And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant - As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old - Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US; To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, 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.
"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE LORD TO PREPARE HIS WAYS; To give to His people the knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, To guide our feet into the way of peace."
The Songs of Advent
The Benedictus: The Song of Zacharias
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
This is one of my favorite seasons. It isn't because of Christmas, per se, but because of the music. I love the hymns, the carols, and the songs of Christmas and Advent. I could sing them all day and most of them by memory. So, I decided that we would look at the songs of Advent. I expected to do the song of Zacharias, the Song of Elizabeth, and the song of Mary. Sadly, Elizabeth didn't sing much. So I went searching for another song. I thought about different hymns of the season, but none of them seemed quite right. I finally settled on the song of the Angels, sung to the Shepherds on that first Christmas night, so long ago.
Tonight we want to look at the Old Testament sort of song, The Benedictus, the song of Zacharias, a priest of the Old Testament Israel. Now, he spoke these words, as far as we know. He didn't actually sing them. But we do! The church has sung the words of Zacharias for twenty centuries or more. His song teaches us about the faith of the true believers in Israel. Without Zacharias' words, we might be stuck with the caricature of Old Testament faith presented to us by modern Judaism. But the Benedictus gives us a clear picture of what the Old Testament believer was looking for from God.
And they were looking for something called "salvation" from the covenant God of Israel. The first words of the Benedictus indicated that: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel." The Jews didn't see God active in their world a whole lot more than we do. Miracles were few and far between, even when they seemed common in the Old Testament. But, at the time our text takes place, it had been centuries since God had spoken through a prophet, and even longer since the last really impressive sign. Up to this encounter with Zacharias, of course. He was visited by the angel, Gabriel. When he failed to take Gabriel completely at his word immediately, Gabriel gave him a sign - he lost the ability to speak. I suspect that was part of the plan all along. God knew that it would be really difficult to believe - even to absorb the thought - that God was about to accomplish the salvation which the people of Israel had waited for, now, for over two thousand years!
I think God wanted Zacharias silent during that time. He didn't want the angel to be the big story, and He didn't want people going "miracle crazy" either. So, He told Zack what was happening, but He also clamped down on him so that he could not speak about it until the time was right. Elderly Elizabeth getting pregnant was enough of a miracle to deal with, and she went into seclusion for five months when she figured out that she was pregnant. Perhaps it was just to keep the baby safe, or maybe she was a bit embarrassed by being pregnant at her advanced age. We don't know. We do know that she was tickled that the stain of childlessness was being removed from her.
Zacharias also reveals that he understood that the work of God on behalf of His people was to be a redemption, "For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people." God visiting merely meant that God was at work among His people in a special way, but the redemption part of that line tells us that God's people always understood both the problem as sin, and the promise of God as a rescue by redeeming them. God doesn't just go around ignoring sin. He must forgive it, and to do that He must account for it and atone for it, and punish it somehow - and that is where the redeeming stuff comes in. God needed to buy us back out of the trouble we sold ourselves into in sin.
It is an interesting Old Testament sort of thing to speak of the "horn of salvation". The horn was the thing they filled with oil to anoint a king, and it was also the sound of the shofar - the horn that they blew to celebrate, and the sound of which had emanated from Mt. Sinai and caused terror among the Israelites when they came there from Egypt on the Exodus. It was a symbol of power, denoting the divine, and God's providing, and a thing of celebration. The horn of salvation carries all of those images with it, a thing filled with blessing, something from God, and something wonderful to celebrate! Salvation, by means of redemption!
This is what Zacharias' song tells us was the content of the Covenant with Abraham. When they spoke of enemies and those who hate them, we, who live centuries later, might be tempted to think they were focused on the armies around them, or the other nations, but the Benedictus tells us that they were thinking about the real enemies when they considered this promise of God - as St. Paul said in Ephesians, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. The real enemy is sin! That is what the covenant was always about, and at least the believers of Old Testament Israel understood that.
So, when Zacharias sang, or spoke, his prophecy by the inspiration of the Spirit, he spoke of the salvation which his son was about to prepare the way for, a salvation by the forgiveness of sins. He knew, by revelation from God, that his son was to prepare the way for the Messiah. His son was the forerunner. And even though his son was but an infant, and the Messiah not yet born, the faith of Zacharias allowed him to speak of the salvation as though it were already accomplished. Notice that the Benedictus begins with the past tense, He has visited us, and He has accomplished for us redemption. He can speak like that because he believes, and he knows that once God has begun a thing, it is as good as done.
He probably also remembered the image of the altar in heaven in the prophet Isaiah, where there are burning coals on the altar, one of which the angel takes with tongs to cleans the lips of Isaiah. As a priest, Zacharias would be fully conscious that the only time there are burning coals on the altar is after the sacrifice has been accomplished. So, quite naturally, when he holds in his hands the forerunner of the Messiah, He is certain that it is, as we say, a done deal.
Couple that, of course, with the fact that Mary had lived with him and Elizabeth for the last three months, and had just recently gone home. Surely they had not kept the truth from Zacharias. Elizabeth felt it immediately, and I would guess that Zacharias did too, but even if he had not, I am confident that they would not have kept the truth from the head of the house, the man struck dumb by the angel - the same angel that had brought Mary her blessed news. Zacharias knew that it was done deal, this salvation by forgiveness, worked through redemption, for he held in his hands the forerunner of the Messiah, and had watched for three months as the mother of the Messiah grew more visibly pregnant day by day.
He even sang of the consequences of the work of the Lord, a small part of which He was seeing with his own eyes. He spoke of serving the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness. We speak of the forgiveness of sins in similar ways; we say that which has separated us from God is now gone. We speak of the peace of God - and the love of God evident in what He has done. We also talk about how we have a perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ, not a native righteousness, earned by our own doing, but an alien righteousness. It is from outside of us, imputed to us and accounted as ours before God, but when we serve God we do it in His power and His righteousness and holiness, not our own. So the words of Zacharias have a very modern, New Testament ring to them.
In fact, what He said was echoed by those angels that sang over Bethlehem's flocks that night. The peace on earth of which they sang is that peace of serving God without fear, and it is God, through the One Zacharias refers to as the Sunrise from on High, who will guide our feet into the way of peace.
The final Gospel thought in the song was that Zacharias attributed all of these blessings to the tender mercies of our God. That is the same as speaking of the whole of our salvation as being by God's grace. Not a single word about our earning or deserving, but all of it is because of the tender mercy of our God - tender, not harsh, distant and judgmental, but Fatherly and gracious. And the infant that Zacharias held, his own son, was to be the prophet who prepared the way for the salvation of God by being the forerunner for the long awaited Messiah.
I cannot imagine how he may have felt, or what other thoughts might have raced through his head. But, here he was, an Old testament priest of the division of Abijah, seeing in his son the fulfilling of the first part of the soon to be fulfilled promises of the Savior, and singing - or speaking - by inspiration an Old Testament sort of prophecy, but one that ushered in the New Testament and was filled with Gospel - explicit gospel. What an amazing thing!
And this song of Advent, which we know by it name, the first word in the song in Latin, "The Benedictus", was very nearly the first thing Zacharias said for over nine months after his encounter with Gabriel. What an amazing thing!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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