An experienced pilot was flying from New York to LA. He had thousands of hours of flight time. He knew how to fly in good weather and bad. He just seemed at ease in the cockpit. On this particular flight, he decided that he wasn’t going to use autopilot, he was just going to fly the plane himself and enjoy the trip. After all, he knew where he was going. But along the way, they hit a little turbulence. Not much, just jostling the plane around a bit. But the pilot felt his way through it and kept the plane headed west.
He was so confident that he didn’t even bother to check with air traffic control. He didn’t need their help. He knew what he was doing. Or at least he thought he did. As he descended to approach for a landing, he realize that instead of the Hollywood sign of LA, he was seeing the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. Apparently, the turbulence was just enough that without checking, his course changed slightly to arrive in the wrong city. It didn’t help that he wasn’t communicating with the ground.
Turns out that you and I sometimes need some guidance. Someone to point us in the right way. Even though we’re sure we know what we’re doing, from time to time we end up on the wrong course. For God’s people of the Old Testament, this was commonly the function of prophets. We often think of prophets as some old dude with a scraggly beard telling us the future. But more often than not, prophets spoke of the present need for course correction than the future.
Around the time of the first Christmas, Israel was different than what we might imagine from reading the Old Testament. Most Bibles go from Malachi to Matthew with only a cover page between them that says “The New Testament”. And so if we turn the page like any other book, it just seems like a new chapter to the same story. But a lot is different.
Perhaps one of the greatest differences was that for nearly 400 years, Israel had no prophet. The book of 2nd Baruch (not in our Bible but rather considered a pseudepigraphical work of the 1st century) says this in chapter 85:1-3:” Know, moreover, that in former times and in the generations of old our fathers had helpers, righteous men, and holy prophets: 2 Nay more, we were in our own land and they helped us when we sinned, and they interceded for us with Him who made us, because they trusted in their works, and the Mighty One heard their prayer and forgave us.
3 But now the righteous have been gathered and the prophets have fallen asleep, and we also have gone forth from the land, and Zion has been taken from us, and we have nothing now save the Mighty One and His law.”
Despite this darkness, this time of spiritual depression, they looked forward to the time when God would once again be active and fulfill his covenantal promise.
Fast forward to the days of King Herod. Herod, who was not Jewish, but of Moabite descent, became king of Judea with the help of the Romans. He was king from 40 BC until his death in 4 BC (yes, this means that Jesus was born 4 years “before Christ” but that’s another story). We have this man named Zechariah who was a priest. Luke tells us that he was righteous before God, but he and his wife Elizabeth had no children.
One day while Zechariah is in the Temple serving, an angel appears to him and tells him that they are going to have a son. Sorry to spoil the story, but he doubts and is struck mute until the child is born and named John. Our focus here is on what the angel said in Luke 1:16-17: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
For the first time in nearly 400 years, the people of God will have someone to give them needed course corrections. Now, for my fellow protestants, one of the questions that immediately comes up, or at least for me does, is “Adam, are you saying we need ‘prophets’ today? Isn’t that dangerously close to saying that I can’t understand God’s Word and will for myself?” And no, I am not saying that at all. Today we have God’s Word available to us in ways that the common person did not have access to. We also have the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts and minds of believers, and He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
But one thing we all often need is a correction. Sometimes we think that we have this whole Jesus & God thing figured out. Like the pilot in the story, we may feel at ease at the controls. But without communication, and by just feeling our way through life, we get on the wrong flight path. John is tasked with bringing people back to the Lord.
So, my question is two-fold today: Who has God used to bring you back? And who can God use you to bring back to Him? Many churches are having special Christmas services this year. Invite someone. Better yet, have a cup of coffee and ask someone to tell you their story and then share with them how God brought you back to Him.