Fear and Christmas aren’t words that I would think go together.  Maybe Halloween and Fear, or birthdays and fear.  But Christmas and fear? I mean, really what is there to fear about Christmas?

Well, according to those in the know there is plenty to fear about Christmas. 

If you are selaphobic, it means you have a fear of flashing lights.

Or if you suffer from Cyssanophobia then you have a fear of kissing someone under the mistletoe.

If getting together with relatives is a fear that you suffer from then you are suffering from Syngenesophobia.

And Meleagrisphobia refers to a fear of turkeys, presumably even if they are cooked.  Might I recommend a Christmas Goose instead, or perhaps Christmas Pizza. 

And even gift giving takes a hit if you have ghabhphobia.  That refers to a person with social anxiety who hates the attention placed on them once they receive a gift.  What do you say?  What do you do?  I figure, “thank you” is always appropriate. 

And maybe it’s not all the bells and whistles that you fear.  If the obligation to attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day gives you the willies you have ecclesiophobia.  That fear of church seems evidenced in many people through the rest of the year as well. 

Or maybe it’s the entire season, with all of its trappings that you are afraid of. 

You’ll be glad to know that while it may all be in your head, there is a name for it, and that is

Christougenniatikophobia.

This is the first Sunday of Advent and our series over the next four weeks and Christmas Eve is entitled; Fear Not.  And we will be looking at various times in the Christmas story where the characters are told to not be afraid. 

And we are going to start in the months leading up to the Christmas story.

It is a familiar story for this time of year. A heavenly messenger, a miraculous birth, a normal childhood a short ministry preaching to people who loved his message and hated his message and then an untimely death at the hands of the authorities he had offended. 

Most people could fill in the missing details if they were asked and they would be wrong.  They would talk about shepherds and wise men, heavenly choirs and stables and little animals, drummer boys and stars and flying reindeer. 

But none of those were part of the story.  I know that you are thinking, “Well maybe not the drummer boy and the flying reindeer but the rest were.”  Nope, the problem is that the story is familiar but only because it mirrors another story.

At this time of the year we are all too familiar with the Christmas story and all that goes with it, and most of us can parrot back the details, both the details that are biblical and the details that are extra-biblical.  Seriously, there was no little drummer boy.

Wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations are facts and legends, poems and songs.  And that is why Christians, both committed, and nominal will celebrate around the world in less than a month.  And even those who would never darken the door of a church 364 days out of the year will take time to at least tip their hats to the birth of Christ.

But the story didn’t start when the Angel appeared to Mary, no the story began half a year earlier and 100 kms away. 

Before the angel appeared to Mary and Joseph, he had already appeared in Jerusalem to a man named Zechariah to announce the birth of a boy who would be named John.  Part of the story was read for us earlier and this morning we are going to look at the tale of Jesus’ older cousin John, because the story of Jesus would never be complete without the story of John.  Actually we are going to take a look at John’s parents and in particular his father. 

Many people feel that there is so much detail in the book of Luke about what happened prior to the birth of Christ that it could only have come from one source and that was Mary, and so the feeling is that what we hearing in Luke’s account is a firsthand view of the miraculous.  

So, let’s begin our journey where our journey should begin, at the beginning.  Historically we are at the end of four hundred years of silence in the story of Israel.  The last recorded words from one of God’s prophets had been written in the book of Malachi and the people of Israel have been waiting to be delivered from the various occupiers of their country.  

As so here is the account of how our story begins,  Luke 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.  

Interestingly enough Elizabeth is actually a relative of Mary’s. 

Earlier I called John a cousin because I didn’t know what else to call him.  And that’s what he would have been called in those extended families, when you can’t think of anything else to call someone who is kin you call them your cousin.  You know if they aren’t your brother or sister, niece or nephew then they have to be your cousin.  

When people ask me if I’m related to Jay Guptill, who is the pastor at Hillside Wesleyan, I usually tell them he’s my cousin.  And he is indeed.  He is my fourth cousin, which means that our great grandfathers were first cousins. 

On the other hand, Ray Bradbury, the author, is my seventh cousin once removed and Christopher Reeves, Superman, is my eighth cousin twice removed. 

If you want to go down a rabbit hole some afternoon, check out famouskin.com

I knew that Mary Bradbury, who was convicted of witchcraft in Salem was my 8th great Grandmother, so I started with her and found all kinds of cool cousins.  That was free.

