The Reason for the Melody of Christmas
Zechariah, Advent, Luke 1
What is it that gets you to start singing? Is it hearing a song and you start to sing along? Does a song get “stuck into your head” from a commercial on television or from a movie? Perhaps certain events trigger a song (like singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when you go to a baseball game”). Songs sometimes pop into our heads for many different reasons.
This morning we are going to look at a song that was prompted by circumstances and a promise. It is the story behind the song of Zechariah. We learn Zechariah’s story in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. He was an aging priest in Israel who was given the honor of a lifetime: to offer incense in the temple. While he was doing his job the Angel of the Lord appeared to him. The angel told him that he and his wife (who had been unable to have children and now presumably was postmenopausal). Not only were they going to have a child, said the angel, their child would be the forerunner to the long-awaited Messiah.
Zechariah had a little trouble believing such a thing could happen to a guy like him (his problem was that he was looking at the “guy like Him” and not the “God who finds no task too hard”). Because of his doubt, he was unable to speak during the entire miraculous pregnancy. For nine months he listened and reflected and most likely studied. He heard the words of Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) when she came to visit. He must have marveled at her story of meeting an angel. He treasured and pondered all this in his heart.
When his son was born family and friends assumed that he would be named Zechariah after his dad, Zechariah wrote “His Name is John”. Since he acted in obedience and faith, he was given his voice back. Immediately Zechariah we are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit” and began praising God (64).
The word “filled” means to be taken control of by the Holy Spirit. So what came out of Zechariahs mouth is not just a man’s conclusions . . .it is a message from God Himself! Zechariah is not only excited about the birth of his son; he sees the bigger picture: his son’s role as the one who would be the forerunner of the Messiah.
The song is filled with Old Testament phrases (brought to Zechariah’s memory by the Holy Spirit). It is an explosion of praise and in the Greek verses 68-75 is all one sentence!
68 “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
69 He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
70 just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.
71 Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
72 He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
73 the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
74 We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live.
You may not see it at first, but Zechariah gives us five reasons to sing at Christmas
God Remembered His Promises
In verse 72 we are told that the coming of Jesus shows us that God has shown mercy to Zechariah’s ancestors “by remembering his sacred covenant, the covenant he swore with an oath to Abraham”. In other words, the coming of John and the coming of Jesus shows that God keeps His Word.
Back in Genesis 12 God told Abraham,
“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:1-3)
God did make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation. Abraham was/is famous. When Christ came into the world, all the families on the earth were indeed blessed. When Jesus came into the world God completely fulfilled His promise to Abraham a few thousand years before.
This is not the only promise he kept however. In 2 Samuel 7:16 God said to David,
16 Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.’ ”
God said there would always be a descendant of David to reign on the throne of God’s Kingdom. This promise may have seemed like it was in jeopardy in Israel since the nation was occupied by the Romans. However, Jesus is a descendant of David and He is indeed going reign forever and ever. God keeps His Word.
This is important at the times when things don’t go the way we expect.
- The tests come back negative
- A relationship turns sour
- A career path hits a dead end
- Expenses are greater than income . . . again
- You are falsely accused
- Your child disowns you
Like we saw in the song of Mary, God always keeps His promises. He promises to stand with all who put their faith in Him. It is a promise He keeps.
God Came in Person
In verse 66 Zechariah says, “He has visited and redeemed his people”. What does this mean? The word “visit” is not the sense of “we made a visit to the zoo”; where you stop by someplace briefly. The word for visit is “episkopeo” The word skopeo is related to our English word “scope” and “epi” intensifies the idea. So the Holy Spirit declares through Zechariah that God has come to scope things out. This is a careful and caring visit from God to His people.
Now think about this. If you were God, would you bother with us? If you created people and then they ignored you, rebelled against you, and even denied your existence, would you go on a rescue mission to save them? Honesty compels me to say that I would have simply written us off. I would have said, “The heck with them! They made this mess, let them suffer because of it.” I certainly wouldn’t have come for a visit much less to live within the constraints of a human body and then allow myself to be murdered by those I came to save!
Fortunately, God is not like us. He refuses to turn away. He came to not just save us. but also to REDEEM us. The word “redeem” means to liberate or set free. It is a word from slavery. A person could fall into bondage because of debt. They had to remain in bondage until the debt was paid or until someone else redeemed you (or paid your debt for you). This is what God does for us in Christ.
Some are offended at the idea that they need to be “redeemed”. They say, “I am not enslaved! I am free to do whatever I want and I intend to keep it that way.” But in reality you are not free. You (and I) are enslaved to:
- The power of Satan. Independence is an illusion. Satan wants to control us. He wants us to pursue that which leads us away from life and eternity. He manipulates us in subtle yet destructive ways. Through Christ the power of Satan over us is broken.
- The power of our desires. God has set those who put their trust in Him free from “having to do” their desires prompt them to do. Our desires tend to want whatever serves our interest in the short-term. Through Christ we can now choose to follow the better course set by the Lord.
- The power of condemnation. I’m sure there is something in your life; something perhaps in your past; that functions like a ball and chain. It weighs you down. It makes you tentative. It keeps you in fear. You fear being discovered. Or perhaps you fear the consequences of such information being known. Because Jesus has come to pay our debt His followers can now erect a “No Condemnation” sign on the lawn of our lives. Jesus sets us free from our past and makes us alive to the present and future.
