Behind The Scenes At Christmastime: Zechariah’s Song
December 1, 1991
This year the title of our Christmas series is “The Songs of Christmas.” The theme is appropriate because it is a time for music and especially a time for singing. In the next few weeks we’ll be enjoying an extra helping of holiday music here at Calvary. Next Sunday we have the Children’s Christmas Program—”The Gift.” Then the Sunday after that our annual Choir concert, featuring two children’s choirs, our teen ensemble, our adult choir, and an orchestra. Then on the Sunday before Christmas we will gather in the sanctuary for our Christmas Carol Sing. We climax our celebration on Christmas Eve with a service filled with carols.
But there’s more. Next weekend many of you will go to Candlelight Carols at Moody Bible Institute, others will hear the Vienna Boys Choir when they come through Chicago in a few days. Still others will attend a performance of the “Nutcracker” or Handel’s Messiah.
Even that is only the tip of the iceberg. The radio stations are just beginning to play Christmas carols. Right now it’s only one or two an hour, but as we get closer to the day, that’s all you’ll hear when you turn on your radio. And every store in every mall will be playing “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Grape Jelly And Chili Sauce
Along with many others, I confess that Christmas is my favorite time of the year. I inherited that from my mother, who loved this season. She loved to bake Christmas cookies with red and green sprinkles, she loved to decorate our house from stem to stern, and she loved to invite a hundred or so of our closest friends over for a very lively Christmas party each year. I still remember her making mountains of meatballs which she mari-nated in a mixture of grape jelly and chili sauce. She served them in a fondue pot and let us eat them with toothpicks. She also made the very best chocolate fudge in the history of the world.
From Norman Luboff To Randy Travis
Christmas at our house started right after Thanksgiving when Mom would go to the closet and pull out a big stack of 33 rpm, long play, high fidelity records that gathered dust for 11 months out of the year. For a few all-too-brief days we would listen to the Christmas music of Henry Mancini, the Ray Coniff Singers, Bing Crosby, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and something called the Norman Luboff Choir.
We’ve gotten a little bit of an early start at our house this year. About three weeks ago I took the boys to Montgomery Ward. After a bit of comparison shopping, we bought a General Electric Bass Boost Stereo Tape Player with AM-FM Radio. It’s sounds a lot more impressive than it really is. It only cost $45, so you know it couldn’t be very jazzy. But it’s more than adequate for our purposes. About the same time I ordered 4 or 5 Christmas tapes—Steve Green, Take 6, something called New England Christmastide, and one or two others. Then I dug out a couple of old ones we had stored above the refrigerator—Sandi Patti, I think, and a very nice Christmas album by Randy Travis, the country music star. I also purchased Psalty’s Christmas Calamity at the Moody Bookstore. That all happened in early November, and we’ve been listening to Christmas music ever since then.
But the music is just beginning. Before it’s all over in 25 days, we’ll hear Christmas carols in every possible variation, including soul and jazz and rap and country and western and even heavy metal.
The First Christmas Carols
It’s all to the good in my opinion (even the heavy metal Christmas carols) because music and Christmas go together. It has always been so, even from the very beginning.
So let me ask you a question. Do you know where to find the first Christmas carols? Is it in colonial America? No. Is it in Merry Olde England? No. Is it somewhere in Europe? No. The first Christmas carols go back far beyond America or England or Europe. The very first Christmas carols go back 2,000 years—to the very first Christmas.
That’s right. The tradition of singing at Christmastime is as old as Christmas itself. The first Christmas carols are written in the Bible as part of the Christmas story. When Dr. Luke sat down to write his gospel, he recorded four of the original songs of Christmas. They are found in Luke 1-2—the story of the Nativity.
Over the centuries the Christian church has recognized the special significance of these four songs of Christmas. Depending on what church background you come from, you may have heard them sung in church. If you are from a Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopal background, you have doubtless heard these four songs many times.
The Story Behind The Story
In the early centuries of the Christian church, the Bible was translated into Latin. From that time until the present, these four songs have been best known by their Latin titles. In each case, the title is simply the first word or two of the very first line of the song. The four songs in order are:
1. Mary’s Song —called the Magnificat—which is found in Luke 1:48-55
2. Zechariah’s Song—called the Benedictus—which is found in Luke 1:67-80
3. The Angels’ Song—called the Gloria in Excelsis—which is found in Luke 2:14
4. Simeon’s Song—called the Nunc Dimittis—which is found in Luke 2:29-32
This year we are going to look at these four songs—the original Christmas carols—first in order to see what they say and then in order to discover what they have for us at the end of the 20th century. Amid all the tinsel and flash and splash, and amid the push toward hearth and home and the pressure of buying presents and going to parties, and all the rest that goes with Christmas in our day and age, it’s good for us to go back to the Bible to find out not only what the story is, but also to find out what it means. These early Christmas carols tell us what the oft-repeated story of Christmas really means. Or to say it another way, during these weeks together, we want to go behind the scenes at Christmastime and discover the story behind the story.