When Gabriel appeared to Mary at beginning of the Christmas story he reveals this to her,  Luke 1:36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month.

In the King James Version, Elizabeth is called Mary’s cousin but the word in the original Greek was much broader than that and simply meant someone who was related to you, somehow.  And she may have been her cousin, we just don’t know. 

What we do know is that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron and we are told that Mary was a descendant of David’s so whatever relationship they shared was on their mother’s side of the family tree. 

And we do know a few things about Zechariah and Elizabeth, we know that they were good folk, the Bible tells us in Luke 1:6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Sounds like good folk to me.

And we know that Zechariah was a priest and that Elizabeth was descended from the priestly line and we know that they were childless.  A tragedy for most folks who it happened to but for a priest it was a double tragedy in that there would be no son to carry on his priestly responsibilities.

And we know that they were older, again how old?  We don’t know, old enough to be mentioned, but perhaps because it was in relation to their childbearing years maybe it was just relative, maybe they were old, in their late forties or early fifties.  Not sure.

And we know that they were chosen for a very special assignment, to raise John.  This wasn’t just an; “oops we are pregnant, what now?” situation.  This was part of the plan.

From the beginning this was to be a very special birth and a very special child.

So let’s go back to the story, Luke 1:11-13  While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar.  Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him.  But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.

Now understand, there are folks who don’t have children because they don’t want children.   And that’s their decision, some people don’t have cats, because they don’t want cats.

And I kind of understand the not wanting children, but not wanting cats, that’s just bizarre.

But the reason that Elizabeth didn’t have children was because her and Zechariah couldn’t have children. 

It probably wasn’t for lack of trying, or lack of wanting, as a matter of fact when Gabriel breaks the news to Zech he tells him that their prayers were going to be answered. 

Actually, Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayers will be answered, we don’t know what Elizabeth’s prayers were in regard to getting pregnant at that stage in her life.

Pretty sure that 2000 years ago people had figured out how babies were made and Zechariah knew they had been trying for years and it hadn’t worked.

As far as we know Zechariah went home and conveyed the message of the angel to Elizabeth.

That conversation must have been interesting.  “An angel told you we are supposed to do what?” 

“Seriously Elizabeth, I’m not kidding.”    Actually, if you are familiar with the story then you know that Zechariah had lost his voice in the temple, so he had to explain this all to Elizabeth using charades.  That would have been interesting.

And well the story doesn’t get into details; we would assume they did the things necessary to make a baby and they made a baby. 

This is the first time the words “Don’t be afraid” are mentioned in the Christmas story, so let’s dive in a little deeper and see why the angel told Zechariah not to be afraid.   

The simplest thought might be that the Angel, who identifies himself as Gabriel, spooked Zechariah.  After all, Zechariah was inside the temple offering sacrifices, supposedly by himself, there were no windows and the only light would have been provided by torches and all of a sudden, he’s not alone.

I don’t know what an angel looks like, but that’s beside the point, because not only wasn’t Zechariah expecting an angel, Zechariah wasn’t expecting anybody.

But Gabriel didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid, it’s only me, and I’m an angel”

What Gabriel said was, “Don’t be Afraid, God has heard your prayer.”

God not only heard their prayer, but God had answered their prayer. Now technically he had already answered their prayer.

If you asked your boss for a raise and they said “yes” that is an answer.
If you asked your boss for a raise and they said “no” that is also an answer. 
Or if you asked your boss for a raise and they said “Later”, guess what?  That is an answer.

You might not like, answer number two or answer number three but they are both answers.

 Sometimes when we say, “God didn’t answer my prayers” what we are really saying is “God didn’t grant my request.”  And those are two different things.

The first lesson is Prayer Delayed is Not Prayer Denied.

I wonder how many times Zechariah and his bride had questioned whether God even heard their prayers.  But their son was to be born at just the right time. 

We often hear that each of our lives has a purpose.  I truly believe that, each of us has been placed here to make a difference.  I’m not sure that we all necessarily fulfil that purpose, but there is something that only you can do.  If you choose to fulfil your destiny.

Oh, we might not be a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Mother Theresa, but the world would be a different place if you weren’t here. 

Because people chose to give to Clean Water initiatives at Cornerstone, over the past number of years it is no exaggeration to say that there are people who are alive today who might not have been alive without access to clean water.  You are responsible for them, and the children they might have and their grand-children and all the differences they will make.

The difference that we will make in the village of Kenenday, will happen not because Cornerstone chose to partner with World Hope and the village, but because the people who make up Cornerstone chose to make it a priority.

