Friday, December 7, 2012

Reflections on the Song of Zechariah – Luke 1:68-79

Read the text here: Luke 1:68-79

Promises – Ancient & Modern
On this 2nd weekend in Advent we receive two gifts: 1. We are introduced to John the Baptist in the first of two weekends devoted to him during Advent; and 2. We get to sing the song which John’s father Zechariah sang when John is presented in the temple.  The song, the 2nd of 4 beautiful songs that appear in the first two chapters of Luke, is known as The Benedictus, after the first word – Blessed (be the Lord God of Israel) – and has been a part of Christian worship since the early church.  The song focuses on promise.  In fact, one could almost make the case that the entire opening of Luke’s gospel focuses on promise – the promise given by God to God’s people and the promise brought to fulfillment in the birth of Jesus.
What is this promise?  For the answer to that question we need to turn to the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis.  Right in the very first few verses of the entire adventure of this couple God lays out the promise – Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  (It is repeated at intervals throughout the story)
What unfolds is a story of how God is faithful to the promise despite the unfaithfulness and undermining of this promise by Abraham and Sarah themselves.  Finally, two angels (messengers) appear to bring the news that Sarah would give birth to a son (Genesis 18).  The response to the message is, to put it nicely, skepticism.  Sarah laughs at the news.  It is, perhaps, a testament to her and Abraham’s sense of humor that they name the child Isaac – “Laughter!”
The story of Zechariah is very similar.  Gabriel appears to the old priest Zechariah with news that his equally elderly wife, Elizabeth, would finally give birth to a child.  Zechariah is skeptical.  And since it appears that neither Gabriel nor Zechariah seem to have any sense of humor at all in this story Gabriel punishes Zechariah for his skepticism.  He is struck mute for the duration of his wife’s pregnancy (some think he is struck both deaf and mute).  But when the child is finally born and presented in the temple for the naming, God releases Zechariah’s tongue and he bursts forth with this amazing song.
For my part I can sympathize with poor Zechariah.  The fulfillment of the promise and the announcement of a child to be born to this elderly couple is so far fetched.  Things just don’t happen that way in real life.  Older couples like Sarah & Abraham and Elizabeth & Zechariah don’t have babies.  Now, if Gabriel had announced that God was going to fulfill the promise in a spectacular, miraculous or supernatural way then perhaps Zechariah would have been able to accept it.  In fact, Zechariah would have probably been thrilled.  As it is his response to the news is, at best, grumpy, skeptical and disappointed.  It is as though he is saying to Gabriel – “can’t God come up with anything more exciting than this?”  We are like Zechariah in this I think.  We too often look for God to act in a miraculous, spectacular way.  But the news that God is going to work through the natural order, through human beings and human processes is not only hard to accept, but kind of disappointing.  Human birth is so messy, wouldn’t it be easier and more special if there were an element of supernatural in all of this.  Then no one could question it.  It would be obvious, right?  No, it would not be obvious, we would probably still dismiss it and besides this is not how God works.  This is the foundational issue for the entire opening of Luke = God is faithful to God’s promises and God fulfills them in an ordinary way using flawed human beings and flawed human processes.  It is called Incarnation - and it works.  Nevertheless we continue to be like Zechariah: grumpy and skeptical.  We want God to work in ways that are miraculous and spectacular and supernatural, and we are quick to dismiss God’s intervention and God’s presence when it comes through others like our family, friends, a doctor or even a stranger.   
In the story of the Ascension (the pivot story between Luke and Acts) the angels tell the disciples to stop looking into the sky and to look around them if they want to see God in action!  This is the message of this story as well to Zechariah and to us – stop looking up into the sky for God, lower your gaze and see that God is there, at work beside you.  
The song of Zechariah thus becomes our song.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has favorably looked on his people and redeemed them… that would be us.  As we go through this song the first section (verses 68 through 75) restate the promise itself: God has raised up a mighty savior… saved us from our enemies… shown mercy to our ancestors… remembered his holy covenant.  And then there is a shift to part 2 at verse 76 – You my child will be called a prophet of the most high… - Zechariah the father is now tenderly singing to his infant son John.  And John’s calling will be to continue in the line of the prophets to give people knowledge of salvation… to proclaim the forgiveness of sins… and remind the people of the tender mercy of God… Preparing the people of God for the dawn from on high.. which is Jesus who is the one who will bring light to those who sit in darkness… and guide our feet into the way of peace (Shalom).
Ultimately this song proclaims to us that we are included in the people of the promise.  We are the ones to whom John continues to call to repent and prepare; we are the ones to whom Jesus brings light into the midst of the darkness that at times threatens to overwhelm us;  we are the ones to whom the Christ has promised to bring Shalom – Peace – perfect well-being and unity with God and others.
Click here to listen and watch a beautiful setting from the Middle Ages with a slide show of art along with the words of the text:
Zecharias and the Angel by William Blake

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