Zechariah prophesies about his son, John
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture: Luke 1: 57-58, 67-79
Background scripture: Luke 1:57-80
As is often the case, the appointed scripture for today’s lesson is not sufficient to give full understanding to the event of the birth and the future work of John the baptizer. Because of his father’s unbelief about the possibility of Elizabeth’s becoming pregnant, he was “punished” by his inability to speak! We used to say, “He was struck dumb!” but we know that is a cruel and unnecessary manner of speech. Can you imagine being mute for nine months? Some spouses might think that would be a blessing, but we don’t think so.
The omitted scripture beginning at vs. 59 fills in the blanks of how this special child was named. Circumcision was done on the eighth day after the birth, and like in the sacrament of infant baptism, the child was also named. (By the way, this is why infant baptism is often called “Christening” – a child receives their “Christian” name.)
Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s friends expected the child to be named after Zechariah or another family member, but when Elizabeth insisted, and Zechariah confirmed, the child was named John. At that point, Zechariah could once again speak. This event is only the beginning of the uniqueness of the forerunner of the Messiah – the one who would prepare the way of the Lord!
When Zechariah could speak again, he breaks into song. Like Mary’s “Magnificat,” Zechariah’s “Benedictus” is a song titled by the first word in Latin. Magnificat means praise and Benedictus means blessed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear Luke sing! He certainly is on heaven’s worship committee and probably among the heavenly host singing! What a talent for praising God through words and music he had!
The “Benedictus” is a praise song, blessing God for his acts toward Israel across the centuries. Rooted in the covenant with Israel, God has been and is at work to save all humanity but made visible in the history of Israel. This scandal of particularity still troubles many but how do you make something clear in a world like ours without being specific? With Jesus the covenant will be expanded so that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond or free, male or female,” but for now Israel is the human vessel in which the covenant will be carried. Creation began with a specific vessel (the first Adam) and now is focusing on another specific vessel (the Second Adam). Only in this way can the love of God be shared with all humankind.
He speaks of the “horn of salvation” (symbolizing strength) as God’s way of dealing with God’s people. Zechariah’s use of the language of ‘The house of David’ and ‘Father Abraham’ makes clear the origin of God’s purpose and plan is within Judaism. Neither is this a new thing because the prophets have spoken often to the point. And how are God’s people to live? In holiness and righteousness! Holiness is living differently from the world and obediently to God’s Word, and righteousness is living in a loving, right relationship with God. These two distinctive characteristics of godly living will continue in the new community of faithful people – the Church! But for now, Zechariah is stating what every Jew knew and should be practicing!
A most important point in the Benedictus is how the covenant is to be remembered. Remembering is both an act of the mind and will. We consciously make a past moment come alive again. To remember requires us to have an experience, or to learn and then recall in the present.
As we write this lesson, our pastor in Macon is preaching a series of sermons on rearing spiritual heroes. The critical task of parents is to teach by precept and example the Christian faith to their children in ways so when they are mature they will remember and share the faith from generation to generation. Without the experience and the learning, there can be no remembering and no transmission of the faith. Zechariah is correct in urging his generation to remember God’s covenant.
Another dimension of the song is letting his readers know John will be in the long tradition of the prophets of Israel. Too often we think of prophets as those who predict the future. People have gotten caught up in and even upset by thinking prophetically about a future event or time. Yes, there have been prophetic predictions about the future, but most often biblically the prophets were speaking to current events and conditions that were contrary to God’s way and will.
Forth-telling, not foretelling, is the more common biblical role of a prophet. Zechariah gives us a clue to his son’s prophetic role in verse 78 and following: “He will prepare the way of the Lord and tell people how they are to be saved.” Salvation comes first through forgiveness of sins. Of course, sin has to be admitted, identified and confessed. Repentance follows which means turning around and going the other direction. Being sorry is not enough! A real change must take place. At that point comes the blessing of God’s infinite mercy.
Zechariah’s song is very similar to Isaiah’s “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shone.” (Isaiah 9:2) For Zechariah, John will give the knowledge of salvation and will be the instrument through which God’s light will shine on those living in the shadow of spiritual death. (Luke 1:77-79)
One other important dimension of the Benedictus is the destination of those who are saved. They will be guided into the way of peace. The Hebrew word is “shalom” and it means much more than the absence of conflict. Peace is the condition where everyone and everything live in harmony. The lion and the lamb can lie down together! Peace is fullness of life and everything needed for life to flourish is present – materially, socially, spiritually. God’s way is the way of peace whereby the conditions are right for all to live without strife, war, and greed. We must learn the way of peace! As the old spiritual said, “We’re gonna study war no more!”