With that as background, we begin our survey with Zechariah’s Song—the Benedictus—found in Luke 1:67-80.
Two Introductory Facts
Before we jump into the text, we need to notice two introductory facts that will help us understand what the Benedictus is all about.
1. The Benedictus was composed by a man named Zechariah. You may or may not recognize that name. If you know the Bible, you probably know that there is a prophet by that name who wrote a book in the Old Testament named Zechariah. But that’s a different Zechariah. The one we’re talking about was a priest in Jerusalem. Luke 1 tells the story of how an angel predicted that he and his barren wife Elizabeth would give birth to a son who would be the forerunner of the Messiah. Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, so his power of speech was taken away from him for the nine months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When the baby was finally born, Zechariah named him John (as the angel had instructed), and his speech was immediately restored. In that joyous moment, as he held his son in his arms, Zechariah broke forth in a song of praise to God. That song is the Benedictus of Luke 1:67-80.
2. Zechariah was a priest who was steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures. As Zechariah breaks forth into song, his words reflect his Old Testament heritage. The Benedictus sounds partly like the Psalms and partly like the prophets, but it sounds wholly like the Old Testament. In some ways it doesn’t sound like it belongs in the New Testament. Parts of it sound strange to our ears. But that’s part of the great value of this song. Zechariah’s song reveals the deep faith of the Jewish people on the eve of Messiah’s birth. For hundreds of years the people of God had been waiting for Messiah to come. Now at last he is almost here. These words of Zechariah bring us to the very edge that separates the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The Visitor From Heaven
Here is a snapshot of Jewish faith on the eve of the Incarnation. These words, uttered a few months before Jesus’ birth take us behind the scenes and into the heart of godly Judaism. They tell us what the coming of Christ meant to the people who had waited so long for him to arrive!
The theme of the Benedictus is not hard to find. Zechariah uses one key word at the beginning and ending of his song. Verse 68 says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” Then verse 78 says “the rising sun will come to us from heaven.” In both verses the verb phrase comes from a root word that means “to visit personally.” It is the very word Jesus used in Matthew 25:36 when he said, “I was sick and you visited me.” The word was used in the Greek Old Testament for God visiting his people in order to bring them great blessing. It has the idea of seeing someone in distress and intervening personally in order to relieve their misery. It’s what happens when you hear about the death of someone you love. You don’t just send a sympathy card. You don’t just call on the tele-phone. You go over to the home in person. To “visit” means to be so moved by the misery you see all around you that you get personally involved in providing a solution.
All of that is on Zechariah’s heart and is comprehended in this one single truth: At long last God has visited his people!! At long last God has kept his promise. At long last God has arrived on the scene. The Visitor from heaven has come to us.
It’s hard for us to grasp the magnitude of this thought. For 4,000 long, dreary years God seemed to neglect his people. Nobody appeared more forgotten that the Jews chafing under Roman rule. Reduced to an obscure pro-vince in the Roman Empire, they were rejected, overlooked and despised. Nearly 1,000 years had passed since the glorious days of King David. Over 400 years had passed since their last prophet—a man named Malachi.
Has God Forgotten His People?
On the lips of pious men and women, one question towered above all the rest: Has God forgotten his people? Yes, the prophets spoke of One who would come from heaven. They spoke of One who would be born of a virgin, born in David’s royal city, who would sit on the throne of his father David and rule over the house of Jacob forever. They spoke of One who would rule the nations and redeem his people and restore Israel to its former glory. They spoke of One whose name was called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
But perhaps the prophets were wrong. Perhaps it was not to be. Perhaps it all was a dream, simply wishful thinking by generations of mystics and seers. So many years had come and gone. Sons had buried their fathers. Then their sons had buried them, and their sons had buried them, and so the generations rolled on. Still there was no word from heaven.
So many indignities had been perpetrated on the Jewish people that a skeptical observer could be forgiven for concluding that the Jews had blown their chance centuries ago. Perhaps God had given up on his people Israel. Perhaps he was now working with the Greeks or the Romans. Perhaps Israel was relegated to the back bin of history, a second-rate country whose best days were long in the past.
