Have you ever looked at a family Christmas tree? I mean, have you ever REALLY looked at it? Some of the mangiest looking ornaments are the most prized on the tree – a faded bulb that says “Our first Christmas together – 1982” has long since lost its luster, but not its meaning. It isn’t just the beauty of the ornament – it is the MEMORY it represents. In some ways, Christmas ornaments are like little photo albums of our Christmas past.
I want you to look back with me to a very old Christmas family album – ornaments that extend all the way back to the first Christmas. This was the album of Jesus’ family – now two thousand years old. When you look at it…don’t be surprised at the people in the album – they look just like the people in yours. People in that old story were just like people you will be sitting across from at Christmas dinner this year. In fact, God’s story of the first Christmas is the same as the story of every subsequent Christmas – albums filed with broken people in some state of repair – all focused on the one Person Who transforms our life… Jesus – the Son of God Who was sent to save us.
The story of Jesus’ birth is told in the Bible in two of the four Gospel accounts: Matthew and Luke.
Matthew began with a long list of names – a genealogy – showing that God had long promised the Messiah to come to Bethlehem of Judea, a small town that couldn’t give up their focus on their favorite son – King David from one thousand years before! If you came from one you know that small towns change slowly and have long memories…
After the genealogy in Matthew’s account, the story moved right away to Joseph – the step-father of Jesus.
This first picture in the ancient album was that of an obedient but disappointed friend – someone who was doing right but watching life repay him with undeserved trouble. He wanted to follow God, but God kept changing the directions on the path. Matthew reminds us of his troubles:
Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
No matter how you look at the story, I think it is safe to say that Joseph was committed to God but still confused by life’s turns. He is the friend you know who has followed God, but came home stunned from the news of his last doctor’s visit. Joseph made a promise to Mary and she appeared to have broken it, though she didn’t (1:18). He was thrust into God’s plan in an awkward way – or at least that is how it looked to him.
Here is the truth: Even when you follow God – things don’t always work out the way you planned.
Joe’s Christmas experience was one of learning about God’s direction. He learned that God can move in our life in a way that makes no sense at the time – this is part of His Divine Prerogative. God is entitled as my Creator and my Master to redirect my life. After all, isn’t the Bible filled with stories that make this truth obvious? This is our God:
• He pushed Noah into building a boat on a flat plain far from water.
• He revealed an “impossible to believe” family expansion for an aged Abraham and Sarah?
• He enlisted Moses as a national leader from a burning bush in a barren desert.
• He trained a little boy named David for “giant slaying” while he was on a lonely hill protecting a flock of sheep.
In the Christmas story, God redirected Joe in a series of dreams – revealing that Joe was called to follow Him, not to figure Him out. The fact is Joe was going to be HURT in order for God’s will to be done.
Why can’t we clearly see that? Why are we so certain that God will only work in my life when I am happy with that work?
In fact, the Bible teaches that God can deliberately bring me into a path that includes pain to serve His purpose. He doesn’t do it cruelly, He does it lovingly… but He still does it. Yet, in the grip of pain, He offers me a place to cry when I cannot stand alone. God hears our cries as He quietly reminds us that He is in control of all things.
You see, God is telling His story. He wanted to tell it through Joseph’s life, but that included wounding him, bringing him through a misunderstanding – and then giving him a key role in the story. No man or woman of God should think God will do otherwise. If we would be used of Him mightily, we must place ourselves in His hand willingly – and be slow to react to the pains of His direction. When we do, here is our consolation…God doesn’t leave struggling believers in the dark forever.
Joe got new direction from God to clear up his confusion. We must understand that as we follow God – Sight will come. God will speak again. The Word teaches that God speaks to the listening ear. The fact is that our problem is not so much ignorance – as it is WILL to obey. The issue is always the same – will I trust His direction? He awaits those who let Him work through them. The story made clear that while Joe was worried about his integrity – but God was busy saving the world! (1:21b).
Mercifully, God was careful to include Joe in the story for listening to God’s direction. Matthew reminds: Matthew 1:24 says “And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”
God desired and got obedience from Joe – not understanding or a full grasp of where God’s path was leading him. But Joe got a privilege beyond compare. He held in his arms the child-Savior, and was the first to pronounce His name and official purpose: “He is Yeshua – He is the Savior of man.”
