The National Conference on Preaching 2015

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Great Expectations at Christmas

For most in our churches, the holidays rarely fulfill expectations.

Children lay awake visualizing the toy in the big box, only to lay it aside a day later. Parents eagerly anticipate “time off,” only to suffer the fatigue and frustration of crammed calendars. Relatives long for happy reunions, only to experience increased familial tensions and turbulence.

Perhaps the reason for the disappointment and despair is that for many our people, Christmas wishes have become carnal cravings. Settling for what is paltry and passing, so many often fail to appreciate the extraordinary and eternal gift of God in the Incarnation.

One could not accuse Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, of this type of shortsightedness and secularity. Even as Zechariah experienced perhaps the greatest earthly blessing—the birth of a child—he was still able to see beyond that event.

The climax of God’s redemptive plan—His Messiah—was imminent and that fact eclipsed all his earthly concerns. Our churches today would do well to adopt that same outlook.

Zechariah’s story as told in the Gospel of Luke is well-known. After doubting Gabriel’s promise to him regarding his future son, Zechariah had remained mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy. But on the eighth day after the birth, Zechariah opened his mouth in praise to God (Luke 1:64). Filled with the Holy Spirit, he prophesied of the providential and impending redemption of the Lord to be accomplished through His Messiah.

This prophecy is recorded in Luke 1:67-79. Commonly known as the Benedictus, Zechariah’s song reveals many truths about God’s redemption through the coming Messiah.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s providential hand in history.

First, Zechariah possessed a clear knowledge of God’s work in history as revealed in Scripture. Having been deaf and dumb for nine months or more, Zechariah had probably meditated many days on the Old Testament.

His prophecy revealed that he knew exactly what God was about to do through John the Baptist. Zechariah’s son was about to fulfill Malachi 3:1 and “prepare the way of the Lord.” The great day of our Lord’s appearing was imminent—all in God’s perfect timing.

Christmas should remind Christians that God has and will continue to act providentially in human history to bring glory to Himself through the salvation of sinners.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s purpose in sending the Messiah.

Earlier in Zechariah’ song, he had spoken of deliverance from enemies (vv. 71, 74), salvation from those who hate Israel (v. 74), the saving “visitation” of God (v. 68), and His redemption of His people (v. 68), all accomplished by the “horn of salvation”—His Messiah—emerging from the house of David (v. 69). These ideas have deep roots in the Old Testament and draw on terms speaking of God’s physical redemption of Israel, as found, for instance, in the exodus accounts.

But verse 77 gives a more precise picture of what that “salvation” entailed—the forgiveness of sins. In other words, God’s purpose for the Messiah was clearly spiritual—meeting the greatest need of His people and defeating their greatest enemy.

Sin had been man’s mortal adversary since the Garden, resulting not only in death but also in Adam and Eve being forcibly removed from God’s presence. But the Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15) who would crush sin, death, and Satan was about to be born.

Of course, that God’s purposes are spiritual should not surprise us. God’s saving acts in history have always had a spiritual intention. For example, He physically delivered Israel and later placed them securely in the Promised Land so that they might be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3).

Christians also can sometimes misinterpret the purposes of God in sending His Messiah. It is not just an occasion for giving gifts, spending time with family, or relaxing away from work. Christmas is a time to celebrate and “proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah God’s basis for His saving work.

In one simple expression, Zechariah reveals the glorious basis for our salvation—the “merciful compassion” of God (v. 78).

This phrase is an obvious reference to perhaps the most beautiful word in the Old Testament (hesed). As Daniel Block notes in his commentary on Judges and Ruth, this Old Testament term “wraps up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty.” In other words, hesed is who God is; it’s His very nature.

Christmas is a time to focus on the goodness and great grace of God, as displayed most powerfully in the gift of His Son.

The Holy Spirit revealed to Zechariah to our great need for the Messiah.

The need for the Messiah is asserted clearly in verse 79. People are in darkness and the shadow of death. Drawing on Old Testament images, Zechariah’s prophecy portrays people who have yet to experience justice and forgiveness. Instead, they only know blindness and bondage (Isaiah 42:7), misery (Psalm 107:10), and death.

They need guidance. They need light. They need knowledge of salvation (v. 78). In his Luke commentary, Darrell Bock points out that even Zechariah, who is earlier labeled as “righteous” (1:6), includes himself among those who require God’s gracious intervention (v. 79). Of course, the Light they need is the Messiah Himself (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7; 49:6).

How quickly Christians forget that we were once in utter darkness—dead in our sin, enslaved to Satan, doomed by our nature, and condemned justly to death (Ephesians 2:1-3). May we this Christmas proclaim with boldness the same message of Zechariah, that others in darkness may see a great Light.

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Recognizing the Savior in the midst of swollen Christmas schedules

It’s difficult for ministers to maintain perspective around Christmas time.

