I preached yesterday at all three of our main services at St James - on the first Sunday of Advent. Several people asked for copies of my sermon - so here is my script for those who would like to be reminded of something from it. The audio edition will very soon be available here:



-       comment on difficulty in finding something to wear this morning, getting following photos of Sally Hitchener in The Times yesterday …

-        PRAY……


Today: the first Sunday in Advent.  We’ve just lit the candle of HOPE

And so Christmas is beginning…the season when so many superficial wants get confused with the deeper longings of the human heart.

When giving the latest techno-toy gets confused with giving love.

When the frenzied scramble for that perfect gift at the lowest possible price takes over our thinking and leaves very little room for the theme of Advent, for preparing for the coming King.

But this season of Advent calls us—in the midst of so much distraction—to pay attention to the deeper desires of our hearts.

So this morning I want to look at three questions which I hope will help us over the weeks of Advent. Each question comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel and I want to look at each in turn, and then think about how it applies to us in our own situations.

-       About how each question will help us to go deeper into God in order to satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts, in a way that the consumerist frenzy of our modern Christmas never can.

-       About HOPE – as we wait for the coming of the Messiah, King Jesus  who is the hope of the world.

So -  3 Questions: and I am indebted to Tim Clayton’s new little book on the Four Questions of Advent for the idea for this sermon today.

- The question of disappointment, asked by Zechariah

- The question of inadequacy, asked by Elizabeth

- The question of surrender, asked by Mary


Luke begins his story of God’s presence coming to live among us with this surprising account of Zechariah.

A man who was living a life of great disappointment: in his work and in his marriage.

He was a priest, one of the leaders of the people, and they had been expecting the Messiah to come. There was great disappointment and frustration that not only was there no messiah, there was the Roman invasion and so they were occupied by foreign forces. He had had no good news at work to be able to share, no hope to offer to others.

Z also had great disappointment in his marriage.  Most men want to son to carry on their family name, to be proud of and bring up. And in those days, to be a childless couple was to be a laughing stock, second class citizens almost. Z & E had had no child, in spite of their prayers, and Z was a man disappointed in his marriage.

How many of us know deep disappointments in life – in our careers, in our family life, in our homes, in almost every area of our lives?

Here is a husband who had been crying out to God in desperation,

a wounded, hopeless man;

one whose work has not been all that he had hoped,

one whose marriage had not been all that he had  hoped.

And I suspect for most of us here, there are things in Z’s disappointments  that we relate to in our own lives, whether we are male or female, married or single.

We have known deep disappointments in our lives -

- Relationships which cause hurt and anguish and intense sadness

- Work situations and frustrations causing stress and  hurt and disappointments

- Lack of money and security

- poor health or persistent pain

- the general pursuit of happiness.


We are Broken and Bruised and Battered people.


Maybe we feel we have cried out to the Lord and he hasn’t heard our anguish.

Just like Zechariah, who had tried to live a good life according to God’s laws (v 7) maybe we feel it’s too late  - they were getting old, maybe they were tempted to give up.

Someone once said that the words “TOO LATE” are the saddest words ever. And maybe that’s how you feel too.  It’s too late; there have been too many disappointments. Maybe that’s going round in your head right now.

But let’s look at bit more at this story of Zechariah. For something is about to change in his life. Suddenly, after years and years of hopelessness both at work and in his personal life, something happens.

Something happens at work: he is chosen, he won the privilege, of being promoted for this one- off event of offering the evening incense, something a priest typically only did once in his lifetime, as once you had done it you were ineligible to be entered into the draw until all the priests in your division (and there were a great many) had done it, and your division was only eligible twice a year for a week at a time in any case.

So Zechariah goes into the special area in the Temple, offers the incense and as he does so, he has this vision of an angel – who turns out of course as we know with hindsight, to be an archangel. The archangel wants to calm Z – don’t be afraid – and give him some good news.

