I love Christmas music and I’ve been playing it a little earlier each year, much to the chagrin of family and friends, because I want to hasten the arrival of my favorite time of the year. Of all the Christmas carols, Silent Night is a perennial favorite with its peaceful and tender account of the Savior’s birth.
It’s instructive to note, however, that the first Christmas, in fact, broke the silence that had blanketed ancient Israel for about 400 years.
The last words of the book of Malachi in the Old Testament represented God’s warning and promise to His people:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
And then everything faded to black.
The next 400 years, which scholars call the intertestamental period, were characterized by occupation, the dispersion of the Jewish people, and the loss of all sovereignty and self-determination. Israel, the Promised Land, the great nation God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the regime of great kings like David and Solomon, was under the boot of the Persians, Greeks and Romans in succession, and the people of Israel had to wonder, as David did so many years before:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
~ Psalm 22:1-2
Think about those times in juxtaposition to our own. By any measure, 2017 has been a tumultuous year for our nation. Political strife abounds; a recent poll suggests those who align themselves with the two main political parties are farther apart on key issues than they’ve been since this measure was first taken 23 years ago, and half of each side views the other unfavorably rather than simply seeing them as well-intentioned but incorrect. Most people find discussing the current political climate to be “a stressful and frustrating experience”, and friendships and families have literally been torn asunder by the conflict. Some serious scholars are referring to this time in American history as “Civil War 2.0” – do a search on that term and read some of what comes up. It’s quite sobering.
Racial conflict has reached a historic peak as well, with a clear majority of Americans, regardless of background or political persuasion, believing that race relations are generally bad. 82% of the populace thinks this year has been particularly troublesome when it comes to the topic of race, with events like Charlottesville and the ongoing NFL protests during the national anthem prevalent in the news cycle.
The sexual harassment scandal has rocked the entertainment, media and political worlds, and every day brings the revelation of powerful and influential people who took advantage of their authority to impose their carnal desires on the vulnerable and unwilling.
The threat of war with North Korea seems very real as they continue to develop their nuclear capabilities and the leaders of our respective nations continue to exchange inflammatory rhetoric. We have increased the number of U.S. troops in global hot spots like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and the death toll for U.S. service members is trending up after a few years of decline. Terrorism has taken on a new and unpredictable dimension with “lone wolf” acts of terror by angry or disturbed individuals encouraged from a distance by ISIS, using the Internet as its avenue of communication. An old adversary, Russia, dominates the news cycle with their broad and concerted attempts to use disinformation in social media and subterfuge to influence the outcome of foreign elections.
On top of these man-made disasters, natural disasters have accounted for hundreds of billions of dollars of damage and the loss of hundreds of lives. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, and the California wildfires have made this perhaps the costliest year ever for such disasters, and the fires are still raging as I write this.
Personal strife just exacerbates the burden we are already carrying because of what we are witnessing around us. Financial stress, joblessness, family struggles, the loss of loved ones, health challenges, broken relationships, business failures, missed opportunities – we’ve all had disappointments and tragedies in our lives this year, as in any year. In my opinion, the opioid crisis, which was recently declared a national epidemic, is an outward sign of a spreading hopelessness in our land. If we dwell on the state of the world and the state of our lives, it would be all too easy for us to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Even the church has found itself in a time of crisis as Christians are fracturing along political, racial, gender and cultural fault lines, and the enemies of the church are exploiting our divisions to ridicule and dismiss our witness to the world. Being a Christian is a guarantee of trouble in this world (John 16:33), but must we give the opposition the rope to try and hang us? I don’t worry about the long-term survival of the church because it is Jesus’ church, not ours, and He promises us that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). As I wrote in a recent piece, the church will endure:
…[P]erhaps it will ease your conscience to know that there’s nothing you or the fellow Christian who vexes you can do that will bring down the church of Jesus Christ. When Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to crush the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi declared, "If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you'll be able to do it?"
