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“And they said unto her, ‘There is none of your kindred that is called by this name.” Luke 1:62
What a strange way to start today’s devotion. But Lord, there is something special about Your “strange” ways. I think about the song lyrics where the chorus sings, “But this is such a strange way to save the world.” And we haven’t even come but to the start of the saving part that we can see. This is just the birth of the “announcer.” But even his birth is not according to popular religious tradition.
Popular tradition would have this baby named after his father. Yet, Elisabeth says his name will be John. Maybe the others know nothing about the angel Gabriel’s words. Maybe they know nothing about God having a name for this baby before he was even conceived. Maybe Elisabeth told them, maybe she didn’t. But she knew. But they appear to doubt her decision making abilities. So they go to Zacharias who is still without speach from the angel’s verdict. He writes down the name. He breaks tradition too for something better. “His name is John,” he writes. And immediately, his mouth was opened and he spoke and praised God prophetically. Funny what obedience despite tradition can do, isn’t it?
Now, I read about fear coming on Zacharias when Gabriel spoke to him. And I read about fear coming upon Mary when Gabriel spoke to her. Well, there is no angel here but these people have been eyewitness to some nontraditional stuff going on in Zacharias, Elisabeth, and John’s lives. And all of a sudden this Zacharias is speaking again and prophesying wonderful things and fear came over the people and they spread the news abroad. And they stored in their hearts wonder about what God’s plans for this child were going to be.
And God gave Zacharias the words to share a preview of what was coming. God didn’t tell Zacharias to say He was going to come. The words Zecharias used were that God has visited and redeemed his people. See, He had already started redemption. He had at that prior moment raised up a horn of salvation. What in the world is a horn of salvation? What does that mean? David sings about a horn of salvation in Psalm 18:2 when God delivered him from his enemies and from the hand of Saul. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock , in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” David had experienced You, Lord, as every one of these, personally. They weren’t abstract, philosophical ideas. This was the reality of Your intervention.
Where once Zacharias doubted God’s word through Gabriel, his silence and contemplation over these nine months has so increased his faith in Your word that You aren’t just going to do something, You are already bringing Your word to pass! But I want to still look at this horn of salvation. Is it a horn announcing salvation? Or is it a horn that brings salvation? If I look back at Psalm 18:2, I see it’s image is equalled with that of a rock, a fortress, a deliverer, a refuge, a shield, and a stronghold. I don’t think it’s a musical instrument here. I think it’s something stronger.
John Piper wanted to find out about this horn of salvation mentioned here too. He also stopped to meditate on the events this day in Zacharias’ life. Because even though Zacharias’ son, John has been born, most of this song he sings is about Jesus. And this horn of salvation is all about Jesus. And it’s a strong phrase. It’s a deadly weapon known as the wild ox. And in the eyes of a middle eastern viewer, there was not much more formidable than an angry wild ox. In Psalm 32:17 there is another reference, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David. I have prepared a lamp for my anointed. His enemies I will clothe with shame.” That iron-like horn on the ox’s head was worthy of fear in everyone. But God is the only one who is able to fight for His people, who is strong enough to gain victory over their enemies. And this horn of salvation is only referred to twice in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 22.3 and Psalm 18:2 above. God, You are the shield and the defense (horn) of Your people. “He is a horn of salvation because he uses his power to secure and protect his people.” (John Piper)
It looks like Zacharias is actually breaking tradition here again. Who sings praises about another’s son when your own has just been born? Yet that’s what he is doing. John wasn’t the redemption of the people. John wasn’t the horn of salvation and he wasn’t from the line of David. John couldn’t save the people from their enemies and the hand of those who hate them. John wasn’t the one to show mercy and bring the covenant to fruition. John couldn’t deliver the poeople and enable them to serve in holiness and righteousness. But John would play a part. He would be called the prophet of the Most High. He will get to prepare the way for Jesus, to let people know what Jesus was preparing for, to get their hearts ready for a Savior, for Salvation. John got to prepare them to be ready for forgiveness, to understand their sin problem. But it was Jesus who would really give them understanding. Even John couldn’t shed that kind of light in the darkness. John couldn’t bring life in the shadow of death, but Jesus does. John can point but Jesus guides us into the way of peace.
