This passage from Luke’s gospel is called, “The Benedictus” – it is the prophecy spoken by Zechariah, father of John the Baptizer. Maybe you remember the story…Zechariah was a priest, married to Elizabeth, who was childless. One day in the Temple, the angel Gabriel visits Zechariah and tells him their prayers have been answered. Even in her advanced age, Elizabeth will bear a son and they will call him John. Zechariah expressed his doubt and he is immediately struck dumb; he was unable to speak a word until it came time to name the newborn baby and he called the boy John.
The beginning of Luke’s gospel uses miracle narratives to set up the family origins of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel opens with a thorough genealogy listing of Jesus’ family tree. It is very important for the gospel writers to show how Jesus is related to the great King David. People need to be able to see how Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7…
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.”
This and other ancient prophecies point to a Messiah who will rise from the line of David and Jesus fits the bill. People need to understand this in order to believe that Jesus is the true Messiah. So these stories are vital.
Zechariah’s hymn is a song of hope. He sings of blessings and promise and praise. He encourages the people to serve God without fear. He moves us toward an incomprehensible, creation-healing SHALOM – the peace of God that is beyond our understanding. This is a peace we deeply desire and we wonder if it will ever come. We long for this peace, even as we live in a world where there is so little of it – both personally and politically. Zechariah wants us to know that this mighty savior from David will, one day, finally bring shalom. And so, we wait, we watch and we wonder if we will ever know peace. Can we find peace within our souls; a peace that assures us of God’s presence? Can there ever really be “peace on earth”?
I cannot help but wonder about recent events. Certainly, we are all aware of the increase in violence world-wide from extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. These actions represent the ideology of a very small group of fundamentalists and yet, they have an effect on a wider group of people who do not embrace this ideology, nor do they participate in or condone the violence. In an article publish on Wednesday, journalist Zach Cartwright writes: “There Have Been More Mass Shootings Than Days in 2015…2015 is almost over. 334 days have passed, and yet, there have been 351 mass shootings — an average of more than one mass shooting per day this year. Today’s deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino isn’t even the only one that happened today. Early this morning, one person was killed and several more were injured in a mass shooting in Savannah, Georgia. Earlier today, someone was shot and killed outside of a health clinic in Houston, Texas. And just 10 miles from the San Bernardino [scene] in which dozens were shot; there were reports of shots fired near a Target store. The Washington Post has compiled data of every mass shooting to date since January 1, 2015, qualifying any event in which 4 or more people are killed or injured by gunfire as a mass shooting. [Their data] shows, there have been as many as 5 mass shootings in a single day. 2015 has already had more mass shootings than 2014 — and it is on track to outpace 2013, in which 363 mass shootings were carried out.”
I’m not here to talk about global terrorism or enter the debate on gun control legislation. I don’t have any answers to offer in those areas. What I want us to think about is what God’s peace looks like in the midst of global terrorism and senseless gun violence. I think the “way of peace” that Zechariah is talking about is more than just the absence of violence. The way of God’ peace heals and makes whole; it is peace that allows the wolf to live with the lamb. This peace empowers a small child to lead people back into full relationship with their Creator. Such a peace ensures there will be no more hurting or destruction in God’s Creation because the whole world will finally be filled with the knowledge of God. This is the peace promised by our Mighty Savior, Jesus Christ – SHALOM – God’s peace.
I was thinking about the fact that Zechariah was mute during Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy. He was unable to share his joy at the miracle God brought to them. He could not talk with her about their shared hopes and dreams for the child after so many years of waiting to have a family. He could not speak about anything. I imagine that he had plenty of time to spend with his own thoughts. He may have thought back on his life spent serving as God’s priest; did his service ultimately lead him to being part of God’s miracle plan for the world’s redemption? He may have spent time remembering his long life with Elizabeth; how he loved her and ached for her inability to have a child until now. He may have wondered how, as a priest, he ever doubted the sudden appearance of the holy in his midst when the angel made his announcement. He may even have wondered how this miracle child will survive in a world rocked by cruelty, violence, and persecution. Through all of this, Zechariah’s excitement builds until finally his son is born and he is able to sing out God’s praise and prophecy.
“What will be this baby’s name?” the people ask. “He will be called John,” Zechariah proclaims, “God’s gracious gift.” Zechariah knows of God’s grace and trusts in God’s promises. He sings of social redemption and salvation for the people of God. Then he sings of personal redemption and salvation of the soul. At the heart of his message is the need for repentance; this is the message his son will preach as he urges the people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah is singing to his newborn son, John. You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. In a sense, though, he speaks to all those who will subsequently follow Jesus, down through the years to us. We also go before the Lord to prepare his way. We also should be telling people how to be saved. This is our witness, growing out of this ancient hymn by Zechariah, a proud father who wants his son’s life to make a difference. Our lives should also make a difference. We too must find new ways to proclaim that a mighty Savior has been raised from the House of David. Within the social and political realities we face, what opportunities do we see for repentance and redemption? As we look deep into our own hearts, where do we find dark places that need the Light of Christ?
Zechariah’s hymn makes it clear that SHALOM, true peace – in our hearts and in our world – will only come when we are right with God, when we set aside our ambitions and our passions and turn them over to God. The condition of human souls and the condition of Creation is troubled by self-centeredness, self-absorption, and failure to understand what is available within a relationship with God. Zechariah reminds us of what God has offered us in the ancient covenant and what he offers us still in the coming of Jesus. We may live in the “in between times” where God’s peace is not yet fully realized; but Zechariah challenges us to be like his son John and help to bridge this time as we live toward the future God is bringing through the Mighty Savior. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.