A Fresh Touch from God/December 17, 2017

Second Baptist Lincoln
3rd Sunday in Advent
Dec. 17, 2017
Luke 1:5-25         

 A Fresh Touch from God

In 1963 Andy Williams released his first Christmas album which contained a song that has become one of the top ten holiday songs of all time – “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. So it’s not surprising that the song has been recorded by nearly 20 other artists ranging from Harry Connick, Jr. to Garth Brooks to Amy Grant to Chicago.But for many reasons, Christmas is not necessarily the most wonderful time of the year for everyone:

• For some, it’s the reminder of the loss of a loved one.
• For others, it’s a reminder of their broken families – perhaps as a result of a divorce or rebellious children.
• For still others, it brings attention to financial struggles that are going to be exacerbated by the money they feel pressured to spend to meet the expectations of the season.
• For many, it would more accurately be called “the most stressful time of the year”, with all the pressure to decorate, and send Christmas cards, and bake and to find just the right gift for everyone on your list combined with all the extra activities that occur this time of year.

It was a few days before Christmas on the North Dakota Prairie. Two men whose families lived next door opted to go pheasant hunting while their wives went Christmas shopping. An unexpected storm surprised the hunters.

Before long, the visibility was cut to zero, and the two had a difficult time finding their way through the tree rows. While heading toward their pickup, they had a hard time finding it. When they arrived at their pickup, they loaded their guns in the back and headed toward the main road.  At one point, their pickup slid slightly to the left and dropped into a deep ditch of snow. They were stuck. Knee-deep in snow and shoveling to free the tires and undercarriage.  Covered in snow with frosted cheeks and panting from the exertion, the one said to the other, "Sure beats Christmas shopping, doesn't it?" 

Maybe this Christmas you’re going through some trial or difficulty that is completely unrelated to Christmas – maybe a health issue or problems at work or relationship problems. So this really isn’t the most wonderful time of year for you, either. If, for any of those reasons or any others, Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of year for you, then this morning’s message is particularly relevant for you. And even if you really love the Christmas season and things are going great for you, there are some things that all of us can learn that will be of great help in our lives and in the lives of others when the times of darkness and despair inevitably come.

For a certain couple I know of, the thought of Christmas conjured up three other words. "Where's our baby?" They knew the pain of infertility. They understood only too well why the condition from which they suffered used to be called "barren." An infertile couple knows the isolated torment of biological and emotional drought. They are familiar with the wasteland that separates the childless couple from a family-centered culture. This couple wanted children ever since they were first married. His position as a minister didn't pay extremely well, but his income was sufficient so that his wife would not have to work outside the home when children came along. But children never came along.

At first they weren't all that concerned. They had time. They were young. Besides, they had friends who hadn't been able to conceive right away but over the years got pregnant. "Sometimes it just takes time," their friends had said. But each month and each year went by with no results. They tried not to think about the fact that time was running out.  Every year had its predictable hard times. Family holidays were terrible. The aunts and uncles talking about potty training and discipline problems. The grandparents doting over the most recent grandchild. The nieces and nephews asking, "Why aren't you a mommy yet?" It was almost more than the couple could take. Well-meaning friends foisted flippant phrases their way. "Just relax." "Don't try so hard." "Take an extended vacation." "Why don't you adopt a child? You're sure to get pregnant then." "Have faith." "Just trust God." ("Oh, by the way, is there any unconfessed sin in your life that you've rationalized away?"). After a while, it got to him. He wished these well-wishers would come down with a lifelong case of laryngitis. How could so-called friends be so cruel? Like those confronted with the doctor's diagnosis of a terminal illness, the couple eventually found themselves working through a complicated emotional process. They became angry. You'd think that having a deep personal faith in God would make going through childlessness easier. Not for this godly couple. If anything, it made it worse.

The psalmist delineated the traditional biblical view of children: "Children are a reward from the Lord. Blessed is the man who has his quiver full." The Scriptures they knew so well were filled with story after story of couples like them who had not been able to have a baby and then, because of the gracious intervention of a merciful loving God, presto, they became pregnant. There was Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Manoah and his wife, Elkanah and Hannah. And then there was that haunting reference to the faithfulness of God in Psalm 113. They knew it by heart. "Who can be compared with God enthroned on high? Far below him are the heavens and the earth; he stoops to look and lifts the poor from the dirt and the hungry from the garbage dump and sets them among princes. He gives children to the childless wife so that she becomes a happy mother."

Oh yeah? This wife was no happy mother. To denial, isolation, and anger -- ADD depression. The couple stumbled down the stairs into the emotional basement of despair. Without warning, she would just start to cry in the middle of the afternoon. The sound of children walking home from school was more than she could handle. Meanwhile the man kept his door shut at the office in hopes of not having to talk to anybody. When someone occasionally knocked, his stomach knotted up, and he refused to answer, pretending not to be there. In time, this couple embraced the last stage of their nightmare. Acceptance. No more anger. No more isolation. The dark clouds of depression had lifted. But life was not what it once had been. Now it was a series of predictable routine. It had taken years, but Zechariah had finally made peace with the fact that his wife Elizabeth was physiologically incapable of having a baby. And then the unthinkable happened.

This morning, consider the hand of God in Zechariah's life. He experienced a divine touch he had not really expected. When that touch came, it wasn't immediately obvious to him that it, in fact, was a touch from God. But in the several months of uncomfortable silence that followed, Zechariah recognized the fingerprints of God in new and unmistakable ways. In Luke 1, it is clear that Zechariah was spiritually sensitive. I believe that some people are more spiritually sensitive than others. Whether that sensitivity grew out of the painful disappointment of infertility or was already a reality when the diagnosis was clear, we don't know. But it seems fairly certain that Zechariah and Elizabeth had finally come to a point where they graciously accepted the test of faith God had allowed in their lives. They had come to terms with an empty nest syndrome that had nothing to do with kids moving out of the house. Why else would Luke make note of the fact that here were God-fearing people?  

But if Zechariah had become spiritually sensitive from the heartache and hardships he and Elizabeth had faced, then why didn't he immediately believe the incredibly good news the angel announced? Quite possibly, it's because of the ruts that had formed as the years had passed. (You know what a rut is, don't you? It's a grave with ends knocked out). Routines ruled the day. Elizabeth had her check- list of regular chores. So did Zechariah (which, in this particular instance, included doing his time at the Temple). They had grown accustomed to the predictable ways in which God involved and didn't involve himself.

You may not relate to the plight of infertility. But you most certainly relate to what it means to be a hostage to ruts and routines. When is the last time you could validate any sense of the supernatural in your day-to-day existence? Has God seemed strangely distant in relationship, as time has gone by? Do you feel worthless and useless? Barren and lifeless? I wonder if one of the lessons we might draw from this story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is God's delight in surprising us when we have given up hope. God is supremely gifted when it comes to creating what we think impossible (or recreating what we think we have screwed up for good). He's a virtuoso whose delicate touch can bring a beautiful melody out of the discord we have learned to live with. I may not be aware of the turmoil you are experiencing personally. Yet, we are all aware of the political and cultural turmoil of our nation and world. 

One of the most unusual Christmas carols is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem in 1863. In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Longfellow's personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. Then in 1863, during the American Civil War, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father's blessing. Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia). Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.Longfellow first wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.  See if these two stanzas speak to you the same way they did to me. 
And in despair I bowed my head;
 "There is no peace on earth," I said;
 "For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
 Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
 Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
 "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

May we find peace and hope in our lives.  Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, may we experience the rich grace of God in the struggles of life, that we too can claim, “peace on Earth goodwill to me.” Amen.