The Story of a Birth

December 24, 2016

The Story of a Birth
We all know the Story; we’ve heard it over
and over again. 
this is the beginning of the Christmas story
and it has all the earmarks of a great story. 
You hear it this time of year in sermons, songs and read about it on
Christmas cards. 
Of course, it’s the birth of Jesus, and we
all know the narrative.  How an angel
came to a young girl named Mary with news that she would be the mother of the
Messiah.  Her only objection was that it
would be impossible because she was still a virgin.
To which the angel replied by telling her
that it might be impossible under the laws of nature but that all things were
possible for the author of the laws of nature. 
Including virgins having babies. 
Because while Mary would be the mother of the Messiah the father would
be God himself.  And while under natural
law both mom and dad would each contribute a cell and those two cells would eventually
become billions of cells by the time the baby was born. 
But in the case of Jesus there was one cell
and the miraculous.  And in that is the
entire mystery of the incarnation, Jesus 100 % Man and 100 % God. 
 
We all know the Story; we’ve heard it over
and over again. But there is another story, a story seldom told that is part of
the Christmas Narrative as well.
I would invite you to stand for the reading
from God’s word.
Scripture
You see even though the Angel visited
John’s father before he visited Jesus’ Mother, and even though John was born
before Jesus was born, the story of John’s birth is a story seldom told at
Christmas.   And yet the story of John’s
birth is not only a vital part of the story of Jesus’ birth but the story of
John’s ministry is a vital part of Jesus’ ministry.  They weren’t just related, their births,
their lives and even their deaths were woven together with a common thread. 
So, if you don’t know the story, John’s
parents were an older couple by the name of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  And we know quite a bit about this couple.  We know that Zechariah was a priest, that
they were good people, that Elizabeth was related to Mary, the mother of Jesus,
in some way and we know that Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.
And the childless part wouldn’t have been
an issue if they were younger but we are told they were “old” and they had come
to the point in their lives that they had to admit they baby wagon had passed
them by. 
Most of that is summed up in Luke 1:5-7  When Herod was king of Judea,
there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly
order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of
Aaron.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to
obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations.  They had no children
because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
We don’t know how old they were but it was
old enough to be mentioned, probably culturally in their fifties?
And the fact that they had no children
would have been a personal tragedy in a society and a culture where children
were seen as a blessing from God and compounded because of their birthright,
they were both from priestly families and the priesthood was passed from Father
to Son.
But they had probably had come to the point
of accepting that children would never be a part of their marriage, perhaps
they doted on nieces and nephews, but for the most part they had probably
become fairly comfortable with their lives, and that was about to change.
If we keep reading, we discover that one
day while Zechariah was serving in
the temple he was visited by an Angel who had a message for him. 
Most of you know the
story, especially if you were here for Mother’s Day, but this is what he was
told Luke 1:13  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.
And that promise is what brought us to the
passage that was just read for us. 
And while most of us think of the birth of
Jesus as the beginning of the story, the beginning of the story really goes
back to the birth of John.
In
Some Ways, the Story was the Same
There are many parallels between the story
of John and Jesus and they can’t be ignored. As a matter of fact, when Gabriel
was telling Mary about the miracle that was going to happen in her life he
references what was happening in Elizabeth’s life.
So let’s jump ahead a little bit to a more
familiar Christmas reading. 
Luke
1:34-36
 Mary
asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”  The angel
replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High
will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called
the Son of God.  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.  
The first thing we discover is that Mary
and Elizabeth are related.  Now we don’t
know how, the NLT and NIV simply say they were relatives while the KJV calls
them cousins.  
There are some who would say this is a
mistake because Mary was descended from David’s line and Elizabeth from
Aaron.  But that’s just dumb.  If it was just a straight line that wouldn’t
be a family tree it would be a family stick. 
Maybe the ladies were related on their mother’s sides.
Angela and I are distantly related, don’t
look at me that way, we’re from a little island that has a fairly shallow
genetic pool to fish in.  But the
relationship is through Angela’s mother’s mother and my father’s mother, who
were third cousins or something silly like that. 
The word that was used originally by Luke
simply meant they were related, and when I know I’m related to someone, but I’m
not sure how . . . they’re my cousin. 
And while we don’t know how closely related
they were, it was close enough that Mary could travel to the town where her kinfolk
lived and spend three months living with Elizabeth and her husband. 
But it wasn’t just the relationship they
shared with each other that they had in common, they also shared a relationship
with God.   In both accounts the gospel
writer makes sure we understand that Mary and Elizabeth were considered to be
righteous and obedient to God’s will. 
When Luke begins the story by introducing
us to Elizabeth and Zechariah he writes, 
Luke 1:6  Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in
God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations.  At least one
commentator suggests that in the culture at that time for a woman to be barren,
that is unable to have children, was considered to be as much a spiritual
problem as it was a physical problem.  If
children were a blessing and a couple couldn’t have children it must be because
they didn’t deserve a blessing 
But that theory doesn’t really hold water
because all you have to do is look at some folks who have been able to
reproduce to see that there is no spiritual requirement there, and apparently
no intellectual requirement either.
But to make sure that people understood
that Luke the Doctor very clearly states that this couple was a righteous
couple who had pleased God.
Later in the story when Gabriel is telling
Mary that she has been chosen to carry the Messiah in her womb he tells her in Luke
1:30
 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have
found favour with God!
And
Mary and her cousin, or her whatever are the first two people in the New
Testament who we are told were filled with the Holy Spirit, we read in  Luke
1:35
 The angel replied,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will
overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the
Son of God.  And
it isn’t very much further in the story that we read,  Luke 1:39-41  A
few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town
 where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.
