Family Watchnight Service

Preached on: Thursday 24th December 2020
There are no text of Powerpoint pdfs accompanying this sermon
Bible references: Luke 2:8-20
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Advent: welcome and secure

Preached on: Sunday 20th December 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-12-20 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Matthew 1:18-25
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Matthew 1v18-25 (NIV)
Sunday 19th December 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Message
Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be true and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Boys and girls – adults even: what makes you feel secure? I’ll give you 30 seconds to think about that, talk about it at home, or even put it up in the Live Chat.
(PAUSE)

I wonder what came to mind for you. Maybe it was family – the security of loved ones being close and able to listen or help. Maybe it is our homes – we might have a chair, or a room, where we feel especially safe. It could be…
holding our favourite teddy or being wrapped up in a blanket you’ve had for years. Maybe we feel secure because of the things in our homes or the plans that we have. We all find safety and security in a range of places and ways, and some will be common to us, whilst others are unique because they hold a special place in our lives.

Do you remember boys and girls who we read about in our story today? We didn’t read about the story of the stable, like in this nativity scene, but we did read about some of the people we see here. We heard the names…Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And who else was in the story? Who else came and visited Joseph? Can you remember? Joseph was visited by…an angel. I don’t have wooden one of those yet for my nativity scene, but here’s one from my Christmas tree.
Our Bible story today reminded us of the beginning, the genesis, of the story about Jesus the Messiah. Mary was engaged to Joseph – they were going to get married. In that culture, as soon as you were engaged you were seen as married, even though for a whole year Mary and Joseph still lived with their parents, rather than together.

But during that time, Mary became pregnant, she was expecting a little baby. We know from other stories in the Bible that Mary had went to visit her cousin Elizabeth for about 3 months, so it’s possible that the story we read today is when Mary is about 4 months pregnant, and she’s maybe starting to show a little – not enough for everyone to notice, but enough that Joseph, and maybe some close family or friends are aware as well.

So, Joseph thinks that Mary is expecting someone else’s baby, not his baby, and wonders if he should call off the marriage, rather than going ahead. But then, the angel appears, and that angel says: ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ (v20-21)

What Joseph experiences and hears is enough to convince him, and so he does what the angel says to do, even though Jesus is actually the son of Mary and the son of God, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even though this is the case, Joseph chooses to take Mary home as his wife and Joseph chooses to name Jesus. These were two very public actions and they made Jesus the son of Joseph…
These actions meant that Jesus was adopted by Joseph.

And that’s important because when Joseph adopted Jesus as his son, that made Jesus heir to the promises God made to King David – Jesus became part of the legal family line, that traced his way from David, to Solomon, all the way down to Joseph and then to Jesus. To adopt Jesus, was a big step for Joseph – he was making a choice that would be for the rest of his life, because when we adopt someone, we are saying that they are welcome into our family forever, and there’s no going back, there’s no changing our minds – it’s irreversible, it’s forever, they are secure in our family.

Boys and girls, we often talk about church being like a family, and that’s been very important this past year…
because we’ve needed extra help, and at times we’ve felt alone, and other times we’ve maybe even felt a little bit scared.

But, why is the church like a family? Who’s family are we? I’m going to put up three pictures on screen and I wonder if you can guess which family, we’re a part of, OK? So, are we a part of the royal family? Or, are we part of the Peter Rabbit family? Or, are we part of God’s family? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about this. The correct answer is…we’re part of God’s family, that’s right, well done! We are part of God’s family and it was made possible because Jesus came as a baby at Christmas.

The story of Jesus, and what He sought to achieve, is a story of family, of adoption – Joseph chooses to…
adopt Jesus; Jesus chooses to adopt human form, God took on human flesh; and this was all done so that Jesus could extend the family of God. From all eternity there was the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in love for this world they wanted to include others, they wanted you and me to be part of their family.

But because of sin, that doesn’t happen straight away. We each need to make a choice, the choice to allow Father God to adopt us into His family. Joseph made a choice to adopt Jesus; Jesus made a choice to adopt human form; and we need to make a choice as well, the choice to allow Father God to adopt us into His family.

I wonder friends, have we each made that choice? Have we come to God and said “yes, I want to be part…
of Your family!” – have we said that, or something like it? Because if we haven’t, and if we do not have an identity as adopted children of God, then we may feel even more adrift, overwhelmed or alone; we may feel that it all rests on us – on our plans, on the stuff we can get, the money we can make. But if we know ourselves as adopted children of God, if being part of God’s family is more than turning up to church or being “religious”, then with that identity can come a security because then we can become confident of God’s welcome, His rescue and presence, and the value we have to Him.

Friends, this Advent season, may we each make the choice to allow Father God to welcome us into His family, because when He adopts us, there’s no going back, He won’t change His mind – it’s irreversible, it’s forever…
and so as the Apostle Paul once said:

‘…I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
(Romans 9:38-39)

I pray that we may remember the babe who came that we might be adopted into His family line and so be secure in Him forever. May it be so. Amen.

Advent: welcome and remembered

Preached on: Sunday 10th December 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-12-13 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Matthew 1:12-17
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Matthew 1:12-17
Sunday 13th December 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Message
Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be true and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

What are some of your favourite memories of Christmas? When you think back over the years, what comes to mind? I remember decorating the tree with mum and dad, as well as Christmas card deliveries with the Scout Post and hiding behind the sofa with one of my sisters for some strange reason that I don’t recall. Feel free to share in the Live Chat at home some of your own favourite Christmas memories.

In our Advent series so far, we’ve seen in the genealogy of Jesus that God welcomes us into His family – He welcomes one and all, indeed, all the nations, for none are written off; no matter our brokenness or personal story, the welcome of God is extended to each of us. And when we accept that welcome, when we choose to repent and find our identity in Jesus, then a journey with God begins, a journey whereby God rewrites our future, and weaves our story into His greater story, and as part of that He sends us out with the good news of Jesus.

But Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is not the only genealogy within the New Testament. In fact, the gospel of Luke contains one as well. Yet, if you compare the two side by side, there are very significant differences because they each miss out people that the other writer… mentions. The issue is further complicated within Matthew’s genealogy, in that there are three sets of fourteen generations, but there’s no way that this accounts for the length of time inferred here. So, what’s going on? Are Matthew and Luke being forgetful? Is Matthew simply glossing over gaps in his memory?

