Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord! Preparing the way of the Lord among those most closely involved.
This week we look at the people God had prepared to play a particular role in the birth of the Messiah.
Naturally, Joseph and Mary are the most prominent figures, but there are also Mary’s relatives, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, whose role is to give birth to the one who is going to announce the Saviour’s arrival. What’s so amazing is that God has all the characters prepared and in place for the time when Jesus is to be born.
Zechariah – Luke 1:5-25 and 67-79
If ever there was a day that didn’t turn out as expected, it was this day. Zechariah was on duty in the Temple. The priests weren’t on duty all the time, but worked in groups and it was Zechariah’s groups turn. That meant they only served in the Temple for two weeks each year. It was the turn of Abijah’s section and Zechariah would have found himself carrying out duties he had performed many times before. No doubt he took these seriously and served with care since he and his wife were devout and godly people. The first hint that something different was happening was when he was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and offer incense. He had no say in being chosen. God ordained it, as only God could. It was an immense once in a life time privilege, but even so he was totally unprepared for what happened next. He may have been, but God wasn’t.
Zechariah and Elizabeth come across as a pious, loving couple with an ache in their heart through their childlessness – you hope in a way this brought them closer together. In the most unexpected of places and times God announced that their heartache was about to end. We know what happens next – a visit of the angel, Zechariah’s shock and disbelief and his dumbness. The people waiting outside the Temple must have wondered what kept him!
Only when there was a disagreement at home about the name of their son, was Zechariah restored to speech and the first thing he did was to praise God.
- Can you think of a day when something totally unexpected happened?
- Looking back, can you see God’s hand in it?
- Have you praised God for it?
- Since we don’t know what will happen in our lives tomorrow, to what extent is our security in God?
Elizabeth – Luke 1:23-35, 39-45, 57-66
It’s easy to miss Elizabeth in the Christmas story. She doesn’t play a major role, she is more of a supporting actor. Yet the story would be missing a great deal without her.
We first meet her when she plays a supporting role to Zechariah. We learn she’s from a good godly family and like her husband, devout. You get the sense that they both loved God with all their hearts. They not only observed the law but lived good lives that served others.
Yet, through all her piety, she nursed a human sadness. She was childless. In her day this was more than a matter of personal or emotional sadness, it was seen as a curse from God. People would have thought that for some reason these childless woman had been disgraced by God. But she is one of several childless women who play an important role in revealing God’s miraculous and powerful grace. Women like Sarah, the wife of Abraham and Hannah the mother of Samuel.
But before we jump to the happy ending we know that Elizabeth’s’ devotion to God was no protection against her experiencing pain in her life. We all know that being a Christian does not guarantee you a trouble free comfortable life – though a book title I saw recently called “Praying until you get results” suggests otherwise. Pain and suffering are often the means by which we become more like Christ.
The next time Elizabeth enters the story she’s received the news from Zechariah returning home from Jerusalem that she’s going to have a baby. I’m sure they were overjoyed, if not a little anxious at having a child at their age. What is striking is the complete absence of self-centredness. Elizabeth expresses a God centred joy, and testifies that it is God who has caused her fertility. He wasn’t required to. He wasn’t answerable to her. It wasn’t her right to have a child.
In her 3rd appearance she’s playing a supportive role to Mary, who is also expecting. Given her age you might have expected her to take centre stage and be the focus of attention, but not so. Convention would dictate that young and unwed Mary would show respect to her, but the conversation flows the other way round. Elizabeth, like her son after her, was showing great humility.
Her last appearance is when John is born and she also is at the centre of the family disagreement to name him. It’s wonderful to see this mature mum holding her own against family and social pressure. She is determined to be obedient to God’s will.
- Try to put yourself in Elizabeth’s shoes. How would you have reacted to all that was going on?
- What can we learn from her?
Joseph – Matthew 1:18-25
It takes a special kind of man to remain loyally in the background while all the attention centres on his wife. The Queen has Prince Philip, Mrs May has….well, I know she has a husband, but I don’t know his name and Mary had Joseph. At the nativity the spotlight is always on Mary who had been especially prepared and chosen by God to bear his son. Joseph receives only scant attention, and yet must have been especially prepared and chosen as she was. He was a very special kind of man.
We know few facts about him except that he came from David’s family, and was a carpenter. After the birth stories he appears only twice in the Gospels. First when he travels with Mary and Jesus for her presentation in the Temple and when they took Jesus again to the Temple when he was 12. The silence about him has led to all sorts of myths to fill the vacuum. Not unreasonably it is presumed he was much older than Mary. It is also suggested he was already a widower with children by the time he arrange to marry Mary.
Although we know little about him, we get a strong impression of him. He was pledged to be married to Mary, which is more than a current engagement. Mary’s pregnancy would have thrown a lesser man off balance, especially in a patriarchal society where all the cards where stacked in the favour of men and against women. But Joseph handed this unique situation adeptly.
The way we handle crises usually reveals our true character, rather than a case of acting out of character. When we’re tired or stressed we can move to patterns of behaviour which are generally our real characters. He was a good man, seeking to conduct himself in the right way before God. So when the news broke, he did not react with anger, resentment or disgust. He was a compassionate man with a great sensitivity to Mary, which led him at first to handle the situation with discretion rather than expose her shame. But when the angel visited him we see him as a spiritual man. He was also an obedient man – he did what the angel said to him.
Joseph’s preparation was as important as Mary’s. A different man could have wrecked the whole venture. He was well prepared for his role, and surely a good role model for Jesus as he grew up?
- What do you make of Joseph?
- What qualities do you see in him that you would like to imitate?
- Do these characters come across as “real human beings” or “out of this world saints”, untroubled by the shortcomings of ordinary people like you and me?
- What spiritual lessons can we learn from Zechariah, Elizabeth and Joseph?
- We’ve not touched on Mary, but if some value her too highly, others value her insufficiently. Why do you think this is and what is the right way to think of a woman whom God favoured so highly?
- Why do you think God put his plan for the salvation of the world into the hands of a young single mum and her baby? What does this teach us about the ways God works?
Next week - Christians awake, salute the happy morn! Preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives.