Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
Text: (Luke 1:68-79)
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, send us the Holy Spirit so that by your grace we may believe your holy word and live godly lives here in time and there in eternity, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Tonight, for our second midweek Advent service, the focus of our meditation will be on the Song of Zechariah.
The Song of Zechariah has a special place in the life of the church, just like the Song of Mary. The Song of Mary was always sung at Vespers, the evening service of the church, and the Song of Zechariah was always sung at Matins, the morning service of the church. Especially in times when Matins was used every day, the Song of Zechariah would have been firmly imprinted in the minds of Christians. Today we don’t know it so well, but it makes a wonderful song for the morning, especially when it says: “Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah opened his mouth and spoke these words at a time when a new bright light was dawning on the earth. And also, at the same time, every day with Jesus is new day of great light—the light that streams forth and shines from baptism into our hearts and lives.
Just think about how Jesus says: “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Also, at the beginning of John’s gospel, it saw about Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
One of the earliest Christian hymns is a Greek hymn called Phos Hilarion, which says: “O Gladsome Light, eternal joy of the Father, holy and blessed Lord Jesus Christ!” Do you hear what it calls Jesus? Gladsome light! Light that brings gladness, and is the eternal joy of the Father.
In our hymnbook we have a morning hymn by St Ambrose, which calls Jesus: “O Splendour of God’s glory bright, that bringest forth the Light from Light. O Light of Light, the fountain spring, O Day, our days illumining!”
These thoughts are sparked off here by Zechariah even before Jesus is born, and looks forward to the day when the great sunrise, the brilliant morning star, will come and dawn upon the world.
Zechariah speaks these words at the time when his son John the Baptist was born and it came time for him to name the child, eight days after he was born when he was circumcised. Up until now, Zechariah’s mouth had been shut for the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Maybe Zechariah was also there to watch and hear the event when Mary came and greeted Elizabeth. It says, Mary “entered the house of Zechariah”, but there is no other mention of him, since he couldn’t hear or speak. But now that it comes time for him to name the child, his mouth is opened when he writes on the writing tablet, “His name is John.” We read: “And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.”
At the beginning of the Song of Zechariah, it says: “And his Father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.’” This song is a prophecy and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is very important for us. St Paul says in Ephesians 5: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” It is not simply singing that fills us with the Holy Spirit, but singing the Lord’s praises. We don’t know Zechariah’s tune, if he sung these words at all. But he was filled with the Holy Spirit and said, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”
The 19th century German Lutheran pastor, Wilhelm Löhe, says to people who are suffering with depression: “When you feel as if your courage were at an end, begin to sing Psalm and hymns of confession. This is very offensive to Satan and exerts a wonderful power upon troubled souls. Especially to be recommended are the Hymns of Praise. The prayer of praise will often attain what no pleading petition may gain. At times these prayer may immediately draw you out of distress. If you are not able to sing, let others sing for you.”
And so we come to Zechariah’s words:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
This song is only made up of two very long sentences. This is the first one.
Zechariah says: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.
In our LCA version in the Supplement, it says: “he has come and redeemed”, but actually it says, “he has visited and redeemed.”
There’s something very special about this word: visited. In Greek, the word is very closely connected with the word “bishop”. The word “bishop” in the New Testament is used to describe the office of a pastor. Today, we normally think of a bishop as being a particularly senior pastor, but in the New Testament there is no divinely instituted hierarchy of pastors. Today, people often translate the word “bishop” as “overseer”. This is a correct translation, but I don’t like it so much—in the 21st century, an “overseer” sounds like a CEO of a company, someone who watches down upon everything like a hawk from an ivory tower. But literally, and much more concretely, a bishop is a “visitor”, “someone who visits”. In the early Lutheran Church, right from the 1520s, the Lutheran bishops (or “presidents” as we might call them in the LCA) were called “visitors”. They “oversaw” by “visiting.”
And in the song of Zechariah, we have this same word twice. It says that the Lord God has visited and redeemed his people. And also, towards the end, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high.”
When Jesus raises the widow’s son at Nain, we also read that the crowd said, “God has visited his people!”
God rules his people, he oversees us, by visiting us. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is called “Immanuel”: God with us. At the end of the same gospel, Jesus says: “I will be with you always.” When the Son of God took on flesh from the Virgin Mary, this was a special “visiting” of the human race, in such a way that had never happened before. Never before had there been a man who was true man and true God in one person.
But also, God had visited Zechariah in his suffering. God has visited Zechariah by locking his mouth shut, and had also visited him to open it again. God visits with suffering, only to visit again with greater joy. As it says in Job 5: “Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”
Also, it says that God has visited and redeemed his people. Literally, it says, he made redemption for his people. “Making redemption” means “paying a ransom”. When Jesus is finally born, and grows up and goes to the cross, we see him pay our ransom for our lives with his own blood. And now, Zechariah talks as if the ransom has already been paid. But the fact that the Son of God has taken on human flesh means that the ransom has already begun. God the Son has already taken on blood and flesh, which is the means by which he is going to pay the ransom, and make redemption. And so Zechariah talks about this redemption as if it has already happened. It has already started, but the prophecy is so strong that it is only a matter of time now before Jesus says: “It is finished.”
