“Because of the tender mercy of God” (Luke 1:78). That’s Zechariah’s answer to the question, Why did Jesus come?
The Roots of Advent
Zechariah’s song is like a tree. Not like a Christmas tree, which we prop up because it doesn’t have roots. The roots of Zechariah’s song run deep. Its root system spreads backward into God’s story of redemption in the Old Testament.
Every line echoes or alludes to the promises of the Old Testament: The promises to Abraham (v73-75), the pattern of the Exodus redemption (v68), the promise of a coming Davidic king (v69-71). Each of these roots lead up to Advent, anchoring it in God’s story.
But there is one root that goes deeper than the rest. And this root stretches back beyond the pages of the Old Testament, behind history itself, to the heart of God.
The deepest answer for why Jesus came is this: “because of the tender mercy of God” (v78). “Tender” refers to the affections. Deep emotions. The depths of the heart.
As Zechariah sings of the historical roots of Advent, he shows that the whole story has been heading to the coming of Christ. And right in the middle of this song, he opens up the motive in God’s heart moving the story along: “tender mercy.”
History exists as a stage for God’s drama of redemption. And the drama of redemption exists to display the glory of God. And at the heart of God’s glory is his steadfast love and mercy toward his people. History was set in motion and carried along toward Advent, and Advent brings tidings of comfort and joy.
Root Under Every Root
God’s mercy, then, is the root under every other root of Advent.
- Why did God redeem Israel at the Exodus? “It is because the Lord loves you” (Deut. 7:8).
- Why did God stick with them in their idolatry? Because of his very nature. He is “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).
- Why did God promise David an eternal kingdom? David knew. He responded to God, “According to your heart, you have done all this greatness, in making known all these great things” (1 Chrn. 17:19).
- What did God promise to bring a New Covenant? Because, he says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:3). “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).
Why, then, the incarnation and birth of Christ? My friend, Dane, noted how John Bunyan makes the connection between God’s heart and advent: “God’s heart was engaged, [yes], all his heart, in the promise he spoke of sending us a Savior.” All his heart. His whole heart was engaged in sending Jesus to give mercy.
When Mercy Became Flesh
Zechariah pairs a striking word with “mercy”: tender. That refers to our “inner parts.” Sometimes its translated “bowels.” It refers to our physically felt, visceral emotions. But that describes our human experience of emotion. God doesn’t experience emotions like we do. He doesn’t have these inner parts that stir.
When we read about God’s heart of mercy for us, we might wonder, “but is that how he really feels? When it says that God’s heart stirs with compassion for us, that’s just a metaphor, right?”
- First, true, God does not experience physical emotions like a man. His emotions are not like our emotions. However, this does still tell us something true and deep about God. His affections are perfect, and he doesn’t need a body to have them. He is a God of love, and he has a heart of infinitely deep mercy for us.
- But second, consider, when Zechariah said this, God’s mercy was becoming flesh. The Son of God became man. He now he has a real, physical body. When he walked the streets of Jerusalem, he experienced human emotions of compassion. His inner parts stirred with tender mercy.
What does this mean? The English Puritan Thomas Goodwin makes the astonishing claim that when Jesus took on the nature of humanity, his mercies became the mercies of a man.
The incarnation did not add to God’s mercy; God did not become more merciful in the incarnation. What, then, did happen? The incarnation “added a new way of God’s being merciful, [and we can now say], for the comfort and relief of our faith, that God is truly and really merciful, as a man.” God has now “become loving and merciful [to] men, as one man is to another.” This happened “that God might be for ever said to be compassionate as a man, and to be touched with a feeling of our [weaknesses] as a man” (Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ, 127).
In other words, God’s perfect mercy is now experienced as we feel it. Which means that Jesus knows what it is to feel mercy as we do. And he has inner stirrings of warm affection and love for us, just as we experience as men and women.
And here’s why this matters now. Now that he is in heaven, this hasn’t changed. He was resurrected with a renewed human body. And he is still in that body this moment, and will be forevermore. Which means, even now, Jesus is stirred with tender mercy for us.
The Heart of God
God’s mercy launched this plan of salvation into existence from eternity past. And then this mercy took on flesh when Jesus came. Advent is, at its core, about God’s affectionate heart for the very ones who have withheld their affection from him. It’s about his heart of mercy for you and me.
God doesn’t just have mercy for you, he has tender mercy for you. He doesn’t just save you, his heart stirs with mercy for you.
In this season we may get frustrated. We may become impatient. Or distracted. Or covetous. Or annoyed. Or judgmental. Or, underneath all of this, halfhearted about God.
And there is one thing that can bring calm. There is one thing that can bring forgiveness for all of it. And there is one thing that can bring a new soul-stabilizing comfort and rest. And it is this: Tracing the roots of Advent back to the heart of God. And then looking up to heaven and seeing Jesus’ tender mercy for us.