What do you say about Christmas that hasn’t already been said? Over this Christmas time I’m pretty sure you’re being bombarded with messages from countless different sources, some Christian, some not, about the real meaning of Christmas. Most of those, I’m sure, are good, valuable messages to be told (especially the ones about Jesus!) but if my experience is in any way typical, they do start to blend into a sort of Christmassy ‘white-noise’ that comes and goes with this time of year.
At the risk of becoming a part of that white-noise, I’m going to focus on a slightly different event that’s linked to the Christmas story, but one that you’re unlikely to find in a nativity play. Back before Jesus was born, before Mary was even visited by Gabriel, her cousin, Elizabeth, was told that she too would have a baby – the boy who would become John the Baptist. Fast forward a few months (Mary now knows she’s going to give birth to Jesus) and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, suddenly speaks these words (Luke 1:68-79):
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the path of peace.
There are two halves to this song. In the first, Zechariah talks about the actions that God will take to save us, and in the second, he talks about the role of his son, John, in those plans. That first half of the song is particularly interesting because of how it ties the events of Jesus life to come with the Old Testament, the teachings of the Jewish people, Zechariah himself being a Jew. The song starts with a title familiar to those who have read the OT, the ‘God of Israel’, and immediately places Jesus in the context of the ‘house of David’, Israel’s most famous king. The genealogy of Jesus that Luke gives a little later on also demonstrates Jesus’ connection with David. Zechariah then links the prophecies of the OT to Jesus, and goes on to say that Jesus’ coming is a sign of God remembering the covenant (a promise) that he made with the people of Israel, that he would deliver them from their enemies and enable them to serve him in holiness, without fear.
What’s the significance of all this for us celebrating Christmas in 2015? There are a couple of things I want to point out, and I’ll try and keep this short. The first is that this prophecy shows two aspects of God’s character – his knowledge and his faithfulness.
First, his knowledge. When looking at the OT in the way that Zechariah did, as a series of unfolding revelations that point ultimately to Jesus, you can see the awe-inspiring plan of God unfolding throughout history. The message of the OT is that Jesus’ birth and death were planned from the start, and that God was constantly pointing those who followed him in that direction. There are loads of examples of this in the OT, all written centuries, even millennia, before Jesus’ birth. You could find parallels in the story of Joseph, in Genesis, the man who suffered in a foreign land in order that he might reach a position whereby he could forgive his treacherous brothers and bless them with more than they deserved (which, in this case, took the form of food!). Or you could look, as Zechariah did, to the prophets, and see the foretelling of Jesus’ birth in the words of Isaiah, who predicted that the saviour of Israel would be pierced, and that his wounds would heal us. Jesus’ birth was not a spur of the moment decision by God. Throughout history God had been waiting for the perfect time to reveal his Son, and make a way for all of us, Jews and non-Jews, to ‘serve him without fear’.
The other point is God’s faithfulness. In Jesus, God’s promises to the Jewish nation were kept, though not in the way that they initially expected. Jesus did not come with a sword in hand to drive away the Romans, he came empty-handed, but with words that could turn people’s worlds upside down. Ultimately, Jesus came for the big-picture. A bigger picture than the liberation of a people from the Romans. Jesus came to eradicate the enemies of sin and death, those timeless monstrosities that haunt us all. And eradicate them he did, dying in our place to restore a perfect relationship with God, destroying, once and for all, death’s hold on us.
People often ask me why there is so much suffering in the world if God is a good God. Honestly, I don’t know why each and every case of suffering happens. I just don’t. No one does. But what I do know is that in the life and death of Jesus, God showed that he is faithful to us, and that he went to the extreme of being crucified so that we don’t have to have the fear of death hanging over us. In his suffering, we can see that he is not a God who is immune to our problems, but that he is literally Immanuel – God With Us. He has suffered alongside us. He knows what it is to feel pain, and he wants us to realise what he has done and wake up to the truth. That he has done it.
If all you remember this Christmas is that God is faithful and he knows what he’s doing, I think that’s enough. One of the most beautiful messages of the Christmas story is that God is with us. He’s with us even when he seems far away. He knows what we’re suffering. And he has broken the power of that suffering so that no matter what we go through, there is nothing that can separate us from his love.