Great Expectations at Christmas

Bryan CribbBryan Cribb, Devotions, Exegesis, Theology

For most in our churches, the holidays rarely fulfill expectations.

Children lay awake visualizing the toy in the big box, only to lay it aside a day later. Parents eagerly anticipate “time off,” only to suffer the fatigue and frustration of crammed calendars. Relatives long for happy reunions, only to experience increased familial tensions and turbulence.

Perhaps the reason for the disappointment and despair is that for many our people, Christmas wishes have become carnal cravings. Settling for what is paltry and passing, so many often fail to appreciate the extraordinary and eternal gift of God in the Incarnation.

One could not accuse Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, of this type of shortsightedness and secularity. Even as Zechariah experienced perhaps the greatest earthly blessing—the birth of a child—he was still able to see beyond that event.

The climax of God’s redemptive plan—His Messiah—was imminent and that fact eclipsed all his earthly concerns. Our churches today would do well to adopt that same outlook.

Zechariah’s story as told in the Gospel of Luke is well-known. After doubting Gabriel’s promise to him regarding his future son, Zechariah had remained mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy. But on the eighth day after the birth, Zechariah opened his mouth in praise to God (Luke 1:64). Filled with the Holy Spirit, he prophesied of the providential and impending redemption of the Lord to be accomplished through His Messiah.

This prophecy is recorded in Luke 1:67-79. Commonly known as the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song reveals many truths about God’s redemption through the coming Messiah.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s providential hand in history.

First, Zechariah possessed a clear knowledge of God’s work in history as revealed in Scripture. Having been deaf and dumb for nine months or more, Zechariah had probably meditated many days on the Old Testament.

His prophecy revealed that he knew exactly what God was about to do through John the Baptist. Zechariah’s son was about to fulfill Malachi 3:1 and “prepare the way of the Lord.” The great day of our Lord’s appearing was imminent—all in God’s perfect timing.

Christmas should remind Christians that God has and will continue to act providentially in human history to bring glory to Himself through the salvation of sinners.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s purpose in sending the Messiah.

Earlier in Zechariah’ song, he had spoken of deliverance from enemies (vv. 71, 74), salvation from those who hate Israel (v. 74), the saving “visitation” of God (v. 68), and His redemption of His people (v. 68), all accomplished by the “horn of salvation”—His Messiah—emerging from the house of David (v. 69). These ideas have deep roots in the Old Testament and draw on terms speaking of God’s physical redemption of Israel, as found, for instance, in the exodus accounts.

But verse 77 gives a more precise picture of what that “salvation” entailed—the forgiveness of sins. In other words, God’s purpose for the Messiah was clearly spiritual—meeting the greatest need of His people and defeating their greatest enemy.

Sin had been man’s mortal adversary since the Garden, resulting not only in death but also in Adam and Eve being forcibly removed from God’s presence. But the Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15) who would crush sin, death, and Satan was about to be born.

Of course, that God’s purposes are spiritual should not surprise us. God’s saving acts in history have always had a spiritual intention. For example, He physically delivered Israel and later placed them securely in the Promised Land so that they might be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3).

Christians also can sometimes misinterpret the purposes of God in sending His Messiah. It is not just an occasion for giving gifts, spending time with family, or relaxing away from work. Christmas is a time to celebrate and “proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s basis for His saving work.

In one simple expression, Zechariah reveals the glorious basis for our salvation—the “merciful compassion” of God (v. 78).

This phrase is an obvious reference to perhaps the most beautiful word in the Old Testament (hesed). As Daniel Block notes in his commentary on Judges and Ruth, this Old Testament term “wraps up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty.” In other words, hesed is who God is; it’s His very nature.

Christmas is a time to focus on the goodness and great grace of God, as displayed most powerfully in the gift of His Son.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah to our great need for the Messiah.

The need for the Messiah is asserted clearly in verse 79. People are in darkness and the shadow of death. Drawing on Old Testament images, Zechariah’s prophecy portrays people who have yet to experience justice and forgiveness. Instead, they only know blindness and bondage (Isaiah 42:7), misery (Psalm 107:10), and death.

They need guidance. They need light. They need knowledge of salvation (v. 78). In his Luke commentary, Darrell Bock points out that even Zechariah, who is earlier labeled as “righteous” (1:6), includes himself among those who require God’s gracious intervention (v. 79). Of course, the Light they need is the Messiah Himself (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7; 49:6).

How quickly Christians forget that we were once in utter darkness—dead in our sin, enslaved to Satan, doomed by our nature, and condemned justly to death (Ephesians 2:1-3). May we this Christmas proclaim with boldness the same message of Zechariah, that others in darkness may see a great Light.