‘Your prayers have been heard.”  And there is the amazing news of a son for Z and his wife Elizabeth – a son who is to be called John: which means “GOD HAS GIVEN GRACE.”

But I suspect Z didn’t really hear it all – didn’t take it all in. Even though something is going to change in his personal life, he is so stunned, so overwhelmed, that he misses God’s promises.  Maybe he allows his disappointments and broken hopes to get in the way; he is so used to feeling disappointed, let down by God and by everything else in his life, that he doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

And so he asks the wrong question, a question coming out of disappointment. HOW CAN I KNOW? He is disappointed and hurt, and he can’t get beyond that. Even when confronted with this messenger from God, with this astonishing and very surprising vision, it’s almost as if he voices his frustrations. How can I KNOW? It can’t be true! It’s just not possible.

Z has spoken from his heart, from a place of disappointment and hurt. But he has overreached himself. And so God puts him in a place of reflection for a while – by making him dumb, so that he would not be able to do his work, not be able to take services or talk to others. Maybe the silence, the reflection, is so that there can be time for renewal and refreshment.

Because the answer to Z’s disappointments is coming:

HOPE is coming:

first in the son he is to have,

who will then point the way to the true HOPE:

Jesus, the Messiah and the hope of the nations. Jesus, the hope of heaven, coming to lift us from our hurts and disappointments.


How can I KNOW?  Is this a question we also would have asked, or do ask in our own circumstances, when we sense the movement of God in our lives – or long to do so? That deep longing to KNOW that God is real, that he has plans for us, that the pain of disappointment and hurt will one day be gone?

Because don’t you find that there is always the temptation to try to work things out for ourselves,

to ask WHY so loudly and with such heartache,

that even if the answer should come, we’d not be able to  pick it up?

Like Z, to ask the wrong question?

And so our first questioner, Zechariah, perhaps speaks to us in our disappointment, and suggests to us that we should take a period of reflection, maybe during this first week of Advent coming up;

- take some time in quiet before the Lord, and ask Him to speak  to us, to speak into our lost hope and our pain;

- and maybe to expect him to again, in a way we’ve not known  certainly for a long time, perhaps not ever.

We need to whisper, like Samuel: Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

Is that something you need to whisper out of your hurt and disappointment over this next week? And will you stay quiet long enough to hear what the Lord has to say? Because with God, it’s never too late; in the presence of God, maybe our hurts and fears and disappointments look very different. Can you offer them to him, knowing that he will say “Don’t be afraid” and that he will have the best solution: the hope we can have in Jesus.


Let’s move on to the second question, the question of inadequacy.

Moving on just over 6 months, to verse 39. Z’s wife Elizabeth is now 6 months pregnant, and has an unexpected visitor – her young cousin, Mary, who is also pregnant  - with the Messiah, of course, but we will look at Mary and her question in a little more detail in a moment.

Mary has struggled on a long arduous journey, probably whilst trying to cope with morning sickness and all those first strange early week of pregnancy. As she arrives at long last in Elizabeth’s house, and steps at last over the doorstep, tired and weary and yet strangely exhilarated with all that is happening, something wonderful happens.  Elizabeth’s baby, the promised John whose name means GOD HAS GIVEN GRACE, ‘leaps in the womb’ – v 41.

Now most babies are fairly active in the womb – by about 6 months into the pregnancy they are kicking and turning, getting hiccups and making their presence felt.  So in some respects what Elizabeth feels is normal.  AND YET!

In the original text, the word used for ‘leaped” is used only in this one place in the New Testament. It is the word used to describe great energy and joy, and was used in the book of Malachi to describe the energy and joy which will follow the coming of the Messiah.

In Malachi 4: 2 the prophecy reads: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”

This was a special moment, and Elizabeth recognized it as such. Verse 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 

Elizabeth gives a loud cry of joy – but then comes her question, and its heartfelt profundity seems to be lost in translation in the NIV which we have in front of us.

