SONGS OF THE SEASON -ZECHARIAH’S SONG – PAUL DAKIN

SONGS OF THE SEASON—ZECHARIAH’S SONG

An Advent sermon on Luke 1:68-79

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

December 2, 2018

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Christmas comes every year whether or not we are prepared for it, or whether we want it to; and the music of Christmas is a constant and inevitable companion to the holiday. Whether we become lovingly immersed in the music—or or just tolerate it—Western society cannot escape it. Wherever you turn, one is confronted with Christmas music in so many places so much of the time during the holiday season.

 

It has been suggested that the average American is probably familiar with about fifty or so Christmas songs. This includes both sacred carols and secular songs. Because of the pervasive influence of Christmas songs for roughly one month of the year every year, a very strong case can be made for the Christmas carol being the most culturally dominant body of songs in Western society.[1]

 

While everybody knows lots of Christmas carols by heart, it must be said that the familiarity with certain carols does not run very deep. Over the years, I have been called upon to lead Christmas carol sing-a-longs for various groups in many different settings. At some point or another in the proceedings, there will usually be a time for people to request their favorite carols. Which is fine by me. I have a pretty large repertoire of carols.  And even if I am not very familiar with a particular carol, I am good enough of a musician to be able to “Fake it” when the occasion calls for it.

 

Oftentimes during these Christmas carol sing-a-longs, someone will call out for “Frosty the Snowman.” What I’ve discovered over the years is that “Frosty the Snowman” is a song that everybody knows—but few people really know. Whenever “Frosty” is requested, I say, “Sure!” and start it off. But I chuckle to myself as I begin to play because I know what’s going to happen next.  Everyone will begin to sing the opening line loudly at the top of their voices—“Frosty the snowman…” But when we get to the rest of the line—and the rest of the song—there is a noticeable drop off in the volume. That is because, while everybody knows the song, most people are not sure what the next lines are! What usually happens is that I wind up singing a few more lines and, when it becomes obvious that I’m the only one still singing, I usually stop…and ask if there are any more requests…

 

What we know of the story of Jesus’ birth is found in only two of the four gospels. Those are the gospels of Matthew and Luke. By contrast, Mark begins his gospel with an account of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. Meanwhile the Apostle John starts his gospel with that magnificent poem about the pre-existent Christ that begins, “In the beginning was The Word, and the Word was with God, and The Word was God.” Luke gives us the most detailed and sustained account of Jesus’ birth and, mixed in the birth narrative, there are four songs that are recorded in the text.

 

I find it interesting that, although Advent and Christmas return regularly each year, these biblical Christmas songs do not receive very much attention. That is true even in the church. Most of us really do not know them very well at all. The one lone exception is “The Song of the Angels” as recorded in Luke 2. You know, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, goodwill to men.” So this during this Advent season, we are going to spend some time looking at each of the four biblical “Songs of the Season”—beginning this morning with “The Song of Zechariah.”

 

Luke 1:5 introduces us to Zechariah. We learn that he is a priest in the Temple and that he and his wife Elizabeth are Godly, devout people. One day while Zechariah was serving in the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son that they will name John. He goes on to describe the kind of life that John will lead. He will be the one who will lead people back to God and prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the chosen One of God.

 

Zechariah responds to this news with skepticism. (Wouldn’t we all if we were in his shoes?…) He asks, “How is this going to happen? Both Elizabeth and I are well up in years.” In response, Gabriel scolds him for his unbelief and tells him that he will be unable to speak until all that he had told him had been fulfilled. And so it was…

 

The story picks back up in verse 57. Elizabeth gives birth to the promised son foretold by Gabriel. At the naming ceremony, there is some initial confusion as to what the proud new parents will name the infant. After some debate, Zechariah—who is still unable to speak—calls for a tablet. On it he writes, “His name is John.” The people are surprised when they read it since no one else in Zechariah’s family went by that name. Immediately, Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and he began praising God. I can just imagine what that must have been like…

 

Now as a church musician and staff minister for most of the last 38 years, I have spent much of my adult life in the company of pastors. I have discovered that lots of ministers love to talk—a lot—for better or worse. Honestly I think talking a lot is something of an occupational hazard for many pastors. They just can’t help it. Let’s face it—talking is a large part of what ministers do for a living. And it seems to be difficult for many of them to be quiet for any length of time…

 

Zechariah had been unable to speak for nine long months. But once John the Baptist was born, he could suddenly talk once more. My guess is that it was like a dam that had burst open. All of these words that had been bottled up inside of him during Elizabeth’s pregnancy spilled out in a flood of words.  We do not know all that he had to say, but part of what he said is recorded in verses 68 through 79. This is known as “Zechariah’s Song.” One Bible scholar describes this song as “exquisite…One of the most beautiful [songs] in the New Testament—well, in the whole Bible, for that matter.”[2]

 

The song neatly divides into two parts. The first section is verses 68 through 75. It is a song of praise to God for his mighty work of salvation. It is also a prophecy of what God was about to do. Zechariah says that God is as good as his word and is bringing to fulfillment the prophecies that had been made long ago. God is raising up a mighty Savior from the house of David just like he said he would…

 

The second part of the song speaks of the son that has just been born to him and Elizabeth. Zechariah says that John will be called “the prophet of the Most High” and that he will prepare the way for the coming Messiah. He will point the way to salvation by showing them the way of forgiveness that God will offer. Then, in the final two verses, he speaks of the One who is to come…

 

I want to focus our thoughts on these last two verses in the time we have remaining this morning. Verses 78 and 79 say, “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.”