 At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Interesting the first people chosen to
start the Gospel story were women, and the first 2 people that the New
Testament records were filled with the Holy Spirit were women.  Hmmmmm.
Another thing that Mary and Elizabeth had
in common was that they were both childless. 
The children who were promised to them would be their first born.  And there would be no doubt for either one of
them that what happened would be far beyond their own power and ability and
would rest entirely with God.  And while
this part of the story was the same for both ladies it was also very different
and we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
And in both cases their sons would die way
too young, each of them in their early thirties.  And they would die violent deaths that were
caused by their righteousness.  And in
both cases, all they had to do was back away from what they said and their
lives would have been spared and in both cases they refused.  Not because they had a death wish but because
they 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 neither John nor
Jesus were willing to do nothing.
And while in many ways Elizabeth’s and
Mary’s stories were the same, In Other
Ways, the Story was Different
Probably the largest way the story was
different was what I reference earlier.  They
were both childless but they were childless for different reasons.  When Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and
Elizabeth will have a son, Zechariah raises one objection.  Luke 1:18  Zechariah
said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and
my wife is also well along in years.” We’ve gone down
this road before but it’s kind of fun, listen to how this was written in the King
James Version Luke 1:18  And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby
shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.  Here’s a hint guys,
when you are describing your wife or her age “well stricken in years” is never
appropriate.  
So 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
regards to getting pregnant at that stage in her life.
But the reason that Mary was childless was
because she was a virgin, plain and simple the language and the words that Mary
uses when she is told that she will be a mother are beyond debate.  Luke 1:34  Mary
asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
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 and Mary knew that she had never tried.  The end result was the same.  Neither Mary or Elizabeth were mothers at
this point.
And because that was
different what happened was different. 
As far as we know Zechariah went home, conveyed the message of the angel
to Elizabeth, they tried and again and made a baby. 
That conversation must
have been interesting.  “An angel told
you we are supposed to do what?” 
“Seriously Elizabeth, I’m not kidding.” 
But in Mary’s case it
was instantaneous, one minute she wasn’t pregnant and the next minute she was,
which technically is true in all cases but you know what I mean.  Remember when she said that she was a
virgin?  Here was Gabriel’s response: Luke 1:34-35  Mary
asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”  The angel replied,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will
overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the
Son of God.  Presto. . .Prego. 
So, you understand the
conception and birth of John was improbable,
the conception and birth of Jesus was impossible.
  Which is why Zechairiah and Mary would
both ask the same question “How can this be?” 
And the Angel Gabriel’s response answers the question for both of
them.  Luke 1:35-37  The
angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most
High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be
called the Son of God.  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.  For nothing is impossible with God.”
The second area that was the same but
different was how John and Jesus died. 
Both mothers would eventually lose their sons, we don’t know if
Elizabeth lived long enough to have her heart torn out with the death of her
son, but Mary certainly did. 
And while they both died at the hands of
weak leaders, they died for different reasons.
Carlos A. Rodriguez  summed it up when he
wrote,  “Dear
church, John the Baptist died for exposing the sins of others. Jesus died to
actually pay for the sins of others.
John was great, but
we should not follow his model. Our model is Christ. So let’s stop telling the
world how bad their sin is and lets start sharing how good the Father has
always been.”
And then thirdly,  The
Two Stories Make the One Story Complete
Sometimes it’s easy to look at the
Christmas Story and only see the story from the Christmas cards and Christmas
Carols but each of the Seldom Told Stories that we will look at are an integral
part of the story.  The is nothing
incidental about them.  There were all
kinds of things that happened when Jesus was born, but only some of them are
recorded.  So, we have to assume there
are lessons to be learned from them.  And
you know what happens when you assume, sometimes you’re right. 
So, what do we learn from the story of
John?  A few things actually.
It’s here we discover that “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 not
at any time but at just the right time.
Paul writes in the book of Romans that
Jesus came at just the right time, not any time but at just the right
time.  Which means that John had to be
there at just the right time as well for him to be a part of the story.
Elizabeth’s pregnancy would be an
encouragement for Mary and John’s ministry would be an encouragement for Jesus
and those things couldn’t have happened at just any time, they had to happen at
just the right time.
The story of
John preaching repentance isn’t just an aside. 
 John prepared the ground for
Jesus.  It was his preaching about repentance
that opened the people’s hearts to hear Jesus. 
He had tilled the soil for Jesus to sow.
The crowd that
John had gathered around him had primed the pump for Jesus, so to speak.  Hundreds of people had heard John speak of
the coming Messiah and there was an air of expectancy when John finally pointed
to Jesus as the promised Messiah. 
I wonder if
Elizabeth and Zechariah ever wondered how the son they had raised to be a
priest ended up wandering the wilderness as an itinerant preacher?  But you have to wonder how many people would
have listened to John if he had of been just been one of the many priests who
were living in Israel at that time.
There is very
little that we accomplish in life that isn’t accomplished with the help of
others.  If you see a turtle on a fence-post
you know that he had some help getting there.
And we
discover that God uses who God wants to use. 
He used an elderly lady who was most likely highly regarded in the
community as the wife and daughter of a priest.
And he used a
young lady who was engaged to a simple carpenter who because the scandal of her
town by becoming pregnant before the wedding.  
All that was required was their faith in and obedience to God.
And they must
have been very special for God to entrust John and Jesus into their care.
And while it
comes at the end of the story not the beginning we discover that doing the
right thing often has a price that must be paid. 
I get tired of
people who preach that as long as we are good and obedient we will be
blessed. 
There will be
eternal rewards, that’s true but it doesn’t always translate into earthly
blessings.
Both John and
Jesus did the right things and it cost them their lives. But we are still
charged with doing the right things.
And that’s the
way it is.