Luke 1:68-75 (NIV)
68“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
- Luke 1:69 Horn here symbolizes strength.
The English Bible quoted in your bulletin translates the first verse of our text, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel.” A number of older translations say, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” I like that, not necessarily because it’s a better translation per se, so much as it is a more thought-provoking one. We talk about praising God all the time. He is most worthy of praise. That’s a good thing. But how do you bless God? How do you give anything to him that isn’t his already?
First let me settle any confusion there may be about the word bless. This particular word is not the same one you find in the Sermon on the Mount, where God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn…. Blessed are the meek,” etc., etc. That word certainly does mean what we tend to think of blessed as normally meaning, which is “favored with gifts from God” and such.
But the word in our text for “blessed” (“praise be to”) actually means something more like “spoken well of.” So when Zechariah says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel” here, what he’s saying is that he would like for people to speak well of the Lord, to say good things about him. Why? “…because he has come and has redeemed his people.”
In other words, bless God for Christmas. Speak well of him because he came into the world to be born as one of us. Say great things about God, because “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through the prophets of long ago).” And since a horn was, for them, a sign of strength and might, that’s as much as saying that God has just sent himself into battle as the ultimate weapon against the enemies of his righteous people. Only God himself in human flesh could fight this battle. Bless God for Christmas!
So who doesn’t bless God for Christmas? We might well think of Herod, of course. He’s the king of Judea who slaughtered all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate the Christ before he became a threat to his precious throne. He’d be an easy one, although I doubt any of us would compare ourselves to him. More likely than not we really wouldn’t compare anyone to him.
So think of the people who got angry with Jesus most often. Think of the religious officials from Jesus’ day. They certainly didn’t speak well of Christmas. They didn’t bless God for sending Jesus into the world. Now, you may be thinking, “Yes, but they didn’t understand him. They weren’t angry about Christmas because they didn’t know that Jesus was the actual Christ.”
If you’re thinking that, I would only ask that you reconsider one word, and that is understand. And I only ask you to reconsider it because there were many occasions on which the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law understood perfectly well that Jesus was absolutely right in what he was saying. That was what made them so infuriated, in fact: They couldn’t trap him in his words. Also, they understood that he was doing legitimate miracles, as well. They had investigated his claims and his powers many times and had never been able to discount anything.
So to say they didn’t understand who he was is surprisingly inaccurate. The word you’re looking for there is believe. They refused to believe he was the Christ, evidence to the contrary.
That’s an important distinction when it comes to blessing God for Christmas. We all pretty much understand what God did at Christmas. We know the story well. In fact, we have to remind the student in the Christmas program every year not to look bored when they tell it just because the know it so well!
But the point is that understanding isn’t really the issue when it comes to blessing God for Christmas. Faith is. In fact, a better example of blessing God or not blessing God for Christmas is Zechariah himself, the man who originally spoke the words we have recorded here. Do you remember how he originally responded to the Christmas announcement? He responded in disbelief, and the angel Gabriel got upset with him and took away his ability to speak. In fact, as far as we can tell, these inspired words were the first words out of his mouth once his ability to speak was restored! And what does he say once his ability to speak and his faith are restored? “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” Bless God for Christmas!
But people often ask, “So what was the difference between Zechariah’s “How can this be?” and Mary’s “How can this be?” In short, the answer is faith, but I want to point out that that is exactly the right question to be asking this morning when you’re trying to understand what it means to bless God for Christmas. And not only is it the right question because it gets to the heart of the matter (faith vs. understanding), but also because both Zechariah and Mary were believers. So we’re not talking about faith vs. sheer unbelief when we’re talking about truly blessing God for Christmas. We’re talking about trusting in him all the more, having strong enough confidence in him that we are outwardly moved to bless him for Christmas.
You see, Zechariah called Jesus “a horn of salvation,” which, as we discussed a moment ago, describes him as an offensive weapon in the fight against the enemies of God’s people: “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” But think carefully about those words and tell me: What enemies is Zechariah talking about?
You see, now, Zechariah got it. He was truly blessing God for Christmas. He knew this was about being rescued in the sense of being able to serve God “without fear in holiness and righteous before him.” The enemies his words have in mind are sin, death and the devil—not just people who don’t like you.
Are we going to bless God for deliverance from sin, death and the devil? I know your instinct is to immediately say yes, but think carefully about how subtle the difference was between Mary and Zechariah’s reaction. Look carefully for subtle signs of disbelief, not just in outward action but in inward attitude.
Often the obviously two go hand-in-hand. For instance, you’re not really blessing God for Christmas if you are not outwardly and actively fighting against sinful actions in your life. Christ was not sent into this world to tell us that sin was okay and God doesn’t really care about it. He was an offensive weapon in the fight against sin—”a horn of salvation” against sin! He came to take sin and temptation on and to destroy them! There is no tolerance for sin in the story of Christ. Sin is a horror and an insult in the eyes of our holy God, and Jesus’ mission specifically included dying for that offense because that was the only way to set things right between us and God. You’re not blessing God for Christmas when you say that the gift of his Son in mortal flesh was really unnecessary and barbaric, when you say that sin is really okay and that people shouldn’t make such a big deal of it.
The difference between blessing and not blessing for Christmas can also be more subtle, like the difference between Zechariah’s and Mary’s response to the words of the angel Gabriel. Sometimes we do not respond to the Word of God with the proper joy because we don’t trust every word of it to be absolutely true. Outwardly our response to it may not seem very different because we’re going to church and singing hymns like everyone else, but inwardly we are torn up by some of the things that God says in his Word, looking for a way around them and uncomfortable with what God is really saying.
Fellow Christians, throw these worthless doubts and unhealthy attitudes toward sin behind and rejoice all the more loudly and proudly in the gift of a Savior from sin this Christmas! We have only proven how much we need it, and yet God was still faithful in providing him! What love! What graciousness! What faithfulness, that I can say to a room full of sinners with years of evil practices, “You are forgiven.” We are forgiven! That is our Christmas gift! Bless God for that!
Others may not like it because they think God should just tolerate our sin and accept it. Others may not like it because they want to believe what they believe and not be told what is true and what is not. And even we have felt that horrible, distrusting attitude always trying to get a deeper foothold in our own hearts, but don’t you worry. God has sent a horn of salvation to deliver us from sin and unbelief. We are washed, we are clean, we are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Bless God for Christmas! Amen.
Christmas 2 Bless God for Christmas
January 3, 2010
Pastor Aaron C. Frey Luke 1:68-75