The endless barrage of strip-mall Santas and social events, novelty songs and nativity scenes can kick up enough mind-numbing nostalgia dust to cloud anyone’s spiritual vision. Yet, in the midst of the swollen schedules, we must help our people in our churches come to grips with the significance of the Child in the manger whom the church “celebrates.”

The Bible attests of one individual who comprehended clearly the proverbial “true meaning” of Christmas. This man was Isaiah. Ironically, some 700 years before the actual birth of Jesus, this prophet perceived and proclaimed Christ, His person and His work in a more lucid manner than most today who have the benefit of God’s complete revelation. As the Apostle John writes, Isaiah “saw His glory, and he spoke of Him” (John 12:41).

What exactly did Isaiah “see” and “declare” about Christ? Among other things, he saw that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (7:14), would be both God and man (9:6), would perform miracles (35:5-6), and would preach good news (61:1).

However, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the “Song of the Suffering Servant,” we have the most precise of all Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the work of Christ. This passage presents a straightforward and shocking depiction of our Savior’s suffering and substitutionary work. So clear is its fulfillment that one could almost read the text and forget it is an Old Testament passage.

In the song, Isaiah presents several truths about our Savior, the “Suffering Servant.” Let us this Christmas help out congregations consider the significance of our Savior through Isaiah’s eyes. 

Isaiah recognized the identity of the Servant

Because of the precision of the prophecy, many doubters throughout the centuries have identified the servant of Isaiah 53 as someone other than Jesus. Suggestions include: Israel, Isaiah, Moses, and another prophet, etc.

True, “servant” does occasionally refer to Israel and Isaiah in chapters 40-55. However, in the four “servant songs” (others are in chaps. 42, 49 and 50), the clear referent is the Davidic Messiah. In fact, in the Old Testament the expression “My servant David” often functions as a Messianic title (Psalm 89:3, 20; Jeremiah 33:26; Ezekiel 34:23; 37:25; Zechariah 3:8; Luke 1:69).

The New Testament writers undoubtedly understood the Servant to refer to Jesus Christ. In fact, they cite or allude to Isaiah 53 some 48 times—a number eclipsed only by Daniel 7 (59 times).

Isaiah recognized the rejection of the Servant

In the initial words of the passage, we find partial evidence why the Servant is said to be “suffering.” Despite His sacrificial love described in the later verses and despite His exaltation before God (52:13-15), the world would despise Him (53:3).

Humans are attracted to money, flash, majesty, fame—not sorrows, shame, and suffering. The servant possessed no worldly attractiveness. Therefore the world hated him. And people still snub Christ because His humility and sacrifice do not fit their worldview, lifestyle, and values. Yet, in the wisdom of God, Christ was rejected that we might be accepted.

Isaiah recognized the sin of those served by the Servant

Isaiah makes evident the need for the Servant’s sacrifice and suffering—“our infirmities” (v. 4), “our sorrows” (v. 4), “our transgressions” (v. 5), “our iniquities” (v. 5), our straying (v. 6), “the iniquity of us all” (v. 6), “the transgression of My people” (v. 8), “the sin of many” (v. 12).

The essence of the biblical worldview is that humanity has a sin problem. And sin must either be covered or the sinner punished.

Isaiah recognized the atoning sacrifice of the Servant

Isaiah wrote chapters 40-55 to comfort a people who would one day experience exile—God’s forcible removal of His people from the Promised Land as precipitated by their covenant disobedience. Earlier passages in Isaiah give the people hope of a physical restoration to the land. Chapter 53 gives them hope that the very thing that sent them into exile in the first place—their sin—would be covered and forgiven (v. 4). This would be accomplished through the Servant.

Though innocent (v. 7), the Servant would vicariously suffer, even unto death, experiencing the punishment that God’s people justly deserved (vv. 5-6) in order to bring them peace and healing (v. 5)—a doctrine we know today as penal substitutionary atonement.

The image employed plainly recalls the death of the lamb in an Old Testament sacrifice. Yet, no animal would or could bear and atone for the sins of God’s people; shockingly, it would be a human, a Servant, who would shed his blood sacrificially.

Isaiah recognized that the Servant’s suffering was the will of God

Perhaps most shocking to the modern mind are the final statements of Isaiah’s song. Note who imposes the suffering on the Servant. God does. And more scandalous still, He was “pleased” to do it.

But didn’t the religious leaders frame Jesus? Didn’t Judas betray Jesus? Didn’t the soldiers nail Him to the cross? Yes, but it was the will of God that these things happen. It was God’s “pleasure” for Christ to die.

Does this mean that those involved are absolved of guilt? No, but they only did what was permitted by God. Does this mean that God did not grieve to see His son on the cross? No, the idea expressed with “pleasure” is “desire” or “will.” God was willing to do it, because He sees all ends.

What were those ends? Simply, the servant died for the justification of many and His own ultimate exaltation (vv. 10-12). Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

This is the Christ that we celebrate at Christmas—a man of sorrows, slaughtered for our sin, but ultimately exalted at the right hand of the Father. To use the angels’ words, “Glory to God in the highest!”

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