Advent 2022 — December 7

67 And his[1] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited to help and has redeemed his people,
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from earliest times—
71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all those who hate us,
72 to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to Abraham our father,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
could serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And so you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the merciful compassion of our God
by which the dawn will visit to help us from on high,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to direct our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child kept growing and becoming strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Luke 1:67-80

“Zechariah’s Song: Why Do You Need God? (Part 1)”[2]
by Alistair Begg

Song lyrics seem to have a way of embedding themselves in our memory, so that as soon as we hear the first line, we know the song. Growing up in the sixties, my memorable first lines include:

“When I get older, losing my hair …

“Hello darkness, my old friend …

“Hey mister, that’s me up on the jukebox …

“There is a house in New Orleans …

How did you score on knowing the songs? (If you’re young enough to be struggling with these classics, google the first line to give you the song.)

When it comes to first lines, the opening words of the song of Zechariah deserve to be in anyone’s list of memorable ones. While Mary’s is the first song recorded in Luke’s Gospel, hers was not the first miraculous pregnancy to be described in Luke’s Gospel. That belonged to her relative Elizabeth. She and her husband, Zechariah, had been “childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:7). But before the angel Gabriel visited Mary, he had visited Zechariah to announce that his wife would fall pregnant, and that their son, John, would grow up “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v 17). John would be the warm-up act for the main event.

And that’s what Zechariah sang about as his son lay in his arms. It’s a song whose first line contains two words that lie at the heart of the Christmas message…. Here are the two words: “come” and “redeemed.”

A Visit with a Purpose

God has come to visit. He is moving into the neighborhood. But why? To redeem. If you want to understand the first Christmas—if you want to grasp the purpose of God’s visit—you need to understand redemption. So what is that about?

“Redemption” is the act of providing a payment to free someone. And Zechariah is explaining God’s work in his present situation by referencing God’s work in the past—in the time of the exodus, a millennium and a half before. It was the time when (to give an extremely cut-down summary!) God’s people Israel were stuck in Egypt, enslaved by Pharaoh. Despite Pharaoh’s resistance, God freed them through a series of plagues sent against the inhabitants of Egypt. The last plague was the worst—death. The oldest son in each family would die, God warned. But God also provided a way out—through the death of a lamb. The lamb died, the people who trusted God lived, and Pharaoh, devastated by what his decision to resist God had done to his nation, let them go. God had “redeemed” his people.

Well, that is great, and it is an exciting historical story—but what does it have to do with Zechariah, and what does it have to do with you and me?! Everything, actually—because, Zechariah says, God is redeeming people all over again. Not from enslavement to an Egyptian king, but from enslavement to their own sin—to our own sin. We need, he says, “forgiveness of [our] sins.”

What Zechariah is referring to here is not being freed from a material plight, but a moral plight. “Sin” is an unpopular word, but it is a word the Bible unashamedly uses, and it is a word which explains both what we see within us and what we see around us. Sin is essentially me putting myself where God deserves to be—in the place of authority and majesty, running my own life, charting my own course. It is saying to God, whether very politely or extremely angrily, I don’t want you, I won’t obey your commands, I will not listen to your word. I will call the shots.

Literally, to “sin” means to miss the mark. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the World Darts Championships. One of the main competitions is held in England each Christmas. Two competitors stand nearly eight feet from a board 18 inches wide and throw darts at it. Thousands turn up to watch them. And the worst thing the players can do is to miss the board—to throw short or to throw wide. These contestants are wonderful at it, and it sounds very easy—but if you’ve never tried it, have a go. It’s not as simple as it looks!

And the Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Everyone throws and misses when it comes to glorifying—to recognizing, pleasing, loving and following—the God who made us, who sustains us, and who gives us everything we have. You can miss the target by an inch, or by a mile, but no one fails to miss. Often, we don’t much care whether we miss or not—we are not even aiming at living in a way that pleases God, but rather one that pleases ourselves. But even when we do care and do try to obey God, we still miss. Even on my best day, I miss the mark, the target. I sin. Sin is something we choose, and yet sin is also something that traps us. We can’t stop, even if we want to. Like a bad habit that proves impossible to break, we’re enslaved to what we’ve chosen.

Spoiled and Separated

And sin is not merely a bad habit. In fact, sin is our greatest problem. People suggest that our greatest problem is a lack of education. Or a lack of social welfare. Or a lack of self-esteem. But if that’s the case, then why are family gatherings at Christmas so often occasions of discord and conflict, even for the most academically gifted, well-off, personally confident people? Why is this not all fixed by now? Why is it not all sorted out? It is not fundamentally a lack of education or welfare or self-esteem that spoils things. It is sin. Sin causes alienation from others. It causes brokenness at the hands of others—and perhaps you are a victim of something that has been done to you. It causes conflict with others—not only wars on a world stage, but closer to home, conflict within our hearts, our houses, our marriages. The lies we tell. The envy we feel. The anger we show. Each time we miss the mark, we spoil our own lives and the lives of those around us.

But this “spoiled-ness” is not the most serious aspect of sin—because my sin has crippled my ability to know God and to live with God. I can’t know God. I can’t make my way back to God because I am trapped in my sin, enslaved by my sin. I’m stuck with being separated from God—both in my present and in my eternal future. We’re cosmically stuck, hopelessly separated.

The singer, Sting, once sang:

Everyone I know is lonely And God’s so far away
And my heart belongs to no one,
So now sometimes I pray
Please take the space between us
And fill it up some way.

I often hear people say that death is the great equalizer. The idea is that in eternity, all bets are off and, no matter what we believed or how we lived, the scale is reset. The Bible has a very different view. One early Christian, Paul, put it this way: “[God] has set a day when he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31). It will be absolutely fair and it will be completely final. There will be no redos. We have separated ourselves from God’s love because we have sinned. And so we will be separated from God for all eternity, suffering the punishment of eternity in the place Jesus called “hell”—a place separated from God and everything that is good.

Actually, this view of eternity—one that includes judgment—is the one that best fits our sense of justice. Whenever we hear on the news about some terrible human act and think, Why doesn’t God do something about that? we are asking him to judge. The Bible says that he will. All sin will be judged, and all sin will be punished by separation. That is very good news when we suffer at the hands of sinful people, and deeply troubling news because we ourselves are sinful people. Sin is our greatest problem, because it separates us from the God whom we were made to know and designed to enjoy. But in another sense, the truth about sin is also our greatest insight, because it explains life as we experience it. There is a mighty, loving God who made us—and so we are capable of acts of greatness and kindness. But we reject that God’s authority—and so we are capable of selfishness and evil. We were made to enjoy life with God eternally, but we all choose to live in defiance of him. Hence the flatness, the “blues” that come after Christmas as once again we get beyond the busyness and distraction of the festivities and think deep down, I don’t have the answer. There’s not a gift I could buy or a gift I can receive that seems to satisfy. There’s not a vacation I could enjoy, there’s not a book I could read, or a piece of music I could listen to that will actually fill the hole. When we feel this, we are really saying, God, please take the space between us, and fill it up some way. We are asking God to redeem us from the sin we have chosen—from the slavery we cannot escape and the debt we cannot repay.

[1] Zechariah was John the Baptist’s father.

[2] Alistair Begg, Christmas Playlist: Four Songs That Bring You to the Heart of Christmas (The Good Book Company, 2016), 27–35.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s