Pastor Chris Tweitmann
“Are you ready for Christmas?”
Has anyone asked you this question yet?
Feeling the hustle and bustle of the holiday rush, how many of us are done with being asked this question?
I mean, generally speaking, most of us are ready, aren’t we?
The tree is up and decorated.
Both the white and colored lights are strung up and working – twinkling brightly.
Christmas cookies and other treats have been baked and are starting to be shared and enjoyed.
The annual Christmas card, photo, letter has been finished, stamped, and mailed.
All the presents are nearly there too – in various stages of being purchased, wrapped, and either shipped or placed under the tree.
And the stockings have been hung by the chimney with care.
“Are we ready for Christmas?” Well, yes, we believe we are.
Still, no matter how much we do to prepare ourselves, there are some things about Christmas for which we can never really be ready.
This Advent season – a time in the life of the Church for counting down to the arrival of December 25th – we’ve slowly been rereading the story that makes all of this possible.
This whole holiday extravaganza we call Christmas.
The story of the God who is so for us that He comes down to be with us – to be born into our lives.
Specifically, we’ve been considering the unexpected gifts of Christmas – the gifts from God we never imagined we’d ever receive and the gifts we didn’t realize how much we needed.
Today we are focusing on the unexpected gift of preparation – of God’s preparation of us for what He’s doing, for how’s working and moving in our lives and in this world.
Like many of the unexpected gifts of Christmas, preparation may not be something we’re asking or looking for – especially if we believe we’ve already prepared ourselves for whatever is coming next.
But as we’ll discover today, there are just some things we can never really be ready for.
This is particularly the case when it comes to when and where and how the Lord shows up in our lives.
Because when, where, and how God moves and works rarely lines up with our timeline and our way of thinking it ought to be.
However, as the Christmas story makes clear, God doesn’t just drop things – including Himself – into our lap, into our lives.
God prepares us for what is coming – for His coming. God prepares us so that we can recognize so that we can be ready for when and how He shows up in our lives. (TEXT)
It is an occasion, a moment, of pure, unadulterated joy for Zachariah and Elizabeth.
“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. -Luke 1:57
Joy for and joy with this aged couple, who after longing their entire married lives for a child of their own, now – impossibly and yet finally now – hold their newly born son in their arms.
There is such joy at this moment for all those gathered – family and friends.
After many years of hoping & praying with and for Elizabeth and Zechariah, after nine months of watching Elizabeth’s body change and grow to create a womb for this baby to nest, and after witnessing, holding, and passing around the latest member of the family, the new kid on the block, all those gathered believe they are prepared to celebrate, believe they are prepared to name this child.
“Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.” – Luke 1:58
But as Luke quickly reveals as this precious, intimate scene unfolds – most of those gathered and those in the surrounding neighborhood are not prepared for what is about to happen.
As it will soon become obvious that the movement of God in the life of a single-family is but a precursor to something larger God is bringing forth – the long-awaited next chapter of the Lord’s promised rescue and redemption of the world.
Now it was the custom in the culture of that time for both family and close friends to join not only in the celebration of the birth but also the naming of the child.
Back then, there was rich, theological significance in the naming of one’s child.
The giving of a name wasn’t just about what to call you; it was the first impression, the foundational declaration of one’s identity – of who you are as well as who you would become.
And it was a well-established custom to use names from within the family.
This was done to reinforce where one came from, to whom one belonged, and as a part of that group, the spirit and ethos one ought to embody in how they lived – to act like a member of the family.
Therefore everyone gathered assumed they were prepared for the naming of this miracle baby.
“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah…” -Luke 1:59
That it would follow this long-standing tradition.
What better way is there to honor the blessing of a son – the keeper of one’s family line – than to name him after his father or his grandfather?
And yet, Elizabeth strongly objects to any such idea.
“… but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” – Luke 1:60
Having been prepared in advance for this moment by God, Elizabeth insists her son is to be called, John.
Now, because Zechariah hasn’t been able to talk since he first received word of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the gathered family and friends immediately assume, rather than being prepared by God for this moment, Elizabeth, in breaking with tradition, simply hasn’t conferred with her husband about the name of their son.
