We have a tradition of sorts in our family, which has nothing to do with any real spiritual merit. It’s simply this: we have a rule against singing Christmas songs until the day after Thanksgiving. That’s not because I don’t like Christmas songs. I love Christmas songs, just like I love music in general. Music is a huge part of my life. I have music going on almost all the time. In the office, in my truck, wherever. I love music in general and music that exalts God in particular. And to be honest, like most folks, I have a special attraction to many of the songs of the Christmas season. It’s just that I want to keep enjoying them, and sometimes we can really overdo it, can’t we?
But it’s good and right that we should let music be a big part of our Christmas traditions. Music is a big part of the life of God’s people in general. In addition to the Psalms themselves, God’s Word is full of songs scattered all throughout the narratives of God’s dealing with His people. Even in Paul’s letters to the churches, we have glimpses of what were probably early Christian hymns being sung in the church. The history of God’s people is full of songs and singing and praising God with all kinds of music.
It seems that as God reveals Himself to His people, and reveals what it is that He is about to do, the natural response of the people is to break out in song. The announcement of His Son’s birth is no different and we find many “songs” as Luke’s gospel begins. So for the next few weeks I’m going to post a few meditations looking at these first Christmas songs, if you will, and hope God will teach some things about who He is, what He’s doing, and how we should respond.
The first is in Luke 1:67 and following where the priest Zechariah receives a vision from God while serving in the temple one day. The angel Gabriel comes and tells him that his barren wife will bear a son who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah. The priest’s lack of belief causes him to be mute until the child is actually born, and then when his tongue is loosed, he begins praising God.
This song of Zechariah is extremely rich with content. So much so, that John MacArthur once preached a six part series on just this one song; this one passage. Six hours of teaching on these verses. I promise not to take that long, but instead just focus on just the last verses of the song itself, verses 78-79, and the description we are given of the Christ, the Messiah.
“…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:78-79, ESV)
Because of the tender mercy of God, a sunrise will visit from on high. King James says “dayspring from on high.” Other translators say things like a rising sun will come from heaven, or the dawn from on high. The word refers to a rising light. And it’s this theme of a rising light that I want to focus on. In speaking of the Messiah who is coming, whose birth we begin to celebrate during this Advent season, Luke tells us that he is coming like a light. What kind of light?
I. A LIGHT THAT OVERCOMES DARKNESS. Verse 79 begins, “to give light to those who sit in darkness.” The image of light coming into the darkness is one that is repeated over and over in Scripture. I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to really think about that. This world that we seem to love so much; this world that we want to cling to, and want to gain approval from, and extend our stay in is described in Scripture as darkness. It’s a shadow.
Not that it began that way. God created the universe and everything in it and called it good. But once sin entered the picture, we have been sinking further and further into darkness. In spite of all our advancements, in spite of our all our technological achievements, in spite of all we’ve been able to accomplish through the power of the human spirit, our problem is still the same. We are trapped in the dark and are in desperate need the freedom, the liberty of the light.
The good news is that not everyone is trapped in darkness. Those who know Christ have had the light of Christ shown into our lives, and have been called out of the darkness into His marvelous light. Do you remember the day the Light of God shined into the darkness of your life? Do you remember what it was like to see yourself as you really were and know that God offered you light, hope and life? Sometimes we lose sight of that transformation in our lives, and we act like we’re no different than this dark world in which we live. Jesus came to bring light into the darkness of sin. He came to overcome that darkness, and through Him we too are overcomers. And more than just some metaphor about dark and light, this light He gives actually transforms us from death to life.
II. A LIGHT THAT OVERCOMES DEATH. The second phrase in verse 79 says that this rising light, this dayspring who is Christ, comes to shine on those in the shadow of death. Jesus said in John 8:12 “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The light of life that overcomes death.
Death is a fearful thing for most people, but it’s something every one of us will face, no matter how hard we might try to avoid it. Hebrews 9 tells us that it is appointed a man once to die and then to judgment. God has set the day of our departure from this life and we can’t change that. However, we can see a change in what that day means. Although death is the ultimate enemy, through Christ’s death and resurrection, he has overcome that enemy. For the Christian who lives in the light of Christ, leaving this world isn’t something to be feared, but a homecoming to be anticipated.
Consider the apostle Paul’s attitude as he faces his time of death. In 2 Timothy 4:6-8 he says: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.” (ESV)
Doesn’t sound like he’s despairing, does it. In fact, that word “departure” in verse 6 is a very expressive word. It was used by armies when it was time to strike their tents. Sailors used it to refer to losing the moorings and setting sail. Travelers used it to refer to the end of a journey, when the horses were put into the stable. Those in the legal professions used it to refer to the freeing of prisoners. Paul doesn't face his death with a spirit of fear. He knows there is more to come after he passes through death's shadow! And he knows that because he knows the one who is the light of life.
Zechariah is giving us such a vivid picture of what the Messiah is coming to do. He is bringing the light of freedom from the darkness of sin. He is bringing the light of life that overcomes the final enemy of death.
III. A LIGHT THAT PROVIDES DIRECTION. God knows that we are lost on our own. This disease of sin not only darkens our eyes and leads us to death, but it confuses us and causes us to chase after the wrong things in the wrong ways all for the wrong reasons.
The enemy is called the father of lies. He has lied since the beginning, when he slithered into the garden and twisted God’s own words to confuse Eve and Adam. And he’s been using the same tactics ever since. But Zechariah reminds us here that the Messiah is coming to “guide our feet into the path of peace.”
We desperately need that way of peace, because it’s the way of peace to God. And apart from Christ, we cannot know it. Romans 3 tells us how truly depraved we are, that none of us seek God, that we have all turned after our own ways. And verse 17 there says that “the way of peace they have not known.” We are truly like lost sheep, wondering without any direction, without any hope of finding life or peace or true happiness.
But the Messiah has come to change all that. He is coming to guide our feet into the path of peace. He is the light that guides us to eternal life and continues to guide us every day of our lives in this world. He is the light that overcomes death, having given himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on the cross of Calvary. He is the light that overcomes the darkness of this world, the sin that has enslaved us, and gives us liberty and life and leading.
Hopefully you can see why Zechariah was so enraptured, why he couldn’t help but break out in a song of praise and thanksgiving. Because of God’s tender mercy, He brought this light into the world. And that light is the reason we celebrate this season. That light is the reason for the songs we sing, not only at this season, but all year long. The light of Christ is the inspiration behind every song we sing, every word we preach and teach, every prayer we utter.
Speaking of songs, there’s an old Welsh hymn by S. M. Sayford that carries the same message as Zechariah’s. It says:
“Redemption! Oh wonderful story, glad message for you and for me;
That Jesus has purchased our pardon and paid all the debt on the tree.
No longer shall sin have dominion though present to tempt and annoy
For Christ in his blessed redemption the power of sin shall destroy
Believe it O sinner believe it. Receive the glad message – ‘tis true;
Trust now in the crucified Saviour, salvation he offers to you.”
I pray God has shown you the truth of this message, and shone His light into your heart. If not, I pray you would look to Christ even now. If you have seen His light, I pray you would be faithful in using this season as a great opportunity to show Him to others.