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The First Noel

The First Noel
By Wendy Wippel

Somewhere amid the European Christmas tradition we inherited as Americans and the stuff we invented ourselves (flying reindeer? Snow, holly, and mistletoe?  The Grinch?  Wenceslas and Wassail?  Santa Claus?) we have lost any appreciation for the utter Jewishness of the events we celebrate. That it was Jewish prophecies being fulfilled. A long-awaited Jewish King being born. I like my corn -pone brand of Christmas, but so much more awaits us when we put the birth of Christ into the proper context. Starting with Malachi.

Malachi represents a significant turning point in God’s relationship with His chosen people. To put it gently, God is fed up. And in Malachi God gives them a list of what He is holding against them:

Israel Doubted God’s Love:

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. “Yet you say, ‘In what way have You loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Says the Lord. “Yet Jacob I have loved;But Esau I have hated.”

Israel offered God blemished sacrifices:

To you priests who despise My name. You offer defiled food on My altar, But you say, ‘In what way have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’ And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the Lord of hosts.”

The priests had become corrupt:

“The lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth;
For he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have departed from the way; You have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, ”Says the Lord of hosts.”
“ Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base Before all the people, Because you have not kept My ways But have shown partiality in the law.” “But now entreat God’s favor,
That He may be gracious to us. While this is being done by your hands, Will He accept you favorably?” Says the Lord of hosts. 10 “Who is there even among you who would shut the doors,
So that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you,”Says the Lord of hosts, “Nor will I accept an offering from your hands.”

Verse ten really shows us how angry God is with His people at this point. He’s done. He is saying that it would be better to lock the temple up then to have these priests go through the motions of the offerings while their hearts are so far away.

But Jehovah is not finished.

The Sanctuary had been defiled:

Judah has dealt treacherously, And an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, For Judah has profaned The Lord’s holy institution which He loves: He has married the daughter of a foreign god.

Then God offers them a mixed blessing:

“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” Says the Lord of hosts.“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 launderers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer to the Lord
An offering in righteousness”….
Malachi 3:1-3

16 Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another,And the Lord listened and heard them;
So a book of remembrance was written before Him For those who fear the Lord And who meditate on His name. 17 “They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “On the day that I make them My jewels.[
a] And I will spare them As a man spares his own son who serves him.”
18 Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God” .
Malachi 3:16-18

In summary, God levied the charges against Israel, read them the sentence, and promised them that someday there would be an Israel that followed Him with a whole heart. And He left them with hundreds of verses in Scripture that described the blessings that the refiner’s fire would bring to all those who opened their hearts to His cleansing. But nothing else. For four hundred years.

Four hundred years that have come to be known as the silent years, because with the book of Malachi, Jehovah ended His communion with the nation of Israel. No more conversations with His chosen people from that point on

Four hundred years of Complete Silence. Four hundred years in which the chosen people were defeated again and again. By Greece. By Persia. By Syria. By Rome.

Four hundred years in which the priesthood continued to be totally corrupt.

Four Hundred years in which the Temple was desecrated. Four hundred years in which the mongrel pseudo-Jew Herod was given Judea’s throne.

Four Hundred years of desperate, deafening silence.

And then, finally, the silence ended.  God spoke again. To a priest.

One named Zechariah.

Zechariah was married to a God-fearing Jewess named Elizabeth, and on the long-awaited day that the word of God returned to the people of God it happened to be Zechariah’s turn to offer the sacred incense on the altar in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  A sacred duty that, with an estimated 20,000 priests in service at the time of Christ, was the culmination of his career. A once in a lifetime honor.  And the must-pray prayer when a priest had this opportunity to beseech God face to face in the Holy of Holies was– what else—to hasten the coming of the Messiah, the one who would visit His people with salvation.  Which in most Jewish minds, at this point in history, being salvation from Roman rule. But the priests also had the opportunity at this moment to offer their own personal entreaties as well.

Luke gives us a glimpse into this seminal moment in Zecharia’s life: So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. 10 And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’[b] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

And it would seem that we see both the Messiah and Zechariahs’ own personal miseries in play in the passage in Luke.  The crowd outside praying with him would seem to confirm that the crowd was there to join his prayers with their own for the salvation of Israel.  The next verse would seem to confirm that Zechariah, whose wife was no spring chicken and had proved to be barren as well, had prayed prayers of his own.

The angel’s response to his prayer is, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John”  14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth”.

Four hundred years of silence, finally ended.

Think it’s a coincidence that “Zechariah” means God remembers?  And that the name God gave Elizabeth’s miracle child, John, who paved the way for the Messiah promised means God is gracious?

It was time for another Miracle child, one chosen before the creation of the world to ransom us from sin and death, to be born.

And Judea had been readied by the prophets.

First, Daniel, who outlined the four kingdoms that would precede him. Babylonia had ruled Judea, and then fell to the Persians in 537 BC. Greece, in the form of Alexander the Great, captured Jerusalem in  332 BC. The Roman General Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC.

Just like Daniel saw, by revelation from God.

For the Jews, their clock was their scriptures, and they knew what time it was. And we know God’s people were watching by thousands of messianic interpretations of Jewish writings at the time ranging from their own Hebrew Scriptures, to the the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures known as the Septuagent (translated 250 B.C) to the Dead sea scrolls, to Jewish pseudepigrphia (verious nons-canonical writings) to Targums (pieces of the Hebrew OT that circulated separately), to the works of Philo and Josephus, who describe the messianic fervor in Jerusalem before Christ birth.

Judea was conquered, oppressed and eagerly anticipating the Messiah promised.

And God remembered.

He remembered His chosen people. He remembered His promises. And on one cold, starry night the promised messenger of hope and life and all things Holy came. His mother “brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold,[b] an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”[c]

In the words of the great Paul Harvey, now we know the rest of the story.

After 400 years, the silence ended. And the spokesmen changed: In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things. Hebrews 1 1

God had come to live with His people in human form. Emmanuel, which means God with us.

And For one purpose. To save His people from their sins. It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel: I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.

God remembered us Gentiles too.

Saturday night I intend to go out, look up at the stars and imagine the multitude of heavenly host still praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest and imagine that real O so holy night.  And give thanks that God remembered me, a sinner who so needed His Grace.

May you have the merriest of Christmases.

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