Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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 by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” – Luke 1:67-79
Well here we are in Advent again! Doesn’t it seem like the years go by faster every year? It seems like only yesterday I was doing Christmas shopping – for last Christmas!
It can be a challenge to keep Christmas feeling fresh and new every year. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to make Advent special, because Advent has a focus on the future – it builds anticipation.
With this in mind, we’re doing an Advent series called The Songs of Christmas. I’m glad we’re doing this because the songs of Christmas focus our minds and our hearts, like nothing else, on who and what we are waiting for during this Advent season.
Today’s song is the Song of Zechariah, found in the first chapter of the gospel of Luke. Feel free to grab a Bible and follow along with me.
Before I begin, just a little bit of background on Zechariah himself. Luke tells us Zechariah was a Levite, which gives us information about both his tribe and his career. Zechariah was descended from the patriarch Jacob’s son Levi, which means he was of the tribe of Levi. And the law of Moses tells us in Deut 18:5:
“…the LORD… has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, he and his sons for all time.”
So Zechariah was born into the priestly tribe of Levi.
Luke also tells us that Zechariah was descended from “the priestly order of Abijah”. II Chronicles 6:28 tells us Abijah was one of the grandsons of Levi, and he was assigned to “minister with song before the tabernacle.” In other words, Zechariah’s family were essentially church musicians.
Back in ancient Israel, anyone who worked in the temple – preaching, teaching, making music, even doing maintenance – had to be trained in ministry. So in addition to whatever work they normally did, Chronicles tells us they also “had as their appointed duty in their service to enter the house of the LORD according to the procedure established for them by their ancestor Aaron…” (1 Chronicles 24:19) who was the high priest. So they did priestly work on top of whatever else they did.
So what we see happening in the first chapter of Luke is exactly that: Zechariah has been called up out of the choir (so to speak) and into his priestly duties.
As a side note, Luke also tells us Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was “a descendant of Aaron” – which was the order of high priests. So Elizabeth’s priestly pedigree is actually higher than Zechariah’s. By ancestry, she is qualified to be a prophet. And Elizabeth actually becomes a prophet later on in Luke chapter 1. Since her song is not included in our Songs of Christmas series I’d like to share it now. Elizabeth sang this song when she was pregnant with John the Baptist, and Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit her. Luke writes:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)
And I would add this: Even today, blessed are those who believe there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken by the Lord.
But we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in the story-line. So backing up a few verses, Luke says in chapter 1 verse 6 both Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”
That’s no small feat. But Luke makes this point because of what he says in the next verse: Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless. In those days having no children was considered a sign of God’s disapproval, or of sin in a person’s life. So Luke makes it clear their childlessness is not through any fault of their own. Zechariah and Elizabeth have been doing everything right. This doesn’t mean they’re perfect – just that they had kept the law of Moses to the best of their ability.
So in Luke 1:8 Zechariah is serving in the temple, because this was his time of ‘appointed duty in service’ in the house of the Lord. Luke says “he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” (Luke 1:9)
Considering the number of Levites living in Israel at that time, this duty might have come around only once or twice in a lifetime. And the lot just happened to land on Zechariah that year? This is no coincidence! This is God’s hand reaching into human history.
So Zechariah is supposed to do two things: (1) enter the sanctuary, that is, the holy of holies, where only priests were allowed to go; and (2) offer incense, which represents the prayers of the people. In those days priests were go-betweens between the people and God. The people would give prayers to priests to take to God, and God would give messages to the priests to give to the people. And the holy of holies was hidden behind a heavy curtain. The people could never see, with their own eyes, what was going on back there.
But this system of worship would soon come to an end. When Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was torn in two from top to bottom – and people, from that point on, had direct access to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. Priests were no longer needed because people could pray directly to God and hear directly from God.
Back to our story, Zechariah goes into the holy of holies and offers the incense and the prayers. And while he’s there the angel Gabriel appears, and says, “you’re going to have a son, and you will name him John.” And Gabriel says: “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God…[he will] make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17, edited)
Now Zechariah thought about this, and thought about how old he was, and how old Elizabeth was, and he doubted Gabriel’s word. He said, “How can that even be possible?” So Gabriel gave him a sign: Zechariah would be unable to speak until the prophecy came true. When the baby is born, Zechariah writes on a tablet “His name is John” – and he is able to speak again.
After almost a year of being unable to say anything, Zechariah’s first words are:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior…”
Zechariah’s song is all about praising God.
I was reminded of this passage yesterday when some of us went to the Messiah Sing-Along at Calvary United Methodist on the North Side. At the end of the concert over 500 people stood and sang the famous words of the Hallelujah Chorus:
“The kingdom of this world
Is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ
And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”
And the whole congregation broke into cheers like at a Steelers game!
