So you may have noticed that things look a little different around here today than they did last week. And that’s because Christmas is just over three weeks away, so we’ve been doing a little decorating. And we’ve put up a lot of the decorations we associate with Christmas. Our wreaths are hung, our tree is up and it’s covered with lights and ornaments.
But there’s at least one familiar decoration that we haven’t put up this year…and that’s a nativity scene. Now, the first nativity scene was created back in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi after he petitioned Pope Honorius III to allow him to create a special display in a cave in Greccio, Italy as a way of reminding people was Christmas is really about. And with the pope's blessing, Francis brought an ox and a donkey to that cave along with a manger filled with hay. And in the wee hours of that Christmas Day, the nativity scene was born.
But even though nativity scenes have been part of our Christmas celebrations for the last 800 years, we chose not to put one up at Melbourne Heights this year…and we made that decision for a reason. We have become so familiar with seeing these little scenes each year that we sometimes forget that the little figurines we put out around our creches aren’t just decorations. When we put out Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men it’s not the same as putting out an ornament our Aunt Sally gave us last year or the Elf on the Shelf that someone convinced us to buy for our kids a few years back.
No, the figurines in the nativity scene aren’t just decorations. They represent real people, who had real problems, who really needed Jesus. So this Christmas, we aren’t going to set up a nativity scene. Instead, we’re going to talk about the people behind the figurines in a series we’re calling “The Characters of Christmas.” And in this series, we’re going to see how the first Christmas changed each of their lives so we can understand how Christmas changes our lives too.
But before we dive in and start talking about any of the characters of Christmas today, there are a couple of other characters I want to introduce you to first. Their names are Neil and Laura Miller, and if those names don’t ring any bells for you, they’re both characters in one of my favorite Christmas movies: The Santa Clause.
In The Santa Clause, Tim Allen plays a character named Scott Calvin. Scott is a divorced father who accidentally becomes Santa Claus. So he gains weight, grows a bushy white beard, and has a constant craving for cookies. But Scott’s ex-wife, Laura, and her new husband, Neil, don’t buy it. They don’t believe that Scott has become Santa…they think he’s just acting like he’s Santa so Scott’s son will want to spend more time with him.
But that’s only part of the reason why they don’t believe Scott is Santa. They also don’t believe Scott is Santa because Neil and Laura don’t believe that Santa exists at all. And there is one particular scene in the movie when they explain why they stopped believing in Santa.
The scene begins with Neil asking Laura, “Don't you remember when you stopped believing in Santa Claus?”
Laura responds, “I was Charlie's age, around 8, I guess. I wrote Santa a letter every week that year. Well, maybe not every week, but…Boy, I really wanted a Mystery Date game. Do you remember those? No. Of course you don't. You know, no one does. I don't even think they make them anymore. Well, anyway, Christmas morning came and, oh, I got dozens of presents. I got everything…except Mystery Date.”
Neil responds, “I was three, and it was an Oscar Mayer wienie whistle. Christmas came. No wienie whistle. And that's when I stopped believing.”
So Neil and Laura stopped believing in Santa because they had a year where they didn’t get what they wanted and they ended up disappointed on Christmas. And we’ve all been there, right? We’ve all been disappointed at Christmas.
We’ve all been disappointed at Christmas.
I know I have. As a matter of fact, there’s one Christmas that I remember from when I was a kid that started like just about every other Christmas. Somewhere in the middle of October, the Toys R Us catalog came in the mail. And when I saw it, I grabbed that catalog and started going through it page by page. And as I went, I probably ended up circling half the stuff in it.
But there was one toy in that catalog that I knew I wanted more than anything else. So when I saw it, I did what every kid does when they find the one thing they want more than anything else for Christmas, I circled it a dozen times and drew enough stars beside it to fill up the night sky. So what was this toy? It was a Transformer.
You all remember Transformers, right? Those are the toys that start out as robots but can change into cars, or trucks, or airplanes. Well, this particular year, I saw a transformer that changed into a helicopter and I knew that I had to have it.
And, lo and behold, when Christmas morning rolled around, I crept downstairs to see what Santa had brought me. And there sitting underneath the Christmas tree was the exact Transformer I had put on my list.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I told you that we’ve all been disappointed at Christmas...but here I am telling you a story about getting exactly what I wanted. So where’s the disappointment? Where’s the little boy getting his hopes dashed?
Well, let me finish the story. Because we all know that the coolest part of playing with Transformers is being able to transform them – I mean, it’s in the name and everything. But when I opened the box and started playing with my new toy, I couldn’t figure out how to get it to transform into a helicopter.
After messing with it for a good half hour, I still hadn’t managed to get the thing to transform. So both of my brothers took a crack at it…and they couldn’t get it to transform. My mom and my dad broke out the instructions…and they couldn’t get it to transform. I even have an uncle who is a rocket scientist – who’s worked for NASA and everything – but he couldn’t get this Transformer to transform.
So all I wanted for Christmas was this one toy, but no one could figure out how to make it work. So, yes, I ended up disappointed at Christmas. And you’ve felt the same way too.