No one took them seriously when they spoke of a Messiah. It looked like a cruel hoax. Had God forgotten his people? It appeared that way.
The Flickering Flame
But throughout the darkest of dark hours the faithful remnant in Israel never gave up believing that God would surely, somehow, sometime, some way keep his promises. The generations came and went without any word from the Lord, and though the godly were buried without ever seeing it come to pass, the hope of divine visitation never waned completely. There was always a flickering flame of belief that God would indeed visit his people and fulfill his ancient promises.
Now at last, after all those years, the moment has arrived. As Zechariah looks down at his infant son, he knows that the crucial moment of world history has arrived. In his arms he holds the baby who will grow up to prepare the way of the Lord. That could only mean one thing:
The Messiah is on the way!
The long wait is over!
God has visited his people!
The Benedictus is all about this one great truth: That God has at long last visited his people! In the verses that follow we learn five specific facts about the Divine Visitation and the blessings that flow from it.
Fact # 1: Its Saving Purpose
Here Zechariah focuses on the great purpose for the coming of Christ to the earth. He came to save his people! Zechariah mentions God’s saving purpose in four different ways:
A. He has come to redeem his people. “He has come and redeemed his people.” (68)
B. He has raised up a horn of salvation. “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” (69)
C. He has come to save us from our enemies. “Salvation from our enemies.” (71) “To rescue us from the hand of our enemies.” (74)
D. He has come to forgive our sins. “To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” (77)
Zechariah is telling us that God did not visit this planet simply to see how we were doing. He knew how we were doing. That’s why he came! We were in trouble and he came to save us. That’s what Christmas is all about.
Fact # 2: Its Predicted Fulfillment
As a godly Jew, Zechariah can’t get over the fact that God has at long last kept his promises. All that he said he would do, he has at last begun to accomplish. Zechariah says three things about the promise of the Messiah:
A. It was promised by the prophets. “As he said through his holy prophets of long ago.” (70)
B. It was cherished by the fathers. “To show mercy to our fathers.” (72)
C. It was guaranteed by the oath to Abraham. “To remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.” (72-73)
The point is clear: God is now doing what he promised to do. The prophets saw it coming. Not every detail, and no one saw it clearly, but they knew the day would come when God would visit his people. Micah spoke of it, and so did Isaiah and Jeremiah. Even old Abraham looked forward to this day, as did Moses and David. They all saw it coming! All of them looked through the dim mist of history and saw a bright glimpse of the day when God would visit his people. They knew it was coming; they just didn’t know exactly when it would happen.
This truth leads me to a crucial conclusion about Jesus Christ: He must be great because the preparation for his coming took 2,000 years. This is no small event. His coming is the biggest event in history. History is really His Story! All that came before him pointed to him. All that comes after looks back to him. He is the centerpiece of history, the demarcation between yesterday and tomorrow. In the birth of Jesus Christ, we have come to the crux and pivot of history.
His birth is the focus point of time. Do you want proof? What year is this? It is 1991. Where did that number come from? It represents one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-one years after his birth. We don’t do that for Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, Zoroaster, or any other great leader—ancient or modern. How important is Jesus Christ? We measure time by his coming to the earth. Even unbelievers pay unconscious tribute to him every time they write 1991 on a check.
Zechariah is telling us something very crucial: God has visited the world in the person of Jesus Christ and nothing will ever be the same again.
Fact # 3: Its Transforming Enablement
In verses 74 and 75 Zechariah speaks of the transformation he will make in the lives of those who follow him:
1. His coming produces emotional transformation. “To enable us to serve him without fear.”
2. His coming produces ethical transformation. “In holiness and righteousness all our days.”
3. His coming produces spiritual transformation. “To enable us to serve him.”
So many people live lives of quiet desperation. They feel there is no answer to the question—”Why am I here?” Zechariah makes the answer clear: Jesus Christ came to admit us to the joyful service of God. This is God’s ultimate purpose for you. He saved you so that you might fulfill the highest calling in the universe—serving God without fear in righteousness and holiness forever!
-He came so that we who were lost in sin might be lifted up into the service of God.
-He came so that we who served another master might serve God our Creator.
-He came so that we who feared death might serve God free from fear forever.
-He came so that we who lived in fear of punishment might be so completely forgiven that we would never fear punishment again.
-He came so that we who were idle in the marketplace of life might be given a transforming purpose for living.