Well, these are not new questions – people have asked them over many generations and commentators have helped us realise that there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, when we read today, that ‘Jacob was the father of Joseph…’ (v16) we take it very literally, in a biological and genetic kind of way, which creates a problem when we read in Luke’s gospel that ‘Joseph, [was] the son of Heli…’ (4:23). So, is Joseph, Jacob or Heli’s son? The answer is – both.
Because in the Greek language that the New Testament was written, the phrase, ‘the father of…’ in Matthew’s gospel, can mean ‘the ancestor of…’ and it was a phrase used of relationships that were not genetic, such as between a rabbi and his disciple.

But something else is going on as well, and what Matthew is recording here is the line of succession to the royal throne, the ‘official’ genealogy. This would not necessarily pass from father to son, but would still remain within the family. Matthew is helping us see the legal claim that Jesus has to the throne, where as the genealogy within Luke, focuses on the physical family line. So, neither Matthew or Luke are having memory problems. Indeed, the individuals listed by Matthew in
that final portion, are largely unknown to us,…
there are no records of their lives within the Scriptures, as compared to most of the individuals listed before the exile. Yet, we know that certain cultures of the time, and particularly the Jews, were fastidious in keeping family records and so both Matthew and Luke are drawing upon this to fill in the gaps, so that a record, a memory of the genealogy of Jesus might be known and never lost.

We started this series with the aim of learning more about the identity of Jesus and so more of our identity as people who are in Christ, people who follow Him. So, how does what we now know, aid us? What we do we learn here of the identity of Jesus and of ourselves?

Well, I think our portion of Scripture today is a call to remember, to remember that God has revealed Himself… in history, that the Christian faith is a historical faith, rooted in real people and real acts of God within history. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae and said: ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God…For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…’ (Colossians 1:15, 19)

Jesus is more than just a good teacher, or an above average human being; He’s even more than simply a legal and physical descendant of Abraham and David. Jesus is, in fact, God in the flesh and such a claim is no mere thing because the claim of Scripture, the claim of the Christian faith, is that Jesus is unique and uniquely qualified to fulfil the promises made to Abraham and to David because He is God in the flesh, appearing in history in Jesus. We are called to remember this and in our remembering to trust.
Because in our day of fake news and relative truth, as well as amidst the struggles of life, there is so much which can undermine our trust in Jesus, there is so much which can undermine the uniqueness of Jesus and make Him seem like a myth or just some wishful thought. But we are to remember, to remember that the God of all creation came in human form, in the person of Jesus, and stepped into history that we might know Him and trust Him, both in this life and for the life to come.

I wonder, friends, do you need to remember this? Is your faith wavering? Has it been undermined this past year? Are you facing a future or a decision, and in the midst of facing it, do you need to remember the truth, the reality, that God stepped into history, through Jesus, so that you could have a relationship with God, today and forever?
Maybe God is calling you to remember, to remember what He done in the past, in Jesus, and so to trust Him now for what lies ahead.

There is also something else we can take away from this portion of the genealogy of Jesus. Not only are we to remember, but God remembers as well. In our passage today, there is, as I said, a list of names which we know very little about – most of these individuals are unknown, largely forgotten, lost in the sands of time. But they are remembered by God. He chose to have these names written down in the Scriptures. These people are not unfamiliar to Him, they are not overlooked by Him. Instead, they are known, they are seen, they are remembered by God.

This is something that also comes across in other parts of the genealogy, for as we saw in earlier weeks, within the family line of Jesus are a number of foreigners and most of them are women. Their names are Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Bathsheba, and it’s very unusual to see the names of women listed in a genealogy from this period of time. It would have been startling to people of the day, for in both Greek and Jewish culture a woman had no legal rights, yet this is a legal record. What is more, women were often seen more like a thing, than a person, and a Jewish man would thank God each day that he had not been created a slave, a Gentile or a woman – and yet there are four such women listed in the genealogy of Jesus, because God sees, He knows, He remembers.

I wonder, do you need to hear this about God today: that He sees you, He knows you intimately, and He has not, and will never, forget you. In all that you are facing, He has not taken His eye off of you and you haven’t slipped His mind.

And what if you, or a loved one, are affected by one of the many conditions that affect memory – either, your memory or theirs? What does it mean that God remembers? Well, in the midst of changes and losses which are so painful, and when it seems that our, or their, sense of self – their identity – as we have known it, is literally vanishing before our eyes, to know that God remembers is to know that He holds the memory of our true self in Him, and so we will never, ever, be forgotten and one day our true selves will be restored.
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Brothers and sisters, God sees you, He knows you and He will always, always, remember you. In the midst of whatever you may be facing, you are not forgotten, for you and all this world, are so dear to Him that He came as a babe at Christmas, entering into history, that we might know His welcome into His family, the family of Jesus.

I pray that this season of Advent will not only be a time to recall our fond memories of Christmas, but to remember God and His welcome shown in Jesus, in whom we are called to place our trust, for He is God in the flesh, and He sees you, remembers you and loves you. May it be so. Amen.

Advent: welcome and sent

Preached on: Sunday 29th November 2020
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 20-11-29 Message PPT slides multi pages.
Bible references: Matthew 1:1-6a
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Matthew 1:1-6a
Sunday 29th November 2020
Brightons Parish Church

Introduction to series
Today we begin a new series that will see us through to the end of the year. But first, here’s a question for you to think about or engage with in the Live Chat: how far back can you trace your family history? I know my dad has done some work on this and there’s also that TV programme which helps people trace their family line. At times something unexpected arises, a revelation that impacts the identity of those living today.

Over the next three sermons we’re going to focus on the genealogy of Jesus, as found at the start of Matthew’s gospel. The genealogy is structured with three sets of fourteen generations and we’ll take one set each week. Often when we read this list of names we find it dull and a bit odd, we don’t really see the relevance of it.
But in Jesus’ day, and at the time when Matthew wrote this gospel, having the genealogy of Jesus written down, spelt out, would have been impressive, exciting, compelling for the people of their day because it revealed the roots of Jesus, it revealed His identity.

As we journey through Advent, my hope is that we will not only become familiar with the identity of Jesus, but that our own identity might be matured as well. Because when we place our faith in Jesus, when we identify as people who follow Him, then as the New Testament tells us, we are “in Christ” – we share in who He was and what He was about – in truth, our identity becomes entwinned with His identity, because we are now part of the family of God. So, let us open our Bibles and hear today’s passage read for us but Norma Thompson. (PAUSE) Message
Let us take a moment to pray before we think about God’s Word.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be true and pleasing in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Matthew’s tracing of the family line of Jesus began with these words:
‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…’ (v1)

With so few words, Matthew would have grabbed the attention of his original readers, because he is making big claims about Jesus: Matthew is claiming that Jesus is not only descended from Abraham and David, …
but that the promises given to these individuals, and the hopes that God’s people had kept alive for hundreds of years, Matthew is claiming that in Jesus these promises, these hopes, are now being fulfilled. So, let’s briefly see what those promises were.