Zechariah’s question was sceptical, a sort of ‘prove it to me’ kind of question.  Elizabeth’s cry of joy is followed by a pause and then a question of self doubt, which literally says in the original, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes EVEN TO ME?”

She is basically saying, WHY ME? WHO AM I that this should happen to me? I’m not the priest like my husband, I’m no-one special, I’m just the stay at home housewife up in the hills. I don’t deserve this.

I’m no-one special.

And itsn’t that the lie that the enemy feeds into each one of us at times?

That moment of self doubt,

that lack of self worth,

that low self-esteem.

I’m no-one special.

Someone else is smarter

Someone else has not made all those wrong decisions

Someone else is more vivacious, more patient,

more clever

or younger or better looking  – or, or, or

Poor self esteem, often through comparing ourselves with others.

Here is Elizabeth, wondering why on earth God would choose her. And so again, the question comes off the page and engages each one of us, whatever our situation, whatever our role in life, however slight or mundane it seems.  We too often struggle with this very question.

Surely God would never want me. Surely God would never choose me.  My ministry is no good, I never help people, I’m wasting my time.

All those self doubts, all those moments of low self esteem, all those moments of wondering whether I have anything at all to offer. Why should God choose me?

And yet -  He does. He chooses each one of us for the role He has determined before our birth for each one of us.  But, even more than that, there is his love for each one of us.

Our eldest granddaughter had her fourth birthday last week.  She celebrated with a Hallo Kitty birthday party. (For those who don’t’ know, Hallo Kitty is a slightly nauseating, very pinkly coloured, cartoon-like character who for some reason appeals enormously to little girls).  At the party, there were hallo kitty masks to colour in and wear, hallo kitty face painting, lots of pink things – and hallo kitty transfers to be put on to the back of one’s hand.

And so I told Talitha, my granddaughter, when she was proudly showing me her hallo kitty transfer on her hands and arms, that God loves her so much he has a transfer with her name on it on his hand. Only that transfer wont wash off, like the hallo kitty ones.  The transfer with her name on it which is on God’s hand is permanent, and it’s because he loves her so much and wants to wear her name on his hand forever.

You know that’s true for you too, don’t you! God has your name engraved on his hand because he loves you so much  - it says so in Isaiah 49:

V 14 But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, 
the Lord has forgotten me.’

in other words, who am I?

self doubt, thinking the Lord doesn’t care.

But what does God say to us?

v15  ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
 and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
 Though she may forget,

I will not forget you!  See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

That’s what God does to prove his love for you, his unending, faithful, trustworthy love for you.  You are so special, so loved by God, that in the word of the song,

There is nothing you can do to make him love you more

There is nothing you can do to make him love you less.

God loves you.

That makes you special.

No matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter what you look like or feel like.

God loves you and you are special. And he proves his love to you in this : he sent Jesus. The promised messiah, the hope of the world.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates (or proves) his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. THAT’S HOW MUCH GOD LOVES YOU.

And so the challenge for the second week of Advent is for us to think more deeply about


and for that thinking to take us deeper into knowing the truth of how much God loves us.

We don’t have to feel inadequate or compare ourselves to others.  We have instead to live in this truth: how very very much God loves you.

HE LOVES YOU. You are a child of God.



And so we move on to the third question, one which I am going to look at in very much less detail although in fact it is probably the most important one.  And that’s Mary’s question, when she is told that she is going to be the mother of the Messiah, the hope of the world.  We’ll look at it more briefly for two reasons – one is that you want to get home for lunch, the other is because I preached at St James about Mary’s surrender to God not so very long ago, and you may remember or you may want to listen to it online.

Go back to Luke 1: 26.  It’s a story we all know so very well. A story of a young girl who is engaged to be married, and of how she is met by an angel, how the angel tells her that she will find herself pregnant and how the baby will be a miracle from God.

