Christmastime is about stories, listening to them and telling them. When we gather with friends and family during the holidays, we tell stories. The reason we do this is because there is something about Christmas that points to a story larger than us. Unfortunately, people often don’t know where to turn to find this larger story, so many people look to temporary and material things to find meaning and satisfaction. Other people try to make their personal story the great story. Everyone else should be concerned with it. The holidays can be the most depressing and loneliest time of year for many people, and part of this is because they don’t understand the larger story. All people can see is their personal stories of heartache, or loss, or lack, so they don’t see how their small story fits into something much bigger and much greater than they realize.
It’s only when we open our Bibles and read the grand narrative of the Lord that we find how we ourselves are caught up into a great and significant role in a story. When we stop looking inside ourselves for significance and look away from ourselves to our Creator, we are able to find meaning for our lives. God is writing an amazing story. He created you and I to be part of that Story as we worship him and follow him. When we join our lives to his, we find forgiveness, purpose, and satisfaction. He gives us each a role to play in the story he’s telling. The Bible is full of people who were seemingly random and obscure people, but somehow they find themselves as part of this great work of redemption that God is bringing about. When we read our Bibles, we see otherwise normal people being used by God.
One of the characters in the Biblical Christmas story is a guy named Zechariah. Zechariah finds himself unexpectedly very near the center of a story much bigger than himself. In fact, eventually he will come to realize that he isn’t just part of a story, but part of the story. He had a major role to play in God’s plan of the redemption of his people. The story begins like any other. In Luke 1:5-10, we see that Zechariah lived in a certain place and time. He was just like the people before him and around him. Verse 5 says he was part of the division of Abijah and he was married. Verse 6 says he and his wife were righteous, walking blamelessly. But, verse 7 says they couldn’t have kids. They did everything right and still didn’t get what they wanted. They followed God devotedly, but still didn’t have the one thing their hearts longed for. So they spent their years simply doing their jobs and living life uprightly before God. Verses 8-10 say that as he doing his job he was chosen to be the one to offer the yearly sacrifice in the innermost room of the Temple. But, all of a sudden, the years of living faithfully before God allow him to be uniquely placed in a position to fulfill a great part of God’s plan. Luke 1:11-25 describe how Zechariah and Elizabeth fit into God’s plan.
In verse 11 when the Angel appeared, Zechariah knew that God was doing something different. This is not business as usual. The angel tells him in verse 12, “do not be afraid.” This is most frequent command in Scripture because seeing an Angel is terrifying. A religious experience of this magnitude isn’t something that makes you elated or joyous, it terrifies you. People often seek after religious experiences where they want to feel God and his presence, but the overarching theme of this type of thing in the scriptures is fear and terror. Our emotions should be engaged in worship, but most of the time when people feel God’s presence in the Bible, it’s a scary thing because God is about to shake things up in an incredible way. In verses 13-17, the angel tells him that his wife is going to have a child and the role John will play in God’s story is to point Israel back to God. It says he’ll work in the Power of Elijah, he’ll turn fathers toward their children, and lead the disobedient to wisdom. He will prepare the Lord’s people. Zechariah had a hard time believing this, so the angel makes him unable to speak. In verse 22 he comes out of the temple and he didn’t speak so the people realized he had a vision. Then in verse 24, Elizabeth gets pregnant.
Since we are looking at the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, let’ skip over some verses. Luke 1 interweaves the story of Mary with that of Elizabeth and Zechariah. This is appropriate because John’s story and work will be tied together with Jesus’ as well. In Luke 1:57-66, Elizabeth has her son, people just expected them to name him Zechariah after his father. But, they said they were naming him John, and as soon as this happened, Zechariah was able to talk again. Verse 64 says that when he named the boy John, he was immediately able to speak. After 9 months of silence, he speaks and of all the things he might have said, he blesses God, he offers words of worship to God. If it wasn’t enough that a lady who was well past childbearing years has a baby, the father is silent for nearly a year and then all of a sudden, he speaks. The people knew now that God was about to do something different. They knew the stories of how God had promised to be with them and to rescue them and in verse 66, they wonder what role this child had to play in this story.
The stories we tell at Christmastime are rarely new ones. We know we’ve told the stories, we know everyone has heard the stories, and we don’t care, we tell them anyway. Why do we do this? Because they matter. They are part of what makes our family our family and we recount them to one another. They ground us in where we come from. Some of them are embarrassing, or boring, but they shape our identity nonetheless. When Zechariah blesses God in verse 64, he is retelling a story that everyone knows. The substance of this blessing is found in our next passage: Luke 1:67-79. Zechariah retells the story of his family, the people of Israel. He retells the promises of God and reminds the people of God’s plan. This story tells the identity of God’s people and that they are part of a covenant and promise.