To Abraham, God had said:
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. …and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’
(Genesis 12:2-3)

With Abraham, God initiated a plan to bless all peoples, all nations, to bring them back into relationship with Himself and so be part of His kingdom and know the life that can only come through a relationship with the living God.

But the Lord also made a promise to David, we read:
‘“…when your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom…I will be his father, and he shall be my son…my love will never be taken away from him…Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.”’
(2 Samuel 7:12, 14-16)

An incredible promise, a promise that had seemed to be lost, or unfulfilled for so long, and yet the people continued to wait for a son of David to be born. We saw in our last series in Isaiah, several of the prophecies given by God, confirming to His people that He would fulfil this promise: that a King would come and in time this individual came to be known as the Messiah, the Anointed One, or in the Greek, Christos, from which we get the title Christ.

So, when Matthew says: ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…’ – this is a very loaded statement and part of Matthew’s purpose in detailing the family line is to affirm and validate the identity of Jesus: He is Messiah, the Christ; He is heir to the promises of David and of Abraham.
But, what does that mean for us? For you and me? Well, we need to understand that Jesus – who He was, what He was about, the message He conveyed and the ministry He carried out – all of this was so vast, so multi-layered, multi-faceted that none of the gospel writers could weave everything together, so they each sought to capture a perspective on Jesus, a perspective that spoke to the needs and concerns of a particular audience.

Now, these perspectives do not conflict – it’s like seeing a diamond from different angles, with it’s different faces and cuts, yet each perspective allows us to appreciate the overall beauty and significance. It’s the same with Jesus, for in Matthew’s gospel we find a focus on the “Kingdom of heaven” and the “son of David”. Again and again,
Matthew uses language…
to get us thinking about the kingdom of God and the rule of Jesus. But Matthew’s focus on this, is not only in reference to historical promises being fulfilled in Jesus – Matthew also knows that following Jesus, identifying with Him and His family line, is to identify with the Kingdom of God and the rule of Jesus in your own life and as a community of faith. To follow Jesus, within Matthew’s gospel, is to recognise Him as King and ourselves as His subjects and ambassadors. To have faith in Jesus, is to confess Jesus as King of kings and actively seek the extension of His Kingdom. So, it’s no surprise that Matthew concludes his gospel with these words:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have
commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)
You may still be wondering: how does this relate to us? Well, firstly – you are welcome; you are welcome into the Kingdom of God for God delights in you. For a long time, Israel misunderstood its place and its role, becoming very insular, writing others off. But God always had a plan that was for all the nations, for all peoples – we saw that in the promises made to Abraham and in the verses we read today, we see mention of three women – and I’ll say more about them in the coming weeks – but for now, let’s notice that Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and probably even Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, were all foreigners. They were Gentiles, outsiders, usually excluded, ostracised, unwelcome. But they are named in the family line of
Jesus to help us see the all-embracing love of God; we see His welcome to the nations, to one and all, to any who will come to Him in faith through Jesus.

I wonder, do you know this welcome, friends? Do you know the affirmation of God? You may not because you are not yet following Jesus, and if that’s you, then God extends His welcome to you as well and all you need to do is come in faith to Him through Jesus. Friends, when you know the welcome of God, it changes your life because you realise you’re not written off, you are valued, you are precious to God, He truly delights in You and wants You to know a place in His family, through faith in Jesus. Friends, do you know the welcome of God?

But what if you do know the welcome of God? What if you do follow Jesus and part of your identity is having faith in the One who is Messiah, the promised King? Well, if that’s you brothers and sisters, then let me ask: in our day-to-day lives, in the life of our congregation, where… is our focus? What is our priority? Is it the Kingdom of God? So, for example, we are exploring our future place with the seven Braes churches coming together as a Hub – is our focus on the Kingdom of God, or is it upon our building and our future as Brightons? As a congregation, do we have an identity defined by the Kingdom of God?

Or on a personal level, are you sharing in the great commission, given to all of us who follow Jesus? We saw, in the verses from Matthew 28, that we’re all sent to make disciples of the nations; each of us is personally called by Jesus to be His ambassador. Is that part of your identity? Because it’s not optional, it’s not for a select few; everyone who claims to follow Jesus is called to make Him known and extend His kingdom.
So, here’s an easy first step, to help us all grow in our identity as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. In the next couple of weeks, our church Christmas card will be coming out, but due to restrictions we’re not delivering to the whole parish. Instead, each church household will receive two cards – one for yourself and another to give away, that you might invite someone to watch or attend a service over the festive period. This is a really simple way of extending the welcome of God to another person and playing your part within the Kingdom of God as His ambassador.

I pray that over this time of Advent, we will see more clearly the identity of Jesus and grow in our identity as people who are in Christ: welcomed and sent out.
May it be so. Amen.

Advent: everyone needs to know!

Preached on: Sunday 22nd December 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the full Order of Service PDF by clicking here 19-12-29-Full-Order-of-Service-Brightons-All-Age.
Bible references: Luke 2:1-7
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 2:1-7
Sunday 22nd December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Well done boys and girls, and well done to all your leaders for helping pull it together, and the band and choir for learning the songs! Let’s show our appreciation (again) with a round of applause.
(CLAP)

A number of times in your nativity play the characters said things like:
• “everybody needs to hear about [this]”
• “the news of Jesus’ birth is sure to spread fast”
• “the story of Jesus’ birth must be kept alive forever”

And they said this because they thought that the news, the message, about Jesus was really important.

What ways can you think of telling people a message?
If you wanted to tell something to someone, how could you do that? How could you pass on a message?
(TEXT, EMAIL, TALK, WRITE)

These are all great ways of passing on a message. But before I was a minister I worked with young people, and we all know young people can be a bit loud, so I had to use this megaphone to be heard.

Will I try it out? Will I try to tell you a message with this megaphone? (TRY: GOD LOVES YOU)

Ugh, that didn’t work very well, it’s supposed to make my voice really loud! Why did it not work?…Oh, there’s something in it? If there’s something in it, then it won’t work – I probably need to take them out, right?
So, the stuff in here, is stopping you hearing the message. Maybe’s there’s stuff stopping us from telling the message about Jesus as well.

Does someone want to pull out one of the socks in here? (4 CHRISTMAS SOCKS WITH LABEL ON SIDE:
1. FEAR – fear can stop us telling others. But the message of Christmas is about God’s love for everyone, that’s really important to share.
2. DOUBT – doubt can stop us telling others. But the birth of Jesus fulfilled prophecies made hundreds of years before He came, so there’s really good reasons to believe the Christmas message.
3. BORED – being bored can stop us telling others. But the Christmas message is something to celebrate, because in Jesus we find a Saviour, we find the king of all the world.
4. NOT MY JOB – thinking that “it’s not my job” can stop us telling others. But you might be the only Christian in someone’s life, and if you don’t tell them, then no one might tell them. So, we all need to be sharing the Christmas story with anyone and everyone that we know.

