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The Story Before the Christmas Story

           Christmas is, for many, a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  In most Christmas plays and TV shows, the story starts with Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and giving birth.  But, in the New Testament of the Bible, the Christmas story begins to unfold many months earlier at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the story before the Christmas story, the story of another birth.

            Standing atop the highest pinnacle of the Temple, a Priest maintained watch for the blush of dawn.  As the first rays appeared, he gave the signal.  Three trumpet blasts resounded from the Temple as the Priests slowly swung open the massive Temple-gates.  The morning sacrifice had begun.

            Already priests from the course of Abijah were busily preparing for their duties.  Twice a year the priests of Abijah were called into service.  The superintending Priest had summoned the fifty or so Priests who had washed according to ordinance, and by torch light they had inspected the Temple.  Now they met at the Hall of Hewn Polished Stones to cast lots to determine who would take part in the sacrifice.

            The Priests brought out a lamb and once again inspected it to make sure it was fit for sacrifice.  They watered it from a golden bowl, then laid it – as tradition described the binding of Isaac – on the north side of the altar, facing west.  After its sacrifice, the lamb’s blood was sprinkled on the altar.

            The priests cast lots one final time to determine who would present the incense offering within the Holy Place. The incense offering represented Israel’s accepted prayers.  It was the highest mediatorial act a priest could perform, and only once in a lifetime could he perform the incense offering.  Henceforth he would be called “rich.”

            This morning the lot was cast in favor of Zechariah.  The honor fell on a truly righteous man; not only was he a priest, but he had married the daughter of a priest, a double honor.  But sadly amidst these honors they bore the disgrace of not being blessed with children.  As they passed from their childbearing years, no doubt the daily prayers for a child had long since lost their frequency and zeal, if not having ceased altogether.  While Elizabeth’s barrenness was grounds for separation in marriage, as Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous, they had come to peace with God’s control.

            Over several decades of priestly service, Zechariah had waited for this moment.  Now, years of anticipation were overcome by moments of uneasiness.  Here he, a mere mortal,  was about to minister in the immediate presence of God.

            He chose two of his friends to assist in his sacred service.  As the sounds of the organ-like Magrephah played in a distant area of the Temple, the first reverently advanced to the alter to remove the remains of the previous evening’s service from the altar, worshiped, then quietly retreated backwards.  Then the other advanced to the altar to spread the live coals taken from the burnt-offering across the altar to its very edges.  He, too, worshiped then quietly retired.

            Now Zechariah stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick and the glow of the red coals on the golden altar of incense.  Behind the altar he could see the heavy veil that hung before the Holy of Holies.  To his right was the table of showbread; to his left was the golden candlestick.  He stood their waiting for the signal to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies.  Zechariah spread the incense on the altar and waited for it to kindle.  Once it kindled, he would bow down in worship and reverently withdraw.

            Just then, he noticed the figure of an angel standing to his left between the candlestick and the altar.  Never, in all tradition, had anyone reported the vision of an angel in the act of incensing.  Zechariah was startled, and gripped with fear.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.  He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.  Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.  And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

            Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  The angel answered, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

            An unusual length of time had now passed since the signal for incensing had been given to Zechariah.  The prayers of the people had been offered, and they were anxiously gazing towards the Holy Place.  Finally, Zachariah emerged to take his stand atop the steps leading from the Porch to the Court of the Priests to deliver the priestly benediction.  As everyone waited, Zechariah stood there silently not able to speak a word.  They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.  The service was abruptly over.

            When the course of Abijah had completed for the week, he returned home.  After this, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant.

            Zechariah and Elizabeth were “well along in years.”  According to Zechariah, he was an old man, probably around sixty years of age.  It is likely that he and Elizabeth were born around the time Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C.   Both of their fathers were priests, descendants of Aaron.  Pompey’s army had battered down the temple walls and cut the throats of the priests that were in the temple.  Under Pompey’s rule, the priests risked death to perform their duties.

