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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

The Power of Christmas




It seems quite amazing that we find ourselves here in December 2020 with Coronavirus still dominating our lives. The latest lockdown is over now leaving us wondering, perhaps, what Christmas 2020 might look like.

It seems good to me therefore, to start this month of Christmas messages with an eye to the power of Christmas. If we think Coronavirus is a powerful Christmas influence in all of our lives this year – and it is - I’m here to tell you about a more powerful Christmas influence. There is a Christmas power that makes Corona power look weak, and I’m here to share that power with you.

Zechariah’s isolation This morning we are turning to a poem which was spoken by the father of John the Baptist. His name was Zechariah. He was a Jewish priest and his wife was called Elizabeth. 9 or 10 months before he spoke this poem, he had an angelic visitation in which he was told that his wife Elizabeth would bear him a son, and his name was to be John. Zechariah in a moment of unbelief, asked how this could be possible, since he himself was old and his wife past child bearing age. That sin – and it was a sin, because Gabriel’s words were not his own, but God Almighty’s – had an instant consequence, and the angel Gabriel struck Zechariah dumb until the child was born. For 9 months Zechariah could not speak.

It might be reasonable to suppose he couldn’t hear either – verse 62 says, they made signs to Zechariah to find out what the child should be called. If a person can hear you don’t tend to need signs to communicate. Let’s suppose, therefore, that Zechariah was both deaf and dumb for 9 whole months – minimum! And then came the day when Zechariah wrote on the slate that his name should be John. At that moment his mouth was opened and he was able to speak. I wonder what our first words would have been after 9 months of silence. Zechariah’s are very telling. Verse 64 tells us his first words were ones that praised God.

Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was set free and he began to speak, praising God”.

Silence In our day of wall-to-wall media, that kind of enforced silence would, I imagine, induce in us a lot of streaming of Netflix – subtitles on of course. It would probably mean a lot of surfing around on the internet; a lot of social media interaction - I think. Hopefully it would mean for us a lot of reading good books too. For sure there was less media in Zechariah’s day, nevertheless I have a hunch that Zechariah used his silent time really well. The words that came out of his mouth first, reflect the good things that he had read during his isolation. This is a good reminder that silence is something worth striving for and, something not easy to come by – especially in our day. Jesus said, “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen”. In other words, go find some peace and quiet where you won’t be distracted or interrupted, and pray.

This is a massive challenge to me. Too many of my prayers, I feel, are interrupted by intrusive thoughts. Not least, because I’m already thinking about the next thing I could be doing – and interestingly, it’s often something I could be doing online. So, let me say it: meaningful meditation and prayer relies on a degree of silence.

We live very busy lives – God knows it - but perhaps some of our business is self-imposed. Would a more disciplined and deliberate use of our free time, grant more opportunities for silence and better quality meditation? I think it might. I think Zechariah had used his time well though. I think he had devoted himself to mediation on the Word of God and to prayer. So much so, that his heart was full of God by the time his son was born. And, when his tongue was loosened, his lips instantly overflowed in praise for God.


Now if that’s the case, then the words of this poem are worth spending some time on. So what is noteworthy about Zechariah’s words?

Israel is in view Well, the first thing is that the God he praises is the God of Israel (v.68). Zechariah had no new testament. He had the old testament scriptures, full of the histories of Israel and the promises of God about a future for his people, but nothing like what we have. Therefore, Zechariah’s focus is an Israel-centric focus not an all-the-world-centric focus.


Significant events Second, in Zechariah’s mind something massively significant is happening in his day, for the nation of Israel. He is so convinced of it, he speaks of it as if it is already accomplished. ‘God has come to his people’. He’s not talking about something way back in the past, he’s referring to the unfolding events of his own day. Verses 76-79 confirm this to be the case. In speaking of his own son, Zechariah makes it plain that John the Baptist ‘will go before the Lord and prepare the way for him...he will give his people a knowledge – that is an experience – of salvation’ (v.76 & 77). That is the same as the ‘salvation’ that characterises verses 67-75. So, Zechariah has in view monumental events occurring in his life time which are so certain to fulfil the promises of God, he speaks of them in the past or accomplished tense. To Zechariah, when God says he’s going to do something, it is as good as done. Nothing can thwart his plans or interrupt his purposes. Therefore, what he has said he will do, he will do. “For, no word from God will ever fail” (v.37). Zechariah perceives by the power of the Spirit of God (v.67) on him, that this moment is the moment in history when God’s promises to Israel are coming to fruition.


The Horn comes Thirdly, we can see that Zechariah prophesies that God has raised up a horn of salvation for Israel. A horn here symbolises power or strength. Notice that the horn that God has raised up is a instrument of God to bring about a whole host of wonderful things. God’s horn is a horn of salvation and,

it is a horn of redemption (v.68); and a horn of mercy (v.72); and a horn of covenant fulfilling (v.73);

and a horn of rescue (v.74); and a horn of enabling (v.74); and a horn of fear conquering (v.74); and a horn of holiness and righteousness giving (v.75).

In other words, God’s instrument of power is bringing a multitude of astonishing benefits to Israel. When I looked up each of these benefits in the old testament as they relate to Israel, it became stunningly clear that Zechariah had meditated long and hard on the deliverance of Israel from Egypt at the inauguration of the nation. When I looked for redemption, I found: It was because the Lord loved you...and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deut 7:8). When I looked for salvation, I found: That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians” (Ex 14:30).

