What in the world does the Israelite exile have to do with Christmas?
Great question. Stay with me, because I’m going to explain.
For this Christmas series, we are going to be looking at the birth of Jesus in a very specific way. Over the coming weeks, we’re going to explore four different “scenes” in the gospel of Luke - four different mini-stories that capture some of the things that happened right before and after Jesus was born.
But, we are not just looking for warm and fuzzy nativity scenes to go along with your Christmas shopping.
No. We are going deeper to see what these stories really mean. Beyond just the facts. What they meant to the people who actually experienced them, what they meant to the original readers of these stories, and what they mean for us today.
The common thread with each of the characters we’re looking at is that they are all looking for Jesus - for different reasons. They’re looking for salvation, for justice, for peace, and for hope.
In Luke chapters 1 & 2, we’ll meet Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, Simeon & Anna… Each of these people is desperate for God to move in their lives and the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all their hopes.
As we work our way through these stories, I think we’ll see that he’s the fulfillment of our hopes as well.
But to do any of that - to get into this new series - we have to start with the big picture. The really big picture.
Which is why we had the kids helps us tell that story a minute ago and why I’m standing in front of a big chalkboard. Because I need to draw something.
We’ll start with a big timeline. And in the middle, we’ll put baby Jesus. He’s the reason we celebrate Christmas, so it’s good to start with him.
Next, on this far end, we need to put us - you and me.
Now, normally this is pretty much it for the Christmas story - a nice tale about baby Jesus that reminds us today that it’s better to give than receive… Or something. But when we look at the events of Jesus’ birth in isolation, we miss how they fit into the bigger picture. So let’s see if we can fill in some of these gaps.
We know what happened after Jesus was born. He grew up, had an incredible ministry of teaching & healing, then died and rose again - defeating death and offering salvation to the world. So let’s represent all that with a cross.
After that, Jesus ascended into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit, and empowered his disciples to become the Church - Jesus’ hands and feet in this broken world - God’s Plan A for restoring all of creation back to his intended design.
And that Church - that body of believers - is the same one we are a part of today. All of this is what we read about in the New Testament.
But obviously, that leaves half of the timeline empty, doesn’t it? And this is what we so often miss at Christmastime. This isn’t the whole story. The birth of Jesus isn’t the beginning of the Christmas story. It’s the middle!
So where does the story actually begin, then? Well, you could argue that it goes all the way back to creation, but for the sake of space, I’ll say that it starts when God chose his people - the Israelites. We can represent them with Moses - who led the Israelites out slavery in Egypt.
So, God chose his people. He saved his people. Whenever they followed him and did what he said, God blessed them. Eventually they had their own land, they had a beautiful temple, and they had a powerful, godly king - King David. It was a golden age for Israel.
But, they didn’t follow God forever. They began to rebel. To sin. God sent prophets to try and get them back on track, but the Israelites were so rebellious, God allowed Babylon to destroy the temple and carry off a lot of Israel’s leaders. They went into exile. Eventually, they were allowed to return to their city, but things were not the same.
Exile & aftermath
And all of this is what we read about in the Old Testament.
So what happened here?
Well, we’ll come back to this gap in a minute.
So what does all of this have to do with Christmas? More specifically, what does it have to do with the stories in Luke chapters 1 & 2?
Well, this is when things get interesting.
The gospel of Luke covers the events from, let’s say, here to here [chalkboard]. But this wasn’t the only thing he wrote. Luke also wrote the book of Acts. And when you read the two books together, you realize that in many ways they fit together perfectly. The books go hand in hand.
Both Luke and Acts are the maximum length you could get onto a scroll back then. So it’s conceivable that if he had access to some kind of double-length scroll made with premium papyrus, Luke would have combined the two into one long book. It’s just a theory, but I think it makes a lot of sense.
Why does this matter? Because Luke begins his gospel with the coming of Jesus, but the book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul preaching the good news in Rome, practically the capital of the world back then.
When you look at Luke & Acts together, you realize that it isn’t a biography of Jesus. The second half isn’t even about him. It’s about his Church!
This is the story of God’s salvation coming to all of humanity through Jesus.
Looking at it with that perspective in mind, you realize that the first couple chapters of Luke aren’t actually the beginning of anything. They’re a continuation. They’re picking up the threads of a story that started long before - all the way back at the beginning of the people of God.
Luke wants his readers to know that the story they are caught up in - the story of Jesus and his Church - is the same story they read about in the Old Testament. The story of Abraham and Moses and David and the Israelites.
This is all one story. The story of God’s mission to redeem humanity.
That’s why, when you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see that Luke 1 & 2 are practically dripping with references to the Old Testament.
· Every single name mentioned is a name from the Old Testament.
· An elderly couple gets pregnant, just like Abraham and Sarah did in Genesis.
· All the characters are descended from key families or individuals in ancient Israel.
· We see multiple scenes taking place in the Temple.
· People are visited by the same angel who showed up in the book of Daniel in the exile.
· And all the prayers and songs captured here are loaded with imagery from the Old Testament prophets.
Luke is practically smacking us upside the head with the fact that the story of Jesus’ birth does not stand alone. It grows out of the mission of God from the very beginning of time.
And here’s what’s amazing. When you understand Luke’s purpose for writing Luke and Acts - helping his readers connect these dots, you can see that the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus don’t just look backwards. They also point forward, to the life and death of Jesus, and even to the Church.
And because we’re a part of the Church, the stories point directly to us as well.
By telling these stories the way he does, Luke is connecting his readers’ reality - our reality - with the entire story of God’s people.
Are you with me? Does that make sense? This is the kind of stuff that gets me ALL geeked out.
Let’s look at one of these stories and I’ll show you what this looks like. [House Bibles]
The first character in Luke’s gospel is a man named Zechariah, who was the father of John the Baptist. Let’s meet him. Luke 1:5.
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.
So, one day Zechariah is serving in the temple, when something crazy happened. Verse 11.
While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Now, for many of us these words don’t really seem all that exciting. I mean, this is about John, not Jesus, right? Let’s get to the good stuff.
But, for Zechariah these words would have been LOADED. He would have been stunned.
The reason is because of these three dots right here [chalkboard] and what they represent.
What happened after the exile? What happened between the Old and New Testaments?
Well, this is what the kids helped us learn before the sermon. After the exile was over, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple, and tried to get their nation off the ground once more.
Eventually, they ruled over themselves again, but with corrupt leaders and infighting, they never regained the golden age they once had.
In fact, things were pretty rough. There was a lot of immorality, a lot of injustice, and a big loss of national pride. (Wah wah)
The Israelites were frustrated as their culture and language were slowly replaced by the Greeks. They were humiliated watching Roman soldiers walk the streets of Jerusalem.
In some ways, I’m sure it felt like the exile had never really ended.
The Israelites were weighed down by sin, struggling with oppression, and being ruled by evil kings both internally and externally. It went on like this for almost 500 years.
And yet, back when they were in exile God had promised to save Israel. To restore them. In was all throughout the prophets. All throughout the Psalms. The Israelites wondered: “When would God actually follow through on his promises?”
And so they dug into the prophecies of their ancestors looking for answers and began to weave some threads together.
· They found hints that a descendent of king David would restore the throne, leading a powerful kingdom.
· They found promises of salvation and a new golden age for Israel.
· That all nations would worship Israel’s God.
· And that all of it would be brought about by this promised savior - the Messiah.
It was a dark time, but listen to the kinds of words they held on to:
The people who walk in darkness
will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
a light will shine.
“For you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.”
In that day the heir to David’s throne
will be a banner of salvation to all the world.
The nations will rally to him,
and the land where he lives will be a glorious place.
There are hundreds of prophecies like that in the Old Testament.
Along with them came others which gave signs of what to look for - when it would actually happen. Some of them had to do specifically with a new prophet who would arise to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.
“I am sending you the prophet Elijah… his preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children…”
Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!”
Those were the kinds of prophecies that kept people like Zechariah going in the face of so much pain. They kept hope alive. So now, listen again to what the angel tells him about his son in verse 16.
“He will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Did you catch the references? According to this angel, some of those ancient prophecies were about Zechariah’s son! They meant the time of the Messiah was nearly there!
Can you imagine? Can you imagine what that would have felt like?
Imagine waiting for 500 years for these sorts of promises to come true. That’s you, your parents, your grandparents, your great-grandparents… All of your ancestors going back to the invention of the printing press - waiting on the same promises.
And then imagine, after all those centuries of waiting, you find out that YOU will be the one to see it happen. It will happen in YOUR day. In YOUR generation.
Not only that, but your son is the messenger you’ve been reading about all these years.
Like everyone in Israel, Zechariah is looking for salvation. He is waiting for the Messiah to save Israel from physical and spiritual exile, to bring the kingdom into a new golden age. He is looking for a king to bring salvation not just to Jerusalem, but to the entire world.
He is looking for Jesus.
And so when his son John is born, Zechariah holds his him in his arms and gives this beautiful prophecy which connects all the dots we’ve been talking about. Let’s look at it. Luke 1:68.
(And as we read, listen for the echoes of the prophecies I read before.)
“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.
Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live.
“And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.”
Look at all how Zechariah’s words tie it all together. [Chalkboard]
-The royal line of David
-Saved from our enemies
-Preparing the way for the Lord
-Salvation for his people
-Giving light to those in darkness
From Moses to the Church. You can see why Luke includes this story in his gospel now, can’t you? He is telling his readers - he is telling us - that we are a part of God’s mission to save the world.
It’s the entire story of the people of God - the story of God’s grand mission of redemption. And it all hinges on the coming of Jesus Christ to this world.
“The hopes and fears of all the years” are met right here - in a newborn baby named Jesus. “A thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices.” “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.”
This is why we celebrate Christmas. It points the way to the savior we’ve been looking for.
Jesus brings salvation to the world.
So. What does this all mean for us. I mean, it would be so easy to think of all of this as ancient history – just an academic exercise.
But here’s what I want you to hear: the coming of Jesus to this world is not just an ancient story. It’s a present reality.
What Jesus brought to the Israelites in the first century, he brings to us today. Jesus brings salvation. And we need it, don’t we?
Think about it. Our world is not all that different from ancient Israel.
· We’ve got injustice running rampant. The poor and marginalized are being crushed. The opioid epidemic is everywhere. Refugees are struggling around the globe.
· The immorality of our nation’s leaders is a constant front-page headline. Hatred, racism, and violence are shockingly commonplace. It’s a dark time in our country.
· And on a personal level, many of you have told me how isolated you feel. Or how weighed down by your past mistakes or brokenness. You feel trapped by your anxieties, your sins, and your addictions and you don’t see a way out.
You need a savior. We need a savior.
That’s why the Christmas story is such good, good news. As Zechariah put it:
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven [has broken] upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.
That light is Jesus Christ. The Messiah. The King.
God has orchestrated a grand rescue for this broken world. His son, Jesus, offers us the salvation we so badly need.
· In Jesus we can find the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our past.
· In Jesus we can be the agents of change to restore those crushed by the world.
· In Jesus we can turn hatred into love.
Jesus brings salvation to the world.
And if you let him, Jesus can bring salvation to you.