Christmas Had To Happen
There were not one, but two miraculous births around the first Christmas. The most important one was the birth of Jesus, the Christ, the “reason for the season,” if you will. The other was less significant, but it was still of monumental importance. That child was to be John the Baptist.
At that time (circa 4 BC), there was a Jewish temple standing in Jerusalem where the modern Dome of the Rock stands now. It was the center of Jewish worship, and so held a central place in the spiritual lives of thousands of people. It wasn’t, however, just a place to visit. It was full of activity, with sacrifices to perform and rituals to complete. Even though the crowds would have been a random element in the life of the temple, the rituals themselves had an order and consistency to them. There was a High Priest who had a central role in the life of the temple, but there were many other priests organized into twenty-four groups assigned to do the temple service (see 1 Chronicles 24:1-19).
The main character of this story is actually not John, but his father Zachariah. You can read the whole story in Luke 1. He was a priest in one of those twenty-four orders of priests, the division of Abijah. He was married to another Levite, Elizabeth. Both were old, and Elizabeth was barren, so they neither had kids nor expected to. Zachariah was chosen by lot to offer incense and did so, and while inside an angel came to speak to him. The angel said this.
Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, because your request has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son for you, and you will call his name John. He will be a cause of joy and gladness to you, and many will be be happy at his birth. He will be great before the Lord, he will not drink wine and beer, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit right out of his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to prepare for the Lord a people who are ready.
Zechariah was incredulous with reason—people then knew quite well what age does to childbearing abilities—but not righteously so. The angel told him that he would be mute (and deaf, as later verses seem to indicate) until the child was born. When the time of his temple service was over, he returned home to his barren and old wife, who conceived as was promised.
Nine months later the child was born to the old and barren Elizabeth and the deaf and dumb Zechariah. When asked what the child’s name would be, Elizabeth said “John.” Those around her didn’t think this was quite right, so they asked Zechariah. He couldn’t reply, so he wrong his name on a writing tablet. “John is his name.” Afterwards he was immediately able to speak again and then gave a prophecy, which is recorded in Luke 1:68-79. It’s worth reading in full, and has a crucial notion in it to which I want to call attention.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he watched over and accomplished redemption for this people,
and he raised a horn of salvation for us
in the house of David his servant,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets long ago,
salvation from from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to be merciful with our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to Abraham our father,
to allow us, having delivered us without fear from our enemies,
to worship him in holiness and righteousness before him for all our days,
and you, child, will be called prophet of the most high
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people,
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the compasionate mercies of our God,
because of which the sunrise from above will visit us,
to shine a light for those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to direct our feet to the way of peace.
Here’s a shorter version, with a great deal of liberty taken in paraphrasing.
God has been watching over his people and has come to help us, because he made an oath and a covenant with Abraham to do so, and will deliver us from our enemies. John will be a prophet of God to prepare the way for God’s big plan to bring salvation.
There’s an idea here that permeates the entire Bible. God made promises to Abraham, to bless him and his descendants. And this blessing will certainly come about because God promised it would be so, and no one can stop him.
Zechariah’s faith wasn’t perfect. God’s saints never have perfect faith, and the Bible doesn’t try to hide that. His faith, naturally, would be stronger after this. But ultimately this good thing that God would do, whatever it was going to look like, didn’t depend on Zechariah’s faith. It depended on God’s promises, on the covenant he made with his people. And this is why Christmas, as we call it, had to happen. Because of his promises, God could not leave things as they were. God had promised that he would bless Abraham and his seed, and so he would fulfill it. This is a really important aspect of biblical faith, namely, that faith isn’t just some hope that things will get better, or that everything is going to turn out okay, or that maybe I will get a bonus next year, or that perhaps I will get the present for Christmas that I wanted. Biblical faith isn’t built on wishes but on promises by a faithful, unstoppable God.
That being said, I bet it didn’t turn out as Zechariah would have expected it. Actually it’s a very normal part of the gospel narratives to see people confused because what they were expecting wasn’t quite what they were seeing. Even John, the great prophet born in this story, had his own moments of doubts (Luke 7:20). But that’s okay. Faith doesn’t require that you understand how something is going to play out, only that you know that God is faithful to his promises to his people.