A sermon for our ‘Senior Friends’ carol service which I did during Advent, using the lectionary readings. I focused on God’s promises and on the meanings behind the names of the people in the story.
Tom Wright’s Luke For Everyone was helpful for this sermon. No one did come up with a way of doing ‘angel’, though…
God’s Promises; Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, Luke 1:5-20
I’m sure by now that many of us will have got our Christmas plans sorted. We’ll have organised who’s coming, or where we’re going and perhaps even what we’re having for Christmas dinner. And after Christmas dinner is perhaps one of the those rare times when the family might even play games together. Monopoly used to be one of the games that got brought out at times like this when I was growing up. I wonder though, if any of you are any good at charades? If you are, perhaps afterwards, you’ll be able to show me how to explain the reading that we heard from Luke’s Gospel. Because, after the reading we heard, Zechariah ends up having to play charades to explain what happened: “when Zechariah came out of the temple, he could not speak to them. The people realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.”
How do you do ‘angel’ in charades? Let alone the rest of what happened. Because, it’s hard enough to explain when you’ve got words you can use!
Zechariah and Elizabeth, we’re told, were “upright in the sight of God”. In other words, despite the overwhelming pressure by the ruling authorities, the ambivalence of society, and the simple struggles of being a human in a sinful world, they remained steadfast and faithful to God. And their very names were reminders to them that God remained faithful to them, despite their struggles, despite the fact that they had not had a child. Zechariah means ‘The Lord remembers’, while Elizabeth means ‘Promises of God’.
These names were a reminder to Elizabeth and Zechariah that God remained faithful, despite their problems and struggles. And also, despite the problems and struggles that all God’s people faced. For, they were under Roman occupation. The prophets had fallen silent.
For hundreds of years they had been waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, for God’s Messiah to come.
This week during advent we particularly remember the prophets, who told God’s chosen people that God’s messiah, God’s chosen one, would indeed come. The prophets spoke about the situations they found themselves in, told people what God thought of the state of the world, and what the world and its future looks like through God’s eyes. And we still need God’s prophets to do the same today, to talk about God’s faithfulness and God’s promises in our world.
One great example of this was the Bishop of Derby who was on Radio 4 this lunchtime talking about the problems with companies paying tax that we are currently struggling with. So, the Bishop of Derby was acting as a prophet, talking about God’s faithfulness and God’s promises in the situation that he finds himself in and that we find ourselves in.
And that was what the prophet Isaiah was doing, as we heard in the first reading. Isaiah was speaking into the situation that he found himself in, and was inspired by God to talk about God’s promises for the future.
“Comfort, comfort my people” God says. God’s faithfulness, God’s love and care.
“Make straight in the wilderness a highway. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low”. Well, at the moment the Chinese are doing just that. They are currently flattening 700 mountains over 500 square miles to make a new city, and yes, it is also in the desert! It will cost billions and take years to complete. But, this is not the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was not talking about flattening mountains for economic gain, with all the environmental problems that that will cause.
No, Isaiah was talking about Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son, John, John the Baptist, who was indeed a voice of one calling in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord. John the Baptist, the greatest prophet, the prophet who pointed directly towards Jesus, who prepared people for the Lord, as the reading says.
The name John means ‘The Lord is gracious’ and that is still the message of this passage from Isaiah. “Make straight in the wilderness a highway for the Lord. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low”. This isn’t about a massive Chinese construction project. This is about God’s faithfulness in our own lives, in our own wildernesses, in our own struggles and pain. Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful and yet struggled for many long years. But God remained faithful and God’s promises were kept. And God remains faithful to us, and keeps his promises.
And the greatest promise of all is the promise that God has given to us, and that we celebrate at Christmas time, the promise of Jesus, God’s son. The name Jesus means ‘The Lord saves’. And, of course, that is exactly what God did, through Jesus. The reason that we celebrate the birth of this baby above all others is that God was faithful and gracious and kept his promises through Jesus. That is what we give thanks for and celebrate.
I challenged you earlier to decide how you would do ‘angel’ in charades. But, actually, the real challenge is to live our lives like Zechariah and Elizabeth. In the passage from Luke, Zechariah doubted and did not understand what was happening. God knows that we doubt and struggle too. But, because of Jesus, God also sends us his Holy Spirit to help us. God promises that he will help us in the midst of our struggles and pain, that he is faithful and gracious. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth we are invited to take part in the story of God’s unfolding promises, to come to him through Jesus and ask for his help, in all parts of our lives. And like Elizabeth and Zechariah God calls us to be faithful to him, to trust in those promises, to hear once again the voice of one calling, “for the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people together will see it”. Amen.