This series is my own preparation for Advent, and it will look at the First Christmas and how various characters encountered the First Christmas. “What was Christmas like for….?” is the question we are asking. We will look at Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary (with Elizabeth again), Joseph, and Simeon/Anna. Each will have five separate posts around this theme: their encounter with the revelation that Christmas was about to occur. These are not sermons, but advent preparation reflections, and I hope to engage any and all who will think along with me around this theme for Advent Season. Again, what was the first Christmas like? (And, of course, what are its implications for today?)
Christmas meant Answered Yearning: Luke 1:5-17
Zechariah was a priest – and his son, John the Baptist, evidently repudiated the Temple as a place for meeting God and finding purification. Instead, John found purity in the Jordan River and in the confession that went along with baptism. I’ve often pondered whether John’s act was a response to his father’s revelation in the Temple, but it is more guesswork than anything else. At any rate, Elijah had words for the priests, and John was Elijianic.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “upright in the sight of God” or “righteous before God.” That is, they were tsadiqim – those whose lives were conformed to the Torah. I sketch some of this in Jesus Creed (chp on Joseph), but there is force in the Jewish world in being described as “righteous” or a tsadiq. Profoundly pious, rigorously committed to the Torah, and enthusiastically obedient are the sorts of ideas connected to Z and E’s reputation.
In spite of their obedience, they are barren. This description in Luke 1:7 immediately throws us into the world of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:11), Elkanah and Hanna (1 Sam 1), and Manoah and his wife (Judg 13:2). Barrenness is a sign of God not blessing, and they were humbled by their condition. That they were aged complicated their condition.
Zechariah, in his bi-annual opportunity to perform the priestly function in the Temple and in his perhaps only time ever to get to do the incense offering, is met by Gabriel. Gabriel is famous for letting Israel in on the future plans of God (Dan 8:17; 9:20-21; 10:15). That future now includes two things that must thrill the hearts of Z and E: first, they will have a baby boy and this boy, to be named John, will be the instrument of God for a revival in Israel (Luke 1:11-17). In fact, he will be the Elijah figure promised in Malachi 3—4.
Zechariah’s experience occurs when all Israel is praying – this would be about 3pm at the time of the evening sacrifice. It is also the time when Israel gathered at the Temple to say its prayers (perhaps the ha-Tepillah, today called the Amidah, or something like it, perhaps also the Shema).While the people prays for God to come for redemption, which is inherent to these prayers, God is actually doing something about it – in a surprising way by bringing into the world a prophet destined for revival.
The boy’s name is to be Yohanan – “Yahweh has given grace.” But this boy will also be one connected with joy and delight and rejoicing and greatness and the Spirit of God (1:13-17).
Yearning is a theme of the first Christmas characters – they are all longing for the day when God would enter history and reverse the tides of injustice, violence, impiety, disobedience, and poverty. In the hearts of Z and E is a yearning for God’s promised redemption.