And if we pull out the stuff that stops us from telling others the message about Jesus, well then, just like this empty megaphone, they will hear the message clearly.
(TRY: GOD LOVES YOU)

But people are only going to hear that message if we tell them, and to make it a wee bit easier for us all, we’ve got these little booklets to take away today – one for everybody. (EXPLAIN – FLICK THROUGH PAGES)
So, let’s not allow fear, doubt, boredom or any other excuse to stop us telling the Christmas message to someone this year – let’s help to spread the news of Jesus’ birth this Christmas, because everyone needs to know about it, and it’s so important that the message must be kept alive forever, so let’s play our part as we go from here today.

But first, let us pray.

Father God, thank You for Christmas and Your love for us, shown in Jesus.
Help us Father God, to share this wonderful news with someone else this Christmas. Give us boldness.
May we know Your joy, peace and love, and be able to share that with others. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Advent: hesed love

Preached on: Sunday 15th December 2019

The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-12-15-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1: 57-79
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 1: 57-79
Sunday 15th December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Over the first two weeks of Advent we’ve taken the time to dig into the early chapters of the Christmas story as we find it in Luke, with a focus on Zechariah and Elizabeth, then Mary and Joseph, and we’ve seen within the story the invitation God issued to them and to us. In both those divine encounters, the invitation from God came privately and it came via the angel Gabriel.

But in our reading today, this final portion of the Christmas story before the birth of Jesus, we read that
‘Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied’ (Luke
1:67), and the song that follows…
is the first recorded prophecy, given by God via human messenger, for 400 years. The last prophet in the Old Testament was a man called Malachi, and then the next words of prophecy don’t come until John is born. That’s 400 years of silence, 400 years of wondering: where are you God? Are you there? Do you still care?

Silence is a hard reality. I came across some words from a former colleague of mine this week, she posted them online: “Silence is unnerving. Believe me, I’ve been there. How do we wait? What do we say? When will this vortex of deafening quiet END?! Perplexed and frustrated, angry and irritated, we could easily shake our fists at this silent [God]. We itch to be doing something, to be making progress, to in some way be climbing our way out of this darkness.”
(Hannah Montgomery, 11th December 2019, http://24-7scotland.com/silence-is-not-absence)

Silence is a hard reality, and God’s people had lived with it for 400 years. I wonder if any of us feel like God is silent in our lives just now, and if so, I wonder how that makes you feel? Hannah continues her story:

“This time last year it was a cold, grey day and I sat across from my [counsellor], grappling with my understanding of God. Winter was hard for me last year, and I wanted answers. Wise, insightful, and extremely patient…she looked me in the face and gently admonished me. ‘Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.’ That sentence has reverberated around my brain for the last year. Silence and absence, two very different things…
Not inevitable bedfellows after all, but two distinct entities, in which God occupies the former and not the latter.”

‘Do not confuse silence with absence. He is still here.’ It is a truth that God was going to prove very powerfully in the Christmas story and in our reading today, for today we receive another invitation from God, an invitation to be real about our doubts and questions, and in the midst of our wrestling to know the God of the Christmas story and how knowing this God can change our lives. So, who is this God? If He be silent, but not absent, what is He like?

As you read our passage today the dominant theme is of God’s faithfulness, particularly in Zechariah’s powerful song. It begins with these words: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.’ (v68) So, this God who is silent but present, who is faithful, He is the Lord, the God of Israel.
This means that He is not just any god, nor a god of our making or choosing – He is the Lord, the God of Israel.

That can be difficult to hear in our culture today, because we like choice, we like to have a choice and for other people to have a choice. But the contention of Scripture, the claim of Christmas, is that the God of all, reveals Himself in the wonder of Christmas, in that particular story.

So, if we want to find God amid the silence, then it’s to the Lord, the God of Israel, the God as revealed in Old and New Testaments that we must turn. To turn elsewhere, to look in other places for the God who feels silent but is still present, well those other places are not the way to find Him, for He is the Lord, the God of Israel, and it is to His Word that we must turn.

Zechariah’s prophecy reveals that this God, the Lord, the God of Israel, has ‘come to His people’ – He is not a distant God, He is not uncaring, but He is, as we reed in other portions of the Christmas story, He is Immanuel, God with us, God beside us, God so close that He is nearer than the air we breathe.

And this God has come to redeem His people. Now, redeem and redemption are not words we use in everyday conversation, but they are tied in to what God promised, to what God promised of the Messiah, that coming King who would set the world aright. Of this coming King, this Messiah, the prophet Isaiah foretold:
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me…to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…’ (Isa. 61:1)

These very themes are picked up by Zechariah, who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, again prophesies that someone will come who will bring freedom, rescue and light for those who are held captive and live in darkness. What this captivity and darkness entail is described later in Zechariah’s song, in verses 77-79 where we see that this setting free, this salvation, comes about by dealing with our greatest problems, problems that we cannot solve on our own: the problem of sin (v77), the problem of darkness – in ourselves and in our world – (v79), and the problem of death.

So, the claim of the Christmas story is that someone will come who will bring forgiveness of sin, who will bring light to darkness, who will bring freedom from death – all because God is faithful, He has not forgotten us,…
He comes close. He may seem silent but He is not absent – He sees us as we truly are and He knows the great need we have of His intervention.

For who of us here, does not feel or know the effects of sin, and of darkness, and of death? Loved ones lost, broken relationships, circumstances that are beyond imagination, and a darkness within each of us that we struggle over daily. Friends, we all need redemption, and in faithfulness God draws close, ready to offer the very thing we cannot achieve for ourselves: redemption, forgiveness, freedom, light, hope.

He offers this to you and I today, He offers this because He is also the God of ‘mercy’. In Zechariah’s prophecy, the Lord acts in ‘mercy’ both in verse 72 and 78, so mercy is the motivation behind God’s faithfulness. Now, the mercy of God is so much more than the tepid dictionary definition, it is so much more than pity or even compassion.

Because in the Old Testament, the word frequently used for ‘mercy’ is ‘hesed’ – and hesed speaks of the loyal, gracious, steadfast love of God. It is a love of more than just words, but of action. It is a love that keeps on loving even in the face of unfaithfulness.

