Relationships are the back story to the Christmas story. The cast of characters interacting with each other gives us role models to follow in our relationships this Christmas season. Follow along as we learn how to do it right from a key supporting actor in this most important story.
The problem with Christmas
Here we are on the first of December, and I’ve got Christmas on my mind. I bet some of you do, too. One of my Christmas memories that resurfaced recently is the time years ago when the pastor of the church we were attending didn’t preach anything at all about the Christmas story, until the last Sunday before Christmas. And even then it was just a tip of the hat with some cursory acknowledgment of the event. We didn’t even sing any of the beautiful Christmas carols people have sung for centuries. I was disappointed. Something was missing.
Yet in some ways I could understand the pastor. For several years I facilitated a mastermind group for pastors and they talked about how challenging it was to preach sermons about Christmas. It was hard to come up with something new, something creative, something they and others have not already said.I spoke about this in episode 80, A Christmas Gift of Silence.
Imagine you’re 50 years old and have been preaching since you were 25, that’s 25 Christmas sermons. And not just Christmas Day, or the Sunday before, but all of December. 4 times 25 is 100 Christmas sermons. A good math problem for a 3rd-grade homeschooler. I can see why pastors might find it hard to preach about Christmas if they feel they have to come up with something fresh and creative.
Relationships are the back story to the Christmas story
In my view though, Christmas is not something to be creative about. Hip-hop, rap, or bluegrass Christmas carols just ruin it for me. Be creative about Lent, but please, not Christmas.
If I were a pastor, I would preach about the relationships we see in the back story to Christmas story. They are the backstory to the main story of Christmas, Jesus entering the human race to reconcile all of us to himself. That’s what I would do if were a pastor. Maybe that’s why the offers to be one have not exactly poured in (or maybe they don’t have my address or phone number).
You could make a case that the back story to Christmas starts in the Garden of Eden, where the coming of Jesus is foretold in Genesis 3:15. But for our purposes, we’ll jump in where the apostle Luke picks things up closer to the actual birth of Christ.
In leading up to the main story of Jesus’ birth, there is an interesting cast of characters who illustrate relationship principles we can all benefit from. Things that could get us through the holidays in good spirits. Lessons about relating to each other, relating to our own self, and most importantly, relating to God. So that’s what we’ll be doing today, and for the rest of the weeks leading up to Christmas. Stay tuned to give a listen.
The cast of characters in the Christmas story
From Luke’s gospel, where we find the most detail of the Christmas story, we see references to 7 individual people, 2 separate angels, a large group of townspeople, a small group of shepherds, an army of angels, and of course, Jesus as a baby. Quite a cast of characters. No wonder the Christmas story was the subject of so many grade school plays in years gone by; the whole school could have a part.
For today though, Let’s just focus on one character. I’m going to go with Zechariah. From the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, we know that Zechariah is
- A Jewish priest
- Righteous in God’s eyes, “careful to obey all the Lord's commandments and regulations”
- Old, married to an old wife, with no children
He was the subject of episode 80 that I mentioned before, and I’ll have a link to it at the bottom of the show notes.
I have a few more thoughts about him today, specifically to see what we can learn from watching how he relates to other people, himself, and God. It’s the Observe skill we’ve been talking about this year.
Zechariah’s relational moments
In observing Zechariah’s relational moments in the back story to the Christmas story, we first see him becoming fearful when he encounters an angel in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem.
The angel is Gabriel and he tells him his elderly wife is going to get pregnant and give birth to a son after all these years of no children. He tells Zechariah the wonderful plans God has for his son, who is to be called “John.” Gabriel shares the very significant role his son will have in carrying out God’s plan.
In spite of this wonderful news, Zechariah doubts the angel and God who sent him. He wants certainty about the words from God. “How can I be sure this will happen?”, he says (Luke 1:18).
We’re like this sometimes when we doubt God. It’s another way of saying “I don’t know if I can trust God.” That’s what we’re really doubting, our trust in God. Our need for certainty exposes our lack of trust.
Later in the Christmas story, we see Mary in a similar situation as Zechariah when Gabriel tells her she is going to give birth to Jesus the Messiah. Mary asks, ” But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” (Luke 1:34) Unlike Zechariah, her response isn’t doubt or lack of trust; it’s wanting to understand the process, the next step. She’s not looking for “how can I be sure” like Zechariah is.
When we don’t trust God there can be negative consequences, as there was for Zechariah. Gabriel tells him that because he doesn’t believe him, he won’t be able to talk until his son is born. Nine months of silence from Zechariah’s lips.
Fortunately for Zechariah, and for us, God’s discipline isn’t a death sentence. It doesn’t last forever. God doesn’t give up on Zechariah, and he doesn’t give up on you and me either.
Visit from a relative
The next relational interaction we observe with Zechariah occurs when he receives Mary, the soon-to-be mother of Jesus, into his home with his wife Elizabeth for a three-month visit. This is after Gabriel tells Mary she is to give birth to Jesus and at the same time, he says that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant.