Now imagine holding in your hands the Creator of the Universe in the tender package of a tiny baby. Feel the thrill, and grab the weight of the responsibility of being his “fill in” dad. Do you think he will say in Heaven, “It was worth it! I obeyed the Lord and it was truly worth it!” I bet when we gather in the great throne room of Heaven, and the King of Kings steps forward to the thunderous sound of the song, “Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb!” Joe will be upfront with the “proud pappa” smile. You will recognize him… He will have the tears running down his face and a deep thankfulness in his heart for the whole experience.
He will be grateful to have been included in the plan… and so will you.
Uncle Zacharias and Aunt Elizabeth
The Gospel of Luke focused on other characters in the family – all who were a part of the ancient Christmas family album. In Luke 1, the story began with an aunt and uncle of Jesus – a man named Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth – both Levites who walked through life secretly disappointed by their faith, and shamed by the fact that God didn’t really see, to listen to their prayers…Luke recorded it this way:
Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.
Ironically, Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh remembers.” The sting of praying for a child for a lifetime, and watching your wife disappointed month after month was the story of this quiet and discouraged Levite.
The text is clear: His wife felt SHAME in Luke 1:25.
In the pictures Zacharias may looked stunned by God… because he learned that God always remembers. Every prayer that went seemingly unanswered, God remembered. Every moment when they felt like the heavens were strangely silent, God remembered. That’s the testimony of Uncle Zach and Aunt Liz today: Don’t give up on your prayer—God has not forgotten you. God’s power isn’t sadistically dangled in front of you – He loves you.
Luke made the careful note that Uncle Zach and Auntie Liz had hearts that were clean before God. It wasn’t just religion with them, it was faith – and everything else that happened in the story hinged on the truth of their yielded heart.
Truthfully though, the couple’s hope for God’s answer had mostly slipped away because it appeared that things could never change (1:7b). They were past the time that it would be normally possible to have children. They had to “settle” for second best, and muddle through.
Zach kept working (1:8), but in time he lost the wonder that God could really do anything (1:18). Still, God strangely considered Zacharias a useful tool in the priesthood.
You see, for Jews of long ago, the absence of children was seen as a reproach—evidence of God’s judgment on a person’s sin. How hard it must have been for Zechariah, a spiritual leader in Israel, and Elizabeth, to keep on obeying God, keep on remaining consistent in their faith, and still bear the sentence of a life that appeared unacceptable!
When you are doing all that God has asked you to do, and He still doesn’t respond to your prayers, that’s hard. But they pressed on.
The day came that God chose Zacharias by the casting of lots to burn incense in the temple – to represent the prayers of the people before His throne. Scholars generally estimate about 103,000 members of priestly families in the C1 CE in the land. About 7,200 were eligible for service in the functioning priestly role. These were divided into 24 courses called “mishmarot”. Each mishmar had about 300 servers for their week at the Temple. They served in rotation and all 7,200 at National feasts declared by God in Dt. 16. Of the 300 of the week, 50 served per day with all 300 serving on Shabbat. Only one of the 50 would be selected to mix and offer the prayer incense inside the Holiest Place. As a priest, you may only get one chance to do this in your life.
The lot fell by Divine appointment. Though Zechariah didn’t know it, but God had been planning this day from the very beginning. Zechariah and his family were going to be a part of God’s plan to offer salvation to the world. What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God’s work of preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for this incredible day.
The point is, when God seems to remain silent, when your prayers seem to go unanswered, it’s not because God is asleep on the job. Before God works on your problems, He wants to work on you. When God says NO, it is because He is working a plan, and your request is pulling against that plan. Don’t worry. God knows what you need, and He is watching the whole scene. Not a tear falls that He might miss.
As Zacharias was performing his duty, an angel appeared beside the altar, while other priests waited in the courtyard outside the temple praying and awaiting the rise of the incense.
Can you imagine what they were praying for? Some, like old Simeon, awaited the Messiah. Some were praying for another prophet for direction was lacking and God seemed so quiet that the silence was unsettling.
