Are you behind with getting your Christmas cards sent off? If so, you will sympathize with the woman who rushed into the card shop just before Christmas, snapped up a packet of 50 identical cards, signed 49 of them, ran to the post office, and managed to get them into the last mail. It was only as she returned home that she looked more closely at the one remaining card in her hand. In shock she discovered that the main text read:
This is just a note to say
A gift is on the way!
There were 49 disappointed people that Christmas!
Long before the first Christmas, God, through the prophets, had been sending out many such cards. Their message was always the same: “A gift is on the way!”
“The virgin will be with child,” they proclaimed, “and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” “For to us a child is born,” they said, “to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Rejoice! A gift is on the way! But you have to wait a while before you get it. And wait, and wait, and wait . . . in fact, they waited several hundred years.
Have you ever seen young children anticipate getting something? My wife and I have three wonderful children, the youngest of whom, although a ‘tween,’ still has a child’s sense of proportion. Jenna thinks $20 is a lot of money, and 20 days might as well be years. She doesn’t often get anxious, but she does tend to have an eager, I-can’t-wait attitude. Not too long ago, when she was the only one left at home as her older siblings went off to class, she’d ask every weekday for a year, “Tomorrow do I get to go to school?” No, we’d reply, not until next fall. When the fall rolled around she started day care and she was so proud of herself, going to school. When she began to grasp this was, after all, just daycare, she was initially deflated, but her spirits rallied and she began to anticipate with even more energy the day she would be going to ‘real’ school.
As the first Christmas dawned there was a nascent awareness that God was up to something. Was the gift on its way? Was it already here? Since the time of the prophet Malachi, who penned the chronologically last book of the Hebrew Bible, people had been waiting for their Lord to speak again. There were no prophets, no messages or signs from heaven for 400 years – until 15 moths previous, when an angel appeared to an old Jewish priest telling him he would have a son who would be the forerunner of the Messiah.
The neighbors were all filled with awe, and 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?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
And when, once again, angels announced the birth of Jesus, the sense of awe and anticipation bubbled up again. The prophets had created huge sense of anticipation among God’s people, but not in their wildest imagination could they or anyone have known the promises would be fulfilled in the way they were.
The man who wrote the majority of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul, is not known for being short of words. But when he later reflected on what had happened on that Christmas morning, he could only exclaim: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”. For God’s gift to the world was literally “Immanuel” – a Hebrew word meaning “God with us”!
Listen to the words of praise from the father of John the Baptist:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
“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.”
That, my friend, is the real reason for the season. All I can hope to do is to follow in his footsteps as best I can, proclaiming to you the same thing: that God in his superabundant mercy wants to forgive your sins so that you can serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all your life long. That is where true peace is found … and freedom, and joy, and victory. This is the best possible gift of Christmas.
Image Credit: “Untitled” by Katie Tegtmeyer, Flickr Creative Commons