And so, God comes, He comes in faithfulness, in hesed love and He does so ‘to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham’ (Lk. 1:72-73). These words of Zechariah remind us that God acts at Christmas to fulfil promises made to Abraham maybe 2000 years

before the coming of Jesus. What was it that God said to Abraham? Well over the summer we read in Genesis 12 these words:
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’” (Gen. 12:1-3)

Two thousand years have passed since these words were first said, but God does not forget one promise that He makes, and so God comes, in the Christmas story, motivated by His tender mercy, His hesed love; God comes close, bringing redemption, bringing freedom, forgiveness and light to His people who wait amidst the darkness and silence. And amidst the darkness and the silence and the darkness, light now begins to dawn that very first Advent, for God comes to fulfil promises of blessing for the whole world.

This blessing is described by Zechariah as being guided ‘into the path of peace’ (Lk. 1:79). The word ‘peace’ here is not merely freedom from trouble, or a quiet life; it is rather all that makes for a person’s highest good, it is every kind of strengthening and encouraging and provision that we might need. But it is described as a path, a journey, a process, which begins with forgiveness, and with light in our darkness, but which will one day lead us out of the shadow of death,…
and into all the fullness of the kingdom of God, the God who is faithful, who is faithful in hesed love, who brings redemption, who draws close, who speaks into the silence, into our doubts and our questions, through the Christmas story.

Friends, where do you need to know this God? Where do you need to know His faithfulness this Christmas time? Where do you need Him to draw close in hesed love? Where do you need His forgiveness, His light, His hope, His peace? The claim of the Christmas story is that this is who God is, and He issues His invitation to show you His faithfulness, His hesed love, His nearness once more, maybe especially in the times when we seems silent, because He though He may be silent, He is not absent.

Now, we’ve focused predominantly so far on Zechariah’s song of praise, but prior to that there is the incident where John is born and named. It is the kind of incident that happens again and again in the early chapters of Luke – God will show His faithfulness and then we see the people’s response. God comes to Zechariah and Elizabeth, He comes to Mary, and each faces a choice of how to respond to the faithfulness of God.

Two weeks ago, we saw the difference in response between Zechariah and Elizabeth, and this week we reach the birth of John, and the question is now, how will this couple respond this time to the faithfulness of God?

Well thankfully, Zechariah learns his lesson, he has grown in humility, he has grown in faith, and so when the time comes to name the child, the wider family assume the child should be named after Zechariah, for that was the custom, to name after a parent, grandparent or relative.

As we might expect of her, Elizabeth speaks up – ‘No! He is to be called John.’ Likely, Zechariah has communicated this to Elizabeth using a writing tablet of clay or some form.

Understandably then, the wider family are uncertain about this decision, for it breaks with custom, and so they ask Zechariah. But he confirms the decision, he is faithful to God, and his tongue is set free once more, leading us into that song we’ve just thought about.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had received the faithfulness of God, and they respond with faithfulness to Him. It would have been a costly response – breaking with tradition,
disappointing people, appearing odd, maybe overly religious or even arrogant. But they understood that they were part of a bigger story now, that they had been called into the story of God’s faithfulness to this world, and that as such, they were to show faithfulness to Him above all else.

There are times when God seems silent and then there are times when it seems God is tapping us on the shoulder and inviting us into one thing after another. So, where might God be inviting you this Christmas to show faithfulness to Him? If we call ourselves Christian, if we call ourselves members of this congregation, then part of claiming that status is claiming that we are actually part of God’s story today, part of God’s faithfulness to this world today, and as such we are then all invited to respond – individually and collectively…
So, where might God be inviting you, inviting us, to show faithfulness to Him this Christmas?

Based on our passage, I’ve noted down a few questions that came to mind for me so as to prompt some reflection upon this:
• Firstly, Elizabeth said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ Zechariah and Elizabeth broke with tradition to be faithful to God. (Lk. 1:61) What traditions, customs, tastes, family expectations are we holding onto that God is inviting us to let go of? Part of God’s redemption is to give us the right priorities and to show faithfulness to Him through adopting these.
• Secondly, Zechariah’s song speaks of God enabling us ‘to serve Him without fear…’ (Lk. 1:74) Where do we fear people’s reactions? Maybe in sharing our faith,
maybe in inviting someone to church, or even how people will react to an idea or a change or a request we make. Part of God’s redemption is to set us free from fear, but to set us free to serve Him, because part of God’s redemption is also to invite us into His story, to play our part, to give of ourselves in bringing blessing to this world. So, where is God inviting you to faithfully serve Him without fear?
• Lastly, Zechariah’s song speaks of God enabling us ‘to serve Him…in holiness and righteousness’. (Lk. 1:75) Where are we compromising the standards God has set for us? What habits, temptations, patterns of sin are we being invited to lay down in faithfulness to God? Part of God’s redemption is setting us free from these so that we might faithfully walk in His ways and know the better things He has for us.

Friends, I realise I’ve thrown a lot of questions at you this morning, but it’s questions that jump off the page for me, questions for you and for me to engage with. If it helps, get a copy of today’s sermon, ask for a copy of it on CD, or download it off the website. But please, friends, engage with the questions that arise from this passage because once again, God issues His invitation this Christmas. In the times of silence, God issues an invitation to know His faithfulness, His hesed love, His nearness once more, that you might know His forgiveness, His light, His hope, His peace.

But He also issues an invitation to respond in faithfulness to His faithfulness. Because the Christmas story truly reveals that God is not absent, He is still there, He is still here. For God is Immanuel, God with us. He is faithful… He is full of hesed love for you and for me, such that He sent His Son, to be born as a babe and to die on a cross. May we know this God this Advent season and respond to Him in faithfulness.

May it be so, let us pray.

Advent: invitation to life

Preached on:
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-12-08-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1:26-47
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Text: Luke 1:26-47
Sunday 8th December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Of all the seasons in our year, Christmas-time is probably the one that has the most traditions, is it not? More than Easter, more than birthdays and anniversaries, we all have expectations of how Christmas will go, we have set ideas of what should happen and when. You may have set ideas about who should go downstairs first to see if the presents have arrived, or when the presents should be opened, or what should be worn on the day. Then there’s the issue of when you will eat Christmas dinner – if you’re willing to participate, let’s do a quick straw poll by a show of hands: whose families eat between noon to 2pm; then 2pm to 4pm, then anyone around 4pm or later?
In my family, when to eat has been an issue in previous years because normally it would be about 2pm, but a few years ago, my middle sister asked for a later time because of seemingly important reasons like visiting the in-laws and wanting her kids to be awake for the meal. My youngest sister and I just about had a heart-attack over the idea of moving Christmas dinner back to three o’clock, so we eventually compromised on 2.30pm, and I had to change my set ideas on how Christmas should be, because sometimes our set ideas need to change.

