Good morning First Baptist. We welcome you to worship this morning. Be sure to remember your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the week as you pray for them, and as the Holy Spirit brings their faces to your mind. Be sure to also connect with them in the ways that are possible. And if you have any questions or would like to talk to someone, please don’t hesitate to contact the church through the church telephone and leave a message. (519-733-4144)
“When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters.”
— Galatians 4:4-5
We come to You this day, the one who times everything perfectly, thankful for Your “big picture” perspective. Give to us some of that timing, that we may develop a holy patience with our lives as You bring Your whole creation toward a perfect ending. We pray in the name of the one who came at just the right time … amen.
Voice I (while candle being lit)
A third candle, to remind us of God’s love in sending John the Baptist and all His other messengers who prepared the way for the Saviour’s coming down through the years.
“The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.”
Almighty God, give your people grace to enter on the way of salvation. As they listen to the voice of John, the Lord’s herald, bring them safely to Jesus whom John foretold.
Today's Message: Ready for Immanuel
5 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. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But 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. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 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.”
“Your prayer has been heard …” so an angel of the Lord states to Zechariah in v. 13 of our passage. Yet, in spite of those welcome words, just as they would be to us, we must first ask an important question. What prayer does the angel mean?
Is it the prayer you might imagine this couple to be asking? After all, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been married a long time and had no children (v. 7), which was a real source of embarrassment in ancient times. But there were other prayers uttered on that occasion as Zechariah was taking his turn at his priestly functions. These were the prayers of those assembled outside as they prepared for worship … prayers that they had been praying for years, that the Hebrew nation would finally “step up” and assume their calling, not simply as a “most favoured nation” but as a mission nation. And, as a priest, this would have been Zechariah’s fervent prayer as well …
As we know from reading this passage, the message of the angel would address both these prayers. Zechariah and Elizabeth would indeed begin family life and the son to be born would bring the Hebrew people closer to their calling than ever … and would incorporate a “new Israel” as well.
As we see from our passage this baby would have unique qualifications for the role he was called to assume. First, he would be a “joy and delight” to his parents, as well as to the “many” (v.14) and attain greatness “in the sight of the Lord.” Second, he would never partake of wine or any strong drink, proving once again that depriving ourselves for a good cause (see masks today) is not a bad thing. Finally, we read that, unlike the rest of us whose relationship with the Spirit begins at conversion, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth (v. 15).”
Indeed, God would equip him (John as he was to be called) for his task, and that is a good thing …for his task would not be an easy one. It would be one of “turning” or “turning the attention” back to Yahweh, to the spiritual truth of life (v. 16-17) … and when we think about it, that may be our role as well, and the role of the church. It is so easy to focus on the wrong things in life … things like power, prestige, pleasure and profit. But our role, like John’s, might be to encourage folks to live a more balanced life and to bring God into the picture, so to speak. I sometimes think it’s like the breakfast cereal commercials we used to see on T.V. … “part of a complete breakfast” so they say. That’s what we’re suggesting about a life of faith. “Part of a complete life” (maybe the most important part) involves faith in a higher power, whom we know as the Father of our Lord Jesus.
There are three groups whom John, in the power of the Spirit, will be trying to “turn.” First of all, will be what we might call “the estranged” (“many of the people of Israel”, v. 16). These folks would know the truth about Yahweh/God but had let their faith lapse, perhaps primarily due to the condition of inaccessibility that had developed within the faith system of the Hebrews. The system had become so complex that the average person could not participate fully. Jesus himself addressed this condition during his earthly ministry when he charged the religious leadership with placing burdens on the peoples’ shoulders and “not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt. 23:4).” Many of the folks we run into have had a faith of some sort through the years, but have let it lapse for one reason or another. These folks need a “turning” as well.
The second group whose turning John will witness and facilitate will be fathers, whose hearts will be turned “to their children (v. 17).” The life of children in the ancient world was often undervalued, with fathers being a major part of the problem. Somewhat the opposite may be the case in our time, when children are pushed hard to succeed.
A poignant story told by Prof. David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child brings this point home … a man was complaining to his child’s preschool teacher who had given a “satisfactory” grade at the end of the year, suggesting that such a mark, even at this early stage, may prevent his child from getting into MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)! The normal role of a loving and patient father cannot be over-estimated in a child’s life.
The final group whose hearts will be turned are the disobedient (v. 17b). We must try to resist any assumption that a life of sin and rebellion holds no attraction. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Moses opted for a harder life associating with his Hebrew brothers and sisters instead of “the pleasures of sin for a season (Hebrews 11:25).” One of the early theologians of the church, St. Augustine, reflecting on his early rebellious life recalled a prayer he admitted praying during this time of his development … “O God make me good; but not yet.” We all have folks like this in our various relational networks, many of whom we love dearly. We must be reminded that the Father of Lights loves them too … and that they are some of the ones He had in mind when he sent His Son. Through the work of the Spirit, and our modest help, our hope is that these beloved of God will have their hearts turned and that they will see “the wisdom of righteousness.”
The last phrase of v. 17 sums up the role the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth will play … and I believe it is our role as well. “To make ready a people prepared for the Lord” says the angel. Ours is not to convince … that remains to be the job of the Holy Spirit.
The German Christian mystic Meister Echart wrote, “God lies in wait for us.” Our job may be to help these folks along the road of faith, whatever place they may find themselves. May God find us faithful …
We give you thanks, gracious Father, that for all of us there was one sent out like John, to prepare the way for your Spirit into our lives. In the face of such love and care we humble our hearts and ask only that we may have the privilege to act in such a way in the life of someone who is being led by the Spirit even now.
As we have seen the list of the ones John was to “turn” toward You, we confess that we might have given up on some amongst the “estranged”, the “disobedient” … and even some we might judge as being bad parents. Remind us, O Father of Lights, that you never give up. Develop within us this type of holy love … that we may see all of life through your eyes.
As we make our way through this very unusual Advent experience, we realize that, even though our celebration is not the same, your Spirit prevails. Remind us that “we walk by faith, not by sight” and that our lives and the history of this world are heading to a glorious end. We rejoice that we will be part of that and pray all of this in the name of the One who will meet us at the end, even Jesus. Amen.
“Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord of hosts; let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.”
— Psalm 69:7