Zechariah’s Song is often called the Benedictus, which means “blessing”, because it’s what he said in verse 64. These verses are a declaration of God’s faithfulness to his covenant and promises with Abraham and David and extending to all of God’s people. This song is summary of the story of the Old Testament. Zechariah is recounting God’s covenant and promises made to his people throughout history. He’s retelling the same old stories. He’s also declaring that at this point God is fulfilling these promises and honoring the covenant. His son John is the one sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. This is why he quotes these passages in this song. They are drawing on huge Old Testament themes of God’s rescue and redemption of his people. Zechariah was overwhelmed with the knowledge that God was bringing these things to pass. There are probably lots of ways we could talk about this passages, but there are certainly two themes found here.
The first theme of Zachariah’s Song is Salvation in verses 68-75. Verses 68-69 mention God visiting and redeeming his people and raising up a horn of salvation for David’s house. This idea is found in 2 Samuel 22 (also Psalm 18) where David sings a song to God after the Lord delivers him from all of his enemies. In Zachariah’s day, the people of Israel were in their promised land, but ruled by foreigners. Many of them believed they were still in Exile because the Romans ruled them. So, many also believed that the role of the Messiah would be to overthrow Roman Rule. The Messiah was going to be like David and would save Israel from the oppression of its enemies. Verses 70-73 refer to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 to make Israel a blessing to the whole world and how the result will be this deliverance. What we eventually see in Jesus’ ministry is that Roman rule is at most a symbol of true oppression. Israel had been exile and remained under the rule of the Romans because they were unable to serve God in righteousness and holiness as it says in verse 75. The least of their problems was Roman oppression, they could never live in holiness. They always failed to live up to God’s standards. Israel’s history is full of stories of God’s people not only failing morally, but running away from God and seeking after anything and everything except God to their own demise. Israel along with all of humanity continually turns away from God toward self and sin. Human-kind is without hope in the face of death, and is guilty of sin it cannot atone for. It’s this oppression that Jesus conquers on the cross, paying for sin, and then rising again overthrowing death. In Jesus, God pursues a people who did not seek him. Jesus pays for the sins of a messed up people. He brings salvation to the people of God because they could never achieve it or earn it themselves. This is the blessing that God promises in the covenants. Zechariah was awaiting this, looking forward; we can look back and find forgiveness and peace in this. Don’t trust in yourself to find salvation. It can never be earned or achieved. Trust in the salvation brought to us in Jesus who died for our sins and rose again. This is where we are rescued from the oppression of our souls. This is why Jesus comes at Christmas, to accomplish this salvation for us.
The second theme in Zachariah’s song is Preparation, found in verses 76-79. God had said that before he returned Israel, there would be a prophet send to prepare the way. In verse 76 we find a reference to Isaiah 40:3, which says, “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The word “wilderness” there is a reference to Israel’s state of Exile. Also, Malachi 3:1 says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Zachariah’s son John is this one preparing the people to receive their Messiah. He was to tell the people who God’s mercy is about to be displayed resulting in the forgiveness of sins. Verse 79 says the result will also be light for those in darkness and a guide to peace. No prophet had spoken to God’s people in nearly 400 years, but verse 67 says that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. God’s messenger had arrived and his Messiah would soon arrive, so it was time for the people of God to prepare themselves.
At Christmastime we celebrate the coming of this Messiah Jesus. As part of our celebration, it’s appropriate to be reminded that we are also to prepare ourselves. Prepare for the Messiah to come to us. Now, we’ve all been preparing, buying gifts, decorating, and planning menus. But this season has a way of getting past us before we know it. If we don’t prepare for this season, we will miss what God has for us in it. Some of us need to stop preparing for Christmas, and prepare our hearts for Christ. We know we have been seeking after things and living for things that are not good for us nor honoring to God. We need to retell the old story to ourselves of what Jesus has done. He has brought us redemption and peace. But grounded in what he has done is what he will do. He will continue to form us into his image. He will continue to work holiness in our lives. He will not abandon us to the grave and he will not count our sins against us.
So, prepare your hearts for Christmas be remembering the Gospel and seeing how in might be infused into your life this season. Be patient with your family. Be generous to those who don’t deserve it. Be humble at those holiday parties. Don’t look for your significance in things that can be bought or things that fade away. Look to the story Jesus is writing in your life and see how he has brought you through trial and loss, how he has blessed you and been gracious to you, all so that you might find yourself in him. The love, peace, joy, and hope that we search for everywhere else is found in him and in him alone. Prepare your hearts so they won’t look elsewhere.