When I looked for mercy, I found: For the Lord your God is a merciful God, he will not abandon or destroy you” (Deut 4:31 where contextually deliverance from Egypt is all over the page). When I looked for covenant keeping, I found: I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant” (Ex 6:5). When I looked for rescue, I found: Praise the Lord who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians...” (Ex 18:10). When I looked for enabling to serve God, I found:

do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt...fear the Lord your God, serve him only” (Deut 6:12-13). When I looked for deliverance from fear, I found: Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid...the Egyptians you see today you will never see again” (Ex 14:13). When I looked for holiness, I found: I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:45). And when I looked for righteousness, I found:

But he brought us out from there [that is Egypt]...if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God...that will be our righteousness” (Deut 6:23-25). So, when God stretched out his all-powerful arm (Deut 4:37) and brought his people out of the grip of the most powerful king on earth at the time, he delivered them into all the same benefits Zechariah is saying are coming on Israel in his day too. Zechariah is seeing history repeating itself. But, with one key difference. The key difference is that, at the beginning of Israel’s history the Lord brought them out with his own hand. But Zechariah sees a horn raised up by God to do the work. In Israel’s day, the power of deliverance was God himself. In Zechariah’s day, the power of deliverance is the horn that God has raised up.

What Zechariah knew What are we to make of all this?

Well, let’s just back up a bit and remind ourselves of some important facts that Zechariah was privy to. We know that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was a relative of a woman called Mary (v.36). We know that when Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant with John, Mary visited her (v.36 & 39). We know that, by the time Mary made that visit, an angel of God had already appeared to her and told her that she was going to have a child, despite the fact she was a virgin (v.34). We know that she was to call the child Jesus – meaning saviour (v.31).

And, we know that others would call him the Son of the Most High (v.32). The angel had told Mary that the Lord God would give him the throne of his father David and a kingly reign that would never end (v.33). We know that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, moved by the Holy Spirit (v.43), had exclaimed ‘blessed is the child you will bear!’. Zechariah was in possession of all this information.

He had looked back during his isolation and seen the deliverance of God from Israel’s enemies and, the abundant benefits he had bestowed upon them. And, he had been privy to news that a baby deliverer was about to be born – in his day - and his natural conclusion was, that at long last, Israel was going to have a king who would deliver the nation from its enemies and make it great again. And, he was overjoyed - it made him burst forth in praise to God. But, he was mistaken. We know he was mistaken, because Jesus never took up a throne in Israel. Jesus never delivered the nation from their oppressors. He lived a lowly life, and he died a traitor’s death. Emphatically not what Zechariah had in mind when he spoke his poem. Yet, his poem is not a mistake. Zechariah’s interpretation of the events was mistaken, but the words he spoke are true, and are realised, and are even more glorious than he could ever have imagined.


Glorious fulfillment Consider this. Of Jesus, it has been said: “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:14). Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). If you belong to Christ...you are heirs according to the [Abrahamic] promise” (Gal 3:29). In his great mercy, he has given us new birth...through the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Pet 1:3). Christ Jesus has become wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Christ Jesus our Lord...has given me strength...appointing me to his service” (1 Tim 1:12).

by [Jesus’] death he...freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:14- 15). In Zechariah’s poem, Israel is going to receive all these benefits from the Horn of God’s salvation. All the benefits they had received when God brought them out of Egypt. But Jesus doesn’t bring those benefits to Israel. He brings those benefits to the new people of God. The new Israel of God (Rom 9:6). Those who by faith take hold of the promises of God – people from every tribe and nation and people and tongue – not just Israel (though they are included too).


Jesus is the Horn of Salvation Therefore, Jesus Christ, appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead (Rom 1:4), is the Horn of salvation Zechariah prophesied about. He has not brought the benefits of redemption and salvation; of mercy and covenant fulfilment; of rescue and empowerment; of holiness and righteousness to Israel, he has brought them to any individual who puts their faith in his atoning sacrifice for their sake upon the cross Calvary. Every one of us – in our unholiness and our unrighteousness - is a captive to sin; a slave of the devil; a hopeless wanderer in this world; bound to fear; and unable to serve God. But Jesus is full of Christmas power. He is the Horn of our Salvation. Look to him, he has the power to make you holy. Look to Jesus, he has the power to place your sins as far away as the east is from the west. Look to Jesus, he can unlock the chains of your captivity. Look to Jesus, he has power to save from sin and its consequences. Look to Jesus, he alone can conquer fear, and empower you to serve him in holiness and righteousness.

Matching Zechariah’s joy Zechariah is in heaven now – I believe. I think he now knows that his poetic words were even more significant than he had given them credit for. If he praised God when his lips were opened, how much more now before the eternal throne of the messiah – Jesus Christ? Yet, I wonder. Zechariah saw something dawning in his day that made him so glad that all his words were praise for God’s goodness. And what he thought he saw was mistaken! We have the fullness of the real meaning of his poetic words, yet are our hearts as joyful as his? I’m not so sure. Our words will tell us a lot. If they don’t sound very joyful as we embark on Christmas, then I commend to you - and to my own soul - some silent meditation on what Christmas really means. It would be more worthy of God if, our Christmas was more full of joyful praise for his Horn of salvation – our powerful Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ, than it already is. We put up our Christmas tree this week. The Christmas tree is our contemporary quintessential symbol of Christmas. That’s fine. But the best symbol of Christmas may well be, the powerful Horn that triumphs over all other powers, and all principalities, and all dominions – even sin and death and Satan himself.

So, may the Lord bless this first word of the Christmas season to our hearts. Amen.


 

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