But for some reason, whenever this time of year rolls around, we still dream that this Christmas will be perfect. We imagine that if we just get that one gift on our list that this Christmas will be perfect. We imagine that if we can just manage to mark all the names off of our shopping list that this Christmas will be perfect. We imagine that if we can just plan the perfect party or at least get our entire family together that this Christmas will be perfect.
And, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure why we do it. I’m not sure why we still dream of having the perfect Christmas…because things never work out the way we dream they will and we end up disappointed.
Maybe we do it because deep down we believe that if someone just gives us that one gift we really want, it means that they love us – the real us, the us that isn’t embarrassed to admit that all we want for Christmas is a Mystery Date game or an Oscar Mayer wienie whistle. Or maybe we do it because we believe that if we can just give someone else exactly what they want this year that it will bring them enough joy to warm their hearts for another year. Or maybe we do it because we think that if we can just get our entire family together for a Christmas party that somehow a lifetime of small squabbles and petty disputes can give way to healthier relationships and a little more peace in our lives.
Maybe we hope for the perfect Christmas because we think the perfect Christmas will bring us what we really want in our lives things like joy, peace, and love.
But the problem is that even if everything goes according to plan and we have the perfect Christmas, we still won’t get what we really want. No present is going to make you feel really loved. No gift is going to bring unending joy. No party is going to bring peace on earth or even in our lives. When we hope that Christmas will make our lives better we’ll always end up disappointed.
When we hope that Christmas will make our lives better we’ll always end up disappointed.
So what can we do to make sure we don’t end up disappointed this Christmas? Well, that brings us to the first character in the Christmas story that I want us to talk about. So if you’ve got a Bible close by or an app on your phone go ahead and open it to Luke 1. And just to remind you, the book of Luke is essentially a biography of Jesus.
But the story we’re going to read this morning takes place before Jesus is born, it takes place before Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, it takes place before Mary even knows she’s pregnant. But in this passage, we find a character who has everything that most of us would wish for…but he’s still disappointed with his life. So let’s take a look at his story together in Luke chapter 1, we’ll start reading in verse 5. Luke writes:
5 During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. 6 They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations…8 One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. 9 Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.
Luke 1:5-6, 8-10 (Common English Bible)
So in this passage, we’re introduced to a man named Zechariah. And we learn that Zechariah is a priest who has been chosen by lottery to enter into the Temple to burn the incense offering. Now, what you may not realize is just how big a deal it was for Zechariah to be chosen to do this.
You see, during Zechariah's time, there were so many priests that each one may have only had one chance in his entire lifetime to enter the sanctuary and play a part in the daily sacrifice. Some of these priests would only be able to clean off the altar. Others would only carry in the burning coals that were used to burn the offering. But Zechariah was one of the lucky few who were actually responsible for burning the sacrifice. So when Zechariah enters the Temple to burn the incense, he has reached the pinnacle of his professional career.
So as Zechariah entered the sanctuary, carrying the incense to the altar, he should’ve been ecstatic. He should’ve been wrapped up in the moment. He should’ve felt closer to God than ever before.
But that’s not how Zechariah felt. Because even though Zechariah had reached the pinnacle of his professional career, even though he seemed to have everything any of us could want, Zechariah’s life was missing something. And what was he missing? Luke also tells us that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, “had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.”
So it seems like what Zechariah needed in his life was to become a parent…but there’s a little more to it than that. Because in Zechariah’s time children weren’t just children, they were considered to be a sign of God’s blessing on a family. Children were essential for carrying on a family name and passing down an inheritance. And as a priest, Zechariah would have been expected to have a child who would continue a lineage of guardians of the faith, and become a priest as well. But even more important than any of these, children were a sign that God was still with his people, that God had not given up on us or forgotten about us.
So here Zechariah is living what looks like the perfect life, a life where Zechariah seems to have everything he could want. But on the inside he’s empty because Zehcariah doesn’t have any children. And that makes him wonder if God has given up on him.
But Zechariah is about to learn that isn’t the case. As the story continues in Luke 1:11, we’re told:
11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Luke 1:11-17 (Common English Bible)
Can you imagine what Zechariah must have been feeling at that moment? He had entered that sanctuary at the pinnacle of his professional career, while his personal life was at rock bottom. And out of nowhere an angel appears and tells him that what he's been hoping and praying for is about to become a reality.
Yes, Zechariah was told that he would become a father, his family would be blessed by God. His name and lineage would continue. His priestly line would be intact and another generation would come to protect and preserve their faith. But more than all of these things, Zechariah was told that God had not given up on him – God was still with him.
And that’s really what this season is all about. Christmas shows us that God doesn’t give up on us.
Christmas shows us that God doesn’t give up on us.
Because on that first Christmas Day, God entered into our world. God became one of us, so that we know he is always with us.
And knowing that God is with you is better than opening up a Mystery Date game, or an Oscar Mayer wienie whistle, or even a Transformer that actually works. So this Christmas if you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t put your hope in Christmas…but your hope in Christ.