Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas I't worth Singing About: Zechariah's song (Luke 1:57-80)

I’ve been trying to write a children’s book. It’s called ‘I’m not a morning bird’. It’s about how we live in this wonderful land of birds (New Zealand). At the merest hint of light in the eastern sky they burst into song; the native birds on the far off bush clad hills, the birds that dwell in the country hedge rows, the ones that nest in the large tress outside the library, and the birds that live in our gardens that we desperately try and keep from roosting under the roof of our houses.

As each of these different sections of the dawn chorus joins in there is one creature in a dark cave who slowly opens its eye and says ‘I’m not a morning bird’. The noises of the town waking up adds itself to the birds like a bass line and rhythm track, but the creature in its cave rolls over and mutters once more I’m not a morning bird.

Then it’s mother sweeps back the curtains and lets the light in and says come on John you’ll be late for school. “awe mum I’m not a morning bird.”

Zechariah finishes his song using the metaphor of the dawning of a new day to talk about a new thing that God is doing, the coming of the one his son John will herald. Just as birds lift their beautiful voices to praise God to celebrate the end of the darkness and the beginning of a new day It’s appropriate that this new thing God is doing is celebrated with songs. Christmas is worth singing about!

This year we are using the four songs in Luke’s narrative of the birth John and Jesus to explore again the significance of the Christmas story for our lives today.

Today we are looking at Zechariah’s song. The song appears in a story in which NT Wright says ‘Luke manages to both capture the big picture of what God is doing and also the small human stories that matter so much to God’.

Zechariahs story

Luke begins his gospel with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout and righteous people who are now getting on in years and are childless. There are echoes and overtones of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Zechariah is serving God in the temple and the angel Gabriel appears and tells him that he will have a son. They are to call him John, which means ‘God is gracious’. The child will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will be a prophet, like Elijah; in Jewish thinking Elijah was to be the one who heralded the coming of the messiah. At the Passover Jewish families leave a place set for Elijah in the hope that this year the messiah will be proclaimed.

Zechariah is very human and says to Gabriel, How can I be sure of this? Hey I’m old and well, to put it nicely, the wife’s not a spring chicken either. Gabriel says that because Zechariah didn’t believe he would be struck dumb until the birth of his son. Zechariah finishes his duty in the temple, goes home and Elizabeth is soon pregnant.

Luke then parallel’s Zechariah’s encounter with the angel with the announcement to Mary that she is pregnant, a narrative that culminates in Elizabeth’s meeting with Mary while she was six months pregnant and Mary’s song of praise as a result of it. In the passage we had read out to us today we see that Elizabeth gives birth to a child, a son, much to the joy of the people who know them. The family and friends gather together to celebrate at the boy’s circumcision. When it comes to naming the child, people expect he will be named after his father, but Elizabeth chooses the name ‘John’. The people aren’t sure about whether that’s right so they use sign language to ask Zechariah. Scholars have suggested that not only was Zechariah mute but probably deaf as well. That may have been age related or as most women will tell you their husbands are hard of hearing anyway. Now Zechariah has a chance to show his faith in God and the angel’s message so he writes ‘His name is John’. Instantly Zechariah’s voice returns and he sings or chants the song we have recorded in Luke’s gospel, known as the ‘benidictus’ the Latin translation for the first word bless or praise.

There is a pattern in these two early stories of the birth of these two significant children. Ordinary people who have put their trust in God are told of amazing things that God is going to do. That through God’s power working in them God is going to bring his light his salvation into the world: That they will see history change and God’s kingdom inaugurated. They are the most unlikely people for that to be seen through. Mary is just a girl a virgin in an obscure town in Nazareth ‘and well can anything of value come from Nazareth, it’s on the wrong side of the tracks. Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, in his own words they are past it. But God is going to do something. He tells them that, the angel Gabriel has to put in for some overtime. Both parties are very human, they are blown away at the idea that God would do such things. Then as they are see what the angel has said come to fruition they are moved from doubt to praise. Both these narrative threads woven together, end in songs of praise that tell the big story of what God will do.