Our reading today from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to many of us: the angel Gabriel brings a message from God to Mary about the upcoming birth of Jesus. Even this early into Advent, I’ve told the story a number of times – so it’s easy to gloss over the dynamics of this event…
and to reduce it to something nice and familiar. But in all honesty, this isn’t a nice comfortable story, it is really quite unsettling, because Mary and Joseph are engaged – they have their plan, their set ideas, for how life will work out: I wonder if they were buzzing with excitement at being engaged, and if Joseph was busy building the house that they would live in together, and was Mary discussing with her friends what the wedding day would be like and what it would be like being married to Joseph and whether children might come along one day.

And then suddenly, out of the blue, they are asked to change their set ideas for how life will go. Gabriel arrives with a message that God wants to involve Mary and Joseph in His plans and purposes for the whole world. But the message from God is a challenging invitation…
– Mary is asked to carry a baby that will be called the Son of God, a baby that will be given the throne of David by the Lord God, and this baby will reign over a kingdom that will be eternal and all encompassing. This message from God is a really big ask – this message is going to thoroughly upend Mary and Joseph’s plans for their future.

What’s more, this invitation from God is going to result in Mary and Joseph facing scandal and humiliation, probably for the rest of their lives, because everyone will know that Mary was pregnant before the wedding day, and everyone will know she became pregnant after being away from Joseph for 3 months – that’s going to raise a lot of questions about the identity of the father. Their set ideas for life will be forever replaced if they accept this invitation from God.
So, this story is no nice, comfortable story. Sure, we let the kids think that, but in reality, it is both gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring. In the midst of a cosmic story about how God will set the world aright through the coming of His Son, the promised Messiah, we find a very moving invitation. And like I was saying last week, on every page of Scripture, we are invited to consider how the cosmic story of what God is up to in the world brings us an invitation for today as well.

So, let me ask you this: as we count down the weeks to Christmas and so approach the end of another year, what has God been saying to you these past months? The Christmas story clearly shows that God is the living, everpresent God, and as such He is frequently inviting us into His plans and purposes – He might have spoken to you during a church service, or a conversation with a friend, or something you read or experienced in recent months – but be assured, God has been speaking to you. And if we have been attentive, then we might have heard some of what He has been whispering to our hearts. So, what has God been speaking to you about? What has been His message to You this past year?

Or what about us as a congregation? Amidst the change, amidst the uncertainty of the future, what has God been saying to us collectively? Where has been the encouragement, where has been the challenge? What has God by His Spirit been impressing upon us as a congregation?

Now, I realise I’m putting you on the spot with that question, but I’m not looking for an answer…
by the time you reach the door, which might be a relief to you. But maybe in these final weeks of the year, as we go about our set ideas for Christmas, as we ponder the Christmas message afresh, a message that brought encouragement, challenge, and an invitation, maybe we can take some time in these final weeks and reflect upon what God’s invitation to us has been.

Now, if you have something you’d like to share on that, particularly for us as a congregation, then please speak with me, or speak with one of our team conveners. We interviewed them a few weeks’ back for Guild Sunday and any one of us would be happy to hear you out.

Now as we ponder God’s invitation to us, and find Him challenging the set ideas for our individual and collective lives, then we’ll likely be faced with a choice akin to Mary’s, so how did Mary respond?

She said: ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38) In other passages we see how Joseph reacts and the end product is similar: in both Mary and Joseph, we see an openness to the invitation of God, and a trust in His plans and power. They both evidence an open trust in God, an open trust in the invitation of God to be part of His plans and purposes for the world. This could show an open trust, such that they are willing to put aside their set ideas for life and embrace a new life from God.

And once again, we are invited to consider how the divine story affectsour story. God has been speaking to you this year, He has been whispering a particular message to you, and the question is – will we take up God’s invitation to a life we never anticipated? In this moment of choice, how will we respond? Will we be like Mary, with an open trust in God, in His plans and power?

Now as I outlined earlier, this is not simply a nice invitation from God, saying: “oh, would you like a baby?” Because Mary saying “yes” to God’s invitation would mean saying “yes” to ridicule and contempt for being pregnant whilst unmarried in a small town, a town probably as full of gossips as anywhere else. And Mary would have known this at the time of God’s invitation, yet she still said, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” It is surely one of the most courageous statements ever said…

to sign up to something that will bring heartache, even suffering. Her openness to pay such a price, to even lose some happiness, to lose something she valued; there’s part of me that can never get my head around that, to say “yes” to that particular invitation, is so very inspiring.

In comparison to that, are the things that God is asking of us, quite so hard? In light of Mary’s example, an example that would foreshadow her Son’s example, though His was of a magnitude much greater, but in light of Mary’s example, can we really still keep making excuses? Or will we embrace God’s invitation, no matter how it might change our set ideas for our lives?

I could give you any number of examples from my own life, either from over the years or from this past year… when I have made the wrong choice, when I was not prepared to pay the cost, but which now, looking back, I so wish that I had: that nudge from God to make sure that I prioritised time with Him, because when I didn’t I grew weary, hope dimmed, perspective blurred; or there’s that challenge from God, quite frequently, on how I parent or how I treat my wife, and the need then to apologise, to seek His wisdom, and commit to a different way of life all because I keep ignoring Him. Or there’s the invitation to speak about by faith to someone, and too often the times even I turn it down, and then the opportunity never arises again.

Friends, as I’ve said, God has been speaking to you. He communicates through His Word, through His people, by His Spirit and in the midst of the circumstances of life. If we have been attentive,…
we might have heard His invitation, but now the question is, what will we do with it – how will we respond? Will it be like Mary, with an open trust in the plans, the power and the love of God?

One final observation about Mary’s story. After Mary trusts God’s invitation, it leads her on to sing her own song, and it begins with these words: “My soul glorifies the
Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1: 46-47)

Some time has passed since that initial visit from the angel, and Mary has had time to dwell upon and maybe experience the effect of her trusting response in God’s invitation. Yet it feels like there’s a change in the dynamics now. Before, in the encounter with the angel,
Mary’s response was quite muted,…
not necessarily grudging, for there was an open trust, but maybe a little uncertainty because of all that’s going to happen.

Yet now, when Mary is with Elizabeth, and after some time has passed, there is a different tone, a different feel, to Mary – the trust is still clearly there, she still trusts in the goodness and purposes of God, but now, now, we see in her a joy that spills over into song, a song that will be written about and which will inspire music and drama in generations to come. God brought the invitation – Mary responded with open trust – and in time, joy came and an impact on future generations as well.