So they immediately turn to Zechariah expecting him to act sensibly. To rebuke his wife and give his son a proper family name.
“Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.” -Luke 1:62
After all, while John was certainly a good and common name in Israel at that time – no one in either Zechariah or Elizabeth’s family carried that moniker.
“They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” – Luke 1:61
But Zechariah, like Elizabeth, was prepared by God for this moment.
And so much to everyone’s surprise, Zechariah, grabbing a pen and paper, simply writes what Elizabeth already said.
“He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” – Luke 1:63
In the original Greek, Luke underscores Zechariah doesn’t write “His name will or shall be John.”
No, Zechariah emphatically etches, “His name IS John.”
Zechariah echoes back the announcement of the angel Gabriel from some nine months ago in the Temple.
Zechariah no longer questions what will happen but matter of factly declares what already is.
This child doesn’t need to be named because this child already has been named – by God. And his name is John, which means, “God is gracious.”
Words initially written on paper soon become the divine word spoken aloud as Zechariah’s pregnant pause of imposed silence is finally broken.
“Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” – Luke 1:64
Almost as quickly, the birth of this child named John becomes the talk of the town.
“All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things.” – Luke 1:65
Revealing how unprepared everyone is for what has happened as well as for what will come next, Luke briefly shares how befuddled with awe these recent events leave not just the next-door neighbors but everyone throughout the hill country of Judea.
Far and wide, all who hear about it start scratching their heads – wondering what exactly the Lord is up to, what God has in store with the coming of this child.
“Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. – Luke 1:66
And once again, the Lord begins to prepare those with ears to hear for what is still to come.
“Immediately,” Luke stresses, as Zechariah finds his voice, he does not use it to engage in small talk.
No, from the lips of a still dumbfounded believer, comes nothing but unfiltered praise.
“His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied…” – Luke 1:67
Inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that came upon his son in utero, as Zechariah speaks for the first time in a long time, he begins to sing – forth telling through song of the preparation God has been making not only for this moment but for all that has yet to happen.
He echoes the theme and chorus of an oldie but a goodie – a covenant song – a divine promise of long, long ago, first made in a garden in the aftermath of humanity’s downward spiral into sin.
Zechariah croons what has become known as the Benedictus.
In fact, he picks up right where his cousin-in-law, who recently visited his wife, Elizabeth, right where Mary’s song, the Magnificat, left off.
Zechariah begins by praising the Lord, not for the birth of his child – but for the one to whom his newly arrived son, John, later to be known as the Baptist, will repeatedly point.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),” – Luke 1:68-70
Zechariah heralds the horn of salvation God has lifted up for his people – the incarnation of a divine victory for all humanity over sin, death, and the Devil.
The One who will be called, Emmanuel. The One who will be named, Jesus.
Zechariah, like Mary, sings in the present perfect tense.
For all the grammar nerds out there, one of the uses of the present perfect tense is to refer to an action or state that began in the past and continues into the present time.
In other words, Zechariah vocalizes God’s covenant promises of redemption’s arrival, of salvation being raised up, of mercy being shown, of rescue coming just when it is most needed, not as something far in the future but as happening now – as already coming true!
The second half of Zechariah’s ballad narrows into a consideration of his son, of whom John is destined, by divine appointment. to grow up to be.
Zechariah’s newly born child will not be an ordinary member of the family.
No, John already has been set apart as the one who will lay the groundwork for the next deposit of the Lord’s grace.
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,” – Luke 1:76
To pave the way, for all the children of God finally to come home.
Jesus, Mary was told by the angel Gabriel, would be called the Son of the Most High.
John, Zechariah now declares, will be called a prophet of the Most High.
In the spirit and out of the tradition of the sages of old like Isaiah and Malachi – John will fulfill the role of which all the Old Testament prophets foretold.
John will prepare the way for the people to come back to God – for the people to recognize and follow the Messiah.
And let us particularly notice how Zechariah sings of w hat his son, John, eventually will both cry out and enact in waters of the desert
“to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God,” -Luke 1:77-78
– that the groundwork of our salvation – of all humanity’s deliverance rests not in any political or economic solution – but in the forgiveness of our sins.
