The greatest love story in history is not Romeo and Juliet. The most romantic city in the world is not Paris. Bethlehem is the home of the greatest love story ever told and last week we remembered and celebrated this story.
In my last post that anticipated Christmas (God Is About To Act) I looked at Zachariah’s Song in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:67-80). This passage has been lingering with me as the year draws to a close, and is pregnant with the real meaning of Christmas.
Zachariah, a priest in Israel’s Temple and father of John the Baptist, celebrates the birth of his son. As he bursts into prophetic praise, his song if filled with the significance of the one who will go before the Lord and prepare His way. As one schooled in Israel’s holy scripture, Zachariah celebrates and remembers the faithfulness of God toward His people. He recalls what God has done and he is filled with anticipation of what is about to unfold.
Zachariah’s song of praise is beautifully balanced by two sentences, each delineating its own theme. The former reflects what God has done in history; the latter anticipates what He is about to do. In each sentence one word burns like a beacon illuminating God’s character – mercy.
God has shown mercy to His people. Through His covenant with Abraham, through the dramatic deliverance of His children from the grip of Pharaoh, God has been merciful.
Now in his next breath, bursting with the Spirit, Zachariah sings in expectation of what God is about to do. The whole unit pivots on this word. Yet this time it is not just mercy. Mercy is defined by an adjective: compassionate mercy. God is changing gears – in fact, what He is about to do is unprecedented.
Compassionate mercy in the English just doesn’t come close to conveying the feel of the word (splangchna), or the extent of what God will do.The meaning in the original has it’s root in ‘bowels’. For the ancients the seat of emotions was not the heart as in the later Classics – it was the bowels. For anyone who has lost a loved one, grieving and sobbing through that loss, you will know what is meant here. We say our heart is broken but the feeling is a lot lower. We cry, and at times it is gut wrenching.
What God is about to do in sending His Son needs to be heard in stereo:
His love for His world is gut wrenching. The apostle John declares: “For God so loved that world that He sent His one and only Son.”
But in sending His only Son He gave up a part of himself. As God knew how His Son would be received, as He knew how the story would culminate on a stony crag outside Jerusalem, this gift is not without a cost. God gave his gut…
Without entirely unpicking the rich tapestry of this song, perhaps we can touch on the next phrase as it illuminates God’s purpose for this extravagant gift.
…by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven.
The permutations for translation here are numerous: anatolē in the original can refer to a rising heavenly sphere in the east, most often understood as the rising sun – dawn. But it can equally refer to a bright star. Images of the star that rested over the manger in Bethlehem are not far off during this season.
The imagery is pregnant with hope. As a new day dawns, new possibilities exist. A new day with fresh hope awaits.
Yet the light that dawns is not the sun or a star, it is the very presence of God himself. The hope of the world that is about to shine on His people is the Son himself – the true light of the world.
As a New Year rises to meet us, our hope is not in a new calendar or a new resolve. Our hope is in the Son that came to shine His light into this world all those centuries ago.
Zachariah’s Song becomes our prayer and his last phrase has powerful application as we step out into the New Year:
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”