"It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old." It may or may not have been clear, and I’m not sure if it was at midnight or not, but one thing is certain. That glorious song of old sung by angels bending near to earth that echoed through the valley outside of Bethlehem did not happen in a vacuum. And beholding where it falls in the winding story of the ages causes us to stand in awe that it even happened at all.
The tumultuous years of Israel’s history, riddled with much rebellion and little repentance, proved the insufficiency of both the Mosaic Covenant and the representational offices of prophet, priest, and king. Always living beneath the restrictions of estrangement, the man in the Old Covenant could only stand at a distance and gaze into the dark cloud of Sinai. Though before his eyes the wonders of God were displayed, never could the fire pass his sinful flesh and have entrance within. External obedience to the law tutored him in his ignorance, but the knowledge of God remained only shadows and glimpses cast by the dim light of the Torah and the Temple.
The authors of the New Testament many centuries later would take great care to point out that the deficiency of the Law was not in God’s plan, but in humanity itself. As a result of the history of sin, something was fundamentally flawed with man such that even when God reached out in covenantal love there was no possibility of consistent obedience.
God’s glorious identity demands that willed transgressions cannot simply be overlooked or ignored. Some judgment must be rendered, some reckoning required. This, of course, was the purpose of the Mosaic Law and the sacrificial system. The blood of bulls and goats was shed so that of men could be spared through pardon. Yet the underlying depravity of man that caused him to keep sinning and requiring more and more sacrifices was left untouched. And what of the multitudes of wayward heathen that stretched from one horizon to the other? What hope could there be for these ones who lived day after day unchecked in their violence, perversity, and idolatry?
Such was the plight of the earth if you were to pass over the Mediterranean Sea to the shores of Israel long ago, observing the undulating hills of Judea, and then set your eyes upon the little city of Jerusalem. We will imagine it is 5 B.C. and from atop its lofty walls we will consider the great impasse that faced the earth in the days before the coming of Immanuel.
Looking first out into distant lands beyond Lebanon to the North and Egypt to the South, we see that everywhere, Rome stretches out its tentacles and expands its kingdom. Yet whatever land they conquer, it matters not – all lie languishing beneath the wages of sin. No one – not one – was immune from the corruption of iniquity.
The whole earth dwelt in delusion and depravity with no regard for the One who created all things and causes rain to fall upon the earth in order to feed the hunger of their children. When we consider such a state, and no less the condition of the earth now, and then recall the Garden of Eden. We must shudder with remorse. How could those made in God’s image and for His joy go so terribly astray?
Withdrawing our gaze from
the troubled isles and the coastlands abroad, we set our eyes upon the sacred
ground of the Promised Land. While still included in the plight of all of
humanity, Israel suffers from another very grave crisis. As the masses go about
fulfilling the lusts of their flesh in ignorance, Scripture reveals the anger
of the Lord at such blatant wickedness.
However, the Jewish nation is also the object of God’s covenantal jealousy. Long ago had He foretold, before they had ever set foot upon the consecrated land, that disobedience would be punished with terrifying severity (see Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28-32).
Through their persistent rebellion the unthinkable had happened – the covenant people were under the curse of the law, and yet thought their righteousness was established through their possession of it. With no glory in the Temple, no prophetic voice, no land in their possession, and no king upon the throne, the only thing they did have – Torah – placed them under the curse because of their disobedience.
And so it was that in the days of Herod the king of Judea, the world lay under the sway of darkness and evil, desperately in need of One to reconcile them to God and restore unity long ago forfeited by sin. Yet the very people chosen to be the redemptive vehicle for the nations was bound by the chains of sin and stricken by the judgment of the law. Israel could not yield what the earth needed most. For both Jew and Gentile, the future moved forward in grim fashion, like a night without the dawn, like a battle with no end.
Yet just when all seemed to sink into the dregs of hopelessness, when humanity’s horizon was the ashen black of deep darkness, a vale beneath the city of David was filled with light and the voices of a jubilant choir of angelic host rang out in the night sky. God had come. And His heavenly army had come with Him - not to execute the wrath that humanity deserved, but with tidings of salvation. In Bethlehem, in the last place you would ever expect to find one, there was a baby. And for the first time in four-thousand years there was a heart that was beating and lungs that were breathing utterly free from the slightest stain of sin. God had come, and what man needed most but could never produce, He had become. What the Law could not do, God did. The Word became flesh, and He dwelt among us.
For those with ears to
hear, if we can flee from the clamor and listen closely enough, the song of the
heavenly host still rings true. Good tidings, of great joy, for all people…a
Savior has been born.