(Here’s the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hallelujah Chorus)
When God opens a mouth, praise is what comes out. And so Zechariah praises God. First he praises God for the Old Testament prophecies that are coming true. He says, God has ‘remembered his covenant’.
It’s interesting that Zechariah’s name, in Hebrew, means “God remembers”. And this remembering is not just ‘bringing the past to mind’ but thinking about, paying attention to, and caring for, God’s people. Zechariah says:
- God has looked favorably on his people
- As spoken through God’s holy prophets of old
- God has remembered his holy covenant
- Which he swore to our ancestor Abraham
All the promises made to Abraham nearly 2000 years before, and all the promises made to King David and King Solomon nearly 1000 years before, and all the promises made to Nebuchadnezzar and to Daniel and to all the prophets – everything focuses in on this one point in history. So Zechariah praises God.
Secondly Zechariah praises God for the blessings that come to the human race through Jesus. He lists six blessings in particular:
- We will be rescued from our enemies
- We will be able to serve God without fear
- We will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness
- Jesus will be a light to those walking in darkness and in the shadow of death
- Jesus will bring the dawn of God’s mercy to God’s people
- John the Baptist will prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming
Let’s take a brief look at each one of these.
First, we will be rescued from the hands of our enemies. Some of us may say, “but I don’t have any enemies. I try to live at peace with everybody.” And that may be true as far as it goes. But not everyone in the world loves Jesus, and some people may choose to make themselves our enemies because we bear Jesus’ name. And even if we escape that, we still have enemies: illness, injury, the suffering of loved ones, death. Jesus has overcome all of these, and rescues us even in the middle of our troubles and trials.
Secondly, we will be able to serve God without fear. Zechariah’s words here contain an echo of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When Moses went to Pharaoh he didn’t just say ‘let my people go’. He said (as God told him to say), ‘let my people go into the wilderness to worship and serve the Lord’. This set up a contest of wills – a contest of loyalties – between Pharaoh and God. And the same contest of wills between worldly powers and God still goes on today. Zechariah praises God that with the coming of the Messiah, God’s people will be set free to serve God without fear.
Third, along with that, Zechariah says we will be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness. As one theologian put it, “heaven would not be heaven to an unholy soul.” In the power of Christ we are set free from spiritual enemies and therefore we are set free to serve God in holiness and righteousness.
Fourth, Zechariah says Jesus will be a light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. It’s not hard to see how much our world is in darkness. Think of all the things we’ve experienced as a nation in this past year alone. All of the divisions, all of the hurt. Our world longs for peace… but it wants a peace that doesn’t involve giving up sin. And like the old saying goes, ‘no justice, no peace’ – or maybe more accurately, ‘no god-likeness, no peace’. Jesus comes to break through this darkness.
Fifth, Zechariah says Jesus comes to bring God’s mercy for God’s people: salvation through the forgiveness of sins. This Saviour will be a very personal savior. Yes, Jesus comes to save the world; yes, he comes to save the people; but where the rubber meets the road, Jesus saves one person at a time. Jesus touches and shows mercy on one life at a time. Jesus forgives us, one past at a time… and heals us one heart at a time.
And lastly, Zechariah says that his son, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for Jesus by preaching this salvation through the forgiveness of sins.
So for those of us listening in on Zechariah’s song, what does this mean for all of us?
First and foremost – we are invited to join in the rejoicing! Sing! Celebrate! Not with material things like the world does, but with spiritual joy in the coming of the light of the world.
Secondly, take this song of Zechariah into the coming week with us. Maybe put it up on the refrigerator. Or try praying the words this week. Use Zechariah’s words as a part of our joy.
Third, as a wise man once said, “Don’t be satisfied with captivity when Jesus is proclaiming ‘liberty to the captives’.” In other words, if there’s anything that holds us captive – a bad habit, an addiction, a relationship – anything that keeps us from being who God created us to be – bring it to the foot of the cross, and be free. Jesus proclaims liberty to the captives, and that’s a promise good for every one of us.
Fourth, if there’s anyone who feels like they’re wandering around in a world of darkness these days: Jesus is the light of the world – keep eyes on him.
And finally: following in the footsteps of Zechariah, let’s bless God with our whole hearts, and with our lives, demonstrating in our lives the mercy of God which is ours in Jesus.
Lord Jesus, thank you for this song of your relative Zechariah. Thank you for the truth of his words, and for the joy of his words. Thank you for your light which lightens our darkness. Help us to enter into this season of Advent with a fresh faith and joy, remembering all you have done for us, and above all remembering your love for us that never quits and never dies. We look forward to your coming, Lord. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/4/16