READ : Luke 1:76-79
Did you know that the Lord of the universe has a tender heart? To me, that’s just about the best news we could ever receive. Can it really be true? Listen to these words from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 1, beginning at verse 76. They’re spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who would prepare the Lord’s way.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon 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.”
What a beautiful promise! What a heartening prospect! And the phrase that leaps out at me and keeps cheering my heart is especially the one about God’s tender mercy.
I have felt sure for as long as I can remember that God must be mighty beyond our imagining. The more I learn about the size of the universe with its billions of galaxies, and about the structure of the atom with its particles incredibly minute, the more I hear the thunder and feel the wind, the more I watch a rosebud open or a baby smile, the more something in me says, “God, how great You are.”
In a similar way, I’ve always felt in my bones a conviction about God’s constancy. Day and night, summer and winter, seed time and harvest keep coming, don’t they? The universe is so dependably arranged that we can predict eclipses and returning comets with astounding precision. The God behind all that must have a marvelous steadiness about Him.
But nothing out there in the natural order can convince me that God has a tender heart. We can affirm that the beauty He’s made in the world and its wonder and provision show a kind of general benevolence toward His creatures. That’s there. But there’s a double message in the cosmos. This is a world of hurricanes and volcanoes, of floods and fires and famines. It seems at times that multitudes of our fellow human beings are senselessly destroyed. What about disease and deformity? Yes, what about death?
And if God has a tender heart toward people, how can He let them be treated so by their fellow human beings? Think about all the little children neglected and abused in this world. Think about the victims of violence and brutality. Think about those who suffer under oppression and discrimination. Think about long-held hatreds, blood feuds, terrorism and torture. Can we be sure that God has a tender heart when things like this happen every day in His world?
People who believe in God’s kindness don’t learn that from the stars or in a laboratory or even through a study of human nature. Zechariah sings of something about to happen that will be the clue. It will give to all who grasp its meaning a deep assurance. Despite all the things that seem to say otherwise, the Lord of the universe has a tender heart.
A MESSAGE THROUGH JOHN
The message has to do first of all with John the Baptist, Zechariah’s son. “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” You remember John, man of the desert, clothed with animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey. His appearance in first-century Israel was like a tempest from the wilderness. He thundered throughout the Jordan Valley that people had to repent, that it was crisis time. The axe was being laid to the root of the trees, he said. If people didn’t get right with God now, there would be no hope for them.
“But,” someone wonders, “is that supposed to reassure me? It’s pretty stern stuff: repent or perish, turn or burn. I don’t see much comfort there. How can this assure me that God has a tender heart?”
Strangely, it can. John’s work is like plowing up the fallow ground so that the seed can be planted and the harvest can come. It’s like the pitch-black darkness just before the dawning. It’s the bad news that gets us ready for the good news.
John the Baptist, remember, was not primarily a preacher of repentance, telling people to change their ways, warning them of judgment to come. He was that. But it was secondary to his main purpose. He was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. He would say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” His word was not, “Too bad! You have to leave your fun” but, “Rejoice! You can lose your chains.” It was, “Turn away from every false lord so that you’ll be ready to receive the One who is truly worth serving.” John was sent to announce the coming of the King.
All of his preparatory work led to this: “to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Forgiveness is the gift that every human being needs most and that no human power can provide. There’s a great deal that we can do for each other. We can give help and encouragement, advice and counsel, medical care and therapy. But sin is a problem we can’t touch. We can be patient with each other, but sin has to do with our relationship to our Maker. It’s our rebellion against Him, our estrangement from Him, that’s the issue. We’ve disobeyed His commandments, broken His covenant, grieved His heart. Who can do anything to set that right but God Himself?
But that’s precisely the message John the Baptist had to bring. “The Lord is coming and He’s coming to forgive.” Who could have foreseen when John was preaching by the Jordan how all that would unfold? Who could have imagined that this Jesus, his young relative, would be the promised One, that He would live a life of perfect obedience to God, that He would take upon Himself the sins of His people and die in their place, that forgiveness would come to them through His anguish as He bore the stroke of judgment they deserved.
Through the coming of this one, God’s people would know salvation. That meant rescue from a situation of danger and distress, like being delivered out of a burning building or spared from a decimating plague. Through the coming of Jesus, people would be delivered from condemnation, saved from the wrath to come.
