. . . because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Everybody, it seems, is looking for a miracle at Christmas. There is something about this time of year that puts in the heart a yearning for something new. Just google the word “Christmas miracle” and you will find lots of results. Here are just a few: a faith-based movie, a Thomas Kinkade collection, and Reader’s Digest article: “7 True Christmas Miracles That Will Restore Your Hope for the Holidays.”
We are all in search of a little magic around the holidays. This is, perhaps, why we fill the season with warm and fuzzy memories and indulge in sentimental movies and music. We do this, I believe, to help mask some of the misery, a way of escaping the brokenness.
However, we know that whatever “miracle” we are seeking, eventually the post-Christmas letdown kicks in and with it comes the return of whatever dark cloud usually hangs over our head—an unfulfilled dream, financial worries, secret health anxieties. Even those of us who know the real hope of Christmas and the real miracle of God coming to earth, in the flesh, as a baby can be caught up in a kind of rootless sentimentality that papers over the anguish of our world.
The theologian Fleming Rutledge reminds us that the hope of Christmas is not a trite expression, but grounded in the reality of a fallen world: “The great theme of Advent is hope, but it is not tolerable to speak of hope unless we are willing to look squarely at the overwhelming presence of evil in our world.”
This is why, when we open Luke’s gospel and read his narrative of how the first Christmas began, he first gives us a deep window into the heartache and longing of a suffering people. The angels’ joy and the shepherds’ wonderment come later.
At the time of the decree from the emperor Augustus, it had been four hundred years since God had spoken to His people Israel. Four centuries of apparent silence. The book of Malachi ends with a faint promise of future hope:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal. 4:5–6)
That was the last word from God. No prophets were sent to bring messages of judgment or prosperity. No angels. No kings. No deliverers. Israel had been shaken by revolution and war in these years. Most of God’s people were scattered among the conquering nations. Some had come back to the land with Zerubbabel and Nehemiah. The Syrians came and savaged the land and the people. Then a revolution by their own Maccabees brought temporary hope—only to be crushed by Pompey the Great, the Roman who brought Israel under bondage once again. Every day as they walked to the temple, built of course by Herod, the ruthless and illegitimate king of Israel, they saw the Roman flag waving in the wind, high above their land.
“The faint hope of Malachi would be fulfilled.”
Yet in the midst of the darkness, when it seemed all was lost and nobody could be trusted, God was silent . . . but not sleeping. The Psalms remind us that the God of Jacob doesn’t slumber or sleep (121:2–4).
It might be a little trite to say that “darkness comes before dawn,” but in this beleaguered land, amidst a downtrodden people, a new day was dawning. The faint hope of Malachi would be fulfilled.
Luke begins his story with a dateline. Imagine a newspaper heading that says in all caps: WASHINGTON, DC, DECEMBER 15. But there is more here than simply Luke setting the historical record. Notice the contrast: in the days of Herod, King of Israel, there was a priest named Zechariah.
Herod was the powerful monarch on the throne in Israel, put there by Rome. Zechariah was one of three hundred priests in the family of Abijah (Luke 1:5; 1 Chron. 24:10), one of twenty-four divisions of priests in Israel. A powerful king. An ordinary priest and his wife, Elizabeth.
“God is not intimidated by the things that threaten you and is working to bring good—to achieve glory—from your pain.”
The news of Israel’s deliverer, who would change the world forever, would not come from the palace, but in a Jewish house of worship, to an aging priest.
Zechariah was a common name in those days. There are even multiple Zechariahs in the Bible. But it is not a coincidence that the first words from God to His people in four hundred years would come to someone whose name means “the Lord has remembered.”
It didn’t seem to the Jewish people living under Roman rule that the Lord had remembered. But it recalls an earlier time when the oppressed people of God languished for four hundred silent years. The God who remembered them in Egypt would now rescue them from their sins. It’s not simply that God didn’t forget. It’s that in God’s remembering, He acts.
And God was about to act not only on a national level on behalf of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s people Israel; He would intervene in a personal way. Their pain was not just grounded in the brokenness around them, but centered on their private anguish. Elizabeth, like a long line of godly women in the story of God, was unable to bear children.
To suffer the indignity of infertility is cruel in any age, but was especially difficult in the first century, when the ability to conceive was seen as a direct sign of God’s blessing. At this point in their lives, they’d resigned themselves to their fate. Never would they hear the soft whisper of a child’s first words. Never would they walk a son or daughter to the temple. Never would they have the sweet privilege of handing down the story of Israel to a generation of their own.
There is a theme in Scripture of God visiting the barren. Who can forget the despair of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel in the line of Abraham, each with their own authentic pleas to God for children? Or the guttural cries of Hannah in the temple, kneeling before God and begging Him to open her womb, or the bitter spirit of Michal, David’s first wife?
Luke carefully juxtaposes the righteousness of Zechariah and Elizabeth with their infertility as a way of telling us that the inability to bear children was not a result of personal sin. Then, as now, there is a temptation to use prosperity as a measuring stick of devotion, as if God is a cosmic scorekeeper, dispensing favors based on faith. In every age, this is a temptation.
When Job was suffering the loss of his children, the loss of his prosperity, and the loss of his health, tormented in that thin space between life and death, his so-called friends whispered in his ear that perhaps his anguish was the result of a lack of faith. “Remember,” they said, “who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7–8). This kind of stuff, they mused, like death and bankruptcy and poor health, only seems to happen to bad people.
But like Job’s friends, anyone today who ties faith directly to physical flourishing is wrong. In a broken world, very bad things often happen to very good people. Job was faithful. Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful. And yet God allowed them to suffer for their good and His glory. Here was a devout couple who, like many children of Abraham under the old covenant, believed God’s promise and their faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6; James 2:23).
Today as you read this, perhaps all you hear is the silence of God. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, you are faithful and you earnestly believe God. But all you hear in your suffering is His silence. No cure for your illness. No positive pregnancy test. No new job offers.
From this story you can be encouraged that the same God who remembered His people in Egypt and remembered His people in Judea and remembered His people on the cross has remembered you. God is not intimidated by the things that threaten you and is working to bring good—to achieve glory—from your pain.
by Daniel Darling
Learn Something New This Christmas We hate to admit it, but after years, sometimes even decades, of reading the same Luke 2 story of Christmas,...
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