“Behold," said God through the prophet Malachi—the very last words He would give to an Old Testament prophet, "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Before the Christ would come to rescue Israel, God promised to send Elijah, perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets. His coming would herald the coming of the Lord, preparing the hearts and minds of Israel for their salvation.
The people of Israel must have anticipated something truly spectacular. Elijah’s first appearance, after all, was sufficiently dramatic. Israel was under the rule of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a remarkably maleficent pair, who had turned Israel away from God and turned the Priests of God into priests of Ba’al. The story begins with Elijah calling upon God to cause a drought in Israel, and culminates in his calling down fire from the heavens to consume the enemies of God, restoring the power of God to Israel. How much greater, then, would be his second coming?
Surely Elijah would come in even greater power this time! He would perform miracles, perhaps even drive the Romans out of Israel as he had once driven out the prophets of Ba’al, and then Christ, the Messiah, would follow and take up His throne to rule over all of Israel and raise up the nation over all the kings of the earth.
It could never have worked this way. These expectations (as all expectations) spoke far more about the selfish desires of Israel than the truth of God’s plan for salvation. One ought to be very careful about their expectations of God, for He is bound to defy them.
One can only guess at what Zechariah, as a priest of Israel, might have believed about all of this. Perhaps the fact that he was chosen of God says something about his character, or perhaps God was simply out to do something remarkable. But of this we can be sure: While alone in the holy place of the temple, an angel appeared to Zechariah and promised him a son: "He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." Zechariah could not have misunderstood. He certainly would have known that the angel was echoing the last words of Malachi. Israel may have been hard-hearted, but this promise could not have been clearer: the sign Israel had been waiting for had come at last! Elijah was on his way, and he would be born, remarkably, into the priesthood.
Surely he understood this! And Mary, as well, seemed to understand her own role, as she boldly conveyed in her Magnificat the glorious things that her son was destined to do.
Still, despite this understanding, they could not have truly understood. They knew it would be great; they knew that their children were destined to powerful things, that they were the fulfillment of centuries of promise. Mary was certainly even prepared to bow to her own son, to worship Him as Lord, but even she could not have predicted just how it was all to play out—for God continued to defy expectations at every turn (only in hindsight could it be seen that it had, in fact, all happened just as the prophets had declared).
God is never above throwing his prognosticators for a loop.
God seems to revel in irony, but the source of the irony is always our own failure to understand. When God defies our expectations, it only shows that our expectations were at fault, never God. It may seem strange to us that, though much of Jesus' future ministry would be spent demonstrating the abuses of the priesthood and the apathy into which Israel had fallen; the Christmas story begins with an announcement given to a priest, within the temple's holy places. But God was merely using the priesthood that He Himself had established in order to prepare the way for a far greater priesthood! And it seems counterintuitive that the promise should be given to Zechariah—old and childless, whose wife was equally old and barren. But what else could have been expected of the God who brought Israel about in the first place through an identical promise to Abraham? What else from the God who had never ceased demonstrating his power over the womb? Miraculous conceptions are one of God's great reoccurring miracles: It happened with Sarah, with Hannah, with Elizabeth, and, of course, with Mary it would take its greatest form. It is a miracle that has not ceased today.
At Christmas, the assumptions of men were proven wrong at every turn: John would be the firstborn son of a priest of Israel, but he would not be a priest himself. He would eschew the glories of the priesthood for the infamy of life as an itinerant preacher, his priestly robes and food replaced with clothes of animal skins and meals of locusts and wild honey. Though Zechariah may have truly desired a son to whom he could pass down his own priestly duties, this was never part of God's plan. When God opens a womb, it is rarely for the benefit of the parents. Isaac was not born for the sake of Abraham, but for the sake of the promise (as Abraham was made to realize painfully on Mt. Moriah); Samuel was not born merely so that Hannah could have a son, but to be a servant of God and the beginning of a prophetic tradition; John was not just a gift for Zechariah and Elizabeth, but a gift for all of Israel; and Christ was not just a blessing for Mary and Joseph (for, under the circumstances, it really is hard to see it as a blessing in the traditional sense), but a blessing for the world and for all of eternity.
The ironies continue: The circumstances of Christ’s birth could not have been more humble; and yet, after coming into this world in a stable, surrounded by livestock, and living his first three decades in anonymity, who could have guessed that he would one day have to flee from the crowds who wanted desperately to make him King over Israel? Surely no one could have understood why Herod should have been so afraid of a baby born in poverty and conceived, so it appeared, in adultery, but Herod was not wrong to feel threatened. The child was, indeed, an enemy, but an enemy that could not be defeated by the sword.
In the Christmas story, the great and beautiful contrasts of the Gospel are first glimpsed in all of their beauty, and they would continue throughout the life and ministry of Christ. As James Stewart wonderfully describes in his book, "The Strong Name":
He was the meekest and lowliest of all the sons of men, yet He spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that evil spirits and demons cried out in terror at His coming, yet He was so genial and winsome and approachable that the children loved to play with Him, and the little ones nestled in His arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so compassionate to sinners, yet no one ever spoke such red hot scorching words about sin. A bruised reed He would not break, His whole life was love, yet on one occasion He demanded of the Pharisees how they ever expected to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for sheer stark realism He has all of our stark realists soundly beaten. He was a servant of all, washing the disciples’ feet, yet masterfully He strode into the temple, and the hucksters and money changers fell over one another to get away from the mad rush and the fire they saw blazing in His eyes. He saved others, yet at the last Himself He did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts which confronts us in the gospels. The mystery of Jesus is the mystery of divine personality.
These contrasts should be seen, not as frightening, but as beautiful. Contrast and irony are not the same as contradictions; they show us only that God has always understood better than we. They convey a breadth and scope to the story that are surely missing from every other so-called god or object of worship; they demonstrate a God who truly understands men; they demonstrate a Messiah who was destined to live and die as all men for all men. They are contrasts and ironies which continue to captivate and continue to be celebrated, drawing us each year back to first century Judea as the story is told, again and again and remembered fondly, even by those who don’t believe a word of it, which is, perhaps, the greatest irony of all.