Advent is about enjoying and admiring Jesus. It's a season we observe each year at this time, during which we endeavor to do something intentional: that is, in a very small way, we place ourselves in the Christmas story. So as it was for those at the first Christmas, it is for us a season of patient waiting, soul-searching, and hope-filled expectation!
Personally, I have found that praying simple prayers anytime, anywhere throughout the day keep me in the Advent story. Let me give you a couple of examples:
"Christ my Savior and King, I praise you for coming as a human being."
"Come Lord Jesus, I give you a hectic schedule and hurried heart."
The reason these prayers are helpful is because it's so easy to get distracted at Christmas, to fall into the trappings of the holiday season and miss the whole point of Christmas.
As a young teenager, I fell into the trap of gift-giving. And, truth be told, it was really the "gift-getting" trap. That year, the sensation was not the Nintendo Wii or Frozen's Snow Globe Elsa, nor was it Tamagotchis, or even Red Ryder BB guns. It was this amazing toy: Incredible Edibles. I absolutely had to have it.
Incredible Edibles was a toy sold by Mattel that featured a series of circular metal molds, in which you would pour brightly colored goo. The mold was then placed in a small oven, which baked the goo into rubbery soft candy worms and insects. I was bored with it in two days. It was neither incredible nor edible. I was distracted by the gift-giving trap.
Of course, there are other seasonal traps that are easy to fall into. Many of us complain that the season is too hectic, too commercialized. Others of us deal with unrealistic expectations that give way to emptiness when it's all over. As an antidote against all these, we have the Gospel stories, which provide solid ground on which we can stand.
The Zechariah story
We're going to look at the Christmas story according to Zechariah. Like Mary, Zechariah gifts us with an unforgettable song. But this a song sung with a strong prophetic voice, and it is preceded by a dramatic story, which goes like this.
Zechariah was a priest for Israel, and on this occasion, it was his duty to go alone into Israel's temple to light incense. In our society, we have nothing quite like the temple, but you might think of the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. Few can enter in, only when given permission to do so.
Now Zechariah and his wife were childless. In that society, childlessness carried with it a horrible social stigma, even to the point of being mocked for it. They were advanced in years, so their window of having children had long since closed. Their childlessness was their great sadness.
While in the temple, God broke into Zechariah's life in dramatic fashion, in the form of the angel Gabriel: an imposing and glorious being who suddenly appeared while Zechariah was performing his duties. Upon seeing the angel, Zechariah became troubled in spirit and fearful—which, as it turns out, is a fairly typical response when confronted by an angel. Zechariah's fearfulness is not a big problem. But what Zechariah does next is.
Gabriel delivers the big news that Zechariah's wife will bear a son—a son who is destined for great things. This is where Zechariah fumbles. Zechariah doubts the angel. He wants to believe, but he can't. So he asks for a sign—as if seeing the angel Gabriel wasn't "sign" enough.
What the angel does next is brilliant. He grants Zechariah's request by giving him a sign that doubles as an act of loving discipline. He takes away Zechariah's ability to speak for the duration of the pregnancy. Zechariah becomes mute.
Now let's zoom out for just a moment. When I read this story, I find myself thinking, How could this happen? How is it possible that Zechariah, after coming face-to-face with something so otherworldly and so dazzling, doubts the angel's words? What I mean is that Zechariah had heard the rumors: rumors of the One who was to come and rescue Israel. Nevertheless, Zechariah was trapped: perhaps by his doubts, perhaps by discouragement. Perhaps he was trapped by religious duties that had become routine.
So despite coming face-to-face with the angel Gabriel, he opts for logic. And logic says, "Old people don't have babies."
Now what about us? Have we not done the same? How many times has God tried to get our attention—broken into our lives, answered our prayers—and yet still we fall into the trap of doubt, discouragement, or duty?
Philip Yancey, in his book Rumors of Another World, tells a story that took place off the tip of Argentina in the islands of Tierra del Fuego. In the 1500s, when Magellan's explorers passed those shores, they noticed fires burning on the shore. But the natives, as they tended those fires, paid no attention to the great ships passing before their very eyes. Later, they explained that they considered the ships apparitions, mere figments of their imagination. Those ships were so different from anything they had ever seen that they simply could not believe their eyes. Then Yancey asks this penetrating question:
And we who built the skyscrapers in New York, who build today not just galleons but space stations and Hubble telescopes that peer to the very edge of the universe, what about us? What are we missing? What do we not see, for lack of imagination or faith?
Just like Zechariah, God breaks into our lives, only to have us miss it. We chalk it up as an anomaly, a coincidence, or a strange moment in our lives that must have some logical explanation.
But Zechariah would get another chance to express faith. When the baby was born to Elizabeth, everyone assumed and even insisted that they call him Zechariah after his father. This is where Zechariah recovers from his own fumble. On a tablet, he wrote, "He shall be called John." At just that moment, Zechariah's mouth was unleashed and out pours nine months of deep, Spirit-filled soul-searching in the form of a song.