Friends, individually and corporately, God has brought
His invitation to us this year…
It could be a costly invitation, maybe not to the extent of Mary’s, but nonetheless still costly to us. And, as I’ve said, we then have a choice of how to respond – will we too respond with open trust? For if we are willing to trust, and only if we trust, then the joy and the impact that was Mary’s, can be ours as well.

Now, God doesn’t promise an easy life, He doesn’t promise that if we respond with open trust that the invitation won’t be costly or leave us with unanswered questions; after all, Mary was to go on and experience some degree of difficulty and hardship herself, even before Jesus went to the Cross; she still lost a husband, she still worried what her grown-up Son was doing; though the angel called her blessed she knew hardship.
But she also knew joy – and one day that joy…
would forever remain with her, as she placed her trust in the plans of God, in the very Person of God who was her Son, that babe who was also her Messiah and Saviour; she would place her trust in Him and in His invitation, and in Him she found a joy that could never be taken from her.

Friends, God issues His invitation – His invitation to a life you could never dream nor imagine, both individually and corporately. He is speaking, has spoken, and if we are to share in the joy of Mary, then we too must respond with open trust, we must make room for this Christ-child, just as Mary had to make room for Him in her life as well.

And let’s take a moment to think about that impact Mary had on future generations. Many of us would like to see our congregation and young people come to own the
Christian faith for themselves; we hope to have…
an impact upon them as well, just like Mary. But in today’s culture, we can’t simply talk at them or point to words on a page, because they simply do not care. Yet, when these words from Scripture are combined with your personal story of how it has made a difference, well then they might listen and heed what is shared.

Now, I don’t know all your stories much yet, but when on placement, it was so sad that few people could share their experience of what their faith had done in their life; they could tell me that they came to share for X number of years and what jobs they had done, but too few could share how their relationship with God had shaped their character, and what they had seen God do in their lives individually or collectively. Why was that? Why did they have so little testimony to share? Was it because of a lack of trust and response to God?

If we want to impact the next generation, then we must have testimony to share, stories of what God has done in and through us. And if we can’t share anything, then maybe it’s time to start asking why, and we might need to begin with this question: have you accepted Jesus as Your Saviour and Lord? Have you made room for Him in Your life?

I asked a question several times at the start of my time here, but I’ll keep asking it, just in case today is the day it finally sinks in for someone: Have you responded to Him with open trust? Have you accepted Him? Have you made room for Him to come into Your life?
Since coming here, I’ve heard of a few stories from folks in our congregation who were attending church for decades and were even members, but who had never actually responded to this question. So, how can we tell if we have accepted Jesus?

Well as Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Can you truly say that of Jesus? Is Jesus real to you? Is He so real to you, and the relationship He offers you, is this so real that in the depth of your being your soul glories in God and rejoices in Him?

Can we say like Mary, ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled’? Is our heart for the Lord’s Kingdom and the Lord’s priorities, for the Lord’s will and word to be fulfilled?…
Because if your attitude to Jesus is a little bit ambivalent; if His will is not what you aspire to live out; if the core of your identity is something other than as a child of God, then maybe you still have some room to give over to Jesus?

This Christmas time, Jesus stands in our midst and He issues His invitation to come into our lives. He doesn’t promise an easily life; in fact, accepting His invitation may well lead to a more difficult life. But we’ll never know the joy of the Lord, or the impact upon generations that Mary made, if we keep Jesus at arms’ length and fail to make room for Him in every area of our individual and corporate lives. Friends, my hope, is that we will respond like Mary, allowing our set ideas for our lives to fall away if need be, and with an open trust, take up God’s invitation to a life, to a joy, to an impact, we could never have imagined. May it be so. Let us pray.

Advent: good news!

Preached on: Sunday 1st December 2019
The sermon text is given below or can be download by clicking on the “PDF” button above. Additionally, you can download the PowerPoint PDF by clicking here 19-12-01-Brightons-Powerpoint-Scott-sermon.
Bible references: Luke 1:5-25
Location: Brightons Parish Church

Texts: Luke 1:5-25
Sunday 1st December 2019
Brightons Parish Church

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

How are you approaching Advent this year? Are you someone who is suddenly thinking: “Advent!?! How did it become Advent already! I’ve only got 24 days to get the shopping done now!?!” Is that you?

Or, are you a “Advent’s here, sigh, same old, same old” – is that you? Or, do you approach Advent in some other way?

Why not take half a minute to turn to your neighbour and share how you feel at the beginning of this Advent season? (PAUSE)
As I was saying to the children and young people, I really do think Advent is a time of invitation, a time when God invites us deeper with. Part of my reasoning for this is that the accounts we reed during this season – of Zechariah and Elizabeth, of Mary and Joseph – again and again these accounts show God inviting people into something that very first Christmas.

So, over these first three Sundays of Advent, we are going to look at God’s invitation to the characters in Luke chapter 1, and through their experience see what God’s invitation to us might be as well. In today’s reading, I think there’s an ‘invitation to deeper relationship’ and an ‘invitation to respond’.

Let’s begin with, ‘invitation to deeper relationship’. Do you remember this box from January this year? Upon this box, I asked our young people to stick on labels which shared the words they would use to describe God. So, we have ‘loving’…

Part of this past year of ministry, I think, has included a focus upon adding different words to all our boxes, including mine, so that the box we have God in – the box that defines His character and ways might expand and change.

In a similar way, what Luke shares here is not only retelling a nice story and it’s not simply about God putting things in place for the promised Messiah, it’s much more.
For on every page of Scripture God always, always… invites us to know His character and His ways. For Zechariah and Elizabeth part of the invitation to a deeper relationship was to know that God is a meticulous planner and that He is graciously powerful.

Their story, in Luke, begins at chapter 1 verse 5 and Luke shares some of their back-story. We read today:
“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.” (Luke 1:5)

Luke is being very specific here in naming Herod – he is trying to show that this is not just a nice made up story but rather it is rooted in history. This story features a couple who are both part of the priestly tribe of Levi.
Zechariah himself is a priest and at that time there were so many priests available that the tribe of Levi was divided into 24 divisions, each doing duty at the temple for one week, twice in the Jewish year, with the rest of their time spent elsewhere and in regular work. So, what is about to happen, happens on one of those rare occasions when Zechariah was serving at the temple.

We then hear another part of their back-story:
“Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:6)

This couple are described as ‘righteous’ and ‘blameless’, so a better couple you couldn’t imagine. Now, they aren’t perfect, because who is, but they did serve God faithfully. Yet we also hear that they are childless, and at this time, people understood that to mean they had displeased God, maybe because of sin, and so it was often seen as a disgrace upon the couple, especially the wife.

