Be honest. How many of you have ever peeked to see what presents you were getting before Christmas morning? What about shaking a box or doing elaborate dimensional calculations to figure out what you were getting?
I remember one Christmas, back when I was very obsessed with World War II airplanes, I just knew my parents were going to buy me this expensive painting of a Spitfire shooting down an ME-109 that I could hang in my room. I’ve never felt so much anticipation for Christmas morning.
Unfortunately, as December 25 got closer, I didn’t see any painting-sized boxes under the tree. And sure enough, when I opened my “big gift” from mom and dad, it wasn’t a painting. It was a super-cool, real leather bomber jacket. I was devastated.
Of course, as an adult I realize was an awesome gift, but what are you going to do?
Regardless, that feeling of anticipation… of waiting desperately for the big day to arrive. It’s something we’ve all felt in one form or another.
It could be for Christmas or it could be for other good things. We wait for the release of that new product. For our loved ones to return from a trip. For family vacation… We wait.
But, of course, waiting / anticipating / longing can sometimes happen at a much deeper level. Sometimes it’s the kind of waiting you feel deep in your gut and it’s not always so positive.
• Waiting for the biopsy results.
• Waiting to be reconciled with your son or daughter.
• Waiting for forgiveness when you’ve hurt someone.
• Waiting for an end to the pain.
The point is, we all know what it feels like to wait - to hope, to anticipate. And that’s what we’re going to talk about this Christmas season: Waiting.
We’re going to look at four moments in the book of Luke in which we find characters who are waiting. Some are waiting for salvation for their people, some are waiting for justice. Some are waiting for peace, and others are waiting for hope.
In every case, their anticipation - their longing - is fulfilled through the birth of Jesus.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
My hope is that, through these stories, we’ll get some new insight into our own moments of waiting, and perhaps see where God is in the midst of the “not yet.”
So let’s dive in and look at the first story. Please turn with me to the gospel of Luke, Page ______.
While you’re turning there, I’m going to pray.
WORLDS OF THE TEXT
Now, before we read any of these stories, it’s important to understand what I call the World Behind the Text and the World of the Text.
We’ll start with the World of the Text - the literary nature of what we’re about to read.
You see, Luke, the author of this book, has a specific goal in mind as he tells these stories. He’s not just recounting facts like a historian.
No. He’s trying to tie the story of Jesus’ birth in with a much bigger narrative. A story that goes back to the beginning of the Bible.
In the first two chapters of Luke, he makes dozens of references back to the Old Testament. Words, images, phrases, events, even characters… they all tie back to what came before.
For Luke’s first readers - first century Israelites who had grown up hearing stories and prophecies of their ancestors over and over again, Luke wants the beginning of his story of Jesus to ring a lot of familiar bells.
It’s kind of like a Star Wars or Marvel movie. It’s fine on its own, but if you know the lore and the backstory and you get all the specific references, it’s a totally different experience.
That’s what Luke chapters 1 & 2 are like. They’re filled with hyperlinks to what came before.
So what did come before? Well, that’s where we need to talk about the World behind the Text. Luke’s world and the world of his first readers.
Put very, very simply, in the first century, AD, the people of Israel were in a time of waiting. God had promised from the very beginning to use his people to heal the world, but it sure seemed like that mission was on hold.
Back in the 500’s B.C. (half a millennium before this moment), God’s people had gone so far astray, they had allowed injustice and sin to corrupt their land so deeply, that God sent them into exile.
They had to live under the thumb of the powerful empire of Babylon for two generations.
And even though the exile eventually did end and God brought his people home, things never really got much better in Israel.
Sin and injustice continued to be the law of the land. And Israel continued to be ruled by oppressive foreign powers. After Babylon it was the Greeks. After the Greeks it was the Romans.
The people of God were waiting - wondering if they would ever be made right again with their God.
As Roman troops marched through the streets of Jerusalem, the people of Israel were waiting for salvation to come.
And that brings us to Luke chapter 1, where we meet one of these waiting Israelites.
We’ll start in verse 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 here we meet Zechariah. He was a priest serving God in the temple, and according to Luke, he was righteous. Unlike many of his people, he did not give in to sin and evil. He obeyed God.
And yet, he and his wife Elizabeth never had a child.
Now, in the modern world, we understand that infertility happens for a lot of reasons. But in ancient Israel, childlessness was seen as shameful. A disgrace. Possibly even an indication that God was displeased with you.
You can imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth waiting for a child for years… Maybe wondering if they had done something wrong to make God angry. Maybe you have experienced that same thing.
Regardless, they were waiting for an answer.
But that wasn’t the only thing they were waiting for. As I said, as Israelites, they were waiting for salvation.
I like to imagine Zechariah on his way to serve in the temple day after day, passing Roman soldiers laughing and hurling ethnic slurs at him. Maybe he was even afraid for his life a few times.
You can imagine him repeating Old Testament passages and prophecies over and over. “How long, O Lord, will you let our enemies triumph?”
On one particular day, his job was to light incense in the Holy Place in the temple. This symbolized the prayers and hopes of the people of Israel rising up to God.
Again, I can imagine these ancient passages rolling through his mind as he worked.
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 I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
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.
Over and over, words like these giving Zechariah hope. Hope that, even in his old age, he might yet see God returning to his people. The Messiah rising up to bring salvation.
Or if not that, he might at least see the coming of the prophet who was destined to pave the way.
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!”