Some scholars think Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt [pronounced “ant’], other scholars think she is Mary’s aunt [pronounced “Auh-nt”]. And still other theologians speculate that Mary is Elizabeth’s niece. We’ll let the scholars and theologians battle that out. It keeps them employed and off the dole.
I find it interesting that the text says Mary went to where Zechariah lived, not where Elizabeth lived. (Luke 1:39 and 56).
What a kind gesture for Zechariah to have his routine interrupted with a visit from a relative who stays three months. He and Mary must have had a good relationship for this to occur. Zechariah may have had a sense that Mary’s visit would be good for his elderly pregnant wife, Elizabeth.
Have you ever had people outside of your family move in to live with you for any length of time? Janet and I have done this a number of times. It’s an interruption to be sure. And some guests are more high maintenance than others. But in all the instances I can remember, we gained more than we gave up. You might want to try it sometime.
What will the neighbors think?
Another relational lesson we learn from Zechariah comes up when his son is born. Neighbors and relatives want the baby to be named after his father, but very forcefully Zechariah communicates in writing, “His name is John,” which at that point his speech finally returns, just as Gabriel said it would (Luke 1:63).
It takes strength of character to go against the preferences of neighbors, friends, and relatives. And against tradition. But Zechariah did. He obeyed God, rather than man. And sometimes that’s difficult. It was for Zechariah back then, and it’s true for us now.
Sometimes when we obey God, we may disappoint important people in our life. But doing what God wants us to do always trumps pleasing people. God is not a fan of people pleasers. This is a great lesson in relating to God and other people. It's an important part of the back story to the Christmas story.
Zechariah’s first words after nine months of silence
We also learn some relational lessons from Zechariah when his speech returns after his son John is born. Zechariah could have complained about his punishment of silence. Instead, he took his discipline from God like a man. He realized he was wrong for doubting God, and accepted the consequences.
When Zechariah’s speech finally returns he puts his past doubts about God to rest. He moves forward praising God with a prophecy as his very first words:
“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David, just as he promised through his holy prophets long ago.
“Now we will be saved from our enemies and from all who hate us. He has been merciful to our ancestors by remembering his sacred covenant–
the covenant he swore with an oath to our ancestor Abraham.
“We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:67-75)
You and I have the same opportunity as Zechariah. We can either use God’s discipline to push us away from Him or to draw us closer to Him. The choice is ours.
A Father casts a vision for his son
Besides this lesson, there’s that moment when Zechariah looks down at his new-born son and says to him:
“And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins.
“Because of God's tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” Luke 1:76-79
I love how tender Zechariah is with his baby, when he turns his attention from praising God, to casting a vision for his little boy. There’s no reason men can’t be tender with their babies. Don’t leave the nurturing to just mothers. Bless your children and give them a vision for what they can become, Just like Zechariah did.
A place in history
Besides Zechariah’s relationship with people and with God, I so appreciate how he recognizes his place in history and his role in advancing God’s story of redemption. Like millions before him, he has been waiting for the Messiah.
But now, as crazy as it seemed to him, Zechariah has been given a supporting role in the birth and parenting of a boy who one day will become John the Baptist. And John himself will play a major supporting role in preparing the way for Jesus in bringing the good news of the Gospel to the world. These important relationships are the back story to the Christmas story.
You know, we all have the opportunity to play a role in advancing God’s kingdom. Jesus is the lead actor in God’s great drama; that’s his role. He’s the star. But he wants us on stage with him as supporting actors. What a great privilege. I wonder what your role is? If you’re not sure how to answer this, I bet if you were to ask Jesus he would show you the supporting part he wants you to play.
And one final thing about Zechariah and his relationship with his son. His boy, who grows to be John the Baptist, becomes more of an influencer than he does. John impacts more people in telling them about Jesus than the role God called his father to play. And from what we know of Zechariah, I’m sure he’s perfectly fine with that.
May the same be true of all of us who have children. May we rejoice with them when their influence on God’s kingdom exceeds ours.
Here’s the big takeaway I hope you remember from today’s episode
Relationships are the back story to the Christmas story The cast of characters interacting with each other gives us role models we can follow. They teach us how to relate with each other, with ourselves, and with God. Let’s pay attention to them.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode. Just send them to me in an email to john [at] caringforothers [dot] org. Or you can share your thoughts in the “Leave a Comment” box at the bottom of the show notes.
I hope your thinking was stimulated by today’s show, to reflect on the supporting role God is calling you to play in his grand design for the human race. And then to play it out the best you can, for as you know, You Were Made for This.
Lastly, one thing you could do to help us out is to leave a review and rating wherever you listen to this podcast. It helps others to find us on the Internet.
Well, that’s all for today. I look forward to connecting with you again next week when we look at another relationship interaction in the back story to the Christmas story. Goodbye for now.
A related episode you may want to listen to
080: A Christmas Gift of Silence
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Ha! Last Sunday my sermon here in Tokyo was the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. “Inviting the Work of God in Our Lives.”
Great minds think alike, Duane!