VIP – The Unprepared

Sermon Text – 12.09.2018 [Matthew 25:31-40 and Luke 1:18-20, 59-64]           Halford Luccock in his work “Unfinished Business” tells the story of a little town named Flagstaff in Maine. Over the years, in the 1940’s,  the residents decided to build a large hydroelectric dam in the area and as a consequence the town of Flagstaff was going to be flooded. It was all planned ahead of time, and the residents were given compensation and relocated before the waters came. What’s fascinating about the story is what happened to Flagstaff from the moment the flooding was announced – to the moment it flooded. All improvements and repairs in the whole town were stopped. What was the use of painting a house if it was going to be covered with water in six months? Why repair ANYTHING when the whole village was going to be wiped out? So, week by week, the whole town fell apart. Became more and more bedraggled, more gone to seed, more woebegone. By it the end, six months later, it was truly a depressing sight – an entire town destroyed before it was destroyed. The explanation went like this, “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” When we do not believe in a better tomorrow, we give up today.

    Today is the start of a brand new sermon series called ACCESS. For the next four weeks we will be looking at the picture and pieces of the Christmas story, while asking the question – who is welcome? Who has access to Jesus? Who has the ability to come before God, to kneel before the baby in the manger, or the king hanging from the cross? Who is worthy? Who does God want? We’re going to talk about people who are unprepared, people who are misunderstood, the sick, the naked, the poor, the rich, the wealthy, the brilliant, the idiots, the criminals – and we are going to search the scriptures for an invitation for each type of person. What I’m really excited to show you is that when God welcomes all these types of people – God is welcoming a part of us. When God reaches out to people out there who are unprepared, God is reaching us in the moments when we are unprepared and stressed and chaotic. When God reaches out to criminals and people who are misunderstood – he is reaching out to us in those moments when we are misunderstood. When God welcomes the broken of the world, it is a mirror reflection of the invitation given to the pieces of us that are broken. Who has access, who are the VIP’s in God’s story?

          And so we get into our story in the first chapter of Luke. And this story comes right before Jesus is born, this is the story about John the Baptist’s parents. So we open in verse 5, and there’s this priest named Zechariah and he’s married to this woman Elizabeth. Verse 7 tells us, [read it]. “Getting on in years” which is the politically correct way to say – they were old. They are getting to that age where babies really aren’t possible anymore, and they wanted kids. They’ve been praying about it, but they’re starting to assume that God’s answer is no. It keeps going, [read v.8-9]. Now, we need to back up just a little bit to explain what’s going on here. In the temple, in Jerusalem, up front, there was a room. It was called the Holy of Holies. This place was so sacred, only one man was ever allowed back there – a high priest chosen at random on a rotation. Only one man was allowed back there, and it was very exclusive and intimidating. There were some who believed if you went in on the wrong day or did it in the wrong way – you might even be struck dead by the presence of God.[1] The Old Testament belief in God left people terrified of the presence of God. In the Holy of Holies was where the presence of God dwelled, and there was a big curtain covering that room. So that’s how they understood God. He was in this room, that was his dwelling place and that curtain separated humanity from the raw and terrifying power of the Almighty. So that’s what’s going on here. Zechariah gets chosen to be the guy who goes into the Holy of Holies. And he goes in there, and I don’t know about you, but I’d be so careful if I was a priest hanging out in God’s special secret room. Then verse 11, [read v.11-12]. Now, if I’m hanging out in a place where everything has to go perfect, and the raw power of God is all around, and you’re like tip-toeing trying to be careful and then an angel shows up. I would freak. Right. Out. Dude! Trying to give me a heart-attack, what are you thinking!

    But the angel has some good news for him. Your prayers have been heard, your wife is going to get pregnant. You will have joy and gladness, and verse 16, [read v.16-17]. Basically, the angel is telling Zechariah – your kid is going to do some really awesome stuff. He’s gonna be John the Baptist! And what does he say in response? [read v.18]. Angel just said your kid is going to turn parent’s hearts to their children again, to turn disobedient to wisdom and make people ready for the God – and all Zechariah can say is… “but my wife is really old!” The angel said this is an answer to your prayer, but Zechariah can’t believe it – which tells us that he was praying for something but he never believed he would get it. He was not prepared for God to say yes. So, favorite part of the story, the angel comes up with the best punishment. [read v.19-20]. Do you notice how the angel doesn’t answer the question? Zechariah – how are you going to do this with an old guy like me, and the angel says, “I’m Gabriel, fool. I stand in the presence of God – don’t worry about the how.” So Zechariah is struck mute, can’t talk at all. And he comes stumbling out of the Holy of Holies, and he’s waving his arms and motioning, but he can’t speak a word.
     Fast forward about thirty verses, there’s a lot of stuff about Jesus’ birth and pregnant Mary visiting pregnant Elizabeth, but we get back to Zechariah in verse 59. [read v.59-64]. Elizabeth names the baby, which is rare, and she goes with a name outside the family, which is even more rare, and when Zechariah agrees, and only when he agrees with his wife – is he able to speak again. Now I’m just a simple pastor trying to figure out the bible and explain to you wonderful people, so I could be wrong, but I think we have a biblical president for husbands to shut up during pregnancy and agree with your wife if you ever want to speak again. Little side note, just sort of a fun fact. The angel told Zechariah, you’re going to call him John, and then Zechariah was struck mute. Elizabeth came up with John, all by herself. He couldn’t have told her what to name the baby.
          The good news this morning, and in fact the good news of the entire Christmas story is that God is coming. Back then, they had this separate room – the holy of holies and God was in there and we were out here – separate and apart from. But with the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus – there is no more holy of holies. God is not hanging out by that table over there – he’s everywhere. God is coming. God is with us. The beauty of the Christmas story is that it is the beginning of hope. It is the beginning of the end, of ripping down the veil and having nothing separate humanity and God ever again. God is coming, Jesus, the baby is coming – and so we throw wide the doors of God’s love. The baby in the manger hands out VIP tickets to all of humanity. God is coming, there is no separation. There is no holy of holies anymore, the world is God’s holy of holies. 