Though it may have fallen out of fashion for some. Though many may dispute or mock any such notion.
Sin is the fundamental, essential, and universal problem of our existence.
Our collective rejection of the person of God, our shared rebellion against the will of God for all life and creation – repeatedly exercised for the sake of each of us looking to our own interests, of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, – this is what sabotages, compromises, and polarizes us not only from the Lord but from each other.
Sin is what inevitably shatters all the good intentions, best-laid plans, and sincere efforts of humanity in seeking an end to violence, war, poverty, and oppression and building a better, unified world.
But as Zechariah’s prophetic song reaches its crescendo, we hear the familiar notes of the Gospel that changes the music, that breaks once and for all the tragic repeated chorus of our brokenness.
“salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us —to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” -Luke 1:71-75
Let us listen and rejoice as Zechariah sings not of the beginning of the end – the end of the world – but the unfolding, the beginning of a new, remade, transformed creation
“because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” -Luke 1:78-79
The good news that, thanks to the tender mercy of God, which will be first heralded by John, there will come the dawn of the rising sun – of Jesus – whose light will forever pierce the darkness of sin and eclipse the shadow of death once and for all.
Beloved, just as God prepared the people of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s day for his unexpected first arrival in the vulnerability of a child’s birth,
God is preparing us for His second and final coming in the glorious deliverance of a new creation.
To put this another way, God’s gift of preparation through the Christmas story is not about having us look back on the birth of Jesus merely for the sake of momentary nostalgia or in order to remember the reason for the season.
No, God’s gift of preparation through the Christmas story is to make us ready, to keep us vigilant for the best that’s yet to come.
We recall and celebrate what God already has done through the birth of Jesus’ life – a life offered from the very beginning as a gift to bring us hope – a life that ultimately will be given – willingly – on a Cross for the sake of realizing God’s promise of the salvation of all creation, – a life that will embrace death but refuse to be confined by it – so that our hope becomes eternal – we recall and celebrate all this – what God in Jesus already has done in order to be prepared – to be assured – to keep looking ahead to what has yet to be realized – Christ’s return – the return of our King.
Jesus coming back, not to be born as a baby, but to deliver the birth of a new heavens and a new earth – the dawn of the kind of life together that honestly is beyond the limits of our comprehension, that we can only appeal to through fleeting, half-baked conceptions of world peace, utopia, and living happily ever after.
For us any vision of peace on earth and goodwill towards all people only lasts as long as the holiday season.
After the twelve days of Christmas, we put away such fanciful, lofty notions with all the rest of the lights and decorations until the same time next year.
For many the true spirit of Christmas is nothing more than childish idealism that we are meant to grow out of in order to live in the real world – a world that’s future remains perpetually in doubt and darkness.
And so the popular narrative these days is the foreboding, lifeless story of inevitable global-wide chaos and destruction, of this world going up in flames, of the end of all things rather the rising dawn of a new, redeemed creation.
But what more and more people may write off as naive fantasy or religious myth, God prepares us through Christmas to realize, to remember, what is, in fact, an age-old, covenant weaved from the very beginning into the fabric of history, a divine promise that quite literally becomes flesh in order to lead us into a certain and better tomorrow and beyond.
In and through Christ, God prepares us not only to be able to finally see the path to peace in our lives and in this world but also to be empowered to walk upon that path and to share this divine peace – that passes all human understanding – with each other.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we worship a God who again doesn’t just drop into our lives but who prepares us for His presence in and through our lives, who prepares us for the work He is doing in and through this world.
God prepares us by naming, defining in advance what He is doing so that we are not left to narrowly label His movements, to limit such moments according to our traditions and expectations.
God prepares us by revealing what will come next as He opens not only our eyes to see but also our mouths to give voice to what is about to happen.
Through the Word and the Spirit, the Lord puts the particular words on our lips to describe what is unfolding and what it all means for us.
But here’s what it comes down to.
All of God’s preparations – how the Lord seeks to inspire, inform, and equip us – the gift of divine preparation is left unrealized by us as we remain consumed with our own busyness, as we continue to believe that it is we who prepare ourselves for Christmas.