In this beautiful song, we find one big idea expressed in three parts. Here they are: "Jesus rescues us … into a partnership … that unleashes his light and peace into the world."
In those opening lines, we hear rich themes of redemption and rescue. The prophet Zechariah is telling us that Jesus will do nothing less than lead a rescue operation to liberate Israel. But wait, there's more: By referencing the Abrahamic covenant in verse 73, Zechariah is suggesting that the rescue will extend beyond Israel to include all the peoples of the earth.
Now, let's be clear about this. Jesus did not come simply to shed a little light on the subject. He did not come to marginally improve our lives, nor to teach us some clever stories. He came on a full-scale rescue operation to deliver this planet and to redeem us out of bondage. He came to rescue us from the big and little traps of life and ultimately from the greatest trap of all: death itself.
Maybe you feel trapped in some way. Perhaps you feel trapped by habits you can't seem to break, or by fear or anxiety about the future. Perhaps you feel trapped in an insignificant life, or by the opinions people have about you. Maybe you feel alone, or trapped by resentment or anger. It is not God's plan that we remain trapped by all this.
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).
And what a gritty rescue operation it was. Born in the humblest of conditions, Jesus was opposed from his earliest days. One of our beloved Christmas carols, "Silent Night," has this familiar phrase: "All is calm, all is bright …" That first night may have been peaceful and calm, and surely it was full of light, but for most of his days on this planet, Jesus was opposed by the all the forces of evil. King Herod opposed him—he was so threatened by Jesus that he carried out a scorched-earth policy against all Jewish males under age two.
Do you know that the Book of Revelation tells the nativity story, but in a very different sort of way? Revelation may seem like a strange book at first glance, but once we know how to read it, it leaps to life before our eyes. In Revelation 12, the Christmas story is told from the vantage point of heaven's angels. No mention is made of the shepherds or Magi. Instead, in deeply symbolic language, we are told of a woman clothed with the sun and wearing a crown of 12 stars. She cries out in pain as she is about to give birth. Suddenly a great red dragon appears, his tail sweeping a third of heaven's stars out of the sky. He crouches hungrily, waiting to devour the child the moment he is born. At the last second, the baby is snatched away to safety, the woman escapes into the desert, and as Philip Yancey writes, an "all-out cosmic war begins."
This is no small-time operation. God the Father, aided by the Holy Spirit, has sent his Son on a mission to rescue this planet, all the while knowing that his Son would be mightily opposed and would suffer greatly on our behalf.
The question begs to be asked: Why would God go to such lengths? More on that in a moment.
But Zechariah would want us to know that we were not just rescued out of, but we were rescued into a partnership. Jesus rescues us into a partnership.
Zechariah is being prophetic about the newness of relationship that we can have with God in Christ. I also think that Zechariah is giving us a glimpse into his own heart. He longs to serve God in holiness, to relate to him with wholeheartedness.
Many of you long for the same. This isn't a hobby for you. It's not a club you belong to. It's not a Sunday-only thing. You know that this is what you were made for. You long to live with whole-hearted devotion and passion for God. You are tired of being divided in your allegiances. This dividedness is yet another trap that Christ came to rescue us from—that dividedness that fractures the human heart.
Only when he is our first love are we then free to fully live into all our other loves. My best chance at loving my wife is to love Christ first. My best chance at being a father to my children, a pastor to you, and the friend and neighbor I want to be is to make Christ my first love. Something happens deep inside us when we do that. Somehow, he integrates our hearts.
And there is more. This is to be a relationship without fear. I cannot read verse 74 without thinking of 1 John 4:18: "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear." This ought to boggle our minds. The God of the universe has invited us into a partnering relationship, the likes of which you will never find anywhere else. Imagine if the President of the United States called you one day and made you such an offer. Your life would never be the same. But this God—this supreme one who dwarfs all the rulers of this world, this one who loves you with a perfect love, such that you never need fear again—this truly is the opportunity of a lifetime. To partner with him, to know him, to love him, to learn his ways, to have your life/relationships put back to rights: All this is what we were made for.
That unleashes his light and peace into the world
"Jesus rescues us into a partnership … that unleashes his light and peace into the world."
Zechariah pictures his newborn son, John, paving the way for Messiah. Together they come into a world cloaked in darkness and strife. With all that is going on in our own day, who can argue with his analysis? Despite great advances in technology and talk of diplomatic solutions to the world's problems, the nations rage against one another and against the Prince of Peace. It seems that many of the world's leaders are more interested in revenge and power than peace.
We are desperate for another: One who will rescue the world from the clutches of evil. That One, according to Zechariah, is Messiah Jesus—the Rescuer. His ways are altogether different than the world's. Those differences were never more apparent than on that day when he relinquished his rights to revenge, opting instead for something much more powerful: mercy and forgiveness for his enemies, for you and me.
This is his way. This is what it means to partner with him. It is to enjoy the closest of companionship with the winsome Christ—to be filled with his Spirit for the greater works of love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Scott Wieking is the Adult and Family Ministry Pastor at First Baptist Church of Davis, in Davis, California.