 

                In verse 78, we are told that “Through the tender mercies of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…” The Greek word used here is the word anatolē. It is the word commonly used in the New Testament for the sunrise, but in this context, it also contains more significance than that. The sunrise signals the beginning of a new day, the beginning of “new light.” Zechariah tells us here that the coming of the Christ will signify a new day. He will be a new light from heaven to begin a new day in the story of the world—a new chapter in our story as Christ is shining new light from heaven in those places where the old light had failed.

 

Zechariah here echoes words that we usually hear each Advent season from the prophet Isaiah. Those words are, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; and on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)

 

Over the centuries through the Old Testament, God had sent plenty of prophets to speak God’s truth to the people. He had also sent those who proclaimed the law of the Lord to the people, instructing them in the ways of righteousness. Those men and women were used by God to help to renew their covenant with God and to bring them back into relationship with him. In their own way, these faithful men and women brought God’s light into the world.

 

What Zechariah wants us to know is that this time things are different. The Christ event is not like the prophets and law givers of old who spoke for God in times past. It is not even like his own son John, who will be a prophet for the Messiah. NO—Zechariah tells us that, when the Christ comes, he will not only be bringing with him NEW light from God, but that he himself will be that light. Through Jesus, there are new ways of relating to God—new ways of nurturing our relationship to him—new ways of how to be the people of God. Colossians 1 tells us, “{Jesus} is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom [of God], in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-15)

 

None of the prophets of old could have been said to have been the image of God. Not Isaiah, not Elijah, not Jeremiah—none of them were the image of God. None of the lawgivers could have been said to have been the image of God. Even Moses—the greatest lawgiver of all, the one to whom God spoke directly and gave the Ten Commandments, the one who led the people out of slavery of Egypt and into the freedom of the land of promise—Moses could not have been said to have been the image of God. Only Jesus, God’s son, could be said to have been the very image of God himself. It is Jesus who is the new light from on high. When he comes, the dawning of a new age had begun…the time when God will more fully fulfill his purpose for humanity…and his purpose for each one of us…

 

Darkness is a physical reality these days. The length of days has been getting shorter as we approach the winter solstice later this month.

 

It is also true that darkness is a spiritual reality in our world as well. Spiritual darkness plagues every aspect of our lives. It is so obvious, isn’t it? There is hardly a day goes by when we do not learn of some new mass shooting incident in our nation…or of some senseless murder and loss of life…when we hear of some new armed conflict breaking out somewhere in the world…when we learn of some new indicator that points to a deterioration of our society and its people. It never seems to end, does it? It is relentless. And if we would be honest with ourselves and with God, we would admit that there is a darkness in each of us as well that we deal with every single day…

 

But this is the central claim of Christmas: God broke through the darkness. The first words of God recorded in Genesis 1 are, “Let there be light!” In a very real sense, the Christ event that we celebrate during this season is another time when God spoke those same words, “Let there be light!” Only this time, instead of calling into existence the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets to provide light to all of creation, God said “Let there be light!”…and God’s creation of new light was a tiny baby born in Bethlehem.

 

This light was Jesus, the light of God who would be a beacon to the people. It would be Jesus who would show the world’s God’s tender mercy and steadfast love. It would be Jesus who would light the path back to God, guiding the people into peace…wholeness…harmony…well-being…and security. John 1 tells us that “In him was life, and that light was the light of humanity…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…And to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:4, 9, 12)

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We will conclude this part of the worship this morning by singing the setting of “Zechariah’s Song” that you will find on your bulletin insert. (After all, songs are meant to be sung, right?!) As we sing this song together, let the words of “Zechariah’s Song” resonate within you as we begin this Advent journey together. It’s all about the promises of God—the promises of salvation from enemies, the promise of redemption from danger, the promise of freedom to love and serve God in holiness and righteousness, the promise of the coming of the Christ—the new light of God—who is surely on his way…

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] These introductory thoughts are drawn from William E. Studwell, “The Christmas Carol as a Cultural Phenomenon: Four Musings on the Music of the December Holiday,” The Hymn Vol. 45, No. 4 (October 1994), 6-9.

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703 (Accessed November 28, 2018) Commentator is Rolf A. Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

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