13 But the angel said to him, Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son for you, and you will call his name John.
14 And it will be a joy and a gladness for you, and many will rejoice at his birth.
15 For he will be great before the Lord, and he should not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.
16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers towards children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
A couple of statements that I heard in church last week have stuck in my head (along with the tune of the little drummer boy, which I now can’t get rid of). The first was in a song by someone whose name I forget that was played during the collection—a ludicrous line about the little boy Jesus staring up at the stars and remembering how he had made them all. That was another reason to look at what John has to say about the creative logos.
The second statement was a standard true-meaning-of-Christmas one: it’s not about giving presents, etc., it’s about the gift of eternal life, or something along those lines—and after a rather stimulating sermon about the wretched shepherds we were invited to accept this gift of eternal life.
But if you read the first two chapters of Luke with anything like an open mind, it’s very difficult to see how you would reach the conclusion that the true-meaning-of-Christmas is the gift of eternal life. It’s not just that there is no actual reference to “eternal life” in the story. Luke is at great pains to interpret the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and the interpretation runs in a quite different direction.
1. It’s worth noting, in the first place, that Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). No filthy rags here—and apparently no need for personal salvation.
2. John appears to be presented as a “Nazirite”, who abstains from “wine and strong drink” (cf. Num. 6:1-21). It may or may not be relevant, then, that the only actual Nazirite described in the Old Testament is Samson. Before his birth his mother is told by an angel that “she will become pregnant and bear a son”, who will be “sanctified”, and who “shall begin to save Israel from the hand of foreign occupiers” (Judg. 13:5 LXX).
3. It’s an obvious point to make, but the narrative implications easily get overlooked, and not only when we are in true-meaning-of-Christmas mode: the significance of John is not simply that he announces the imminent arrival of Jesus. His purpose is to prepare Israel for the coming of YHWH in judgment by initiating a movement of repentance. At the heart of Luke’s Christmas story is the question not of personal salvation but of Israel’s salvation.
4. This is made abundantly clear by the detailed allusion to Malachi. A messenger is sent to Israel to prepare the way, but the day of YHWH’s coming will not be a pleasant one: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:1-2). The Christmas story is not one of unalloyed merriness. When this day comes “all the arrogant and all evildoers” in Israel will be burnt like stubble in an oven: “The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). It is this catastrophic judgment on unrighteous Israel that John has in mind when he says that the one coming after him will thresh the wheat of Israel and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17).
5. Before this “great and terrible day of the Lord” the prophet Elijah will be sent to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6). The scenario is evoked quite intentionally by the angel.
6. So if we are to grasp the true meaning of Luke’s Christmas story, we must place squarely in front of us the crisis facing Israel: the coming of John is a sign to a disobedient people that they face destruction—not a final judgment or eternal torment in hell but a national catastrophe. Nothing has yet been said about the nature or form of salvation other than that it must begin with the turning of the “sons of Israel” to the Lord their God. But Malachi sees the coming day of destruction as an act of purification:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Mal. 3:2-4)
Just as the coming judgment is conceived in national terms, so it is likely that, as in this passage, the coming salvation is conceived in national terms. This suggests that if there is a “gift” of Christmas, it is given specifically to Israel under foreign occupation; and, moreover, that any interest we today might have in it is only second hand: God gives the life of the age to come—the life that comes after judgment—to his people Israel, and that renewed and purified people will subsequently become a gift to the world.