has written that the angel in the Temple told him my child will be called John and he is to prepare the way of the Lord, like Isaiah said,” Elizabeth shared, “though I don’t know how he will do that!”

“Yes, my angel at home said you were expecting and that’s why I came.” Mary replied. “He told me my child was to be called Jesus and that he will be a ruler, a son of God, but I’m not sure what all that means.”

“It means you are most favoured by God,” her cousin responded.

Suddenly it seemed to Mary that she was filled with joy, and she found herself speaking out for several minutes, what had to be a prophecy that seemed to have come from the pages of the Scripture scrolls.

When she stopped, Elizabeth looked at her in awe. “Where did that all come from? How wonderful!”

“I don’t know’” breathed Mary, “it just seemed to fill me and pour out. Yes, indeed! Oh Elizabeth, how wonderful indeed!”

Zechariah, standing in the background, still said nothing but wondered much. “These are indeed incredible days,” he thought to himself.

Read this story again in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 39 to 56.

1. Elizabeth

1. Elizabeth

(Warning: In this little series of  ‘meditations’ there are simply wonderings about what actually some of the people in the Christmas story felt. They are obviously based on Scripture but they are only wonderings, for we do not know. Yet, if they help us really think into the wonder of what happened two thousand years ago at the time we call Christmas, that will be good.)

An elderly lady sits and gazes out the window as the sun sets. She thinks of her husband who is in Jerusalem, serving in the great Temple.  She wonders what sort of day it has been for him. He had left to go to serve as it was the custom for priests. His family was of Abijah and it was the time for his division to take their turn serving at the Temple.

What that involved she was not sure for he said little about his role, and yet the other day a message had come with one of the family who were passing through and who had been in Jerusalem a few days ago. It was a message from her man that at the drawing of the lots for the jobs to be done, his name had been drawn to be THE one who went into the inner place to burn incense. It was a special role which few ever had. Today he would have had the wonder of burning the incense, supposedly for the fragrance to waft up and bless God. Today HE had the privilege of personally blessing the LORD. What an honour!

As the sun set, she wondered how he had got on, what he had felt. As she sat there in the stillness of the house she was glad for him, for at least this was some small sign that God had not utterly abandoned them, and even as the thought passed into her mind she pushed it out again for its unworthiness – yet the ache of the absence of children in their marriage, was never far away.

It was a few days later that she heard a commotion outside. She hurried to the door to be greeted by several men, one of whom was her own dear Zechariah. Something about him seemed different; it was like he seemed to have a faint glow about him, but at the sight of her the two men with her husband started talking at the same time. Elizabeth, we don’t really know what has happened. He went into the inner place to burn the incense and seemed to be in there a long time. When he eventually came out he was dumb and has not been able to speak since.

We’ve tried to get out of him what happened but the best we can make out is that he saw an angel, but beyond that – nothing! Her husband simply looked down at her and smiled, but it was a troubled smile. “An angel?” she almost whispered. He nodded. “But why?” she risked asking. He mouthed something, waved his hands about and made a mumbling sort of noise. She would have to wait for an answer.

The day that followed was strange. Every now and then she caught her husband with a faraway look about him and then, when he saw her watching, he smiled a soft smile. Something had happened, something very important had happened, something that had changed this old man who she loved so much. He came over and made a grunting sort of noise and pointed upwards and then gently laid his hand on her abdomen. “Yes, I know love,” she murmured, “if only the Lord had given us children but it’s too late now.”

He grunted again and vigorously shook his head. Again he pointed upwards and then cradled his arms in a rocking motion and then nodded and touched her abdomen. There was an intense look on his face.

“Don’t be silly, you daft old thing, that can never be!” she found herself whispering. Again the vigorous nodding of his head. She looked into his pleading eyes. “Did the angel…..?” her voice faded away, unable to voice the unthinkable. He nodded vigorously.

Read their story again in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1, verses 5 to 25.

12. Can God show me


12. Can God show Me things?

Luke 1:42-45 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

In the world at large there are a lot of weird, freaky things that go on. There are seers and people who claim to know the future from a wide range of backgrounds, frequently not godly. Why do we make that latter comment? Because if something like this does not have its origins in God, then it is highly questionable and history shows us many people who have been carried away by deception into the most weird and wonderful things that have only brought harm to them and to others.

Now we say all this by way of prelude to observing what is going on at this point of the Christmas story. Yesterday we observed that Elizabeth was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (that is the Spirit of God) and said that when that happens it is an experience of the presence of the Lord seemingly filling that person so that they are either equipped and enabled to do something they previously were unable to do, or they were filled with great joy. In Elizabeth‘s case both of those things happened. She speaks forth what can only be described as ‘revelation’ and she has a sense of great joy.

It is revelation because, without being told by Mary, she instantly knows that Mary is carrying a baby and that baby is someone very special – her Lord! She praises Mary for having believed what God had said to her. Yes, she’s even aware that what has happened to Mary has happened because God spoke to her. This insight, this revelation, is what the Bible refers to as prophecy, the speaking out of the previously hidden will of God.

Now unlike, the weird and wonderful characters who have a freaky sense about them that we sometimes find in the world, there is absolutely nothing like this about Elizabeth. She is simply an aging mother-to-be, who exhibits only goodness. But that’s what you get with God. Yes He may speak through someone like this, but it is all goodness.

There are those who suggest that some of us are naturally more aware than others of the spiritual dimension in life, of the spiritual world, and that may be, but the Bible shows again and again that God is a God of communication, and so we may expect God to speak to us. It may not be as dramatic as it was here through Elizabeth; it may simply be that you are conscious of new thoughts coming, directing your eyes in God’s direction, as you read the Bible, or even these meditations. God’s way of speaking to us, can be that low-key!

The danger, when thinking about this aspect of God’s activity, is that we see it simply as a means of finding out about the future – that’s why people foolishly ‘read the stars’ or use other similarly highly dubious practices to reassure themselves. No, when God speaks, He wants to bring us into a place of real relationship, or even deeper relationship, with Him, so that we can become recipients of His blessing, His goodness, for that’s what love desires. Do you want to hear Him that you may come closer to Him? Then simply ask Him today for that to happen.

11. Family Unity


11. Family Unity

Luke 1:39-41 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

We have been following two stories so far, one of a child that is to be born to an elderly couple, and one of a child who will be born to a young girl. The elderly couple have tried for a child throughout their lives, but with no success, until now when God has decreed it. The young girl hasn’t even got a married partner yet, but is suddenly aware that she is carrying a baby. Two mothers, who happen to be cousins, separated by years but joined by a common experience; they are both having a child despite impossible circumstances. Elizabeth has been hiding herself away in her home in the hill country of Judea in the south. Mary lives in Nazareth in Galilee, to the north.

Mary’s first inclination is to go to her cousin who, she’s been told, is six months into her pregnancy. She travels south to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. Perhaps she simply wants to share in the joy of this couple as they wait out their time; perhaps she wants to share with Elizabeth all that has happened. It is a very natural scene, two expectant mothers getting together to share their experiences. Eventually Mary reaches their home and as she enters the building and sees Elizabeth, she calls out to her, and suddenly the baby in Elizabeth leaps and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit.

Now if you’re not sure what being filled with the Holy Spirit means, the Bible shows us that it is an experience of the presence of the Lord seemingly filling that person so that they are either equipped and enabled to do something they previously were unable to do, or they were filled with great joy. We’ll see tomorrow the effect on Elizabeth. For now all we want to do is register the fact that it happened.

Here are two women who have both been enabled by God to have children. The child of Elizabeth will become the man we know as John the Baptist. The child of Mary is Jesus. John’s role was to prepare the people to be ready to meet and receive Jesus. That’s how close and significant these two women are. At this stage they are both just marvelling at what is happening to them, and although the angel has spoken words to both Zechariah and to Mary, it is probable that neither of them fully appreciated the full import of what is going on. That’s how life with God often is.

The Holy Spirit enabled Mary to conceive Jesus, and the Holy Spirit now in Elizabeth – even perhaps in John within her – stirs them mother and child as He acknowledges The Presence within Mary. Sometimes in the New Testament we find reference to what seem to be three persons who make up the Godhead – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Here it is as if the Holy Spirit welcomes Jesus as he arrives in this home.

For much of the time these two women just go through the normal process of confinement. It is very ordinary in that respect; millions of women go through it every year. But in this case the presence of God is there behind the ordinary. That’s just how it so often is in life: it goes on day by day, quite ordinarily, yet God is just there in the background, overseeing it all. Can you catch this? Can you catch it in your life at the present? No? You will! Carry on reading, carry on listening and perhaps, just perhaps, you will catch a sense of God there each day, just in the background of what you otherwise consider an ordinary life!

7. Bound by Time


7. Bound by Time

Luke 1:21-24 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.

There are a whole variety of things that go to make life seem difficult sometimes, and time is one of them. If only we were able to control and change it, we think, if only I could stretch it out (so I could go on enjoying this experience that I don’t want to end), or if only I could shorten it (so I could bring this difficult time to an end quickly). But no, we are stuck with it. In our modern world we have fast food, or quick-drying paint, things that speed up life for us, but have you noticed we haven’t managed to speed up how long it takes for a woman to carry a child and bring it to birth; it’s still nine months.

Nine months! Nine months of silence for Zechariah. He’s got his sign; God CAN do things that actually affect him, that change his ability to speak. Oh yes, when God’s on the scene He can enable us to do a whole lot of things we couldn’t do on our own. That’s one of the marvels of the Christian life – but then perhaps you haven’t plugged into that truth yet. Christianity is all about God coming and changing us and enabling us to be people who do things today that we couldn’t do in the past. Or perhaps it’s to change us so that we don’t do things we did in the past! You see He’s God, and He knows best, and when we open our lives to Him, He blesses us in this way.

So here is Zechariah, coming out of the innermost part of the Temple with others waiting to congratulate him on having performed this once-in-a-lifetime service – and he can’t speak! Something has obviously happened, but what? That’s often the trouble with encounters with God; they’re not always easy to describe! Especially when you can’t speak! It’s then down to an instant course in sign language.

But he’s got the message! When he returns home, somehow he conveys something to Elizabeth his wife. Perhaps it’s just that elderly couple do still continue to express love to one another physically, but whatever it is, probably to her total surprise, Elizabeth finds herself pregnant! Hang on, she’s an old lady probably past child-bearing age, and all the years have proved she’s not capable of conceiving. Well she is now! That’s what we said, when God turns up, He enables us to do things we couldn’t do previously.

So here are this elderly couple waiting out the nine months; Zechariah possibly wondering if he’ll get his speech back; Elizabeth possibly wondering how she’ll manage when it comes to the birth. Two people waiting and wondering and the time drags by, one day at a time, one hour at a time, just waiting. Oh yes, there are times when we wish we could speed up time, but God has designed things to work in certain ways and that often involves time. It takes nine months for the foetus to develop so they’re going to have to just be patient and wait. Are there things you’re feeling impatient about? Come on, the lesson here is you can’t rush things. You can do stuff, pray more, or whatever, but some things just have to go their time – unless God speeds it up – now there’s a thought!