That day, God was answering as He spoke through Gabriel. He connected Zach and Liz’s prayers to a larger plan in a supernatural way. All the time of waiting now began to make sense. Zach wanted a son – but God wanted a prophet – and the people had to be ready.
Remember, if God speaks to us only when we demand answers, then the focus is all on US. But life is not about us. We serve Him.
Zach learned that although doubt causes us to focus on what WE can’t do, faith calls us to remember what God can do.
Focus for the last few moments on a mother and a baby in the back of a cave with a house built in front of it. Mary’s lessons were deep, and took a lifetime to grasp. She learned to listen to the cry of the Savior – and jump to response. She learned to ponder God’s direction when others forget yesterday quickly…She learned that God forgets no one. There are no God-forsaken people. The lowest of the low are part of His plan – and she sung about it.
Look at her tenderness – a young woman interrupted by God learning deep things with unexperienced eyes.
Her focus was probably immediate that first night – get the baby out! By the way, this wasn’t a silent baby – no matter what the songs say. He had God-sized lungs that needed to practice crying before He could bellow out preaching!
Make no mistake about it… This was an invasion of God… and Mary got a front row seat. This was God’s love expressed in a warm bundle, snuggled against her heart.
“Jeannette George tells a story about an experience she had on a short flight from Tucson to Phoenix. Across the aisle from her sat a young woman and her baby, both dressed in white pinafores. The baby had a little pink bow where there would eventually be hair. The mother was smiling, as the baby kept saying “Dada, Dada,” every time someone walked down the aisle. The mother said Daddy was waiting for them after they had been gone for a few days. She was so adorable – quiet – that all passengers enjoyed watching her. Unfortunately, there was a lot of turbulence, making the flight extremely rough, which of course was hard on the baby. But the mother had some fruit and a little Thermos with orange juice in it. Every time the baby cried the mother fed her a little bit more orange juice and a little more fruit. While this seemed like a good idea at the time, the turbulence seemed to spread from the air around the plane right down to that baby’s gastro-intestinal system, and pretty much all of the fruit that had gone down came up. However, the process of coming up was considerably messier than the process of going down had been. It also seemed to have increased in volume tremendously between the going down and the coming up, so that not only were the baby and the mother pretty much covered in it, but so were most of the passengers within a significant radius of the baby, [including Jeanette George, who was telling the story.] Fortunately for the mortified mother, all of the passengers were gracious and tried to help her and tell her it was OK. After all what could she do about it?? The baby was crying, and she looked awful. Even though they didn’t cry, her fellow passengers looked – and smelled – pretty awful, too. The mother was so sorry about it. As soon as they landed, the baby was fine and returned to calling: “Dada, Dada.” The rest of the passengers didn’t recover quite so quickly, being covered as they were in pre-digested fruit. Ms. George said, “I had on a suit, and I was trying to decide whether to burn it or just cut off the sleeve. It was really bad.” Waiting for the plane was a young man who had to be “Dada.” He was wearing white slacks, a white shirt, and he carried white flowers. Now what do you think that clean Daddy all dressed in white did when he saw his baby who had that sticky, smelly stuff all over her clothes and her face and her hair? He ran to the young mother, who handed the baby over pretty quickly so she could go get cleaned up. That Daddy picked up that baby, and he hugged her and he kissed her and he stroked her hair. As he held her close, he said, “Daddy’s baby’s come home. Daddy’s baby’s come home.” All the way to the luggage claim area, he never stopped kissing that baby and welcoming her back home. Ms. George thought, Where did I ever get the idea that my Father God is less loving than a young daddy in white slacks and white shirt with white flowers in his hand? [Jeannette Clift George, “Belonging and Becoming,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 93. Taken from sermoncentral.com]. Remember, God isn’t afraid of human dirt – Jesus made that clear.
Don’t be surprised at the Christmas family photo album of Jesus – it looks just like yours. People in the story are just your family and friends. God’s story is told through broken people who are being changed by Jesus.
Consider this: The same baby that was introduced by the Father into a dirty stable was introduced into dirty hearts that opened their door to Him. Just as He willingly entered a sin-sick world, so He eagerly enters a sin-sick heart – if we ask Him. That is the Christmas story. God invades the dirty and the broken – and changes them. He transforms them to be His children. They find peace by finding Him.