The Miracle of Christmas
Great personal human dramas surround us every day. We heard about the suicide of Gary Speed the Wales National Football Team Manager. He had everything and yet he took his own life. Explanations may appear later but for the time being no one knows why he did this. The Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking is uncovering the most bizarre and almost unbelievable of journalistic practices. JK Rowling said that she found a letter from a journalist inside her 5 year old daughter’s school bag. Charlotte Church was to be paid £100,000 to sing at Rupert Murdoch’s marriage to Wendy Deng but her management team persuaded her to sing for nothing in the hope of receiving favourable press from News International thereafter. Celebrities were falling out with family members after accusing them of leaking personal information to the press - when they had not done so. The investigator Glen Mulchare was in possession of the pin codes to celebrities’ bank accounts and those of their friends also. Chris Jefferies has become a wealthy man having won substantial damages for libel against newspapers which accused him of being a suspect, weird and seedy person and also of murdering Joanna Yates. Human dramas abound locally also. Take last week’s Courier. Here are some of the headlines PRISONER TERRORISED FORMER WIFE FROM JAIL / CHERYL SET FOR EXTRA SPECIAL 21ST BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS / DISGRACED MP DEALT NEW BLOW / INTERNATIONAL HONOUR FOR PRIMARY CHILDREN / £5 OFF WHEN YOU SPEND £25 AT M&CO.
The parents of John the Baptist were caught up in a great local drama. They had been a childless couple in a culture which regarded that condition as a sign of God’s lack of favour. However late in life they became mother and father to a baby boy. You may remember that last year we baptised the daughter of a couple who had been married many years and thought themselves childless - their little girl was born on Christmas Day 2009. In Jesus’ time, it was the custom to celebrate child birth. Family, friends and musicians gathered to welcome the newborn child. Immediately after the birth there was singing and dancing and rejoicing and celebration - but only if the child was a boy. If the baby was a girl, the musicians packed up their instruments and went away quietly and regretfully. In China today there is a much stronger wish for a son than a daughter and in India, disgracefully, baby girls may even be left out in the cold just to die. My mother used to tell us that her mum told her that when she was born - her sister Anne already being there - her father greeted her birth with the words 'Another dish washer'. But when her younger brother Tommy was born - her father went a way to work in the mine whistling as happily as he could. There are all girl families and there are all boy families as we know. For all our knowledge of genetics and attempts at manipulation of nature’s way, we cannot yet control the gender of our offspring.
So for Elizabeth and Zechariah, there was double celebration, they were parents at last and their child was a boy. But that was not the end of it. Zechariah had been struck dumb because he had doubted whether at their great age, he and his wife could become parents. When they took their little boy to the temple to be circumcised and named, he was still unable to speak. The priest was going to call him Zechariah. In one of those details which makes the account credible, the baby boy’s mother Elizabeth stopped the priest and told him that his name was to be John. Because she was a woman they did not accept her word and pointed out that none of their relatives had taken that name. This custom had almost died out in our own land now. Few children are called after their parents or family members. They may be called a name simply that the parents like. But more and more little ones are given exotic names following the pattern of celebrities. There’s Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper Seven Beckham. Jon Bob Jovi called his little boy Jesse James Louis. Jamie Oliver’s four kids have the following names: Buddy Bear Maurice (Bear for short), Poppy Honey Rosie (as is), Daisy Boo Pamela (Boo) and Petal Blossom Rainbow. Can you imagine their Maw cryin’ them tae come on in for their tea?
Zechariah asked for the slate he had been using for the last months to communicate with. And on that he wrote 'His name is John'. That was the name God had told him to give his new born son. At that very moment he began to speak again fulfilling Gabriel’s prophecy to him. It is interesting that the birth was not validated in Judaism until circumcision just as it used to be in our culture that a child was not thought complete until Christian baptism. This was all awesome stuff to Zechariah’s family and friends. It was outstanding and in that Godly culture, people interpreted these events as signs that this little boy was meant for great things in the sight and providence of God. The Old Testament had its history of significant births and people accepted that God’s blessing of Elizabeth and Zechariah was threefold. They were parents after decades without a child; he was a boy; and he was within the special providence and purpose of the Living God.
John was the shorter version of Jehohanan which means God’s gift or God is gracious. The name reflected the gratitude and unexpected joy of the elderly new parents. Now that Zechariah could speak, nine months of enforced silence erupted into praise and prayer and prophecy. This was largely in two parts. Firstly he rejoiced in God’s intervention among his people. We know that for at least 200 years previously there had been no recognisable prophets among the Jewish people. At last - God had dramatically revealed his saving care. Zechariah who had been a true believer all his days found himself at the centre of God’s saving grace and providence. So Zechariah prophesied God’s restoration of his people’s fortunes and liberation from their enemies. Secondly, Zechariah spoke about his son, John. He marked him out as a prophet of the Most High - in Judaism there was no higher vocation. He understood John’s role as that of the forerunner of the Messiah and that knowledge could only have been given to him by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Mary, of course, had journeyed to see Elizabeth when she had first become pregnant with Jesus. Zechariah knew the Messiah was to be born. He looked forward to a golden age of peace.
Luke’s note adds, 'And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel'. It says John became strong in spirit. It is thought by scholars that John was educated at the community of the Essenes. The Essenes were a Jewish sect that flourished from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century AD. Being much fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees,the Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) marriage. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers, and thousands lived throughout Roman Judea. The Essenes have gained fame in modern times as a result of the discovery of an extensive group of religious documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are commonly believed to be Essenes' library. These documents include preserved multiple copies of the Hebrew Bible untouched from as early as 300 BCE until their discovery in 1946.
We know from the Gospel descriptions of John the Baptist that he was an ascetic. It is likely that both his parents had died by the time he reached his late twenties. Celibate, living frugally, wholly dedicated to God, full of fire and passion and incorruptible. And we know that shameful end that he came to also. He was Jesus’ first cousin and he pointed others beyond himself to our Lord.
Where are we today in relation to such commitment as we prepare for Christmas? There are a number of spiritual lessons for our help and encouragement. Faith in God is not misplaced. It is not a waste of time. It works. It is worth waiting for God’s providence even if the time seems long, prayers seem to be unanswered and doubt and weariness are present company. Doing it God’s way means a better conclusion. However, there is a warning. It is a lifetime of piety and goodness and service of and witness to the Living God that opens up the possibility for answered prayer…'the Spirit co-operates for good with those who love God and are called according to his purpose'. We are to take God at his word and not doubt God’s ability or willingness to accomplish His own will. There is a time of recognition and fulfilment and thanksgiving and rejoicing when our faith is vindicated and we see the travail of our souls.
We inherit the faith and vision and goodness of John the Baptist’s mother and father. They take their place in the long line of faithful witnesses for God in this world. But - they had no real idea of what was going to happen. John's own vision of peace was not fulfilled among the Jews of the time and it has never come about yet. Instead, the Messianic peace process was lived out by Jesus through early death and triumphant resurrection and thereafter in and among nearly two millennia of Christians who have lived in peace and prayed for peace and made peace in this world. We take our place among them. This is the miracle of Christmas in which we are privileged to share joyfully. God is alive to us through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. He is involved with us and there for us. It is our calling to be alive for God, involved with God and to be there for God by acknowledging Jesus Christ as His incarnate Son and as the Saviour of humanity in every generation, whose birth and birthday we look forward to remembering and celebrating.