These were the hopes of a people in waiting.
Zechariah is waiting for a child. He is waiting for a Messiah. He is waiting, like his people, for Salvation.
And then one day, as he is serving in the temple, his waiting comes to an end.
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.
Zechariah, you’re having a son. Like your ancestor Abraham, God is not finished writing your story.
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.
Did you catch the references there?
He will have the spirit of Elijah. He will prepare the way for the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.
These are all direct quotes of the prophecies we just read. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son won’t just be anybody. He will be the prophet whose job it is to announce the coming of the Lord.
Thank about what this would have meant to Zechariah. God is finally bringing salvation to his people, and this elderly, faithful priest, who had served God with anticipation all his life - is about to get a front-row seat.
Zechariah, your waiting is over. God has not abandoned you.
Imagine what would have been racing through Zechariah’s as he waited for his son to be born. Not only had he been waiting all his life for a child, but his people had been waiting for salvation for 500 years.
Waiting for the Messiah to save Israel from physical and spiritual exile, to bring the kingdom into a new golden age. To bring salvation to the entire world. And now it’s about to happen.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Zechariah’s son John is born, he holds this newborn baby in his arms and speaks the words of a prophecy that sounds like it was lifted right out of the pages of the Old Testament.
As we read this, listen for the echoes of those prophecies we 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.”
The people sitting in darkness will see a great light. A prophet will prepare the way in the wilderness for the Lord. A savior from the line of David will bring salvation to the world.
The time of waiting for the people of Israel had come to an end. A new day was about to dawn.
And all the things that had been prophesied for hundreds of years finally began to come true.
Zechariah’s son grew up to be the man who we call John the Baptist, and he did exactly what he was born to do. He lived in the wilderness like an Old Testament prophet, baptizing people and preparing them for the coming of Jesus.
And of course Jesus grew up to be that long awaited Messiah. He also fulfilled these ancient prophecies. Just not in the way people expected.
Jesus didn’t end Roman occupation of Jerusalem. He let Rome execute him, and in so doing he invited humanity into a new kingdom that was built not on violence and empire, but on something even more powerful: self-giving love.
He didn’t just rescue a few Israelites from their sinful ways. No. He broke the back of sin’s power over all of humanity. He took sin’s consequences on himself on the cross.
He gave us all a way to be washed clean of our sin and to live new lives guided by the Spirit of God.
He didn’t just give a bit of hope in “the shadow of death.” By rising from the grave he ended death’s power over us once and for all.
He fulfilled a story that began all the way back in Genesis. He inaugurated a New Creation where humans and their Creator could once more live face to face and where the brokenness of our world could finally be healed.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel…” The ancient cries of the people of God - a people in waiting - were finally being answered.
No wonder Zechariah was so overwhelmed.
So that’s story number 1. I just love how Luke begins his gospel. He draws us in to the expectation and the fulfillment of the waiting people of God, but he does it through the least likely of people.
This childless priest. And as we’ll see in the weeks to come, through a poor girl from Galilee, through some low-class shepherds, through two elderly prophets.
He draws us in so we can see how our own waiting is fulfilled by the coming of Jesus.
But let’s talk about that for a second. Because this is all great, but it raises a pretty big question.
Is our waiting really at an end? Because it looks to me like the world is still broken. Our lives are still hard. There’s still sin and injustice all around us.
Even Zechariah - who spoke these beautiful words - he never saw their completion. Roman troops walked the streets of Jerusalem till the day he died. He probably didn’t even live to see the ministry of Jesus.
So what do we do with this? If the coming of Christ changed everything, as Luke wants us to believe, then why are things still the same?
Why is my body still broken? Why are my loved ones still estranged? Why am I still addicted and anxious and traumatized and in pain? You say our waiting was over on Christmas morning. So why am I still holding on for dear life?
Well, here we are invited into a tension that Luke is well aware of. As we see in the rest of his gospel, and in his sequel, the book of Acts… we (Christ-followers) are currently living in both the now and the not yet.
What I mean is, things fundamentally changed in our world because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His kingdom has been spreading every day since then. But it is not yet fully here.
Because Jesus came, today we are freed from our slavery to sin. One day sin won’t be an option. But not yet. We still have to make a choice of whether to obey God or do what seems right in our own eyes.
Because Jesus came, today we no longer have to fear death. One day we’ll rise again and death won’t even exist anymore. But not yet. We still have to pass through that veil.
Because Jesus came, (as NT Wright often says), we can now learn how to speak the language of love. One day we’ll be singing in it. But not yet. We still have a lot of new words to learn.
My point is this: you’re waiting for something. I’m waiting for something. We are all eagerly anticipating the day when our world will change for good.
It can be easy to be discouraged by the “not yet.” But I don’t want us to forget the “now.” It’s just as true. Our world changed when Jesus was born. Because he came, you can be confident that:
Christ is here. He is working. He is bringing life and justice and healing, if we have eyes to see it.
God has not forgotten you in your waiting. Emmanuel - God with us - is right here. Let that be the hope that uplifts you, even as you wait for the end of the story.
Zechariah never saw what God would accomplish. But as he held in his arms the son he once thought was impossible, he spoke these words of confident expectation:
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.
This Christmas let’s remember that God’s light has already begun to shine in this dark world. Emmanuel has come. We’re living in the sunrise.
We get to bask in the light of Christ and reflect it to the people around us, even as we still wait for the day when the darkness will be no more.