In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch’s oppressive reign over Narnia meant that it was always winter but never Christmas. December in American culture has created a very different scenario: it is always Christmas, but never Advent. The two seasons are closely related, of course, but there is a difference. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and is marked by joy and feasting. Advent is about waiting for Jesus and is characterized by expectation and longing.
The problem in this is not primarily a lack of strict fidelity to the traditional church calendar. Our culture’s neglect of Advent reflects a deeper error: trying to celebrate a savior without reckoning with the peril from which he comes to save us. An underdeveloped sense of our need for Christ can make the gospel seem trivial, sentimental, or incomprehensible. For students who are grappling with their increased awareness of the brokenness of the world, an always-Christmas-never-Advent Christianity can begin to seem like a childish solution to an irrelevant problem. If we do not feel the weight of the bad news, the good news just isn’t that good. This is where Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:67-79 can help us and the young adults we serve.
Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, whose own miraculous birth narrative gets significant airtime in Luke’s Gospel. Shortly after his son’s birth, Zechariah “was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (Luke 1:67). In this inspired hymn, Zechariah draws heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures to explain the roles of both John and the Messiah he will serve. Zechariah’s song can give students a picture of the depth of their need, which can produce in them a deeper longing for Christ. Here are four major areas of need we can highlight for students from Luke 1:68-79.
- We need to be rescued by a true Son of David (1:68-70)
Zechariah begins the hymn by praising God for the redemption he is about to unfold through the coming Messiah. According to Zechariah, redemption only comes from one place, the house of David (1:69). Based on the promises of 2 Samuel 7, the Israelite prophets had indicated that the redemption of God’s people would be accomplished through a glorious restoration of the Davidic monarchy. There would be no deliverance so long as the throne of David was unoccupied. Many problems in life have multiple possible solutions. Our deepest problem—our need for redemption—is not like that. As much as students might try to redeem themselves through academic success, athletic prowess, or popularity, the rescue we need is only coming through one means: the reign of the promised Son of David who will purchase our deliverance.
- We need to be rescued from our enemies (1:71-75)
The first several verses of Zechariah’s song praise God for the rescue he is initiating. The verses that follow identify from whom the rescue is needed: “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:71). From the tyrannical Pharaoh in Egypt to the violent Philistines to the conquering Assyrians and Babylonians, the people of God have experienced fierce opposition generation after generation. Moreover, this hostility against Israel is an expression of an even more ancient enmity—that of the serpent of Genesis 3, the accuser of all God’s image-bearers. We must teach students that humans are responsible moral agents with real agency, but we also need to convey the truth that we are deeply vulnerable creatures. We have enemies who are stronger than us, enemies from whom our own strength is not sufficient to set us free. The bully who harasses and hounds, the teacher who scoffs at belief in God, the injustices that feel immovable, the addiction that enslaves from the inside—all these alert us to our vulnerability and need for rescue.
- We need to be rescued from sin and wrath (1:76-78a)
Starting in v. 76, Zechariah begins to speak more specifically about his son John who will go before the Lord. He declares that John the Baptist will “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God” (1:77-78a). Most adolescents can readily admit that they are not perfect, perhaps even morally guilty in some ways. What is not so intuitive (even for Christian students who have a notion of this) is that all of our moral failures constitute a grave offense against God. Our misdeeds are so many acts of personal betrayal against the one who made us and whose claim on us is absolute. The more this reality begins to make sense to students and to feel more vividly real to them, the more clear it will be to them how desperately they need God’s forgiveness. We all need to be released from the debt we owe to the one who has made us. Whatever else our great rescuer can do for us, he must do this.
- We need to be rescued from darkness and death (1:78b-79)
Zechariah’s song closes with a description of what God’s mercy will bring about. By God’s tender mercy, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:78b-79). In Scripture darkness can refer to ignorance, evil, alienation from God, and death. To be in darkness is to have a debilitating lack of light. It is to stumble through life with profound deficits of joy, insight, and wisdom. Darkness invades students’ lives in all kinds of ways: depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts are on the rise presently. Even more pervasive than these is the darkness we are all born into: hearts and minds that are spiritually dead to God and his glory.
We all need the light of God’s presence to roll back the darkness and extinguish it, so that our dim, hollow existence can be transformed into resplendent flourishing.
The rest of the story
The song of Zechariah, together with Mary’s Magnificat and the proclamation of the angels “sets the theological tone” for the entire book of Luke (and for Acts as well). But the way the story unfolded would doubtless have been shocking to Zechariah. Luke goes on to relate how Jesus, the Son of David, rescued his people from oppression, wrath, and darkness not by triumphantly stomping them out, but by humbly enduring them in our place. In his death and resurrection, he rolls back our darkness by letting it envelop him, defeating it from the inside.
A rescue like this is as glorious as it is shocking. Our salvation in Christ is inexhaustible in its riches, immeasurable in its dimensions, and unthinkable in the kindness it displays. Advent teaches us that one of the ways we enhance our enjoyment of salvation is to remember how badly we need it.
 Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 172.