Despite this assurance, however, it must grieve the heart of Jesus Christ to see us at odds with one another since it was His fervent desire that all of us may be one as the Father is in Him and He is in the Father (John 17:21).
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Where is the Christmas cheer in this message?”
The good news is, just as the Lord didn’t leave Israel in darkness forever, nor has He abandoned us. In John 5:17, it reads, “In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’"
I love this verse because it tells us that, even when it is not readily apparent to us, the Lord is constantly working His plan. Moreover, His plan will not be denied; whether we zig or zag, the Lord is The Ultimate Navigator, calculating every sinful and foolish move humankind makes into His trajectory as we move toward the inevitable destination He has already plotted for us.
Isaiah 14:27 says, “For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” Joseph declared to the brothers who sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Looking back to the 400 years of silence between the last of the prophets and the arrival of Jesus Christ, even then the Lord was setting the stage for His plan.
During the reign of Alexander the Great, Greek became the universal language of the region, home to a fifth of the world’s population. Even after the Romans became the predominant power in that part of the world, Greek continued to be used as a language spoken by the educated of Roman society and the governing class. Jewish scholars and scribes translated the Old Testament into Greek – the Septuagint – and this made the Hebrew Scriptures accessible to millions of people. The authors of the Gospels, books and epistles which comprise the New Testament wrote them in Greek, also facilitating the spread of Christianity.
The Roman Empire instituted an elaborate and well-engineered infrastructure of roads and transportation for power projection – the proverb, “all roads lead to Rome”, was based in part on the fact that the roads radiated from the empire’s capital city of Rome – but this same transportation system also made it easier to disseminate the good news of Jesus Christ from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea, from the British Isles in the north to Saharan Africa in the south and Armenia to the east.
The military might of the Roman Empire also imposed stability on this far-flung region of disparate nations and cultures, and this Pax Romana – “peace in Rome” – lasted for over 200 years.
It was into this world that John the Baptist, the “Elijah” foretold in the book of Malachi, was born, and it was he who fulfilled the prophet’s prediction of a messenger that would turn the hearts of the people. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that his elderly wife, supposedly barren, would bear a son that he would call John, and that John would pave the way for the arrival of the Savior:
“And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” ~ Luke 1:16-17
When the Lord told Malachi, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents,” He was speaking of John’s arrival 400 years before his birth.
When He spoke of the coming of “that great and dreadful day of the Lord”, He was referring to the One for whom John would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”, and His arrival was foretold even before Malachi’s prophecy.
Approximately 600 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). He further proclaimed:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
~ Isaiah 9:6-7
About 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Micah said “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” (Micah 5:2).
The Gospel of Matthew meticulously ties the events of Jesus’ birth back to the Old Testament Scriptures which foretold His arrival, and it gives me chills to read of God’s plan being set into place centuries before it came to pass.
And who would have predicted that Saul, a Jew born a citizen of Rome, educated among the elite of his day and therefore not only well versed in the Jewish faith but also conversant in Greek and familiar with Hellenistic culture, philosophy and theology, and a zealot who pursued and persecuted Christians, would be confronted by Jesus Himself on the road to Damascus, and transform overnight into the apostle Paul, whose citizenship, linguistic acumen, cultural literacy and fervor for his mission were tailor-made for the world into which he came into his own? The ease of travel, the universal language and the stability of the times gave Paul the means to spread the Gospel like no other, and he was the greatest evangelist of his day, elevating a small Messianic sect out of the land of Judah and into the minds and hearts of people throughout the world.
That is the heart of the Christmas message for me – no matter how dark it may seem, God is always working, His plan is irrevocable, and things are happening now that may seem innocuous or even negative today but will bear fruit when He declares it is time.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Lord broke 400 years of silence to activate His plan of salvation for us all, and that plan is still in motion, even if we think He’s gone silent or we can’t hear Him. It wasn’t a silent night after all, and for that I am eternally grateful.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. ~ Romans 8:38-39