Topic: Christ With Us Scripture: Zechariah 9:9–9:12
Waiting can be a really difficult task sometimes. After all, the very culture in which we live conditions and trains us to expect things instantly. We can see it everywhere, whether we think about what we are going to pick up for dinner or every time we look down at our phone. Amazon doesn’t help, either. 2-day shipping has made it almost unbearable to consider the thought of waiting 5-7 business days for anything. But waiting isn’t a new thing for us. It’s something we’ve had to endure all our lives, but there are times when it is particularly hard. Like right now, with the approach of Christmas.My son, Isaac, is like any other kid, and can’t wait for Christmas. He’s read The Night Before Christmas so many times that he has a good chunk of it committed to memory. His go-to stuffed pal right now is a little Rudolph. And every day he plays with and arranges his two nativity sets. And to try and channel his excitement and anxiousness for Christmas, he’s has a few little practices he does every day. The first is one of those Advent calendars with the little doors and a piece of chocolate. The second is one he brought home from his preschool class, here at church. It’s a single Advent calendar made of paper, and every day he uses his little safety scissors to cut a strip off the bottom, thus making the candle shorter. And then, Isaac has his paper chain link. Now this isn’t something solely dedicated to Christmas. It’s a little tradition Caitlin started with him leading up to any big event: a birthday, a big trip, a holiday. There is a paper link in the chain for every day leading up to the big event. In this case, red and green construction paper links that count down to Christmas. And every morning, Isaac tears one off and counts the days left. These little practices help to remind Isaac that the thing he wants the most is not as far off as it was yesterday, and that the desire of his heart is coming…that it’s almost here.
This morning we finish off our message series, A Minor Christmas. We’ve spent the last several weeks exploring passages from the often-passed over Minor Prophets, in an attempt to see just what these ancient prophetic voices can reveal to us about the celebration of Christmas and the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. For the prophets and the people of God at the time, their entire experience of faith was one long waiting game. A chain with links that seemed to go on and on with no end in sight. For children, like my son, the arrival of Christmas is counted in days. For the people during the time of the prophets, there was no metric…only anticipation and hope.
And to finish our Advent journey through the Minor Prophets, we read a passage out of the longest book of the lot: Zechariah. At 14 chapters, it is the longest of the Minor Prophets, and a unique book in its composition. Zechariah is known for some of his odd and compelling imagery, and the book itself is widely accepted to have two tones or sections. The first being words spoken to the immediate circumstances of the people, and the second, spoken in a more eschatological voice, with an emphasis and focus on events at the end or culmination of God’s work as a whole. Our text comes at the beginning of the second part. We’re in Zechariah 9:9-12.
* Read Zechariah 9:9-12 *
Now, in many ways, this is the perfect text to explore right before we celebrate Christmas. It has a sense of anticipation, excitement, and joy, which we associate with these last few days before the holiday. Our prophet starts out with this excited command for the people to rejoice and to shout. This is the rousing of the crowd before the main event comes onto the stage. The King is coming and he is good and he is humble. He doesn’t come in the machine of war but instead in the name of peace. All of the weapons and armaments and mechanisms for violence are removed and this King proclaims a final and lasting peace that will reach and extend to every corner of the land.
We call Jesus the King of Kings but it’s not an image we necessarily have a strong association or investment in. But it’s an important one. It speaks of the authority of Christ’s leadership and the gravity of His presence. Elizabeth Achtemeier, mother of Mark Achtemeier, who visited with us last year, shared this thought in her commentary on the passage: “Much of human misery comes because there is no one who rules or because rulers are corrupt. Only by a righteous rule are the weak protected and the strong enabled to serve beyond their own self-interest. Only by a caring rule are we delivered from the tyranny of ourselves or of the mob or of outrageous fortune. We need a power, a wisdom, a shepherding beyond our own temptations and limitations; and it is the coming of such a wise and powerful and peaceful shepherd that is announced here to Israel.” This is the King that God’s people were praying was almost here.
This is the King that we welcome and celebrate on December 25th. The King of Kings, born into to the simplest of circumstances. It’s funny, this text is sometimes used for Palm Sunday. On that day, Jesus rode into the city on a colt and received a welcome booming, with applause and adoration. And while the comparison of the King in Zechariah riding on a donkey and Jesus riding a colt is shockingly similar, I really think it’s the birth of Christ that displays the truest intention of the prophet. What should, by all accounts, have been a glorious and powerful entrance into the world, was instead, the quietest, lowliest, most simple arrival that brought our Savior to this place. Instead of banners and armies, our King was announced with starlight and shepherds. And all for our freedom and our hope.
With the arrival of this King, we hear about a covenant made with the people and freedom from darkness. We hear about hope and restoration. In this text, we are given an ancient declaration of the timeless truths we celebrate about Christmas: a coming King, a promise, light out of darkness, freedom, hope, renewal. And we know these truths aren’t given any power simply because of a day we celebrate on a calendar, but rather because of a God who sent His only Son to this world, because of a child born in Bethlehem, because of Immanuel – God with us.
