So here we have the second carol of the New Testament. Hasn’t been among the popular ones sung at Christmas down through the years, although I do vaguely recall singing a version of this as a choir boy, as I did with Mary’s song. What this carol does is more profound than many of the ones we sing today. Whilst it follows the pattern of psalms from the Hebrew Bible, it covers a lot of ground and looks back to look forward. In this song of Zechariah he
- praises God for what he has done, highlighting the significant moments of Israel’s history;
- roots the future in the past working of God among his people;
- recognises the agony and hope of Israel;
- looks forward to what God is going to be doing;
- links John and Jesus in the mission of God.
We’ll be exploring some of these things this morning as we move towards communion.
The births of John and then Jesus reflect significant births from the Hebrew Bible:
- Isaac the heir of the promise;
- Moses the deliverer;
- Samuel, the prophet of Israel.
Two of these conceptions were by miraculous intervention, just as the conceptions of John and Jesus were. Moses survived infancy by miraculous intervention, as did Jesus. The miraculous conceptions removed disgrace. Ironically, in the NT the miraculous conceptions removed disgrace for one and brought disgrace for the other, although Mary doesn’t interpret it in this way in her song. The births of Jesus and John are interwoven, not just because they are part of the same family, but also because they are part of the mission of God – as were those of Isaac, Moses and Samuel. However, with Jesus we see the mission of God accomplished in salvation and bringing in the Kingdom.
Zechariah voices all of this as he expresses the long held hope of the people of Israel in God their saviour. He interprets events from his own worldview – something we all do whether we are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or atheist. As you would expect, Zechariah has a clear grasp of the history of Israel and the promises of God; he is one of those who has been looking forward to God acting. He prophesies in the context of the agony and hopes of Israel that were a part of the life of the nation – and still are.
- He picks up the theme of redemption, harking back to the deliverance from Egypt when the people were redeemed from slavery as the saviour Moses came and led the to the Promised Land. Or perhaps he is thinking of the Babylonian exile and the return of the people from this pagan nation. Whichever it is, the price has been paid and the people are free to live in righteousness and justice before God.
- He picks up the theme of deliverance which goes hand in hand with redemption. Deliverance from enemies and deliverance from fear so that they can serve their God freely.
- The mercy of God has been shown in the past and was being demonstrated in the birth of John and Jesus. It was demonstrated in the covenant with Abraham, foundational to the faith of Jew and Christian and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. The mercy of God which seems a long time coming to us, was not diminished in the eyes of Zechariah because of the lapse of time.
- The promise to David was going to be fulfilled because ‘the horn of salvation’ was to come from his house through Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke’s genealogies link Jesus to the House of David. The term horn is a symbol of strength and power. It is like the horn of an animal; hence the beast of Revelation with ten horns is extremely powerful and terrifying but the King of kings and Lord of lords is more powerful and will cut off the horns of the beast and bring deliverance. Holiness and righteousness will be restored.
The working of God in the past is linked to the working of God in the future as Zechariah then turns to prophesying over his son. John of course was the Elijah figure and the one who broke the prophetic silence of 400 years. He acts as the link between the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures.
Read Malachi 3:1-4; 4:5-6
Zechariah prophesies that John is the one who comes to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. The words of Malachi show that this will not be an easy time and that there will be refining and cleansing and people will be brought into righteous living before their God. At the end of Malachi 4 there is the threat of judgement if reconciliation doesn’t happen. Salvation and restoration are always accompanied by judgement in the Hebrew Bible, and ultimately that is no different for us in the era after the resurrection of Jesus. He offers forgiveness and reconciliation with God our Father, but for those who refuse that, there will be judgement.
The Christmas message is one of bringing light into darkness, of restoration with our God, but just because of the need for God to come there will be judgement, and at the end of time we will stand before God’s refining and purifying gaze. As we celebrate Christmas, the message of Easter and the judgement of God on the sin of humankind is central – and so is the hope brought by the appearing of Jesus in the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
The life and mission of John is intimately tied up with that of Jesus his cousin, although there appears to have been limited contact between the two. The most significant encounters we know about were the baptism of Jesus, when John acknowledges publicly that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of the one to follow and that he is not the one who should baptise Jesus. The second encounter is remote through John’s disciples. John is in prison and having doubts and is looking for reassurance from Jesus. The message Jesus sends back is
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” John 7:21-23
The preparation of John was to involve calling people to repentance and baptism was a sign of that repentance. What does Zechariah say?
you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
Salvation and forgiveness are linked and the recognition that we are sinners is central. The people of Israel were aware of the judgement of God because of their sin of unfaithfulness. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible were sent to remind the people of their covenant relationship and to return to their God:
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
The quote comes from Chronicles and the prophets had the same message over and again. Notice that forgiveness is not only personal but national and affects the very land in which they live. Zechariah as he prophetically speaks over John is not thinking in terms of Jesus and me, but the nation. John is a prophet for the nation in the line of Elijah and the other prophets. Like them he didn’t mince his words:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Luke 3 7-9
Not exactly terms of endearment, but people responded and asked what they should do. John took on the prophet’s mantle and paid the ultimate price.
Zechariah in his prophecy talks about forgiveness coming as a result of the mercy of God. How long had the people been waiting? What trials had they been through? Yet in Zechariah’s eyes the mercy of God is undiminished by the passing of time and the tribulations of the nation. He must have accepted the right of God to pass judgement on the people for their sinfulness. God was and is Lord over all and has the right to judge. The message of this prophecy is that he also comes in mercy and forgiveness.
With forgiveness comes reconciliation. The people turning from their wicked ways are returning to God the one who has remained faithful through the years and is now fulfilling his promise to send the Messiah. Forgiveness removes the barrier between God and his creation and brings deliverance from judgement and deliverance from fear. He talks about this salvation as being like a rising sun that banishes the darkness and the shadow of death.
For the Hebrew, death was a nether world of shadowy existence; a place where God could not be worshipped. Here we have something of the fear of death: separation from God our creator and saviour and banishment from his presence. Isaiah says
For the grave cannot praise you,
death cannot sing your praise;
those who go down to the pit
cannot hope for your faithfulness.
The living, the living—they praise you,
as I am doing today;
parents tell their children
about your faithfulness. Isaiah 38:18
With the coming of Jesus we need no longer fear death. Christian funerals should be places of hope. In the face of death we express our hope of resurrection – and that is not wishful thinking, but based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ the light has dawned and we can be confident that we will praise God in the land of the living – both here and in eternity. On my computer desk top in the office I have this prayer:
Almighty God our eternal refuge,
Teach us to live with the knowledge of our death
And to rejoice in the praise of your glory
Revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord
This is not morbid but a reminder that my life might have ended last year, but I am safe in the hands of God my Saviour. Those who have put their faith and trust in the one John came to prepare the way for, can express the confidence of Paul:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 1 Corinthians 15:20-21
It is what we will be celebrating at communion.
Zechariah’s prophecy finishes with the words ‘to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Peace is always the prayer of Christmas and our world is constantly at war as it continues in its rebellion against the creator and people seek to fulfil the ambitions of power and control. The Hebrew concept of peace is not just an absence of conflict, but a wholeness that comes through reconciliation with God our Father. That is why Paul can talk about the peace of God which passes all understanding. It is what we are celebrating has come into the world in Jesus, the Prince of Peace who leads us in the way of peace as we accept him and follow him.