The same goes for us, where we are still waiting for our redemption, but also Jesus has already redeemed us. He is already our Redeemer, and we know that our Redeemer lives, but also our redemption is drawing near, and we are waiting for us.
Zechariah says: He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.
We have three things together here: God visits, he redeems and he raises up a horn of salvation for us. He visits us, he redeems us because he wants to save us. We know that Jesus is not just our Saviour, but also the “horn of our salvation”, we look to him for strength and salvation, we trust in him, we take our confidence and our hope from him. And where is this horn of salvation from? From the house of his servant David.
All throughout Advent and Christmas, we often hear about David, and we often pass him by. But it is such an important part of who Jesus is that he should be descended from the house of David. He is descended from the great king, even though he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey like a beggar. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is called the son of David, and the son of Abraham. So Jesus has been raised up from the family of David—the stump of Jesse.
Zechariah says: As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Notice here that Zechariah says talks about being saved from our enemies, being delivered from the hand of our enemies. Who are our enemies? First of all, our own flesh is our enemy because we are always battling with sin. Secondly, the world is our enemy, which means people who are not battling with sin, and instead are battling with us. And thirdly, the devil himself. The devil is using our flesh and the world to run us down and to take us away from serving God. And so St Paul says: We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Sometimes when we read certain psalms, we find them pretty violent, for example, Psalm 3: “strike all my enemies on the cheek, break the teeth of the wicked.” But we have to recognise that every day, every week of a Christian’s life is a fight—a fight to keep the faith and endure to the end, a fight against false teaching and against unholy living. Every day is a day when we need to wake up and fight and dress ourselves in for battle. As St Paul says: “Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” We don’t go looking for a fight, but we are called to stand firm, and withstand in the evil day. The devil may fire his arrows, but Jesus Christ is shield for us. If it were up to us, we wouldn’t have enough strength to stand up to the devil’s little finger. But the devil can’t stand up to the finger of one of Christ’s holy angels who fight for us.
The devil, then, always wants to take the word of God away from us, because he knows it’s powerful. He wants to twist it, so that we won’t trust in it any more. And so, when Jesus appears on the scene, with his words, with his words become flesh, the devil melts away for fear and is crushed, defeated, stamped on, and smashed. And so, Zechariah says, that God shows us great mercy in doing this. This is the mercy which was promised to our fathers, God remembers his holy covenant, the oath which he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
You see, with Jesus’ blood, there is no fear when we worship God—there is only the forgiveness of sin, so that we can worship God in spirit and in truth. We can serve him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days—not our own holiness and righteousness, but the holiness and righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ himself which he gives to us freely, apart from our own works. When we come to pray, we pray together with Jesus, and we pray in his name, with all our imperfect prayers covered up by his blood. The devil wants to make us fearful of speaking to God, but Jesus brings it about that we can serve him without fear.
Now Zechariah says some things about John the Baptist:
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 in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
John is the prophet of the Most High, and he goes before the Lord to prepare his way. John prepares the way for Jesus in the wilderness, and calls people to repentance so that the King of Glory may enter in. This is the task also of every pastor. We baptise with water, but Jesus himself comes at the same time and baptises with the Holy Spirit and the fire of the purifying presence of the living God.
But he also gives people the knowledge of salvation.
And what is this knowledge? It’s the forgiveness of our sins. It says: “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” The forgiveness of sins is not a kind of intellectual knowledge, but it is something that is given to you and spoken to you by God himself, and John is sent to speak this forgiveness. Remember he says: “Repent and believe the gospel”. Listen to God’s crushing law, and trust in his life-giving gospel.
Zechariah says: Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Once again, we are back to where we started tonight, where Zechariah speaks about God’s tender mercy, his sunrise, his light, his guidance. What happened in Zechariah’s lifetime would change the world forever. Jesus’ incarnation, as we call it, the fact that he took on human flesh while still remaining true God, means that now is the time of God’s great mercy, his tender mercy. It is a time of great sunrise, where we worship Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world, or as the Nicene Creed calls him, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God.
And this evening, we have only barely touched the surface of Zechariah’s great prophecy. But would you expect such a great prophecy given by the Holy Spirit to be able to be explained in its entirety in such a small time? So I leave you now with the words themselves for you to meditate on in your own devotions, and to learn these words of the Holy Spirit yourself with his own help.
The Lord God of Israel has visited and redeemed his people. May Jesus Christ also give light to us in all of our darkness, and also guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.