But salvation has a positive side, too. It’s the word used again and again in the gospels for healing. To be saved means to be restored, brought back to health and wholeness, given new life. Salvation means more than escape from endless woe. It means entry into eternal life, life abundant. All of that would come through the crucified and risen Jesus, whom John was sent to announce.
THE DAWNING OF THE LIGHT
When Zechariah spoke these prophetic words, all of that was still future. Something marvelous was about to happen. Here’s how he described it: “For in the tender compassion of our God the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78,79, REV). Think of a party of travelers who have been journeying through the night. They’ve now been overtaken by a pitch-black darkness, no light of moon or star, no glimmer on any distant horizon. They can see absolutely nothing. Any further progress is impossible. They’ve lost their bearings. They don’t know where they are. All they know is that enemies may be lurking near. They wait, powerless and terrified, expecting at any moment to be overwhelmed and killed by wild beasts or murderous foes.
All at once, a kindly light appears. You remember that image in the Bible: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isa. 9:2). What is the light shining in the darkness, the dawn dispelling shades of night? It’s the birth of Jesus, the coming of the long-awaited Child. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called `Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.’” Yes, it’s the Lord of glory coming as a human baby. He will guide our feet into the way of peace. He will lead us from darkness and distress to safety and joy. For those who know of His coming, the world can never seem again like a totally dark place. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.
Since He has come, no one need ever fear that forgiveness is impossible. Remember the queen in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, washing her hands endlessly to remove the stains of her guilt? “All the perfumes in Arabia,” she lamented, “cannot sweeten this little hand.” It seemed to her a thing unimaginable that her guilt could ever be removed. But in Christ, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson,” the prophet says, “they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:18). There’s deliverance now from the most galling bondage. There’s a new beginning for those who have made an utter mess of their lives. There is salvation, hope and joy – because Jesus came.
HOW WE CAN BE SURE
How do I know, how can you know, that God has a tender heart? Because of Christmas. Because of what happened on the night when the shepherds trembled and the angels sang. Because in that tiny baby, born of a virgin mother, the Lord of the universe came to be with us.
Tenderness of heart always involves a capacity to empathize. Think of the people you know who deeply care about you. Aren’t they the ones who rejoice with you when you’re glad and weep with you when you’re grieving? They’re the ones who understand, who can somehow put themselves in your place, and feel something of what you’re feeling. They help you in your worst times to feel understood because you know that their hearts are with you. They empathize.
I’ve often thought about that in connection with the Christian faith. I don’t think I could believe that God has a tender heart toward us if it were not for Jesus Christ. Without Him I suppose I could believe in God’s general good will toward His creatures, but not the kind of sympathizing love that cheers our hearts. In the birth of Jesus, God really entered into the midst of our life. He learned, as only a human being could, what it is to be hungry, thirsty and tired. He felt, as we feel, the pressure of temptation. He knew what it’s like to be rejected and falsely accused. Jesus could feel pain. He could bleed. He could die. He drank our cup to the last dregs.
That’s why the New Testament writers celebrate the fact that Jesus can be touched, as they say, with the feeling of our infirmities. He was in all points tempted like as we are, they say, yet without sin. He walked where we have walked. He shared our lot. He came into a world where sin is rampant and the hosts of evil are doing their malicious work. He came as a man whose heart could be broken, who was vulnerable to all the ills that any of us can ever face. And when I see how He wept at the grave of Lazarus, how He cared for the least and the lowest, how He died a death of excruciating pain and forsakenness for us, then I know beyond all doubting that the Lord of the universe has a tender heart. Jesus said it, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6). When you see how Jesus cared about people, about us, you know what’s in the heart of God.
I commend this Savior to you today. I invite you to put your whole trust in Jesus Christ, to commit your life to Him, the One who came for you, lived for you, died and rose again for you. Fix your attention today on this Jesus. Realize that in Him God has really come to save you, to bring light into your darkness and forgiveness for your sin. Is He not worthy of your trust and devotion, this sovereign Lord with a marvelously tender heart? Oh, enthrone Him today as your Savior and Lord.
Prayer: Father, when we look at what’s happening in the world around us, it sometimes seems too good to be true. But thank You that in Jesus Christ, in His life and death and rising, You have shown us beyond all doubting what a tender heart You have toward Your people. Make everyone conscious of that who shares this program today. In the name of Jesus. Amen.