            They had lived through the rule of Hyrcanus II and Antipater (63 - 40 B.C.) and Antigonus (40-37 B.C.).  This was a period of great civil unrest within Judea where factions of Pharisees vied against factions of Sadducees for control of the throne and position of High Priest. 

            They had lived much of their adult lives under the rule of Herod the Great (37 to 4 B.C.).  With Herod, an Idumean (or Edomite), as King of Judea, for the first time in history, the throne of Judah was not filled by a person of Jewish extraction.  Yet, Herod had repaired and expanded the Temple to an extent not seen since the days of Solomon.

            When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  On the eighth day, her neighbors and relatives came to circumcise the child, and they wanted to name him after his father, Zechariah.  But Elizabeth spoke up and said, "No! He is to be called John."  The name John means 'the mercy of Jehovah'.

            They said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who has that name."  Zechariah still could not speak, so they made signs to him to find out what he would like to name the child.  He wrote, "His name is John."  Immediately his speech returned and he began to speak, first praising God then and prophesying about John, saying

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace."

            The neighbors were awestruck, and word spread throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things.  Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, "What then is this child going to be?"

            The child was John the Baptist, of whom Jesus later stated that among men there was none greater.  430 years earlier, Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, had predicted the coming of John the Baptist, writing: “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.  Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.”

            Then, for 430 years, God was silent.  The silence was broken by the words, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.” 

            As an adult, John the Baptist preached in the desert calling people to repentance from their sins, preparing the way for Jesus.  And he preached against the corruption and immoral behavior of the political and religious leaders in Judea, for which he was ultimately beheaded.  But that is another story.

            I think of Christmas as a holiday of man’s creation.  Its true origins are vastly different than what we celebrate.  Christmas is the announcement of the coming of a Messiah, then silence – a long, hard, faith testing silence.  Once that silence was broken in the Temple with Zechariah, there was a series of angelic appearances and announcements totally unparalleled anywhere else in the Old Testament or New.  The Messiah has come!  But why?

            Man cannot come to God.  We like to think otherwise, but God is holy beyond what we can comprehend.  We all, as sinners, fall far short of the glory of God.  In Romans Paul writes the wages of our sin is death.  We are dead in sin and if we think otherwise, we are only fooling ourselves.

            But, God, in human flesh, can come to man.  And He did – and that is what we should really celebrate when we celebrate Christmas.  I think the real story of Christmas is found in Philippians 2:

            Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

            It is not Jesus’ birth that makes him exalted, but His death.  And whereas our sin separates us from a holy God, He who knew no sin, the Messiah, Christ Jesus, died in our place, so that we, already dead in our sin, might live and might be forgiven.  The Bible says that those who believe in Him [Jesus Christ] are given eternal life.

                1 John 5:10-13.  The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son.  And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.

            Recall what was written -- At the name of Jesus every knee should bow ... and .. every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  Are you ready?  Are you ready to confess Jesus Christ as Lord?  If so, I invite you to pray the sinner’s prayer:

Lord Jesus, I know You love me, because You died on the cross bearing my sins.  Thank You, Lord, for revealing to me my lost, sinful condition.  I confess that I am a sinner, dead in sin, and cannot save myself.  I do now by faith, gladly accept You as my personal Savior, and thank You, Lord, for eternal salvation.  Amen.

            Whether you accept Jesus Christ now by faith, or die without doing so, in one respect the end result is the same: whether in life or in death, your knee will bow and your tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The difference is this –  if your knee bows in life, it means eternal life, but if it does now bow until after your death, it does not.  For Jesus Christ is not only our Savior, but our Judge.  It is because of his death on the cross, after having known no sin, that He can judge those who have sinned.  Our final chapter is written in Revelation 20 - the great white throne of judgment, which concludes, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” 

            This is the story after the Christmas story.  It is just as important, if not more so.  So I encourage you, as you celebrate Christmas, to place the celebrated birth of Christ in its larger context –  before and after – and don’t let what man has made out of  Christmas in modern times distract you from making Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior.

May you find joy in what you do and who you are with.