Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sermon: Luke 1: 57-80 Zechariah's Song

Did you hear about the man decided to become a monk, and joined a silent order - they were only allowed to say two words every ten years. So he entered the monastery, and after ten years he went in to meet the abbot and he said his two words: bed hard. That was all right, they got more straw for his bed and the ten years rolled around. This time, he said: Too cold. They got him a thicker habit, and ten years later his words were: I’m leaving. The abbot turns round and says, well, I’m not surprised. All you’ve done since you got here is complain!

I wonder what your first words would be after a long time of not being able to speak. Perhaps you’d store up all those things you never got a chance to say while you were silent. Maybe you would complain about what had happened to you. In our reading, we get to hear the first words of Zechariah after a nine-month silence. Immediately, he begins to praise God - to the amazement of his friends and neighbours.

Just imagine what they have witnessed. Their kindly, elderly neighbours were ordinary people, the sort of folk you look in on during this cold weather to check they’re ok. But then several strange things happen. Zechariah is dumbstruck, ever since his last visit to Jerusalem to minister in the temple. And even more surprising, Elizabeth is expecting. They’ve begun decorating the nursery, buying a cot and preparing for the birth. At their age!

Now we know what has been happening - we’ve been told earlier in Luke’s gospel. In the temple, Zechariah met the angel Gabriel who told him they were going to have a son, whose name would be John. Zechariah didn’t believe, and became ‘mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’ (1:20)

So when it comes to naming the child (done on the eighth day when they circumcise him), the neighbours expect him to be called Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth, and then Zechariah on his writing tablet (that’s not an iPad, by the way) make sure that his name is John. Just at that moment, Zechariah’s tongue is loosened, and he can speak again!

Now put yourself in the shoes of their neighbours again. Have you ever heard the like of it? A strange birth in strange circumstances, and suddenly Zechariah is able to speak again, because he said the boy’s name was John? No wonder they ask the question in verse 66: ‘What then will this child become?’ It’s the talking point by the fireside and in the marketplace, the field and the school.

Zechariah answers the question the people are asking as he bursts out in prophecy - another of these salvation songs in Luke’s gospel. He begins with his big statement: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel’. So Zechariah is praising God, lifting his voice to praise the Lord God of Israel. Why? It’s all about what God has done (and why).

Firstly, he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. As God looks on his people with favour, he is showing grace to them, he is redeeming them. Imagine you were looking out the kitchen window when a wee bird flew into it. It had a broken wing and a sore beak. You would take pity on it and help it, wouldn’t you? You would show it grace and make it well. This is kind of what God is doing to Israel. God’s people are in a state, they’ve wandered far from him, they’re more hopeless and helpless than a wee sick bird. They need rescue, they need to be redeemed.

And Zechariah praises God because he has done it. How? ‘He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David.’ Now, remember that, at this point, Mary is barely three months pregnant, Jesus hasn’t even been born. Yet it’s as good as if it has already happened, so Zechariah can say it this way. Jesus is on his way, the saviour is coming.

But why? Why are things happening in this way at this time? ‘He has raised up a mighty saviour... as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...’ Zechariah praises God because he has sent the saviour, who was long ago promised in the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah is saying - God you promised you would do this, and now it’s happening!

In order for us to understand what God is doing, we need to be reading the Old Testament, to see what God has promised. There’s the covenant with Abraham, there’s mercy promised to the ancestors. There’s the goal of our salvation: ‘that we... might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.’

As Zechariah continues to praise God, he turns to what God has done in his own family. He addresses his son - what will this child become? ‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways...’ John will get people ready for Jesus - when he appears in the wilderness preaching repentance, calling for people to be baptised as a sign of repentance.

Do you see how it all fits together? John gives people a knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins; then the Saviour comes who takes away their sins (just as was promised) so that God’s people can serve him without fear (because our sins have been dealt with), in holiness and righteousness. By the mercy of God, we become more like Jesus because our sins have been removed.

Zechariah says that what is happening is like the first light of morning. Even in the darkest place, God’s mercy is like the dawn rising, as the light shines and brightens the scene. ‘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.’

No wonder then, that Jesus describes himself as the light of the world, the one who shines in the dark places, bringing salvation, guiding us, and giving hope and comfort in the presence of darkness and death. All this is possible because of what God has done in sending John to prepare the way for Jesus, the saviour.

It’s the reason Zechariah praises God. The saviour promised long has come. There is light instead of darkness. There is peace instead of fear. There is joy instead of despair. There is holiness and righteousness instead of sin.

But it’s just for those who will come to the Saviour; those who are God’s people. I wonder if you can join in Zechariah’s song today, rejoicing in what God has done for you too - that the saviour is YOUR saviour. If not, then this Christmas is almost pointless, it means nothing for you. Even today, you can come to Jesus, say sorry for your sins, and find grace and mercy from his hand, just as was promised long ago. The light will shine, and nothing will be the same again. Will you come? Will you find your salvation in him? God has raised up a mighty saviour for us - have you been saved by him?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2011.

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