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Greg Laurie — Christmas: The Story Before the Story


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Here in Luke 1 we are going to look at the often told but often misunderstood Christmas story. I think for some the message of the baby Jesus being born in that manger in Bethlehem with the brilliant star in the sky and the wise men bowing and all of that is nothing more than just a fable. A children's story. Not unlike Santa Claus living in the north pole and Rudolph the red nosed reindeer or frosty the snowman. Frankly I think some people know more about Rudolph and Santa and frosty than they know about Jesus. Sometimes even people in church get the story confused.

I heard about a little girl that went to Sunday school. The teacher told the Christmas story. The little one came back to her mom with a drawing she did from the story. That was part of the assignment. She says, "Mom my teacher says I have the most unusual Christmas picture around". The mom looked at it and indeed it was different. It was not your traditional manger scene with the star and the Angels. It was an airplane. The mom said, "I don't understand why you drew an airplane". The little girl says, "Mom it is the flight into Egypt". "OK. Right. I got that. Wait. Who is this mean "Looking man in the cockpit"? The girl flustered said, "Mom that is Pontius the pilot". "OK. Pontius the pilot". Now mom is starting to get it. There are the little windows. "I see Mary. I see Joseph". "I see the baby Jesus. In the back of the plane there is this big fat man. Who is that fat man in the back behind Mary"? "Can't you tell mom? That is round Jon Virgin".

Get it. Round yon virgin mother and child. These are the jokes people and they are not very good. We all love the Christmas story. I want to look at the story before the story. The prequel if you will. This is from Dr. Luke's Gospel. Remember in my brief flyover of the four Gospels I pointed out that each Gospel is different in the way that it approaches the life of our Lord. In contrast to Matthew and John who were both eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Christ Luke came along a little bit later. In fact, Luke was a physician who came to faith from a non-Jewish background. It was his desire to bring a record of the life and ministry of Christ that could be understood by those outside of the Jewish faith and culture.

Luke comes with the educated skill and attention to detail of a doctor. Because he was one by trade. At the same time he comes with a great deal of heart and artistry and even a poetic touch as he writes the story of our Lord. His Gospel is addressed to a man named Theophilus which means lover of God. Theophilus was a believer who wanted to know more about Jesus. Apparently Theophilus was a man of means because he underwrote this project for Luke to go and do all of the primary research to bring this Gospel into existence. Luke writes about that in Luke 1:3. He says, "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed".

The reason Luke needed to write this is there was a lot of false information floating around in the day. Distortions. Fables. The tabloids of the day. Sort of like bloggers on the internet today. Anybody can write anything they want out there. By the way, it is not true, just because it is on the internet. Luke wanted to correct the record. He was going to apply journalistic standards so to speak and produce this orderly account. Luke recognized that a proper telling of the story of Jesus Christ would produce belief in its truth. He is doing this because he was sponsored by Theophilus but of course we all benefit from it.

Let's read now the story before the story. The story of the announcement of John the Baptist who was the forerunner of our Lord. Luke 1:5. "There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years. So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. Then an Angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the Angel said to him, 'do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard: and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before him (speaking of the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord".'

To fully get what was happening we have to understand the culture of the time. These were dark and difficult days in Israel's history. Almost as difficult as their bondage in Egypt under the Pharaoh. Now they lived under the tyranny of Rome and its puppet governor Herod the great. Herod was Ruthless. He was vicious and he had no mercy. Add to the fact that he was a jealous and paranoid man. He always thought his throne was under threat. History tells us that Herod murdered his wife, her brother, her mother, and several of his own sons. There was a saying of the day that went along these lines. "It is better to be one of Herod's pigs than a member of his family". That is why when Herod met those wise men the magi the men from the east that had seen that star directing them to the Messiah when they said, "We have seen his star, and we have come to worship Him who is called the King of the Jews". They were effectively saying, "You ain't him buddy". He is somewhere else. Herod called in the wise men and finds out that Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. Then he gives the decree that all of those baby boys in Bethlehem are to be put to death. So in the days of Herod. To make matters worse the people of Israel have not heard from God for 400 years. No prophets. No miracles. No Angelic appearances. Just an icy silence from heaven.

