This Christmas essay originally appeared in the December 18/25, 2011, issue of Christian Standard.
By Caleb Kaltenbach
Every Christmas I struggle with the same thing: what in the world do I give my wife? Do I get her shoes, clothes, jewelry, a massage, or what? Maybe this is a better question: what gift will I give Jesus this season?
In Luke 1, we see the birth of a child who would be a gift to Jesus.
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive; and they were both very old (vv. 5-7).
It was seen as a curse in those days if you didn’t have a child at a young age. People may have thought God had cursed Zechariah and Elizabeth and didn’t want anything to do with them. Had they committed some horrible sin? That Zechariah was a priest made it worse; priests were supposed to be in with God.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside (vv. 8-10).
This was a real honor for Zechariah. Priests were chosen twice a year to go and serve in the temple, and he was chosen on this special day. So the stage is set—God is going to “show up” after being silent for the last 400 years.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear (vv. 11, 12).
Notice how Zechariah reacted. Throughout the Bible, when angels appear, people fall as though they are dead, or bury their face. The angel who appeared to Zechariah wasn’t floating on a cloud with a harp.
But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (vv. 13-17).
A Special Gift
This must have been an Extreme Makeover: Baby Edition for Zechariah. He’s been trying to have kids, and God shows up with a gift for Zechariah on the day the priest is supposed to offer a sacrifice.
Of course, when God gives you something, it’s never just a normal gift. John will be a prophet. God says, “I’m going to give you this child, and you’re going to get to raise him; but his career belongs to me!”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time (vv. 18-20).
In other words, Gabriel says, “Well come on guy, I actually stand in the presence of the Lord!” After everything that Zechariah has seen, he still doesn’t believe.
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (vv. 21-25).
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. This must have been a great joy for Elizabeth. No longer was she viewed as cursed, no longer was she seen as impure—she had finally had a child.
Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him (vv. 59-66).
A Gift to Jesus
Why do I read you this story of John’s birth on Christmas? Shouldn’t I be presenting the story of Jesus’ birth?
The fact is that John is the forgotten part of the Christmas story. If you go to a store, you’ll never see a John the Baptist ornament. In the Christmas pageants, John is never portrayed. But John’s role is crucial in the drama of the incarnation. He grew up to become a prophet. When he was an adult, his home was the wilderness. John’s whole purpose in life was to prepare the way for people to meet Jesus. That was his gift to Christ. He was born around the same time as Jesus, his birth (like the birth of Jesus) was surrounded by miraculous circumstances, and he had a call on his life as Jesus did.
Late in his life, John said of Jesus, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). John understood what gift he was to give.
John spent his whole life preparing the way for Jesus.
John could’ve been a priest like his father; instead he chose the life of a prophet.
John could’ve eaten the finest food; instead he chose to dine on locusts and honey.
John could’ve been well groomed, but he chose to wear sweat and dirt.
John could’ve had elegant robes, but he chose camel’s hair.
John could’ve had a gold staff, but he chose a wooden stick
John could’ve had nice scrolls, but he chose to memorize the Scripture.
John could’ve worked in the temple, but he chose to preach in the wilderness.
John could’ve lived in a nice house, but he chose to live in the desert.
John could’ve sought for everyone to like him, but he chose to preach the truth.
John could’ve had many friends, but he chose to be with the faithful.
John could’ve lived a comfortable life, but he gave his life for this Child.
What a great gift from John to Jesus.
For those of us who believe in Jesus, our real gift to Christ on Christmas is the same as that of John the Baptist: our gift is to pave the way for Christ to come into the hearts of people.
We can tell as many others as possible of this Child who was born, because Jesus is the One who takes away our sins.
What gift are you going to give Christ this year?
For those who aren’t in a relationship with Christ, there’s no greater gift you can give Christ today than your life. If you’ve never accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, God wants to give you the best Christmas gift you’ll ever receive.
It’ll never run out of batteries.
You’ll never get tired of it.
It will never get too old.
There is no replacement for it.
The warranty is forever.
The benefits are amazing.
What gift will you give Jesus this season?
Caleb Kaltenbach is the author of Messy Grace and God of Tomorrow. He lives in Greater Los Angeles.