Midweek Advent Vespers
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
“Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas: The Nativity of St. John the Baptist and the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus” (Luke 1:57-80)
When last we left Zechariah, he was doing his best Marcel Marceau impression. In other words, he couldn’t speak! He was making signs and gestures to try to communicate. In other words, there were no words! Zechariah had been struck mute, unable to speak, because he had not believed the words the angel Gabriel had spoken to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a child, even though they were both old and had been unable to have children. Remember, Gabriel told him, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” The angel was bringing the old priest good news from God, but Zechariah couldn’t believe it. So Gabriel said to Zechariah, “Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”
Well, now today we fast-forward nine months to the time when these words are fulfilled. Zechariah has been mute, unable to speak, all this time. And let me tell you, for a preacher to be unable to speak for nine months, that must have been some ordeal! But even as the little baby was growing in Elizabeth’s womb, a renewed and stronger faith must have been growing in Zechariah’s heart. For once the baby is born–we call it “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist”–when the baby is born, Zechariah does get things right, and God restores his power of speech. And when Zechariah speaks, people listen–or at least they ought to. For what Zechariah has to say to us today is really good news.
So the baby is born–it’s a boy!–and one week later it’s time to have the child circumcised. The day of a baby boy’s circumcision, the eighth day from his birth, was also the traditional time to announce the child’s name. By the way, this was a custom that was retained in the church for a long time, that a baby’s name would first be announced publicly on the day of the child’s baptism. “How is this child to be named?”–we still have that question in the baptismal liturgy. Well, similar thing back then. A baby boy’s name is not official until it is announced publicly on the day of his circumcision. And it is the father, as the head of the household, who announces it.
So the friends and the relatives are all at the house for the naming ceremony. They think “Zechariah” would be a good and logical choice for a name, and it would have been. The name “Zechariah” means “Yahweh remembers,” “The Lord remembers,” and that’s a good meaning. The Lord does remember his promises; he remembers his covenant with his people. “Zechariah” was the name of one of the Old Testament prophets, so it’s got a good history. And of course it’s the name of the boy’s father. So, yeah, “Zechariah,” “Zechariah Jr.,” would be a good choice.
Now Dad is unable to speak at this time, remember, so the relatives and friends run their suggestion by the mom, Elizabeth. But she says, “No; he shall be called John.” Apparently, sometime during the preceding nine months, Zechariah had written down for Elizabeth the gist of his conversation with the angel about how the child should be named. So that’s the name she goes with, “John.” But now the final decision is up to the father. What will Zechariah decide? Keep in mind, at first he did not believe the angel’s words, so now will he go with the angel’s instruction? Zechariah can’t speak to announce his decision, so instead he grabs a writing tablet. That’s how he’s had to communicate for these last nine months, so I’m sure he had one handy.
Zechariah’s short little message shows that now he gets it. “His name is John,” Zechariah writes, the name the angel had given him. Now the name is official. Now Zechariah’s faith and obedience are evident. Now his mouth is opened and his tongue is loosed.
Zechariah speaks, and we should listen. What he has to say next is an exalted, inspired speech, praising the Lord and prophesying about little John. It’s in the form of an Old Testament psalm, poetic in style and profound in substance. We call this song of Zechariah the “Benedictus,” “Benedictus” being the Latin for the first word, “Blessed.” “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” is how this song of Zechariah begins. The Benedictus is a New Testament canticle that made its way into the church’s liturgy early on, most commonly as an option in the order of Matins.
Zechariah speaks, and we should listen. Let’s listen now to the words of the Benedictus, piece by piece, for they are words of salvation for us: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. . . .” Zechariah begins by praising the name of the Lord. And why? Because he has “visited and redeemed” his people. Those are two Old Testament terms very rich in content. When the Lord “visits” his people, that means he comes down to act on their behalf. The Lord gets involved when he “visits” us. And he is acting to “redeem” his people, that is, to deliver them, set them free. Now the amazing thing Zechariah is saying is that the Lord is doing this visiting and redeeming right here in the birth of this little child John. John’s birth has significance for salvation history.
Zechariah continues: The Lord has visited and redeemed his people “and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. . . .” “A horn of salvation.” The term “horn” in biblical language is a symbol of power, much like a ram’s horn is an instrument of strength and power. The Lord is raising up a horn of salvation, a powerful deliverer, “in the house of his servant David.” But wait a minute–Zechariah and his son John are not from the house of David. David was of the tribe of Judah, but Zechariah, being a priest, must have been from the tribe of Levi. So who is this horn of salvation being raised up in the house of David? Hmm. . . . Now the house of David was the line of kings, the messianic line. Is there a son of David about to be raised up? In other words, is the Messiah on his way? And what role will John play in relation to the Messiah? That’s the story that’s being unfolded.
What will the raising up of this horn of salvation from the house of David mean for God’s people? Zechariah tells us: “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Here we see that the promise goes back even further than to David. This is the covenant with father Abraham that is also being fulfilled. The Lord does remember his holy covenant, and that covenant was to bless Abraham and his descendants, and that through Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. That is the covenant that the Lord is fulfilling now, even beginning with the birth of baby John.
It is a covenant of salvation and mercy. Salvation, deliverance, in that we are “saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” We are “delivered from the hand of our enemies,” that we might serve the Lord without fear. And it is a covenant of mercy, in that the Lord is showing mercy on us, helping us in the midst of our misery and distress.
And what will be the role of little John in relation to all this? Proud papa Zechariah addresses his newborn son: “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, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit 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 destiny for little John! What a ministry and high privilege! To be the prophet who prepares the way for the Lord himself! That’s what John the Baptist will do. He will call people to repentance, to recognize their sins and to receive forgiveness for them. He will make known the salvation coming in the one greater than he. John is the herald announcing the dawning of a new day, the sunrise from on high coming in the person of the Christ. John prepares the way for Jesus, and Jesus brings the light of life into our land of darkness and the shadow of death. Now we are walking in the way of peace, we who were lost and did not know which way we were going. The birth of John the Baptist signals all this and means that it is now underway.
When Zechariah speaks, people listen, people like you and I. We hear good news, great news, when we hear Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus. The Benedictus tells us of a God of salvation and mercy, a God who makes a holy covenant with his people and then remembers his promises and acts on them. My friends, our God does remember his promises; he remembers his covenant. The Lord has visited and redeemed us. He has raised up for us, for you, a horn of salvation from the house of David. It is the child coming after the birth of John the Baptist. John prepares the way, and then Jesus does the job. Jesus the Christ is the Son of David, the Messiah. Jesus is the seed of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. Christ Jesus is salvation and mercy for you. By his redeeming death on the cross, Christ Jesus has delivered you from all your enemies, from death, from hell, and from the power of the devil.
Therefore now, like Zechariah of old, you can serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness all the days of your life. Now, like Zechariah, your mouth is opened and your tongue is loosed. And together you and I sing our praise and our blessing forevermore unto the Lord who has saved us.