I grew up going to church. I can remember as a young boy sharing the hymnal with my mom and dad and trying my best to follow along. I also remember trying not to giggle uncontrollably during sermons – everything always seemed funnier in church, especially when we weren’t supposed to be laughing. I went to a lot of church services that seemed “normal.” Do you know what I mean by that? It didn’t seem like anything significant happened, and definitely nothing supernatural. For those of us who have been going to church for a long time, it can be easy to go through the motions – singing the songs, praying the prayers, but all the while doubting that God is really going to show up.
The Christmas story begins with a priest who’s going through the motions. He’s doing his job, but he doubts that God will really move on his behalf. He’s easy to sympathize with, though. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were advanced in years. They’d been praying for a baby for years, but God hadn’t answered their prayer. However, when Zechariah was performing his priestly duty, an angel appeared and declared that his “prayer has been heard” (Luke 1:13). He must have been talking about his prayer to have a child, but Zechariah didn’t believe him (Luke 1:20). Pause and take that in, Zechariah didn’t believe the message the angel delivered!
For Zechariah, somewhere along the way, religious duty replaced relationship with the divine. He lost the plot and the recognition that everything he was doing was designed to help people live with God. He was saying his prayers, but he doubted that God would move; so much so that he didn’t believe an angel. A few decades later, Paul would write to Timothy warning him that there would be people in the church, “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5) Paul’s advice to his young protégé was to avoid people who talk about the power of God, but don’t really believe God can show up and do what he has said.
Zechariah’s story challenges us to look at our own lives and ask whether we are just going through the motions of religion or whether we expect to encounter the living God. At Christmas we are reminded once again that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He is with us today, and if he’s with us, we should expect to meet with him. Let’s enter this Advent season with great expectations – expectations of encounter, transformation, healing, and life.
Pastor Ryan Paulson