The Unexpected Joy of the Christmas

One of the first Christmas carols ever sung wasn’t written at Christmas at all–but six months earlier. And it wasn’t sung at the birth of Jesus, either. It was sung at the birth of his cousin John. When it comes to recounting the Christmas story, I suspect most of us begin in Luke chapter 2: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” For Luke, however, Christmas began not with a young virgin named Mary and her betrothed husband Joseph but with an elderly matron named Elizabeth and her childless husband Zechariah.

The carol I’m talking about is the song that burst forth from Zechariah the first time he held his newborn son. For nine months, Zechariah’s lips were sown shut by the needle and thread of God. But on the day John was born, his mouth was open, and here is what came out:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, 
For he has visited
And redeemed his people
And raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
Just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...
-Luke 1:68-70

While Zechariah’s song continues, I want us to ponder verse 70 for a moment: “Just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…” Grammatically speaking, verses 70 is a comparative subordinate clause. That means it cannot stand alone. It needs a cane, so to speak, something to lean on. Verse 70 is leaning on a three-word cane in verse 68: “He has visited…”

You might already know that the word Advent means “visitation”. It should be no surprise then, that Zechariah’s Christmas carol pivots on this reality: “He has visited…just as he spoke.” 

Promise Delivered.

I have a relative–who shall remain nameless–who has ordered Christmas gifts from Amazon the past few years. The problem is that they keep ordering from these really sketchy international vendors. Everything looks good in the pictures, but when the clothes show up in the mail, they kind of look like the picture…kind of…but they are usually shaped weirdly or come two sizes too small. The fabric looks cheaper in real life. You look at the item online, and then you look at what came out of the box, and you can’t say, “This is just as pictured. This is just as described.” 

Not so with the Lord. He has visited just as he spoke. What he promised and what he delivered on Christmas were exactly the same. Everything that came at Advent was just as advertised.

Rejoice in the Power of God

The “just as” of Zechariah’s Christmas Carol reminds us, first, of God’s power. “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'” (Isaiah 46:9-10). No other being in all of heaven and earth has the power to speak a word and absolutely guarantee that that word will come to pass just as he spoke. But God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. 

Rejoice in the Humility of God

Secondly, the words “just as he spoke” raises the question: Why did he speak? Why did God feel the need to tell us beforehand what he is going to do? Couldn’t he just do? Why did he need to make promises at all? Here’s why:

“Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them’” (Isaiah 48:4-5).

“Just as” reminds us of God’s gracious purpose to show us that he alone deserves our worship. This is a humble act on God’s part. He willingly obligates himself to promises he doesn’t have to make to creatures he doesn’t owe anything to. It’s all because we are so stiff-necked, stubborn, bone-headed, wicked, and sinful, that we are more likely to attribute the good things in our lives to an idol—a stone, an iPhone, money, a career–than to the one true God! We look for reasons to worship false gods; we ignore the thousands of promises that God has spoken to us beforehand so that we might give him the credit and worship him when they happen just as he said they would.

Rejoice with Unexpected Joy

Most simply, the “just as” of Christmas is meant to bring us unexpected joy. Somehow, even when God says beforehand what he is going to do, we are still surprised when it happens! Every time.

Think about Zechariah, the one who wrote this carol in the first place. His wife Elizabeth was elderly and barren. He was old, too. His hopes of ever having a son were dead. Nevertheless, God sent an angel promising to him beforehand that he would have a son. And when, nine months later, he found a little baby named John in his lap, his heart overflowed with unexpected joy: God you gave me a boy…just as you said!

Or think back to the beginning to the original barren couple Abraham and Sarah. God promised beforehand that Sarah even in her old age would bear Abraham a son. And when that child finally came, as Sarah looked down on the face of that child she named him Isaac, which means “laughter”, because of the unexpected joy welling up in her soul—because God had done just as he had promised.

Or think about the shepherds of Christmas night. Angels came proclaiming the good news of great joy, and, “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us'” (Luke 2:15). And after they found Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger in Bethlehem, “…the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

Or think about the disciples. Did Jesus tell them beforehand that he would be crucified and raised on the third day? Yes. Many, many, many times. And yet, on the third day, when the Crucified and Risen Christ appeared to them in the upper room, “And…he showed them his hands and his feet,” the gospel of Luke tells us the disciples “still disbelieved for joy and were marveling…” They were dumbstruck by unexpected joy. And Jesus says, this is why: Just as. It all happened just as I—and all the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms—said it would. (Luke 24:40-49).

Brothers and sisters, Zechariah reminds us that Christmas season is a celebration of the “just as”. May it strengthen our faith for the future as day by day in our own lives another promise comes true, another, and another, until, looking back from the end of time on the day Jesus returns, as we stand in the New Heavens and the New Earth, we will survey all of history and say with unexpected joy, “Well, One thing is certain. It all happened just as he said it would.”

(photo credit)

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