First published at the Australian Church Record:
Are you qualified to talk about the message of God’s grace at Christmas time?
This Christmas, various officially qualified people will have messages for the season. Bishops and archbishops will get some airtime on the news channels and social media feeds. Preachers in churches nationwide will give sermons, reflections, messages, and kids’ spots. I thank God that in our nation, these great opportunities still exist every Christmas for people to hear about God’s grace in Jesus.
But what about you? Do you have any qualifications to speak about God’s grace this Christmas?
I want to share two stories with you in this brief post. The first story is about somebody who seemed qualified to speak about God’s grace but wasn’t. The second story is about somebody who didn’t seem qualified to speak about God’s grace but definitely was. Both stories come from the ‘Christmas’ section of Luke’s Gospel: i.e., the bit where Luke describes events surrounding the birth of Jesus.
The first story is about a man called Zechariah (Luke 1:5–23). Zechariah seemed to be highly qualified to speak about God’s grace. He was a priest in God’s temple in Jerusalem. That means he was a very important man at the centre of God’s plans for Israel and the world. More than that, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were exemplary people, righteous in God’s sight.
However, there’s a twist to the story. Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. Furthermore, they were so old that they had no hope of ever having kids.
Then an amazing turn of events happens. While Zechariah is serving at the temple, an angel of God appears to him. Understandably, he’s troubled and afraid. But the angel brings an incredible message to him: Elizabeth will have a son who will grow up to be a great prophet, preparing the way for God to fulfil his promises to Israel! This is much like the message God gave Abram way back in Genesis (Genesis 15:1–6).
But Zechariah’s response is different from Abram’s response. When Abram heard God’s promise of a child, the first thing he did was trust God’s word: “he believed the LORD” (Genesis 15:6). By contrast, when Zechariah hears this message from the angel, the first thing he does is decide he needs more confirmation before he’ll believe something so astounding (“How can I be sure of this?”) (Luke 1:18).
The result? God made him unable to speak. As the angel says, “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:20).
Zechariah didn’t believe God’s words. So he wasn’t qualified to speak.
The second story is about a young woman called Mary (Luke 1:26–56). At first glance, Mary doesn’t seem qualified to speak anything important to anyone who matters. She was just a young woman from a backwater town in the country, pledged to be married.
But then, an amazing turn of events happens to Mary. This turn of events is very similar to what happened to Zechariah. An angel appears to Mary. Like Zechariah, she’s troubled and afraid. But the angel brings her an incredible message: she’ll have a son who will grow up to be the Messiah, the Son of God, with an everlasting kingdom over all Israel, as God had promised to David!
Mary responds, “How will this be, … since I am a virgin?” (verse 34). On the face of it, this response might seem similar to Zechariah’s response. But it’s different in one crucial respect. Zechariah wanted more knowledge before he’d believe. Mary, by contrast, does believe the angel’s words—she’s just not sure how it could all work!
The result? The angel answers Mary’s question (verses 35–37). Then Mary visits Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth. And Elizabeth highlights the difference between Zechariah and Mary: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” (verse 45). Then, by contrast with Zechariah, Mary speaks about God’s grace. She sings—a song about God’s grace and mercy to the humble (verses 46–55). She sings about how God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud, fulfilling his promises to Abraham (similar to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–10).
Mary’s song is rightly famous. Anglicans will know it because it’s been set down in our prayer books for us all to echo at every service of evening prayer.
Back to Zechariah
OK, so what about poor old Zechariah? Thankfully, God opens his lips too (Luke 1:57–80). When Elizabeth gives birth to a son, Zechariah confirms (in writing) that his name should be John. This is significant. Zechariah’s neighbours and relatives expected the child to be named after his father—this would have honoured Zechariah and cemented his respectable role in society. Instead, Zechariah confirms the name the angel had initially said to call his son (see verse 13).
The result? “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God” (verse 64). Zechariah has been humbled and lifted up. He believes God’s words and promises. And so he, too, is qualified to speak. Like Mary, Zechariah sings a song about the grace and mercy of God, who fulfils his promises to Abraham (68–79). (Anglicans will know Zechariah’s song because it’s been set down in our prayer books for morning prayer.)
Back to you
So what qualified Mary (and ultimately Zechariah) to speak the message of God’s grace at Christmas time? It wasn’t having a respected position or a powerful platform. It was believing God’s words and trusting him to fulfil his promises. These bring down the proud and lift up the humble.
Have you believed God’s word about the salvation that’s in Jesus? Have you trusted in his grace and mercy to you through his Son Jesus? Have you been humbled and lifted up? Then like Mary, you have a story of grace and mercy to share at Christmas time. And like Mary, you’re eminently qualified to speak this story to your friends, workmates, family, neighbours, and anyone you meet.
For more on speaking about Jesus, see my book Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship Between Every Christian and Evangelism (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2015).