I would like to start today with a question, and let’s have a show of hands on this one: Does anybody here have any relational challenges in your family? Maybe there’s some distance,
perhaps some harsh words, or maybe you are feeling guilty because you have failed someone you loved in an important way. Years ago, when Susan and I and our children were living in Olds, Alberta and I was in the commercial fuel and fertilizer business, one of our children asked Susan, “Where is daddy’s other home?” and she could not convince our child that I did not have another home somewhere else where I was spending most of my time. Now, here’s another question: If there was something that could help you improve your relationships, do you want to hear about? …. There is something in the human heart that hungers for relationship. And what I hope to do today is share with you a practical step you can take to improve your relationships.
To do that we are going to look at the story of the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist as it is found in Luke chapter 1. Here is how it reads in The Message:
5-7During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.
8-12It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. (Luke 1:5-10)
Priests were needed to carry out the many activities involved with worshiping God in the Jerusalem Temple. The animals that were given as offerings had to be slaughtered and then arranged on the large Altar of Burnt Offering. This altar was 15 feet high and 48 feet wide and was visible from both the Outer Court where the women worshipped as well as the Inner Court in which Altar of Burnt Offering was located and where the men
worshipped. Priests also had to make sure that there was wood to burn the sacrifices, oil for the lamps in the temple, and fresh bread on a table in the Temple as a reminder of God’s providing presence with his people. The priests all came from the tribe of Levi, but there were more people in that tribe than what was needed, so 1,000 years prior David organized the men of the tribe of Levi into 24 divisions or regiments. Each division would take a turn serving for a week at the temple, and each division would serve twice each year. Each day, after the morning and afternoon sacrifice, one of the priests would take the burning coals from the Altar of Burnt Offering into The Holy Place, put them on a small Golden Altar, place incense upon the burning coals and then prostrate himself before God and offer up prayers for the people while the people outside were also praying. Then, backing out of the The Holy Place, so that he didn’t turn his back towards God, that priest would stand on the front steps of the Temple and bless God’s people with the words that, centuries before, God had given Aaron to use when he blessed the people:
24 “The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26)
The smoke rising from the burning incense would be a visible reminder of the people’s prayers rising to heaven. All the priests in the division that was serving that week would draw lots to see who would go into the Temple building to burn the incense. A priest would only get one opportunity in their life to do this and because of the large number of priests, many priests never got that opportunity.
On the day described in our Bible passage, a priest by the name of Zechariah was chosen to burn the incense. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were both getting on in years and they were not able to have any children. Some of you are familiar with the heartache of not being able to conceive. But in those times, the grief of lost dreams was compounded by the social reality of not having anyone to care for you in your old age and the religious reality that childlessness was sometimes considered a punishment from God for sin. That isn’t the case here, for both Zechariah and Elizabeth were pious, faith-filled followers of the one, true God. Just like the Old Testament couples of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Elkanah and Hannah, and Manoah and his wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth must have prayed to God for a child. Yet years went by, and nothing happened.
Then on this one day in his life when Zechariah got to go into the Holy Place and burn incense on the Golden Altar, something unexpected and supernatural happened.
Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.
13-15But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.
15-17“He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.” (Luke 1:11-17)
So how did John soften the hearts of parents towards their children? To get the answer to that we have to jump ahead about 30 years in John’s life and a couple of chapters in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter 3, we see that John began preaching in the wilderness near the Jordan River, calling on people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Large crowds came out to see John, but listen in on what John says to those crowds, even the people who were coming to be baptized by him:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7b-9)
Now if all of here went out to see someone was preaching in the Okanagan Desert north of Osoyoos and that person called us a brood of rattlesnakes, we wouldn’t take that from him. “That’s verbal abuse!” we would say as we shook the sand out of our flip flops, turn around and headed back to Langley.
But this story of a father bowing before a high and holy God in the temple and a son speaking words of warning to God’s people in the desert tells us something that is very important for our lives today. In our 21stcentury spirituality, we tend to think too highly of our human nature and we don’t tend to think of God highly enough. In terms of the goodness of human nature, what we think is that we are probably about half way up the scale in terms of purity and holiness. And God is above us, but not so far above us that we can’t relate to him on the basis of our own goodness. But the reality is that everything that we say, think and do is tainted in some way by sin, and God’s purity and holiness is infinite by any measure we care to use. We don’t like to hear it, but according to our human nature, you and I really are a brood of vipers. We have nothing good that we can give to God. We have no basis for even approaching God.
But the Good News is that God has come to us! God wrapped himself in human flesh and began living with us snakes. And then this God-human named Jesus did something that was unexpected and supernatural:He laid down his life on the brazen altar of the cross and became the one sacrifice that paid for all the sins of the whole world. All of our snakey, slithering thoughts, words and deeds have all been atoned for by Jesus. And Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word and the Sacraments to bring to life a new person within us. And this new person is totally focused loving God and loving their neighbour.
Our old, snake-like self will continue to live within us until the day we die, when all of our viperiness will fall away, leaving our new creation self to live forever with Jesus. And we will have healthier relationships with others, if only we get real with God and be honest with ourselves about the total depravity in our snake-like human heart.
The worst thing that could happen in the most intimate of human relationships is when someone in a marriage relationship has an affair. And yet, even in situation as bad as that, I have observed that if the one who had the affair is repentant, then there is hope for reconciliation. But I have also noticed that minor disagreements can lead to unsolvable, family-splitting rifts, when there is no repentance.
As long as we live in this world, even though we follow Jesus Christ in faith, we are like salt and pepper all mixed together. We like to minimize our pepper or even pretend that it isn’t even there. However, God isn’t calling us to do that. He tells us in his Word: 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). God loves you. God loves every part of you, both the salt and the pepper in your life. And when we walk through life with the awareness that, on the one hand, there is sin in my life and I have no hope of a relationship with God on my own, and, on the other hand, Jesus has given me the gift of forgiveness and a new life with him that will last forever, when we journey through life constantly being mindful of those realities, we walk with a humility and a hope that we would not otherwise have, we have hearts that are softened towards our children, and our parents, and our spouse, our friends, our neighbours, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
To keep our hearts attuned to the God who gives us life, over the centuries the Christian church has practiced what are called spiritual disciplines. Some of these practices fall into the category of abstinence, that is, saying “no” to something so that you can say a better and clearer “yes” to God. For example, a person might give up a favourite food or a favourite past-time for a while so that they can focus more clearly on and listen more intently to God.
We are now in the season of Advent. As we get ready to celebrate Christmas, there are lots of activities clamouring for your time and lots of voices competing for your attention. But can you and I still hear the voice of God with all of the busy-ness and noise? I encourage you to look at your life and prayerfully consider what you should say “no” to this Advent season so that you can hear God’s “yes!” more clearly. To give you an example, what we are doing at our house in these days leading up to Christmas, is dumping all the fliers that come in our papers into the recycle bin right away before we even read them. You will probably decide to do something different. But Jesus is the one who gives us life, Jesus is the one who loves our salt and pepper selves, Jesus is the one who gives us the hope and the humility we need to lives of repentance before others, and Jesus is the one who gives us the promise that one day he will come and make all things right. So let’s be intentional about listening to him. Amen.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 4 Dec 2011.)