Advent 3 Midweek “The Dating of Christmas: John the Baptist”
December 16th and 17th, 2020 – Luke 1:5-27; 34-37
May you receive from God the forgiveness you do not deserve, not get the judgement you have, and may you have peace with God through the blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Pray with me the words of Psalm 19:14 “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of [our] heart[s] be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
Here we are. We have come to the end of our Advent midweek services. Tonight, we come to the final epic conclusion of “The Dating of Christmas.” We have taken a brief, jam-packed with detail, look at the major theories concerning the date of December 25th for the birth of Jesus.
First, that Christians stole a pagan festival, for various reasons, which celebrated the Sun-god to celebrate the true Son of God.
Second, that our date of Christmas is based on the ancient’s belief of when the Christ was conceived – The spring equinox when God initially created the world and comes as the new creation and the day of His crucifixion on Passover.
Finally, our third theory for the date of December 25th, comes from a thorough look at the Old and New Testaments and what they tell us about the timing of this event. We start by looking at the one whose job it is to point to Jesus and prepare His way. Remember who this is from this past Sunday? We look to John the Baptist.
Our Gospel reading tonight shows that Jesus was conceived when John’s mother was six-months pregnant with him. Therefore, if there is a way to determine when John was conceived, and then born, we can also determine, with decent accuracy, Jesus’ birth date, right?
Let us dive in!
The angel Gabriel appeared to John’s father, Zechariah, as he was burning incense in the Temple. Zechariah was told that his wife would bear a son in her old age. Because of Zechariah’s unbelief at the message, he is struck mute until the day the boy is born. It was after his time of service he returned home, and his wife conceived.
Pause. What are the clues we have to what Zechariah was doing here? 1. He was serving as priest. 2. His division of Abijah was on duty. 3. He was chosen by lot according to custom. 4. He was burning incense in the temple. Believe it or not, this is a lot of information.
- Zechariah serving as priest. Many ancient and modern scholars believe that he was serving as High Priest during a major Old Testament feast day of national repentance. This day is called Yom Kippur, or literally in English, The Day of Atonement. This is the day which God, in His mercy, allowed for sacrifices to be made to reunite His people, individually and collectively, back together Himself by removing their sin. To be restored to a state of at-one-ment with Him. This day was filled with repentance, and repentant acts, done by the people. How interesting that thirty years later, when John the Baptist begins His ministry, at 30 years old according to tradition, his mission was to call the people of God to repentance.
However, the lists we have recording the High Priests year to year do not mention a Zechariah.
- His division of Abijah was on duty. We take a detour back to King David and the First High Priest, Aaron, for this information. All descendants of Aaron were separated into twenty-four groups. Each group, according to King David’s directions in 1 Chronicles 24, took turns serving for a week in the Temple two times a year. 1 Chronicles 24 also shows that Abijah was the eight lot to be drawn in the ordering. At the time of Zechariah, there would have been about 20,000 priests throughout the country, so the divisions divided up their work throughout the year. By some people’s calculation, if you use the year 6 BC, Abijah would have served October 3-10th.
- He was chosen by lot according to custom. High Priests would not need to be chosen by lot to burn incense on Yom Kippur. However, a chief priest would be drawn by lot to burn incense in the place of the High Priest on the afternoon liturgical service of “Tamid”. The High Priest would burn incense at the morning service on Yom Kippur but a priestly representative could do it at other times. This “Tamid” service done morning and evening was repeated daily around, and on, Yom Kippur and during the Feast of Tabernacles which followed five days later. Either of which Zechariah could have been serving at.
- A unique facet of Zechariah’s Abijah’s service burning incense that year was “the whole multitude of people were in prayer outside” (Luke 1:10). This points to His service on Yom Kippur when the large crowd of the faithful would gather outside to pray while the incense was burned and raised to God with their prayers; though it could have been near the start of Tabernacles when there was still a large crowd for the Tamid service.
What does this tell us? John was conceived soon after Zechariah’s service ended on Yom Kippur or Tabernacles. When is Yom Kippur? According to the Jewish liturgical calendar, it had to fall prior to the autumn equinox (September 23rd according our modern calendar, BUT September 25th back then). The next Jewish feast, the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), had to fall five days after Yom Kippur during the full moon either on or after the autumnal equinox.
Yom Kippur had to be before Sept 25th. The Feast of Tabernacles had to be on or after September 25th. This means there is a five-day window for this date.
Feast of Tabernacles lasts a week. Luke 1:39 tells us that Zechariah lived in a nearby “hill country, a city of Judah.” He quite likely would have hurried home soon after his service: September 21st at the earliest (if he is only serving for Yom Kippur) and October 5th at the latest.
By the power of God opening the womb of a previously barren old woman Elizabeth would have conceived John – one can assume almost immediately.
For centuries, the Church has celebrated the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24th. If John’s birth occurred on June 24th, according to the Church’s liturgical calendar, then his conception would have been nine months earlier in late September/early October, near the time of the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) and just after Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). John’s conception is late September or early October, and John’s birthday, as the church has said for centuries, is June 24th or remarkably close to it.
Conception date and birthday of John the Baptist calculated from Scripture? Check!
Now we head for Jesus.
At the date of Jesus’ conception when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary he says “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:36). Exactly six months from John’s conception is awful close to March 25th. Or should we say “awe-filled” close to March 25th. March 25th is of course, as we discovered last week, the celebrated time of the Annunciation to Mary, the spring equinox, the time day and night are equal, the time ancients thought to be the first day of creation, a calculated day of Jesus’ crucifixion, and, of course, nine-months from the day Christians for over 1500 years have celebrated the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Maybe we have had it right all along! For what it is worth, that’s kind of cool.
How fitting that John would be the one we can look to in order to be pointed to Jesus. We can look to John’s conception and birth to be pointed to Jesus and His birth. After all, John’s mission is to point to Jesus.
John is conceived right after the time when people repent, and God shows His grace to his people by allowing sacrifices for sin to be made for the whole nation but is never fully sufficient and happens year after year.
Jesus is conceived soon after who is the sacrifice God provides and is sufficient and eternal.
John is born and Jesus is soon after.
John’s ministry begins when he is 30 and he calls God’s people to repent and baptizes them with a baptism of repentance.
Jesus’ ministry begins when he is 30 and he preaches good news to the poor and gives a baptism in His triune name with water and the Holy Spirit.
John is imprisoned and killed.
Jesus, not long after is arrested and killed.
Jesus is raised from the dead as the first-born of the dead.
John, this time, will follow Jesus up from the dead one day.
You will follow in turn. We all will. Because of Jesus, that perfect sacrifice that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement always needed and pointed, our sin will be taken away and we will be made at one with God. We will be united, reconciled, resolved, intimate, connected – we will be with God, forever.
So, repent, recognize, and turn from your sin, as John was sent to preach in order to prepare us, and be reconciled by God’s sacrifice for you in Jesus.
Jesus, that baby born at the end of December – in a little over a week from now.