Maybe you too have had an experience which has been out of your normal comfort zone, when you have been asked to do something which has been scary but also a great privilege.  Of course, it’s a very small and totally inadequate illustration of what Mary the mother of Jesus was faced with.

Picture from Spoleto: God tapping Mary on the shoulder:

And what was Mary’s response to this invitation?

V 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

A better translation might be, Mary was confused and worried and tried to think what the angel could mean.

So she is thinking deeply about this, trying to work it out, as the angel goes on to tell her what is going to happen. Don’t be frightened, the angel says, God has it all worked out.

And then, in v 34, Mary replies,  ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’   -   How can I have a baby?  I’m a virgin!

Unlike Zechariah, Mary’s curiosity as to how God would act was genuine.   Most importantly, her immediate reaction was one of total obedience.  What would happen to her would cause her to be misunderstood and probably chastised and ridiculed by her family and her friends, as it would look as if she had had sex outside marriage, an offence punishable by death.  This could jeopardise her marriage, or any future marriage possibilities, and make her an outcast. But she didn’t hesitate to be used by God in whatever way he asked of her: -

V 38  It comes across as an immediate decision; she may have been bewildered, she may have been anxious; but she was content to leave it to God and be open to his will.  “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said, “and I am willing to accept whatever he wants.  May everything you have said come true.” (NLT)

OK, God, whatever you want, whatever you say.  Full and glad surrender, at any cost.

Isn’t this the most powerful example of complete trust in God and obedience to his plans?

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

And so here is the challenge for each one of us for the third week of Advent. To spend time bringing our impossible situations to God, and asking him to work it all out; to offer him ourselves, knowing that he can, will, and does do all things well. (as it says in Mark 7:37)

From the moment she accepted God’s plans and will for her life, Mary was totally dependent on him.  She opened herself to God in every way; and gave him complete control.  The only thing she could control was her faithfulness to God, her dependency on him.

But God – don’t you just love that phrase?  But God… we do this and we do that, and we mess up, and whatever.  But God.. God did what only he could do and he poured out his spirit over Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, “ the angel had promised. (v. 35).  And Mary knew that God had not forgotten his promise (v54 NLT).  She was filled with Spirit, overshadowed by the power of God.

Mary embraced God’s will so completely, that she doesn’t question him, his ways or his plans.  And this I think is the real challenge of this story.

Not only was Mary in a relationship with God to the extent that he cherished her and chose her;

not only was she filled with power from on high so that his plans and promises permeated through her to the whole of history;

but she was totally surrendered to what he wanted.

Full and glad surrender at any cost.

IS that true of you and of me? Are we totally surrendered to God? And if that is the only question you remember from this sermon, if that is the only question you take with you into Advent and then Christmas this year, it is the most important and fundamental question of all.

Will you allow God to have all of you,

your disappointments and hurts,

your self doubts and fears,

your lack of love and your questions and fears?

Will you hand it all over to him and give him yourself?

Because only when we do that, as Mary did, can God pour his Spirit over us and fill us with Himself.

Mary, who was probably young and poor, who came from insignificant Nazareth and had nothing to offer except herself and her full and glad surrender at any cost, surrendered herself utterly and completely to God’s call on her life. She trusted him and obeyed him. And because of her faith and her trust and obedience, God could use her and through her bless the whole of human kind. . Full and glad surrender at any cost. She wanted “God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”


What is your question as you wait for Christmas? Whatever your situation, whatever your disappointments or your inadequacies, there is hope.

By surrendering ourselves to God, the One who loves us best,

we can know new hope, new love.

We can know His deep deep love for us as we look at his king size bed, and

And know that He IS the answer to each and every one of our questions.


Will you stand ….  Pray maybe with hands open to showing offering of self to the Lord …


There is a hope that burns within my heart

That gives me strength for every passing day

A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part

Yet drives all doubt away

I stand in Christ with sins forgiven

And Christ in me the hope of heaven

My highest calling and my deepest joy

To make his will my home.


 - Stuart Townend