However, Luke wants us to understand that this is not the case here; that what we have here is a very faithful couple and yet they aren’t able to conceive – but it has nothing to do with them being in the wrong. Additionally, by saying that “they were both very old”, we’re to understand that they were so old that they (and others) did not expect the situation to change.

So, here is this couple, incredibly faithful, but with deep unfulfilled longings, and in their faithfulness, Zechariah reports for duty, for we read:
“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”
(Luke 1:8-9)

The incense offering was made twice each day and the choice of the individual was decided by casting lots so that human will was circumvented, and the divine will could be ascertained. This was really important to the Jews because offering the incense was a great privilege for the chosen priest went into the Holy Place, that area once removed from the Most Holy Place.
What is more, a priest could never offer incense more than once in his entire life, and some priests never received the privilege. To have the opportunity was a great honour.

These are details Luke includes, not just to fill out a story, but to give us clues to something more – Luke wants us to see here that this seemingly random fall of the lot, to Zechariah, was something designed to set the stage for a fresh entry of God into this couple’s lives, for as we reed next, something incredible is going to happen:

“Then 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. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah…Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…’” (Luke 1:11-15a)

Such good news for the couple – they will have a son – a son who will bring great joy to them and to others, and he is to have a special place in God’s plan, for as we read next:

“‘He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:16-17)

This child, John, is to be tasked with bringing back many of the people of Israel to God so that they are prepared for the coming Messiah. In a nutshell, John is to call people to repentance, he is to call them back to God and to God’s ways, which was a characteristic of the prophets, like Elihah.

Now, this repentance isn’t about being more religious, or nice, or giving lip service; no – this repentance will have a day to day impact, for family life will radically change, and all because people will have a firm commitment to a way of life that honours God and heeds His priorities, His wisdom.

In all of this, from verse 5 to verse 17, we are told not only a nice story, we are invited to see…
the meticulous planning of God, for God was guiding the events of history, so as to prepare the way for Jesus, and He did this because we are that valuable to Him.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
(Romans 5:6-8)

The time was right, at roughly the age of 33, for Jesus to die, demonstrating God’s love for you and for me. But roughly 34 years before that point, the time was also right for God to fulfil His Old Testament promises and weave together the events of history so as to prepare the way for the Son of God, to come as a babe.
God did it all for love of you and love of me. We are told in John chapter 3: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)

There was no cross, no death of the promised Christ, the promised Messiah, without first the Son of God being sent from heaven to take the form of humanity as a babe. God did it all for love of you and love of me, and in that love, He put the pieces in place, for God is a meticulous planner, fulfilling His promises, and making a way for us to be saved, to have eternal life, by having a heart open, given over, prepared for, the Lord.

But Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story gives us a second facet to God’s character, for He is revealed as graciously powerful. Earlier we read these words, but I deliberately skipped over a few words, which I’ve highlighted here:
“the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…’” (Luke 1:13)

‘Your prayer has been heard.’ That’s what I skipped over. When we read those words, we all probably thought that the angel was referring to a prayer for a child, yes? That would be the most likely thought to have. But a few commentators highlight that the language here suggests a one-off prayer rather than a regular prayer, and also that it’s unlikely such an honourable priest as Zechariah would bring a private concern at this special moment,… where for the first and last time of his life, he enters the Holy Place.

It’s more likely then, that Zechariah prayed for Israel, for Israel’s redemption, for that promised Messiah to come. What’s startling, in that case, is God decides to answer both the spoken and unspoken prayer, both the prayer for Israel and the secret desire of Zechariah’s heart. In His grace, God answers both of Zechariah’s longings and so rightly, he and Elizabeth are to name the child “John”, which means, “God is gracious”, He gives generously, He gives beyond expectation, He gives unearned, unmerited gifts.

What is more, we see that God is not only gracious, but
He is powerful – it’s almost like God wants a challenge;… I almost imagine God saying: “I’ll use a barren couple, but they’ll be really old, and I’ll only appear to them when the lot falls to Zechariah”. I mean, what are the odds?!

But God never makes a promise He can’t fulfil, God always delivers for He is able to fulfil any promise He makes, and He most powerfully showed that, not just through John, but through Jesus, that Christ-child, whose odds of fulfilling all of God’s promises concerning His birth were inconceivable, and yet He did, because that is our God, the God who is graciously powerful.

This grace and power were also shown in the cross of Jesus where in generous, unearned, unmerited gift He gave His life for you and for me. But to die, as Paul said,
“while we were still sinners” – while we were still… telling God to get lost, to take a hike – to die even then, that is true grace, that is love.

But His death was not simply as a display of love so as to captivate our hearts, no, His death was to achieve something much more necessary and vital, for in the death of Jesus the power of God was at work, and so now as one hymn puts it:
“No guilt in life (sin is forgiven),
no fear in death (an eternal home is secured),
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
(In Christ Alone by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)

At the beginning of the Advent story, God reveals Himself as a meticulous planner full of grace and power. He extends an invitation to know this of Him; He extends it not only to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but to you and to me.

But this story also includes a second invitation, an invitation to respond, for in the remaining verses we read today there is a great contrast made between Zechariah and Elizabeth. We see someone who is closed and someone who is open to God’s invitation, for we read: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’” (Lk. 1:18) To all intents and purposes, it seems a very reasonable question. But it belies the state of Zechariah’s heart, for even confronted with the angel Gabriel, Zechariah responds in unbelief, He’s closed off, He is unprepared for God to move in grace and power.

In contrast, not one negative word is said about Elizabeth. Maybe it is Luke’s way of helping us see that she responded differently. Never once does she come across as bitter or forgetful, rather she is consistent in honouring God and of acknowledging the gracious hand of God, for as she said at the end: “‘The Lord has done this for me…In these days he has shown his favour (his grace) and taken away my disgrace among the people.’” (Luke 1:25)

In the contrast of these two very real people, God issues an invitation: will we respond like Elizabeth or like Zechariah? Am I someone who has a soft and responsive heart towards God? Or am I someone whose faithfulness to tradition and to what I know, is closing me off to the possibilities of God, and keeping God in my box?

Now if you are like the latter, if you are a bit more like Zechariah, there’s still good news – for just like Zechariah, God doesn’t give up on you either! He might not grab your attention quite as dramatically, but if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, it will be possible to perceive the ways He is extending that invitation and awaiting your response, awaiting it even now.

Friends, as we begin Advent and remember this portion of the Christmas story, please don’t let it just wash over you, try to come to it afresh, notice the details of God’s meticulous plan for the coming of His Son in love for you, and let His grace and power so captivate your heart that you respond to His invitation.

May it be so. Let us pray.