But what that really means, the reason that is good news – is that with God comes hope. God is coming, which means that hope is coming. Zechariah was unprepared because he had no hope – he didn’t believe that God would help him. He was shocked and confused when God answered his prayer. He was unprepared for the awesome that is the presence of God. So what we find in the story of Zechariah is that preparation is tied in with hope. Let me see if I can show you what I mean. Years ago, Parade magazine covered a story about Eugene Land. Maybe you’ve heard this story. Eugene Land was a self-made millionaire. One day he was asked to speak to class of 59 6th graders. 59 students in the room, in a little class in East Harlem. He looked at this class and he wondered – what can I do to inspire these students. The group of students was mostly black and Puerto Rican children, statistics said that in this area, East Harlem – most of them would drop out of school. He got up in front of these students, and he thought – how can I even get these kids to look at me. He threw away his notes, and decided to speak to them from his heart. And he said, “Stay in school, and I’ll help pay for the college tuition for every one of you.” He made a pledge to 59 students, that if they made it through high school, he would put them through college. Drop out rates in that area were incredibly high, but for the first time those kids had hope. One of students is quoted, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” Nearly 90% of that class graduated from high school. If you have hope in a better tomorrow, it changes how you live today. Think about that town in Flagstaff that was flooded – when you have no hope for tomorrow, you have no action for tomorrow. Are we unprepared to take on the problems of the world, because we don’t believe, we don’t hope for real victory? Have we given up today, because we lost hope in tomorrow?


          So what do we learn from the story of Zechariah? Two big things. First, hang on to your hope. God is coming. Hope is coming to the world. The baby in the manger is the beginning of the story of salvation. Literally, the foundation that leads to saving the entire world. Hope is coming. The baby in the manger welcomes the unprepared. Jesus welcomes those who have lost hope. I’m not prepared today, because I gave up on the idea of a better tomorrow. Have you ever felt this way? I am unprepared, I am hopeless, I have given up. Maybe you look at the economy in this area – with GM’s announcement and all that, and you’re thinking about the jobs leaving – and you’re worn out. Maybe you look at the politics of this country, the cut-throat blue versus red dialogue and you’re terrified and worried and giving up. Maybe you look at your family or your job and you just don’t believe that it will ever get better. You’re not prepared to handle things, because you’ve given up hope. It’s okay to feel this way. It’s real and it’s raw. It’s okay to sit in darkness, or silence like Zechariah, because that’s when the light of God has the most power. Hang on to your hope. The baby in the manger, the Lord of all Creation turns to the unprepared, turns to the hopeless of our world and offers them a VIP ticket. He takes us in his arms and whispers in our ear – you need the message of Jesus Christ now more than ever. Let me tear down the curtain, and step into your world. Zechariah was not ready for John to show up in his world, in his life. But that’s okay. John the Baptist? His whole ministry was about getting people ready, giving them hope for a better tomorrow. To realize that the struggles of today do not get the last word. To prepare the way for the lord. Hang on to your hope; God is coming.

      Second, when you have your hope, when you keep a tight grip on the promise that God is coming, the second step is to prepare with expectation. God welcomes the unprepared, those who don’t have hope, but he doesn’t leave them that way. God prepares the unprepared. He reaches into our lives and gets us ready for something greater than the misery of today. Prepare with expectation. Remember those kids in Harlem, they knew they could go to college if they could just finish high school. SO 90% of them rose to the challenge, in a world where 50% drop out. Our promise is even better. If we can make it through the next step, whatever obstacle is in front of you today,  if you can make it through this next step – God is coming. Prepare with expectation. Put your life together today with the expectation that God is going to show up and do great things in your world. It may not be the way you expect, it may not be when you expect – but God is coming, and he’s got a VIP ticket for you. Will you be ready for it?


   The baby in the manger sort of changed everything, didn’t it? It used to be so exclusive. One guy could go back into the Holy of Holies, on a certain day and only in a certain way, like the priest Zechariah – and be in the presence of God. But then Jesus shows up, available to everyone – ready or not. God welcomes the unprepared in each of us. In those moments when we are not ready, we’re stressed, or overwhelmed, so much still to do, or even when we’re hopeless and starting to give up. God sends us that little reminder. The message of John the Baptist – and his dad Zechariah – something better is coming. God is coming in a whole new way. And so I’ll leave you with this. How does your vision of tomorrow affect what you do today? Do you have hope in tomorrow? Are there people in your life who have no hope, and so they are not ready for today? What can you do to give them access to the hope that comes with the birth of Jesus? The Christmas story gives access, so that the unprepared can step into the presence of God, find their hope and never be the same again. Amen.

[1] Leviticus 16:2 – Aaron would be struck dead if he came in on the wrong day.

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