The qualities of this King meant everything to the people Zechariah spoke to. And these qualities were and are realized in the person of Jesus Christ. If we look at what the angel Gabriel told Mary we see the nearly identical qualities described about Jesus. Gabriel tells Mary that the baby will be called Jesus and that he will be great and will be called the Son of God. He tells Mary that Jesus will sit on the throne of David and reign over all of God’s people and that his Kingdom will never end. A coming King. A great and humble leader. A Kingdom and reign that reaches throughout the world. Jesus and this coming King are one and the same. I think the trick for us is ensuring their place in our Christmas holiday and in our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. And I’d guess it’s likely a bigger task that we might think.
It’s funny because often times Christians can really get up at arms if we think someone is messing with our Christmas. I still laugh when I think about the uproar that emerged after Starbucks changed their holiday cups. Back in our hometown of Lititz, PA, there was always a nativity set up in the town square, and every year, there would be news of one group lobbying for it to be removed and another group adamantly defending it to the point of threatening to do a vigil over the decorative display. Even the word Christmas can become a trigger for some. I shared in the Sounds of Christmas class two weeks ago how I knew folks when I was growing up, who would get unbelievably upset when someone would write “Merry X-mas” in a card, or something like that. Franklin Graham even said in an interview in 2005, that when someone says “Merry X-mas” that it’s like a war against the name of Christ. Truth be told, that’s not true at all. In fact, it’s perhaps one of the most ancient ways of saying Christmas. The Greek letter Chi looks like an X. That single letter was used to abbreviate the name of Christ in countless writings and histories. So, really, when we say “Merry X-mas” we’re just showing off our knowledge of New Testament Greek.
But the point is the same: Christmas is something we are quick to defend if we feel it is threatened. And yet, we might not even realize that we have the potential to cover this precious reality with other things. Important things and fun things, but things nonetheless, that pile up and begin to take up space.
Isaac has actually been a big catalyst for me in thinking about these things. Christmas is a holiday saturated with stories and characters and traditions. From Santa Clause to stockings, to Christmas cookies, this holiday is packed with components that build on one another. And, if I’m honest, I’ve always struggled with how to ensure the center of Isaac’s Christmas – of my family’s Christmas – is the person of Jesus. I don’t want to put an embargo on any of the holiday traditions, but I learned very quickly that, for a child, the truth of Christmas can be overshadowed and instead become about what we read in The Night Before Christmas.
There’s magic in Christmas. And it’s a magic that’s different than that found in an old silk hat or a sleigh. There’s a quality of Christmas that urges us to rediscover and connect to precious and ancient things. Things like warmth and generosity and peace. These qualities are personified in St. Nicholas and in our favorite Christmas songs but they find their origin and depth in the coming King described in Zechariah, in the infant Christ born in a manger. And our longing for those qualities in our life and in our world, our impatience on having to wait for their arrival, it is a symptom of our longing for the person of Christ and a relationship with our Creator.
In so many times and areas of our lives we think that the fulfillment of our happiness is almost here. That if we just do this or accomplish that or get to this place or become that kind of person that we will finally be happy, that we will finally be whole. Friends, that is the exact same desire of God’s people who heard the message of Zechariah. Just as we do, they longed for a unifying hope, a secure identity, and a lasting peace. They had their hearts and their hope fixed on a promise God made to them and they had the faith to endure until its arrival. We are on the other side of history. We live in a time where we declare with joy and certainty that the Messiah has come, that our King has arrived. We rejoice in Immanuel and we do so not only because of the tender baby laying in manger but because of the broken Savior hanging on a cross.
Our task, our joy, as followers of Christ should be sharing this truth with the world. Spreading good cheer to all is something written in a Christmas card. Spreading hope and peace is the work of God. Zechariah implored the people to live lives that declared the goodness of their God and the hope found in this coming King. Our relationship with Jesus and what we know of His heart should compel us to share our Savior with the world we know is in need of His presence. And this is about so much more than whether we have a Bible reference in our annual Christmas cards or whether we have a nativity display set up next to our Christmas tree. This is about who we are and the lives we live.
Does your life serve as a testimony to the rest of the world that you know, love, and have been changed by the person of Jesus Christ? Does the way you love your family or the manner in which you work or your social media accounts or the way you engage a stranger declare your hope and faith in Christ in the same way that the lights on our houses declare our love for Christmas? For so many people in this world the concepts of hope and peace are foreign. For many the idea of a loving God is out of reach. We are the ones who can declare that God is here. That hope and peace are available to all. We can take the sentiment of the holiday and give it muscle and meaning and connect others to the one person that makes any of it matter.
Christmas is almost here. And so is everything that comes with it. From the gifts to the honey-glazed ham. And that’s exciting. But, friends, the only way we can truly have a Christmas that matters is if we share the one gift that is offered to all and that can never be returned. To share that there is someone who can satisfy that lasting and universal desire in all of us for hope and peace and purpose. To share that that person is the child at the center of all our nativity sets. To share that that same child willing endured a cross on our behalf. To share that this miraculous Savior has a love that reaches every story and every heart just the reach of our coming King stretches through all the land. It’s a perfect time. To have a conversation with a friend. To invite a neighbor to a Christmas Eve service. To sit down as a family and pray together. There’s no more perfect time than now. After all, Christmas is almost here.