The various prophetic declarations regarding the birth of Jesus that Luke records in his gospel are often considered minor parts of his telling of the nativity story. But it is within these words that Luke communicates the gospel most clearly. Each song or exultation is actually a Holy Spirit inspired prophecy. Each character who prophesies is filled with joy as they suddenly realise what God is up to and they cannot help but celebrate and sing about it. Over the next few weeks we will consider each of these joyful, prophetic outbursts in turn and the example it sets for us as believers today.
Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for 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,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Its been nine months since Zechariah received his call to fulfil his once-in-a-life-time duty of burning incense at the alter in the temple. Nine months since he encountered Gabriel and was told he was going to have an impossible, miraculous son. Nine months of being mute and unable to shake off that meeting, replaying it in his mind again and again, obsessing over the angels words, but withheld from actually sharing and processing them with others. And then, in a moment of exuberant joy, his mouth is suddenly opened again and out pours this rich, dense, prophetically anointed worship song. The man who once questioned God’s work (v18-20) now zealously declares it!
What Zechariah sings here is nothing short of the gospel itself. At long last Yahweh has come to redeem his people. The exile is completely over. Their shame is being rolled away. The prophecies spoken over the house of David about a future Messiah are being fulfilled. God is upholding the covenant he made with Abraham, and the working partnership between him and Israel is imminently going to reach its climax. Yahweh, in his mercy, is going to shine into the world’s darkness, deal with sin, and lead his people into peace: a never ending, obedient, and fearless relationship with him into which all nations will be invited and by which all peoples will be blessed. Pretty awesome stuff huh? And not too shabby for some off-the-cuff lyrics!
There is one thing that I cannot help but highlight in Zechariah’s words here because it is fascinating. He says of his new born son, John the will-grow-up-to-be Baptist, “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…” What’s fascinating is that what is implied here is that the Jews John will address and baptise will only be able to know, understand and embrace what salvation is after they’ve had their sins forgiven. For modern, Western evangelicals this sounds all wrong - surely forgiveness of sins is salvation?! But for first century Palestinians Jews it makes perfect sense. They felt they were still in exile for having messed up their national calling by breaking the covenant with their disobedience. They would never have been able to recognise Jesus as Messiah or receive his teaching about the Kingdom if they didn’t first believe that God was willing to forgive them for that. For Zechariah and the Jews, salvation itself looked like the opportunity to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness, for all their days: fulfilling their calling to bless the nations by restoring them to God. In short, salvation looked like being back in covenant relationship with Yahweh. Something they wouldn’t have felt would be possible until they had been declared “forgiven”.
All this makes me want to ask 3 questions:
- Do you (and your students) know that God is already interested in you? He offers forgiveness for your sake because he wants you to know that you can say yes to a relationship with him.
- Do you (and your students) know that relationship with God looks a certain way? It looks like obedience and service to a God who wants to bless the whole world with and through you.
- Have you (and your students) been baptised? Because there’s no greater way of embracing that offer of forgiveness and stepping into that way of life.
Spend some time thinking about what the gospel, salvation and forgiveness looks like in your context. How do you talk about it? How comfortable is your community with it? How much is it something which you live out as opposed to something you just mentally agree with? Do you need to deepen your appreciation of God’s saving story? Ask the same Spirit that gave Zechariah the wisdom to sing these marvellous words to give you the wisdom to hear, read, and understand more of what being part of God’s community really means.
Painting: 'Archangel Gabriel Strike Zecharias Dumb' by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov