What's all the fuss about? - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Christmas 2016


Christmas Message N°1.  04/12/2016

What’s all the Fuss About?

Reading : Luke 1:1-38

Well it’s that time of year again. It’s already December and according to the church calendar it is the Second Sunday in Advent and Christmas Day, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth, is just three weeks off.

I wonder: have you done all your preparations yet?

Two of the four gospels that we have in our Bible’s begin with their own preparations for Christmas. Matthew opens the NT with a genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestors back to father Abraham. This done he then plunges directly into his account of Jesus’ birth.

Luke won’t give us his own version of Jesus’ family tree until Jesus is on the verge of entering into his public ministry around the age of thirty. Instead he begins his gospel with events that took place a little more than 15 months before Jesus’ actual birth.  In doing this Luke draws our attention to the final stages of the divine plan preparing for the Saviour’s birth.

This morning we are going to consider what was afoot. We’re going to think about why these particular accounts were written down, we’re going to think about whom they concern, and we’re going to consider some of the reactions that those involved at the time demonstrated.

However this is no mere history lesson: we want to know what the relevance is for us today and how we in our turn should react and respond.

Real Life
The first thing for us to realise is that Luke is telling us about things that really did happen. He is not making up some fictional stories to entertain or divert us for a while instead he is telling us history.

Luke makes this point in a number of ways:

Firstly he tells us that others before him had already compiled their own accounts of what had taken place. The facts that Luke intends to lay before us were far from being unknown. The whole "Jesus story" had not taken place in secret and indeed the most significant part had unfolded on a very public stage indeed.

Secondly, Luke tell us that while there was plenty of information already out there it wasn’t available in a sufficiently systematic or comprehensive form. In all probability much of what existed was true but only in snippet format – a story here, a miracle account there, along with some of the things that Jesus had to teach. At the same time some of the things that were being circulated were probably a little removed from the truth and risked confusing the whole picture.

So Luke set himself the rigorous task of writing his own account of the life and significance of Jesus Christ. His was no hurried work but a carefully researched account which he had checked with eye witnesses. The result was the accurate and trustworthy record that we have in our hands today. And his record is punctuated with historical identifiers, details that anchor his account in the real world and that make it obvious to the careful reader that he intended to write history. (We see examples of this in Lk.1:5 with its reference to Herod being the King; in Lk.2:1-2 with references to the Roman Emperor and to a local governor; and in Lk.3:1-2 with further more detailed references to rulers and to those who held various public offices.)

Luke wanted to do more however than simply tell a story. He was concerned that his readers realise something of its significance too, what it all meant. Luke would not want us to approach his account with an easy going "take it or leave it" attitude. He wrote as a disciple and wants us "to take it" for to "leave it" would be a disaster of monumental proportions for any of us.

Right at the very beginning of his book Luke wrote about the events that he was about to describe in a specific way. These events hadn’t just "happened" but they had "been accomplished" or "fulfilled". His meaning is plain – there was and is purpose involved in the person and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. His life and ministry had significance and relevance.

This is the reason why we take time every Sunday to open the Bible and to read and study it together: Jesus is the most significant person we will ever encounter, the most relevant person we will ever meet.

So Luke is not in the business of telling make-believe stories but in that of history telling.

The Ordinary and the Extraordinary
In the unfolding of the facts of history Luke will present us with a lovely mix of the ordinary with the extraordinary:

An old childless couple going about their normal work-a-day lives

A young girl looking forward to marrying her fiancé

It was a special day for the old man. He was a priest and that day he had been chosen by lot to carry out very important functions in the Temple, the type of honour that only came to you once in a lifetime. You can maybe imagine just a little bit how excited he must have been as he made his way to the Temple that day – it was a great day and yet he was about to get far more than he bargained for!

He was in the middle carrying out his responsibilities when he was suddenly interrupted – it was an angel and an angel who had a totally unexpected message for him. You see for years Zechariah and his wife had longed for children but year after year the longed for child didn’t come and now they were both so old...

This was the message the angel Gabriel had for Zechariah: Elizabeth is going to have a baby. She’s going to bear him a son!

The angel Gabriel didn’t stop at that either but went on to say such wonderful things about this child to be born – how special he was going to be.

Yes, I know every child is special to its parents but this child would be special to a much wider group of people than that! This child would have an extraordinary ministry, he would exercise this ministry in the spirit and power of Elijah – in other words this child would be the forerunner of the long-promised and long-desired Messiah!

Six months went by and the angel Gabriel has another mission and another message. No details are given this time about the day – it was just an ordinary day, like any other – how quietly and unexpectedly monumental changes can be brought about in a person’s life!

Mary was spoken for but hadn’t yet married Joseph, her fiancé. They hadn’t slept together and Mary was a virgin. Gabriel’s message must have come as a great shock which seemed to put her future marriage at risk.

"Mary" Gabriel said "you’re going to have a baby" and it was clear that he wasn’t talking of some fruit of her future union to Joseph once they were married.
And once again Gabriel has some extraordinary things to say about the child to be born. If his news to Zechariah about the identity and mission of the son he was to name John was mind-blowing what can we say about the identity he revealed of Mary’s son!

The description Gabriel gives of the son to whom Mary will give birth is utterly astonishing:

vv.31-33, 35 "you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end... (T)he child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."

This child would be the Christ, the Messiah.

The Explanation: God is at Work
Extraordinary things happen when God is at work! Ordinary, mundane situations can be totally transformed and forever changed when God decides to act. And in these months we’re looking at in Luke’s gospel God had decided to act – it was time for his divine plan of salvation to take a giant step forward. For centuries God had promised and taught his people that the definitive deliverer they so needed would come. There had been a succession of men who had functioned for a while as deliverers but their work had never been lasting and their very failures encouraged the people to long for the deliverer who would not fail. Sometimes God had spoken in terms of sending this deliverer and sometimes he had spoken in terms of coming himself to be this deliverer. Well the moment was now imminent. The plan was moving into a very active mode.

First the forerunner must be sent to prepare the way – we know him as John the Baptist – born in remarkable circumstances and set apart right from the outset to accomplish his special work. He wouldn’t have time to do that before the Messiah would actually be born – John would be born just six months before Mary’s far more important son.

Now why am I making this point? It is because while the birth of the Messiah at Christmas is important and necessary it is not meant to be the focal point our faith – we must see things in their right place: Christmas was the means and the end, or the goal, would not be attained for a further 33 years at a place called Calvary.

With the forerunner on the way as Elizabeth carried the future John the Baptist God again worked in an exceptional manner. The Messiah would indeed be both ‘sent’ and be ‘God coming himself’ for the child Mary would carry would be the God-Man. Jesus would have no earthy father, he would instead be conceived by the direct influence of God the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary – this was the divine plan.

How could it come about? How could it happen? It could do so for "nothing will be impossible for God".

Without him the Christmas story would forever be incomplete and unreal indeed it would be impossible but as we have already noted Luke is very much in the reality business.

If the story wasn’t so well-known it might sound very odd, very strange, to our 21 st century ears but it indicates the lengths to which God was prepared to go in securing the salvation that he offers so freely to us in the person of his Son.

Reactions and Responses
How are we to react to all of this, for to react is what we must do?

Maybe you want to respond by saying that it is very difficult to expect us who live in the modern world to believe such extraordinary things could happen or did happen. Some folk will even go so far as to say for example that these things didn’t happen because miracles aren’t scientific. In cloaking our fundamental lack of belief in this way we may even give the impression that it was so much easier for people in the past to believe as they were less educated and less informed than we are and as a result they were somehow more gullible than us too.

Well lets stop for a moment and see just how the folk involved in the story so far actually react.

We must start with poor old Zechariah.

It was his big day – a lifetime’s achievement as his served in the Temple that day and then... he blew it. Oh, I’m not saying he messed up his duties but he certainly did mess up with his response to the angel. He didn’t believe what Gabriel told him is the bottom line. It was not that he had had a message passed on to him by another priest or another friend or neighbour. No, he had just had a personal visit from the angel Gabriel who habitually stood in the presence of the Lord God Almighty and the it was this illustrious being whose word he now doubted.

I wonder whether deep down inside you like to kid yourself that if your saw an angel or had a direct message transmitted to you by one then you would be sure to believe. Zechariah was about spiritual work, in a spiritual place when he had this most remarkable experience and do you know what he blew it! The effects would be plain for all to see though they wouldn’t have understood quite what the cause was – he would lose all powers of speech until the birth he had been told about would take place.

I wonder when he first began to realise that his doubts had been entirely unfounded. I wonder when Elizabeth told him that she thought she was pregnant – did he believe then? Or did he persist in his unbelief until the signs of his wife’s growing girth became unmistakeable? Whenever it was he nevertheless remained speechless until the baby was born. In fact he only recovers his speech when eight days after the birth he does what the angel told him all those months before that he was to do: he told his inquisitive neighbours and friends that the child was to be called ‘John’.

Easy for the gullible folk of the past? Try asking Zechariah!

The second person to think about is Elizabeth herself. We simply do know how she responded to her initial hearing of the message that would transform the rest of her life. I for one find this interesting and for this reason what really matters is not so much our first response but our ultimate response. We know a good deal about her ultimate response: she is full of God-centred rejoicing. She attributes her blessings not to any worth in herself, not even to her much praying for a child, but uniquely to the Lord. She knew her reproach had been taken away because the Lord had chosen to look favourably upon her.
That this pattern now dominated her life is seen as she responds to young Mary’s visit. Filled with the Holy Spirit she bursts out in praise as Mary comes to call. And why so? For this reason: she recognizes in Mary the mother of her Lord.  And so she celebrates declaring that Mary is blessed indeed for she, unlike Elizabeth’s husband, had believed the word that had been spoken to her!

Finally, let’s come to Mary. Was it easy for her to believe the message she received? Was she really ignorant or so gullible that she swallowed what seems like a scientific impossibility to us that she would conceive a child without the intervention of a male? It is so easy for us to try to justify our own lack of faith that we’re ready to clasp at straws, and any straw will do.

Was Mary ignorant or gullible? Just look at the way she questioned the angel:

v.34 "And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?""

No, Mary knew all about babies and how they came to be but she was ready to believe Gabriel’s message when Gabriel told her that God was at work! She readily accepts and offers herself freely and willingly as the Lord’s servant.

It was a huge decision that held a host of unknowns for her: her future marriage to Joseph might be put in jeopardy, she would be exposed to the whispers and the accusations as aspersion would be unjustly cast on her character.

Her readiness to serve was not offered dutifully but joyfully. Nor did she look at herself and try to suggest that she had been chosen because she was in some way super special. No, but instead she remained humble as she rejoiced in the Lord’s good favour. She knew herself to be unworthy – what other kind of person stands in need of a Saviour? She knew her lowliness but she believed too that God would fulfil his plans through the child to whom she would give birth.

How do you react and respond to God’s word as it comes to you? Do you think that God speaks to others but not to you? Do you try to find reasons why you shouldn’t believe or to find reasons that you think will somehow justify you in your state of unbelief? Or are you ready to review the evidence? It all happened – we’re not dealing with myths and fables here. Will you respond in faith and trust this God who made all the necessary preparations, firstly, for his Son to come into the world so that, secondly, he might go on to give die in our place and, thirdly, raise him from the dead on the third day?

Christmas is just the foretaste of greater things to come – don’t miss out through unbelief!


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