Remember as a kid how it seemed that Christmas would never come? It was really just a few weeks of parties and the Grinch and decorating and shopping and all the other preparations and preliminaries, but the younger you were, the longer it seemed to take.
Try waiting 400 years for Christmas. For the Israelites in the First Century, that’s how long it had been since they heard from Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets. 400 years without a word from God.
The Israelites’ Anticipation
That last word from Malachi had been a tough one of judgment, but it also held a promise of the One to come. The ruler, the prophet, they had already been anticipating for centuries would be preceded by a messenger. Once that messenger appeared on the scene, then “suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come.” Mal. 3:1.
A Star, A Scepter
Faithful Jews would have known about this messenger of the covenant, the Messiah. God told Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth.” Deut. 18:18. Moses later said, “I see Him but not now. I behold Him but not near. A Star will come out of Jacob, A Scepter out of Israel.” Num. 24:17. A prophet like Moses, some time in the future. A ruler.
A Ruler, A King
This great prophet would come out of the unlikely village of Bethlehem and is older than time: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for Me One who will be Ruler in Israel, whose origins are from of old, from the days of eternity.” Micah 5:2. He would reestablish the House of David and be a “King who shall reign wisely and execute judgment and righteousness in the land.” Jer. 23:5
He will set things right, they knew. The scholars in Jerusalem and in tiny synagogues across the land, poring over their scrolls, understood that the Messiah would usher in a new day. He will come with “vengeance” and “divine retribution,” Is. 35:4, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion,” Is. 61:2-3.
So they waited, and watched. As Roman centurions marched the streets, as Pilate strolled in carrying images of Tiberius to assume his seat, as the taxes escalated, as the house of Herod grew more perverse, they waited for the One who was promised.
As the priests made the sacrifices, they waited. Through the sacrifices that were never quite enough, never complete, that would have to be repeated again and again to wash over sin, they waited. They knew he was coming. They may have been confused about his ministry – many thought he would establish a political and economic kingdom – but they knew he was coming.
Do You Still Yearn for God?
Have you lost sight of the yearning and groaning in Israel that preceded the first Christmas, how they longed for the coming of the Christ? At some point this Christmas season, when things get hectic and there is more to do than can be done, sometime during the rushing and shopping, you’ll think, “I’ve really got to get into the spirit of this thing. I need to stop and remember what this is all about.”
That’s a good moment. It’s a chance to remember why Jesus came. To get into that frame of mind, think on a people who waited through 400 years of silence, standing on tiptoe, looking for the One who was promised.