Zechariah’s song

Zechariah’s song like his son John the Baptist, ties in the themes and the hopes of the Jewish scriptures that we call the Old Testament with the coming of Jesus. Zechariah looks back and brings together the story of God’s calling of Abraham, his deliverance of his people from Egypt, his establishment of David’s line and says these things are just a fore taste of what God is going to do now.

He will come to his people and will redeem them. To redeem someone a kinsman would come and pay the price, the debt that was owed, that had lead to someone being enslaved and set them free.

In a very political way Zechariah says that God will send a saviour who will set his people free from their enemies, just like he had sent Moses to do so long ago. That just as the reason Moses told pharaoh to let God’s people go was so that they could worship him, now we are being told that God will liberate his people again so that they will be able to serve him. We often think of being saved as being saved from, saved from oppression or from sin and death, but right here at the beginning of the gospel we see that it is God’s intention to save us not only from by to save us for. We are being called to become God’s new people, people who will serve him.

Luke’s gospel is the only one that has a sequel and here at the beginning of the story we see why that story of the early church is so important. The community we read about in Acts 2 and we see spread throughout the Roman Empire is the outworking of God saving a people for himself. It is political because it’s the kingdom of God spreading in the realms of humanity.

In the second part of his song we see that this is not just the political salvation that Israel had longed for that it will be bigger and deeper and more wonderful. In Verse 77 Zechariah ties in his son’s ministry with the forgiveness of sins. The things that separate humanity from God will be dealt with. John’s ministry was to call people to repent from their sins to make the way for God’s kingdom to come into their lives. Then in words that echo prophecy in Isaiah and Micah Zechariah picks up the metaphor of God shining his light into the world, a world of darkness, a world in the shadow of death. This new thing that God is doing goes beyond the political and deals with the oldest of human enemies death, death that came into the world with our sin and is going to be defeated by the coming of God’s messiah: Jesus Christ.

Zechariah’s Son

The second part of Zechariah’s song is a prophecy about his son John. He John is to be a special prophet in fact he is an interesting character he is the last of the Old Testament prophets. Zechariah says that his son will have the roll of being the one who prepares the way of the Lord, he will be the one who is talked about in Isaiah 40 , the voice who cries out in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make you’re paths straight. He is the one who will baptise Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He acts like Samuel, another miracle child born to an older women, who anointed David.

In this song we see the big picture continuity of what God is doing. It points to the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of the longing of God’s people all through their history. That now God is going to let a new light dawn in the live of human beings. Salvation from sin and death, calling people to freedom: Freedom to know God and to serve him. God’s purpose is to create a people who would live in such a way that would reflect God’s goodness and God’s grace and God’s presence. God continues to bring the dawn of a new age through ordinary people like you and I. Who have meet Jesus born at Christmas and are willing to allow him to set the agenda for our lives.

Let me share an example of this through the work of a group called International Justice Mission: A group of Christian lawyers, criminal investigators and professional carers who work for the freedom and rehabilitation of slaves and those forced into prostitution in our world today. Inspired by their faith they seek justice for the poor and victims of injustice and police brutality and corruptions and through that seek to share Jesus in the darkest places on our planet.

Gary Haugen, the CEO of IJM, told one story of a young man called John in Kenya. A group of policemen were drinking in a pub and had run out of money so they went out into the street and accosted John. They beat him up and stole the little money he had. Almost as an afterthought and a way of making sure he didn’t report them one of the policemen shot him and they left him for dead. John didn’t die he managed to crawl his way to a hospital nearby. They operated on him. He lost an arm and had to spend many months recuperating. When the police heard he was still alive to stop him from talking they arrested him and threw him in prison without a trial and no hope of getting out. The lawyers of International justice Mission heard of this and set to work. They got him released from jail, something that the people of his community had never heard of, they prosecuted the five policemen who had abused him and they are now in prison, unheard of. John now is in college training to be a community advocate. The Light that Dawned at Christmas came to shine through his people and into the darkness of John and his community’s life.

You see unlike the unfinished children’s story I told you about we are morning birds. God has called us, full of our doubts and uncertainties to bring the dawning of his light into this world. You may think your past it or that you’re insignificant, or too young. But the same God who worked in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary to usher in his Kingdom is alive and working in our lives. The challenge is what darkness is God calling you to shine the new dawn light into to?

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