the shape of leadership

Silent Beginnings

The songs of Christmas, part 1

George P Wood on December 17, 2017


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:5-7


Christmas is a singing season. Its catalog of music includes an A to Z of joyous, hopeful tunes, both sacred and secular. Every song from “Away in a Manger” to “White Christmas” finds its proper place in this holiday season.

The singing began early with the events surrounding Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago. In his Gospel, Luke records the original songs of Christmas. They are best known by their Latin titles: “Magnificat,” “Benedictus,” “Gloria,” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Throughout this holiday season, I will be writing about these songs and the events that inspired them by taking a close look at Luke 1:5-2:52.

Although Christmas is a singing season, Luke begins his narrative of Christ’s birth with silence — specifically, the silence of a godly home without children. In biblical Israel, a large family was seen as evidence of God’s blessing, but childlessness was a source of shame (Luke 1:25).

Luke begins his narrative of Christ’s birth with silence — specifically, the silence of a godly home without children.

The childless silence of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home teaches us two things. First, in this life, obedience and blessing are not always linked. Luke emphasizes that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout Jews, not just in the eyes of other people, but “in the sight of God” himself (verse 6). Their childlessness is not a result of any sin or lack of faith on their part.

On occasion, I hear of well-meaning Christians who tell sick people that an unconfessed sin or a lack of faith is the cause of their illness. But neither sin nor faithlessness explains Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness here. In the providence of God — and for that reason alone — these godly people have no children.

Second, salvation begins when we recognize our utter need for God’s intervention. Luke tells us not only that Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have children, he tells us that they could not have children. Childbearing was beyond their ability, due to infertility and their advanced age. They could not have a child unless the Lord performed a miracle.

And so, the Christmas story begins with the forlorn silence of a childless home, of godly people who cannot have children. Why does Luke begin the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth?

I see at least two reasons. First, He wants us to see a model of true godliness. Zechariah and Elizabeth worship God for His own sake, not for their own sake. They love God regardless of whether doing so results in this-worldly blessing. And second, Luke wants to show us our need.

Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we bring nothing to the table in our relationship with God. He alone works the miracle of salvation.

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