Luke's narrative finds Israel in the midst of a long night of spiritual darkness. That is about to change. God had promised in Malachi 4:2, "For those of you that revere My name the Son of Righteousness will rise with healing in its rays and you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves". The long darkness was about to experience a dramatic sunrise. Commentator R. Kent Hughes put it this way. "Great plans laid in eternal ages past now begin to activate. Angels scurried around visibly preparing for the dawn". God was not only promising the Messiah. But he also spoke of a forerunner to precede Messiah. Malachi 3:1 says, "'I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into the temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come' says the Lord".

John was the forerunner. John was sort of the bridge between the Old and the New Testament. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. According to Jesus the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Sometimes people mistakenly think that there is a God of the Old and the New Testament. The way it is often put is the God of the Old Testament is wrathful. He is angry. He is perpetually in a really bad mood. But the God of the New Testament is loving and full of grace and ready to forgive. Actually both of those views are incorrect. There is one God of both testaments. One God from Genesis to revelation. He is just. He is righteous. He is Holy. He is loving. He is merciful. He is forgiving. Now these two covenants are going to be tied together. Everything that the Old Testament is pointing to is going to be fulfilled in the New Testament. Because this is such a big deal God sends the mighty Gabriel. You know it is a big event if Gabriel or Michael show up.

Going back to Luke 1:11-13. This is from the Phillips translation. "The crowded congregation outside was praying at the actual time of the incense-burning, when an Angel of the Lord appeared on the right side of the incense-altar. When Zacharias saw him, he was terribly agitated and a sense of awe swept over him. But the Angel spoke to him, 'do not be afraid, Zacharias'". Now Gabriel the Angel who we are talking about also appears a little bit later to Mary. We will look at that next time. Gabriel is appearing now to Zacharias. It is interesting because the name Zacharias means fittingly God remembers. The name Elizabeth means my God is an oath. This incident in their lives would conform the truth of both of these names. God was going to keep his oath. God was remembering.

Why did God set Zacharias apart for such an amazing task? 1. Zacharias was a humble man. He was a country priest. Today we might call him a country preacher. By the way there were many priests at this time in Israel's history. About 8,000. To be a priest meant you represented God to the people. You represented the people to God. The priest would interpret scripture. He would counsel. He would provide wise judgment for the people. Each priest would leave his local duties to serve in Jerusalem there in the temple twice for one week. This was the representative of God.

That is a pretty awesome thing. I recognize as a pastor I represent God to people. You do too. You could say, "Yeah Greg do a better job". I am working on that. But you are God's representative. As thanksgiving is coming quickly if you are the Christian in your family if your family is not predominantly Christian you are probably going to be the designated prayer person for the meal. If your family is like the rest of ours you have a lot of weird relatives. They are all gathered together. There is a lot of awkwardness in the moment. They will say, "Why don't you lead us in prayer"? Here is the good thing about being the person who leads in prayer. You have the floor my friend. Take advantage of it. You might just say, "All right. Let's give thanks for the meal. Everybody let's pray". Pray something like this. "Father we thank you for this wonderful meal in front of us. I thank you for this family. Thanks for the wonderful country we live in. The liberties you have given us. Lord most of all thank you for sending the Lord Jesus Christ to live a perfect life and then to die on the cross for our sin and to rise again from the dead. Now while our heads are bowed and our eyes are closed, maybe some of you would like to commit your life to Christ. Uncle Harry I am talking to you".

You probably shouldn't do that. But you get the idea. It is an opportunity to share a little Gospel message. You are the representative of God. By the way we are all called to be priests by the Lord. 1 Peter 2:9 says, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood so you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called out of darkness into his marvelous light".

Zacharias was a humble guy. 2. Zacharias was a faithful man. As our story begins we find this country priest Zacharias doing his duty. This shows us an important principle. If you want to be used of God. Just get out there and do something for the Lord. God often speaks to his people when they are busy doing their daily tasks. Some of us envisioned a great ministry for the Lord. We might say, "One day I would like to be a missionary and cross the sea for Christ". The Lord might say, "Would you mind crossing the street first and maybe talking to your neighbor that you have never even introduced yourself to"? The mission field is all around you.