Did Zacharias really get it all? Did he really understand the fullness of all he said? Did he really understand how Jesus wasn’t coming to deliver Israel from Rome and their physical oppressors but from a worse oppressor- sin? Did he really understand how Jesus wasn’t just coming to deliver the people of Israel but that He would even be a light unto the Gentiles? And did John, as he grew older, fully understand? When he sat in the prison, at the end of his life, and he sent this message to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) did he get it?
But remember, Zacharias told us that Jesus had come to show us mercy and to visit us, “to give us light as we sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Maybe we need deliverance from Rome. But maybe what we need more is to be delivered from disbelief. Maybe we need most to be delivered into trusting You in the middle of everything, even the shadow of death. Maybe even John, the prophet of the Most High, had to break with tradition and learn what true salvation was, and that true salvation was standing in His midst. Sometimes it’s one thing to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” and it’s another thing altogether to let Him handle my own sin.
“And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:4-6) Here’s a thing that strikes me today. Zacharias’ doubts, John’s doubts, didn’t hold You back, Lord. Neither did You condemn them. You didn’t give up on them. You taught them more. And I don’t know if John ever knew, but after You sent that message back to him, You commended this man who doubted before the multitudes gathered around. Even though this John the Baptist, was doubting at this moment, You talked about his greatness. You said he was the Elijah who was to come. Now, how is that for understanding and mercy when we flounder!
See, this is the Christmas story. There’s no traditional trees or decorations or other traditonal stuff here. There’s more like failure and victory and doubt and mercy. It’s not very traditional looking. But it’s more beautiful than anything I know. I mean, here is this mighty ox who is Jesus, with these horns that can wreak havoc and terror and hooves that could crush and destroy. But he comes in like a lamb. And instead of venting Your anger, You show mercy. You show mercy to a man named Zacharias and his wife Ellisabeth. You could have wiped Zacharias off the face of the earth for doubting, but You just gave him time to meditate and grow in You instead. You could have shouted at John in his doubts and said, “What in the world are you thinking, man? You’re supposed to be leading my people! Oh, you make me soooooo angry!” But You didn’t. You sent back gentle words of affirmation and even confirmed him as Your chosen and appointed prophet before the people. And me, what about me?
How many times have I doubted? How many times do I not really hear what You are trying to tell me? How many times have I needed to break free from tradition and really listen and really hear and really obey what You are really trying to tell me? And how have You responded every time I fell, every time I refused, every time I was so hard-headed, every time I think I know how it’s supposed to be? You respond with the same great mercy. You sweep down and set my feet back on the path. You put things in my life to refocus me. You guard and protect me with the horn of Your salvation. You haven’t changed. And I am so grateful.
It’s funny. My Christmas doesn’t really look very traditional this year. It doesn’t feel traditional. I have to admit that I’m having trouble celebrating this particular “season” of Christmas. And maybe it’s because my Christmas is every day, just like my Easter. And my Christmas isn’t always wrapped up in pretty packages and colors and with rosy bows. Sometimes my Christmas comes wrapped around the horn of a Warrior Ox, and sometimes it comes wrapped around the wool of a tender Lamb. And actually, it comes with both. And in all honesty, I don’t always understand it all and I don’t always get it all. But I know that if You understood and had mercy on Zacharias and John, and still loved them and used them, then I know You feel the same about me. Because this is why You came. You came to teach us Your ways, to give us the ability to know Your salvation and to know Your forgiveness, to receive Your tender mercy, to visit us, and give us Your light, to take us out of our darkness and out of the shadow of death, and to set us at one with You again, because that’s the only place peace is found.