Zechariah’s Prophetic Poetry
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 20, 2015
Luke 1: 67-79 (CEB)
John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,
68 “Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70 just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
72 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
73 the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted 74 that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
76 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
77 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
You know, it’s been kind of a tough month, hasn’t it? Just over a month ago, several coordinated attacks rocked Paris and left 130 dead. A couple of weeks later, the day after Thanksgiving, a man walked into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and began shooting, killing three. Most recently, a couple disrupted a holiday party at a government building in San Bernadino; 14 people were shot dead and another 22 were wounded. It was right around this time three years ago that Sandy Hook school was attacked, and the lives of students and teachers were taken. There was a news story about Sandy Hook earlier this week and I found myself tearing up all over again. It’s all pretty hard to take in, isn’t it? And this is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” “the happiest season of all!”
Yet, here we are; perhaps feeling like this season is more of a time when everything seems to go wrong. In fact, we’ve even started offering explanations as to why it seems so many “snap” at this time of year. Maybe, we say, it’s because people go stir-crazy being cooped up indoors because of the cold weather. But this has been one of the warmest winters on record so far. Perhaps, then, it’s all the stress of culling together the “perfect Christmas” with limited finances. But that doesn’t explain the many attacks perpetuate by extremists who don’t even observe Christmas. Well, then, maybe it’s because there are fewer hours of daylight, and the darkness just deepens any feelings of depression. Again, that doesn’t explain every situation, but I do think it brings us closer to what we are dealing with here. But here’s what we need to understand. What we are facing is not a problem of darkness in the physical sense; rather, it is darkness in the spiritual sense.
This morning, we come to another of the “first carols of Christmas.” This time, the song of praise is on the lips of the priest, Zechariah. And what Zechariah is celebrating above all is how he sees light at last overcoming darkness. Zechariah is the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist. At the point at which he breaks out into this song we heard a few moments ago, Zechariah has been mute for nine months. You see, when the angel Gabriel came to visit Zechariah with the news that his wife, who was beyond childbearing age, would conceive and bear a child, Zechariah didn’t believe it. So, as a result of his doubt, Zechariah was struck dumb until eight days after John was born, when he was circumcised and given his name. It was when Zechariah confirmed that his child would be called John that his tongue was finally loosened and he broke out into this song of praise. And what Zechariah is celebrating is that he sees at last God’s fulfillment of his ancient covenant promises to deliver and save his people, and that Zechariah’s son John will be the one to introduce the saving Messiah to the world.
Zechariah says that John will be a prophet of the Most High God, preparing a way for him, and telling people how God, in his immense compassion, will save the people from their sins. Zechariah shares this vision of God bringing light to those sitting in the shadow of darkness and death, and guiding people on the path of peace. As you all are well aware, people expected the “Most High God,” the Messiah, to be a conquering hero; someone who would sweep into the world and quickly vanquish Israel’s enemies. The Jews fully expected that their enemies would suffer the same violent fate they had been suffering for generations. But when Zechariah begins to prophesy (the first prophecy among the Israelites in over 400 years), he tells a different story. His son, John has come to show us the path to Jesus, and Jesus is coming to show us the path to peace; not by overthrowing the enemies, but by dispelling the darkness of the world.
Certainly, we all want Christmas to be a happy, joyful time. And we put a lot of effort into making that so. We talked a few weeks ago about the “perfect Christmas,” and all of our manufactured attempts to create something “out of this world,” when really all we need is to celebrate God’s coming into our midst through Jesus Christ. But here’s the thing about celebrating Christ. In order for us to celebrate who Christ was and all that he did, we have to understand exactly what it was that Christ accomplished. And Zechariah pretty much sums it up for us here. Christ is the light of the world, who has overcome all darkness.
While I was in seminary and working at a church in Alexandria, Virginia, I had an opportunity to get to know a wonderful and amazing woman who was a part of that congregation. She was a veteran of the first Iraq war and the divorced mother of three rather rowdy boys, who gave her far more trouble than she ever deserved; she worried over them constantly. Then, sometime in the second year I was working at the church, this woman was hit by a car. It was one of those fluke sorts of things. It happened in the middle of winter. The roads were icy and she was walking along a sidewalk. A car came along and lost control on the ice. It slid straight toward where she was walking and ended up pinning her to a parked car. The doctors had to amputate her right leg. She spent months in rehab at Walter Reed Hospital. One afternoon I went to visit her, and I noticed that just like always, she was in amazingly high spirits despite the fact that she had just gotten news of further delay on her prosthetic. As I sat and talked with her, I finally asked, “How do you do it, Rosemary? How do you keep your spirits so high when it seems like everything is going wrong?”
She explained to me that she had no memory of the accident that caused her to lose her leg, but that as she sat in the hospital afterwards, coming to the realization that she would live the rest of her life without one of her legs, she was overcome with sadness. She said, “I felt as if I was indeed in the valley of the shadow for many, many days.” And so, she explained, “Everyday I prayed and asked God not to let the sadness win.” She said, “I pray that prayer everyday still. Whether it’s about my leg, or my boys, or anything else. I pray that God will not let the sadness win. And you know what? It hasn’t won yet!”
Here’s the thing, we all experience sadness at some point in our lives. We all walk through the “valley of the shadow.” We are all faced with darkness, whether we experience it in our own lives or in the world around us. But Christmas is God’s response to the brokenness and pain of this world. Christmas is God’s response to all the darkness we experience. The birth of Jesus Christ is God’s way of dispelling the darkness and bringing light into the world. We need this Christmas hope. In fact, we need Christmas because we need light now more than ever!
And that’s exactly what Zechariah was celebrating. For hundreds of years, the Jewish people had lived in what they felt was a “period of silence.” They were not hearing anything from any prophets of God. In the meantime, as they waited and wondered, the Romans swept in and began an oppressive occupational rule of their Promised Land. The Israelites were scared, they were living under an unjust rule, and they were subjected to violence because of their beliefs. But now, they hear a prophecy from Zechariah. After hundreds of years of silence, this priest who has been mute for nine months begins to speak a prophecy of the coming savior who will deliver his people from the darkness. No wonder he sang in joy. And even in the midst of darkness, we can be hopeful and joy-filled too because what God did once, God will do again, just as he promised. This is what celebrating Christmas is all about! God’s work through Christ continues even now.
In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Albany, Georgia, for holding a prayer vigil outside of the Albany City Hall. Though King was only in jail for fifteen days, it gave him the opportunity to finish a book he had been working on, a collection of sermons that would be published a year later under the title, “Strength to Love.” It was during those days in the Albany jail that King penned some of the words that would become the most famous and oft-quoted from that book. In fact, we have heard them and seen them a lot in the last several weeks. He wrote, “The only way to defeat the darkness is by loving your enemies. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Christmas is God’s emphatic declaration that darkness will be driven out of this world once and for all because love has come. We are waiting for Christ’s second coming, when God will establish his Kingdom here on earth for all time. In this “in between time,” we still see the signs of darkness around us. But that’s why we also need to celebrate each Christmas, to remember the light that shines in the midst of such darkness. “Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us,” Zechariah sang, “to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”
Over 2,000 years ago, Christ’s promised coming brought joy to the lives of many who were living in fear and hardship. Today, we can rest secure in the same promise. Even in the midst of the darkness of this world, Christ, the light of the world, will return to drive out once and for all the darkness that haunts us. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
My friends, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it!” May you know the truth of that promise this Christmas, and find hope for all the days to come!