Coming back to Zacharias this man was faithful in what God set before him. What was his job? It was to go into the temple. He got to do that twice a year. By the way, that was a big deal to leave your little country parish and go to the big city into Jerusalem to the temple into the holy of holies and offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people of God. A word about this couple.

3. Zacharias and Elizabeth were godly and blameless people. Look at verse 6. "They both were righteous before God, walking in all of the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless". That is quite a statement. Now to be blameless didn't mean they never sinned. It meant they had a good reputation. This is interesting. Zacharias and Elizabeth had a problem. She was never able to conceive a child. Back in this culture if a woman could not conceive a child she would be described as barren and unfruitful. Sometimes it was said that was a curse from God. You can't bear children. It is a curse from heaven. There might have been some people who would say, "I don't know about Zacharias and Elizabeth. After all she is barren isn't she? If she really was walking right with the Lord perhaps she would have had a child at this point". Of course we know this is an incorrect view but it was a perception of the day. God was about to give them a child. Not just any child. He was going to give them a prophet for a child. Not just any prophet. They were going to have the greatest prophet who had ever lived. John the Baptist.

What an amazing thing. I bring this up because sometimes a person may be suffering outwardly but inwardly they are blessed. As time passes you are going to discover that God was preparing that person. Let me personalize it. Sometimes you are suffering. God is preparing you. God is paying attention to this godly couple. Now the prayer is going to be answered by the Lord.

4. This is very important. Zacharias was human and flawed just like us. Look at verses 18-19. "And Zacharias said to the Angel, 'how shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.'" You see Zacharias could have rejoiced but instead he questioned. What do we learn from this story in closing? We learn that if we want to be used by God we need to be humble. We need to wait on the Lord. Serve him where we are. Just do what God has set before us and be faithful in those little things. Also in this story of Zacharias and Elizabeth we learn the importance of praying and not giving up. Your prayers are heard and they are remembered. We also learn that we should believe what God says to us and act in faith not feeling. We need to believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts.

The problem is sometimes when we look at these men and women of God in the Bible we put them on pedestals and forget that they were people just like us. As we make our way into the Christmas story and learn more about Mary and Joseph understand we call them the holy family. The Bible doesn't call them that. Mary and Joseph were normal people. The only perfect person in the Bible is Jesus. These people were hopelessly human. Remarkably unremarkable. They were available and obedient to the Master's call. What made them stand out was Christ living in them.

Why was John the greatest of the Old Testament prophets? Did John ever write a prophetic book? No. Did John ever perform a miracle? Not that we know of. Why is John the greatest? Because of his nearness to Jesus. The disciples' greatness was not because of who they were. It is because of who called and used them. The same is true of us. The Bible says that God has placed his treasure in an earthen vessel, in a jar of clay. Or as the Phillips translation puts it in 2 Corinthians 4. "This priceless treasure we hold in a common earthenware jar is to show that the power of it belongs to God and not to us. We are handicapped on all sides, but we are never frustrated: we are puzzled, but never in despair. We are persecuted, but we never have to stand it alone: we may be knocked down but we are never knocked out"! I love that translation. God has taken residence in your heart. That is where it comes from. As we look at these ordinary people that God did extraordinary things through it gives hope to us that we can be used of God wherever we are. God wants to invade your ordinary life and do something amazing.

Hey everyone thanks for watching our program today. Let me just say to you if you have not asked Jesus Christ to come into your life, to be your personal Savior and Lord you can do it right now. I would consider it a privilege to lead you in a prayer where you would be asking the Lord to forgive you of your sins so you could know that when you die you will go to heaven. So you can find the meaning and purpose of life that you have been searching for. If you would please, if you want Christ to come into your life, if you want your sin forgiven, if you want to know that when you die you will go to heaven, pray this prayer after me. You might even pray it out loud. Let's pray. Lord Jesus I know that I am a sinner. But you died on the cross for my sin and shed your blood for all the wrongs I have done. I am sorry for my sin. I turn from it now. I ask you to come into my life and be my Savior and my Lord. Be my God and be my friend. Thank you for loving me and accepting me and forgiving me. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen.
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