And remember that not only were there Martin Luther Kings and Mother Theresas in the world, there were the people who quietly influenced them to become all they could be.

John’s life had a purpose.  But that purpose had to be served at a specific time.   His preaching set the stage for Jesus.

Which made me realize what a gift it was that John was born in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s old age.  By the time of his death John was in his early thirties and his parents had probably passed away.  And so, they weren’t around when their son was executed, they were spared that heartache.

And I realize that people don’t always like to hear this truth, but if you are a Christian some prayers for healing are answered in heaven.

You are thinking “I prayed for healing for my child, my spouse my friend and God didn’t answer that prayer, they still died.” 

Listen to John’s description of heaven,  Revelation 21:3-4  I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

Sounds like healing to me.  The reality is that very few of us, who truly believe that, wouldn’t want that for the ones we love.   We don’t grieve because our loved one is in heaven with God, we grieve because they are not here with us.

And Gabriel continues, Luke 1:12-17  Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him.  But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.  You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.  And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

The second thing is that an Answered Prayer May Have Multiple Ramifications

Gabriel told Zechariah; God has heard your prayers.  And then look at the ramifications that were spelled out:

Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. 

You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth  I’m sure that Zechariah and Elizabeth had friends and family who knew how much they had longed for children.

He will be great in the eyes of the Lord. Without commentary note what goes hand in hand with the promise that John will be great in the eyes of the Lord, he must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. 

And, he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah.

He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.  What more could a priest and the daughter of a priest ask for, that their long-awaited child would be a man of God, who would make a difference. 

He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.   If you know the story of John, he was the one who announced the coming messiah, he was the one who pointed to Jesus and said “Behold the lamb of God.” 

Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a child, and when that prayer was answered there were all kinds of ramifications. 

Some of those things were seen immediately, like the birth of John and the fact that people would rejoice with them over that birth. 

But other things were years in coming to fruition, his ministry and his announcement of Jesus as the messiah, it would be thirty years before those things happened.  We don’t even know if John’s parents were still alive when all that happened.

Answered Prayer May Have Unforeseen Consequences

And I’m not sure that while Zechariah and Elizabeth were praying for a child that they were praying for dirty diapers and sleepless nights.  But that was part of the package.

Sometimes we pray for things, and don’t realize the full scope of what answered prayer will bring.

That new job that you want, it may bring extra hours, more responsibilities, more travel away from home and temptations that wouldn’t have been there in your old position. 

That’s not to say all those extra things are bad, but you may not have realized what answered prayer would look like.

When Gabriel told Zechariah in Luke 1:16-17  And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”  Zechariah probably had assumptions about what that would mean, after all, he was a priest as was his father and his father in law. 

And so, Zechariah probably assumed that John would be a priest as well. That he would serve in the temple, that he would wear the ornate robes of the priesthood and would parrot the words that the priests had been saying for well over a thousand years. 

But listen to these descriptions of John’s ministry, Luke 1:80  John grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

And in Matthew 3:1-4  In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was,  “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”  The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”  John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.

Not sure that was what Zechariah envisioned when Gabriel told him that his prayers had been heard.

And if you know the story, then you know the part that I alluded to earlier, that John’s preaching eventually cost him his life.  When he confronted King Herod with his immoral behaviour, he was thrown into prison and eventually was executed, by being beheaded. 

I wonder if knowing that would have changed Zechariah’s prayers?

But understand this, John’s death wasn’t the result of Zechariah’s prayers.

Nor was it something that God could be blamed for.  John made choices in how he confronted Herod, I’m not saying that he shouldn’t have confronted Herod, but confronting Herod had consequences. 

You might say, that John died a violent death as a result of his righteousness.  And all John had to do was back away from what he said, and his life would have been spared but he refused.  Not because he had a death wish but because he knew what was right.  

It was Edmund Burke who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  And John wasn’t willing to do nothing, his calling wasn’t to obey Herod, his calling was to obey God.

But ultimately John’s death wasn’t caused by his righteousness it was caused by evil, the evil of Herod and of his wife.

Zechariah was told to not be afraid of the answers to his prayers and each one of us needs to understand that when our prayers are answered, that we need to trust God to have control. 

Gabriel was telling Zechariah, don’t be Afraid, Just believe. 

We have to trust that God is in control, even when things don’t go the way we assume that should go, even when we don’t agree with the way things go.

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