When the coming of Christmas becomes all about our preparation, it soon becomes easy to convince ourselves it is we, and we alone, who make not only the holidays happen – but life happen – that we are in control of whatever comes next in our lives.
The more we tell ourselves it’s all up to us – that we each are the masters of our own destiny, – that life is whatever we make of it, – that we are only limited by the limits we put on ourselves, the more we tell ourselves it’s all up to us, the less aware and open we will be of all the preparation the Lord offers to us – the wisdom, the guidance, the strength, the assurance, the provision.
The less receptive we will be to the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ to show us the way, to lead us into what is true, and to impart to us the life that is full and abundant, the life in which perfect love conquers every fear, the life which death – no matter what its form – can never hold.
When we prepare ourselves, God has to fit into the box of our expectations.
The Lord is falsely confined by the limits of our preconceptions and vision.
But when we allow God to prepare us not just for Christmas but for each and every day, the Lord stretches and shapes us, the Lord grows and matures us to adapt, to fit into the unexpected things He is doing both in and through us.
Beloved, we need the unexpected gift of divine preparation.
We need it because despite all the effort and energy we invest into trying to put our lives together on our own – on our own terms – there is so much that can and will come at us, for which, left to our own devices, we will find ourselves completely unprepared.
Opportunities and challenges for which we can struggle to give a name.
Questions that are raised, decisions that need to be made, and outcomes that will result in which we are left wondering “What does this all mean?” “Where is all this going to lead?”
Christmastime is often billed as the most wonderful time of the year.
But this time of the year – the holiday season – is hard – acutely painful for those of us who find ourselves missing the presence of someone in our lives that always was there.
Whatever the reason and whether the sense of loss and absence is recent or still lingers from many years ago, some of us know all too well that the brokenness of this life, this world can bring situations for which we never planned or anticipated.
The absence of a loved one. The loss of a long-standing career. The fracturing, the end of a relationship that was expected to last.
The sudden compromising and decline of one’s health – physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.
The looming awareness of our mortality before the growing shadow of death.
Before all for which we may find ourselves unprepared, the Lord offers us the gift of what He has prepared for us.
God in Christ comes down to where we are – in the muck and mire of our failures and our losses, in all of the chaos and confusion of a world gone mad.
God in Christ shows up right in front of us to assure us that we are not alone – that we don’t have to go it alone.
God in Christ teaches and models for everyone what our humanity can be, what our life together can become, that the big questions of life do have answers – and all the answers point to Him.
God in Christ prepares us to die to ourselves by dying the death we deserve in the name of forgiveness – in order to wipe our slate clean of guilt and shame.
And then by eclipsing, by conquering once and for all the death we fear, God in Christ prepares us to rise into the best version of ourselves – by empowering with His Spirit and assuring us that following Him leads to an everlasting tomorrow.
Beloved, it is only as we enter into how our Father prepared the world for the very Christmas that we are able to experience the unexpected gift of preparation – of our Father preparing us for the last, final, and best Christmas still to come.
When the songs we sing with no longer be the music of our deepest longing but the expression of our unending praise.
When all the light and color that we artificially plaster here and there will become the natural palette by which Jesus repaints the cosmos.
When every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more, when mourning, crying, and pain will cease to exist, when it will at last, always be Christmas and never again, winter.
Beloved, the question is not “Are we ready for Christmas?” The question is “How is God getting us ready for Christmas?”
And to learn the answer to that question, we have to actually stop long enough to look and see – to admit, to confess, how so much of what happens around us and to us we can never adequately prepare for ourselves.
We must, for longer than the blink of an eye, be still – ceasing from all our doing and just abide – receiving what the Lord is offering us – the preparation we need to be able to name what’s happening today and to give us a voice to speak with confidence as to whatever comes next.
Instead of always running out of breath because of what we’re trying to get done – to make happen, let us stop, look, and listen as God once again takes our breath away.
As the Spirit captures our imagination and reshapes our vision – like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Mary and Joseph – to realize – no matter how barren things may seem, despite all our questions and doubts, nothing is impossible with the Lord. Amen.