It was a warm July day, and the windows on my Hyundai were rolled all the way down. I was stuck in morning traffic, and as we crawled along, I noticed a serious-looking man with a goatee glancing at me and smiling. Yes, it was July, but I had Christmas music on, apparently loud enough for other drivers to notice.
I may have been breaking some unspoken social contract, but I love Christmas—and I’m always looking forward to it. So the music begins early, reminding me of Jesus’ birth, reviving memories of holidays past, and creating within me a growing expectation that because of the incarnation, life on earth will never be the same.
Christmas and expectation seem to fit together. It has been this way from the first. Even before anyone knew quite what to expect—that God Himself would come in the flesh and be born of a teenage virgin—there was an expectation that God would act in history to put things right.
The early music of Christmas began in the Garden of Eden as whispered notes. Amid the pronouncement of curses for treason against the King, a soft song of promise could be detected: “I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15 NIV). Though this world in its infancy had been marred by sin, God had plans to set things right. He would provide a Deliverer by shaping world events and family lines to accomplish His will.
The song continued as God made promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:2-3). It was there four centuries later in Egypt, when God commanded each family from among His people to sacrifice a spotless lamb and mark their homes with its blood (Ex. 12:1-13). In the wilderness and in the land of promise, God pointed to Christ in every animal sacrifice the people made, each a picture of their coming salvation.
The history of Israel in the Old Testament is the history of a people looking forward to Christmas.
With King David, the song grew louder as God promised him a forever-kingdom for which one of his descendants would always sit upon the throne (2 Sam. 7:12-17). And when God raised up prophets to speak to Israel and Judah, they foretold of a Messiah—One who would redeem the people from their sins, suffer in order to heal, and bring justice and peace to our world (Ps. 130:8; Isa. 11:1-10; 53:5). The history of Israel in the Old Testament is the history of a people looking forward to Christmas.
And so, as the New Testament opens, expectation lingers in its pages. It has been more than 400 years since Judah’s last writing prophet put down his pen. But where is the deliverance God promised? Where are David’s throne and the Messiah who was to sit upon it forever? And where, oh where, is justice?
In Matthew and Luke, that anticipation turns to joy. Mary proclaims, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed” (Luke 1:52-53). While the baby is still in her womb, she welcomes the kingdom that He will usher in. In similar fashion, Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people” (v. 68). For Zacharias, God’s salvation is certain—so certain, in fact, that he can already speak of it in the past tense.
As I read the Christmas story, it is with a divided heart. I am excited by what Jesus’ birth will bring—everything that will come from His life, death, and resurrection. But I struggle, too, because this world has not changed all that much. Injustice is at home among the nations of the earth, the hungry are still turned away, and the suffering of God’s people goes on unabated. What happened to all that peace on earth and good will toward men?
Or maybe there is something more to look forward to—a Christmas gift that makes all the others matter. There is a hint of this gift tucked away in Matthew’s Gospel, in one of Scripture’s most disturbing passages:
[Herod] was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi (Matt. 2:16 NIV).
With each Christmas that passes, we receive a gift: a tangible reminder of God’s patience.
An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and the holy family escaped (vv. 13-15). But have you ever considered how odd a thing that is—that the Son of God came to earth only to run? I suppose He didn’t have to run. His Father could have rained down fire from heaven at the first bloodthirsty thought that entered Herod’s brain, or He could have challenged the soldiers’ swords with a legion of angels. But God didn’t do that. He allowed evil to continue, even as His Son came to put an end to it once and for all.
God’s response to Herod (or what seems like His failure to respond) is a measure of grace. For the time being, God would rather make sons and daughters of His enemies than destroy them. Instead of pouring out His judgment on sinful humanity, He poured it out on Christ on Good Friday. And while we wait for God to renew this world, He is waiting, too—waiting to bring His children home.
God has promised that a day of judgment is coming, and it’s a promise we can count on. As we look around our planet, we see new variations of Herod’s atrocities committed on a daily basis. But God does not rain down fire. Instead, He grieves with those who mourn and offers new life through the sacrifice of His Son. With each Christmas that passes, we receive a gift: a tangible reminder of God’s patience.
For those of us who look up into the night sky and ask God, “How long?” we have this answer: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Though we live on the other side of Christmas, we stand, like our Old Testament counterparts, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. God is still longsuffering, and He is still working through history—through you and me—to bring many sons and daughters to glory. But because Jesus has come, we can join in the song Mary and Zacharias are singing, knowing that a new day has dawned, even if some of its events have yet to unfold.
Our Christmas celebrations are a reminder of the hope we have in Christ, declarations of grace and commemorations of the day when Light first broke through the darkness. Someday, the Light will destroy the darkness, but for our sakes and—thanks be to God—for the sakes of those who have not yet heard the good news, that day has not yet come.