- The drudgery of meaninglessness. Apart from a relationship with God life ultimately has no real purpose. We live, we die, and that’s it. There is nothing lasting to anything we do. There is no ultimate value to anything. Through Christ we see that life is not meaningless; there is a purpose and a glorious future.
He Rescued Us for a Better Life
The movie The Blind Side was the story about how one family took an interest in Michael Oher. Their love “rescued” Michael from a life of futility and trouble. They put him on a new path. They helped him become what he could be.
This is what God does for us through Christ. He rescues us from our empty way of life so we can “serve God without fear”. The word “serve” actually points to the idea of worship. God rescued us so we could find life through and in Him.
Zechariah says true life is characterized by holiness and righteousness. To live in holiness means to be set apart for God. To be righteous means to live in a way that honors God. It is not only about not doing destructive things . . . it is also about doing better things. It is about living with justice, love, virtue, compassion, and faithfulness.
God has rescued us from the addictions that hold us in their power. He sets us free to serve Him in a way that leads to fulfillment and purpose. We don’t serve in order to earn salvation (that is impossible); we serve to live out the new life we have been given.
He Sent John the Baptist to Prepare the Way.
Though Zechariah has been focusing on the birth of Jesus, he has not forgotten his own blessing of a son who will be known as John the Baptist.
76 “And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
77 You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Isn’t this something? When our children were born we didn’t even know whether they would have light hair or dark hair, brown eyes or blue eyes. We knew they would be loved, but that is all we knew! Zechariah sees the life of his newborn with incredible clarity from God.
John would be a prophet of God. He will be God’s spokesman. John the Baptist was the first true prophet on the scene in 400 years! But he was more than just a prophet; He was the long anticipated forerunner to the Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer. In the book of Malachi we read,
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. (3:1)
Isaiah pictures John,
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! (Isa 40:3)
John’s job was clear: He was to point the way to salvation through the forgiveness of sins. John the Baptist’s message was simple: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In other words, he preached that people needed to get right with God and begin to truly seek Him because the Messiah was coming soon.
There is a mistaken notion among some that all you need to do to be saved is say a certain prayer and the issue is settled. The person who prays a prayer to “receive Christ” but does not turn from sin (that is what “repent” means) and begin to follow Christ does not have genuine faith. They are like someone who is drowning in a lake and calls out for help. Such a person is not rescued merely by calling out. They must also take hold of the one who comes to save them! So it is with the gospel of Christ. We are not saved by our words; we are saved by putting our trust practically and fully in Christ.
John was a remarkable man. He understood that his job was to point to Jesus. When Jesus stepped onto the scene, John took a step back. He said of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease”. He understood that Jesus is the One who saves.
It is the same for us. Our job is to point to Jesus by our words, our actions, and in any other way we can. No Pastor, no church, no program can save people. Only Christ saves! We are faithful followers only to the degree that we point others to Jesus.
He Turns on the Light in Our Soul
Like his son, Zechariah returned the spotlight to the coming Redeemer,
78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”
Because God cares so deeply for us He sent Jesus into the darkness of our world and the darkness of our lives to be the light. Zechariah knew that the morning light of God’s grace was about to come upon all mankind.
I enjoy a clear night when you can look up and see the pinholes of light in the sky. But I also like the quiet darkness of early morning. It is a great time to read, pray, and yes, sleep. There is something majestic about watching the sun come up. Night gives way to day. Black is replaced by color (often brilliant color as the sun comes over the horizon). Blindness gives way to clarity and sight. The dawning of a new day brings with it life.
Those who hunt talk about the beauty of sitting in the woods as day begins. The stillness (or deadness) gives way to life. Birds begin to sing, animals begin to stir, and the chatter of nature breaks the quiet. In those moments you get the chance to witness the renewal of life.
This is the perfect picture of what Jesus has done for us. When Jesus entered the world He brought life and light with Him. When He enters our lives He turns the darkness of sin and condemnation into the brilliance of new life. He makes spiritually dead people alive. He awakens our spirit transforming us and the way we see life around us.
It is all too easy, as followers of Christ, to forget the radical change of direction Jesus brings to our lives. We forget how wonderful it is to see the Son push away the darkness.
So how do we respond to these truths? The first response is to bow before the Lord in faith.
- We must see the emptiness of our current course and desire to turn from sin.
- We must recognize that Jesus is the Savior we have been waiting for.
- We take God at His Word that if we will put our trust and hope in Christ He will take up residence in our heart and in our lives.
- We then begin to live in the new light and life He brings to us.
Christmas is not about Elves, Santa, or chestnuts roasting on a fire. Christmas is about our faithful God doing something for us that no one but He could do. Christmas is the greatest rescue story the world has ever known. The Rescuer is Jesus and the one who was rescued is you and me.
The second response is to immerse ourselves fully into this life He has given to us. Open the window of your soul. Enjoy the sunshine. Savor the beauty and the new life. Enjoy life as a child of the King.
And when all is said and done I hope you too will see that this is worth singing about.