Today we have heard the testimony of Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer. We traditionally call this song the Benedictus, which appears in the Order of Matins. Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke or sang these prophetic words, which the Church has used as one of her Canticles for centuries.
But what kind of testimony is this that Zechariah gives?
From time to time, there are complaints that we Lutherans do not have testimonials during our Worship Services. Various other churches do this. Someone is invited to stand up and tell what God has done in their lives. These testimonials are supposed to make Worship more relevant to our everyday lives. In contrast, our boring Lutheran Worship seems so formal and stiff and impersonal.
Zechariah's testimony is nothing like modern testimonials. Today, when a person shares their testimonial, they typically focus upon their own life, and upon what God has done in their circumstances. They might say, "I used to smoke, but I kicked the habit," or "I used to drink, but now I'm sober," or "I was on the road to divorce, but God straightened me out," or "I was unemployed, but God gave me a job," or "I was not filled with the Spirit, but now I am." And so forth.
These testimonials almost never focus upon the greatest thing of all - the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. These other, lesser blessings may be very good in themselves. But when God speaks in Scripture about the salvation that He gives in Jesus Christ, He is not talking about escape from drugs, alcohol, divorce, and other destructive circumstances. When God saved you, He forgave your sins and declared you righteous. You are NOT made righteous in your actions. You are NOT made holy in your lifestyle. You receive the holiness of Jesus Christ as a gift that covers up your own unholiness.
This is precisely the salvation of which Zechariah spoke. This salvation is the basis of all true Worship, because it focuses you away from yourselves and your own lives and feelings, and puts Jesus at the center. If anything, you look to yourselves only to confess your sinfulness. But the center of Worship is the salvation of God.
It is true that the occasion for Zechariah's testimony is the birth of his son, John. So it may seem at first glance that Zechariah is giving a testimonial based on physical blessings. And that would not be a wrong thing to do in itself. Heaven forbid that we should fail to thank God for His gracious gifts.
But Zechariah finds more meaning in the event than simply the miracle of birth. The main focus of Zechariah's Benedictus is God's work of salvation. This is why a big deal is made about naming the boy John, in obedience to the word spoken by the Angel Gabriel. The name "John" means "The Lord is gracious." The coming of John signaled the arrival of God's grace in the Person of the Messiah. Therefore, the arrival of John is really about the arrival of the grace and mercy of God.
Grace and mercy is the main theme of the Song of Zechariah. He spoke of the tender, compassionate mercy of God that wells up from His heart. But it does not remain merely an emotion within God. His grace quickly finds expression in action. Therefore, He has sent His Son into your human flesh. Christ is the Dayspring from on high, whose arrival upon the earth was like the dawning of a new day, and the beginning of a new creation. He has brought life and light to you who sat in darkness and the shadow of death.
What could be more relevant in your Worship than to speak of this salvation and grace? Every one of you is burdened with a heavy load of sin under which you would be trapped if not for the work of Jesus. Every one of you would be doomed to hell if not for the remission of sins. What is the destructiveness of alcoholism compared to eternal damnation? What is quitting cigarettes compared to the gift of eternal life? Since every one of you is a sinner, and since every one of you is freely given the gift of salvation in Jesus, then there is nothing more relevant to your lives than the message of Jesus. There is nothing more personal than God's mercy poured out to you and me.
In His death and resurrection, Jesus delivered you from the hand of your enemies: sin, death, hell, and satan. Such powerful enemies could not be resisted by your weak human flesh. In fact, your flesh collaborates and cooperates with those enemies. Therefore, Jesus has not only rescued you from your enemies, but also from yourselves.
That is why Zechariah says that the "Dayspring from on high" will "guide our feet into the way of peace." He is not talking about your own obedience. After all, you do not set your own feet into the way of peace, according to Zechariah. Jesus, the Dayspring from on high, does. To walk in the way of peace is to be redeemed by Christ the Lord, and to be covered by His obedience, not yours. He obeyed by keeping all the Commandments perfectly, and then He obeyed by laying down His life. Such perfect obedience is counted as yours.
Once you are redeemed, of course you try to do good works. A true believer cannot live a life of unrestrained sinfulness. But only Jesus can be the Source of your peace, since He is the Prince of Peace.
Therefore, to walk in the way of peace means to live your life covered by Christ's righteousness. And thank heavens for that! If "walking in the way of peace" meant that you had to be obedient by your own good works, then you would fail miserably. Indeed, you would be forever lost and forever shut out of the kingdom of God. But instead, God has poured out His salvation to you in His Son. All is accomplished in the flesh of the Savior who died upon the Tree.
Yet He is not content to let salvation remain upon the Cross, as a mere historical fact that sits there and does nothing. Instead, He has sent salvation out to you through men like John, men who proclaim the Gospel, men who stand before Christ and point to Him and say, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." These men baptize like John, and they wear funny clothing like John. These men also are called by God to give the knowledge of salvation by the remission of sins. These men also are ministers instituted by God to give out the blessings won by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to build the Church upon that one Foundation.
Notice that this ministry is the opposite of a testimonial. Instead of pointing to his own life, a minister points to Jesus, and what He has done upon Calvary.
This same Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises that God made through the centuries, from Adam to Malachi. Jesus is the meaning of the Covenant that God made with His people Israel. Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus is Lord, because He has saved you from your sins by making atonement upon the Cross with His Blood. That is the Covenant of God.
Here, at the Altar of God, you see the full atonement made for each and every one of your sins. Here you see the Covenant sealed by the Blood of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God. Here you participate in the Covenant by receiving the forgiveness of sins, as you eat the body of Jesus, given for you.
May the Church keep Jesus and the Atonement at the center of Worship. May you never crave the testimonials that turn your eyes to yourselves and your experiences and good works. Instead, may you look away from yourselves and look only to Jesus, who is the Way of peace, the Covenant of salvation, and God's grace and mercy in human flesh. In His Holy Name. Amen.
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