-He came so that we who once did not please God might be pleasing to him forever.
-He came so that we who were unholy might be made holy.
-He came so that we who were unrighteousness might be made righteous.
That’s the transforming enablement brought about by the coming of Christ to the earth.
Fact # 4: Its Prepared Forerunner
Now Zechariah considers the significance of the infant son he holds in his arms. In verses 76 and 77 he speaks directly to his son and utters three specific predictions about his future:
1. You will be a prophet of God. “You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High.”
2. You will prepare the way of the Lord. “You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”
3. You will proclaim the knowledge of salvation by preaching the for-giveness of sins. “To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”
This is exactly what John the Baptist did. His whole mission was to make the nation ready for the coming of Messiah. He was a prophet, a preparer and a preacher of salvation. John began his ministry by going out to the desert region around the Jordan River and preaching the doctrine of repentance from sin. Multitudes of men and women flocked to hear his message, and many heard him favorably. He baptized many people and so helped prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. When John saw Jesus, he cried out, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
But at this moment John is just eight days old. But his father clearly sees the work God has called him to do. It’s a wonderful thing to discover your place in God’s plans and to fulfill your mission in life, whether your part be great or small. John was the man God chose to prepare the way for Jesus Christ. His father plainly saw it and included his infant son in his song of praise to God.
Fact # 5: Its Liberating Impact
In one final burst of praise Zechariah speaks of three great blessings that the coming of Christ brings to the earth:
1. It is Light to those who are in darkness. “The rising sun will come to us from heaven.” (78)
2. It is Pardon to those condemned to death. “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (79)
3. It is Guidance to those who have lost their way. “To guide our feet into the path of peace.”
His words picture a huge caravan moving along slowly through the Middle Eastern desert. Somehow the caravan loses its way and now is lost in the darkness. During the cold night the enemies draw near and make ready to attack. Death is not far away. Then at the darkest moment of the night, when all hope seems lost, a light from on high suddenly shines on the caravan. The enemies are scattered and death disappears. In the bright light the leaders of the caravan see the path they had lost. Taking courage, the travelers resume their journey, confident now that they are going the right way.
This is the difference that Jesus Christ makes.
—When he comes into a life, the shadows flee away.
—When he comes in, we find the path we thought we had lost forever.
—When he comes in, despair is gone for our feet have found the path of peace.
That is the liberating impact of Jesus Christ!
Nothing Like This Has Ever Happened Before
Let me draw my conclusion from the Benedictus of Zechariah. If we look at Christmas this way, we see it in a new light. Nothing like this has ever happened before. God has visited his people and nothing will ever be the same again.
—He has come to save his people
—He has come to release them from their fears
—He has come to forgive their sins
—He has come to guide them on the path of peace
These words are for you!
At the beginning of the Christmas season, we ought to ask some crucial questions:
1. Do you believe it really happened?
2. Do you believe he came with you in mind?
3. Have you ever entered into the things Zechariah talked about?
That’s the key. These words of Zechariah are just words until they become true for you. Has that ever happened in your life?
Twenty-Four Days Till Christmas
My final word to you is this: Christmas is only 24 days away. “Deck the halls with boughs of holly.” “Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock.” “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” Let’s put up the tree. Let’s wrap the presents. Let’s drink some eggnog and stand under the mistletoe. But if that’s all Christmas means to you, you’ve missed what this season is all about.
It strikes me that we have a wonderful opportunity to set our hearts right. Christmas is not about snow and candy canes and stockings by the chimney. Christmas is about the transcendent truth that God has at last visited his people. All the rest is window dressing.
As the commercials keep telling us, there are only 24 shopping days left until Christmas Day. But think about what else that means. There are also …
—24 praising days until Christmas
—24 singing days until Christmas
—24 worshiping days until Christmas
How are you going to spend the 24 days that are left for you before Christmas finally arrives?
A Visitor Knocking At Your Door
I close with the dominant theme of Zechariah’s song set clearly before us: God has visited his people in the person of Jesus Christ. Now that same Divine Visitor comes and knocks at the door of your heart. Will you open the door and let him in?
He come and knocks. Can you hear the sound echoing in your heart? He stands patiently at the door, waiting for you to open and bid him enter.
Good news, my friend. The visitor from heaven is here at last! Will you, like Zechariah of old, drop everything and welcome him into your heart? Or are you too busy this year to be bothered with Jesus?
The familiar words of Phillips Brooks are very appropriate at this point:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
So he does! May that be your experience this Christmas season.