A Sermon by Barbara Papagian

Luke 1:67-72 (NRSV)

Thank you, Ethan. Ethan just read a part of the Song of Zechariah for us and toward the end of the sermon I will read the rest of it with a little help from my friend, Adam. The Song of Zechariah is found in Luke along with Mary’s song, also known as the Magnificat, The Angels Song, and the Song of Simeon. However before talking specifically about the Song of Zechariah, I would like to talk about the events leading up to the song. When I first started writing this sermon, the plan was that the children would be here for the whole service, so I decided to give a story about Zechariah which was one of the suggestions for the second week of advent. It is a good story and is a story that eventually leads up to the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah’s son who went on to walk the countryside proclaiming that the Messiah would be coming.

The setting at this time, before Jesus’ birth, was a gloomy, down time in the nation of Israel. The nation is not living up to its calling from God. Israel was the nation chosen by God to be the nation to lead all nations to God, but unfortunately it was being led by the Roman Empire. Rome was the last in line of pagan nations that had ruled Israel. This line of nations included the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Syrians. During this time Herod was the king of Israel. He was the first Jewish king in 580 years, but he really wasn’t a king, perse, he was a puppet king put on the throne by the authority of Rome. He was a descendent of Esau and really had no rightful claim to the throne. He was not a man of God and was a cruel tyrant. He built Roman temples and idols to the Roman gods.

It was in these times that Luke introduces us to Zechariah and Elizabeth, his wife. Zecharia was a priest and married the daughter of another priest. This was considered to be a perfect marriage in those days, since they both grew up in a household of a priest and they would know just what to expect from each other. They were married for many years and had no children. In those days people were looked down on if they had no children…after all, that was the woman’s purpose back then, to bear children. But this couple remained faithful to each other and to God even though being childless was a huge disappointment to them. Luke 1:6 says, “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.”

A little more history here. At this time in Israel there were about 20,000 descendants of Aaron…all of them priests by birth, just like Zechariah. With so many priests and only one temple priests would only serve two weeks out of the year. Zechariah was a reservist priest, or we might have called him pulpit supply. It came about that he was chosen to burn incense on the altar of the Holy Place, just outside of the Holy of Holies in the temple. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and Zechariah prepared for this honor meticulously.

On this special day, coals were spread on the golden altar and the incense arranged and Zechariah was left alone to offer his prayers of intercession for the people of Israel and then pour incense on the coals of the altar as a powerful symbol of the prayers of Israel rising to God. Well, in the midst of his prayer, an angel appeared and stood at one end of the altar right in front of Zechariah, sending fear through him. I’m not sure why this frightened him so much because he had had some other encounters with angels giving him messages from God. I won’t get into all of those, but I urge you to read the book of Zechariah in the Bible. The angel told him not to be afraid and that calmed him. It seems to me that many times in the Bible angels appear to people, scaring them to death, and the angel says, don’t be afraid. I don’t know if that would be enough to calm me down, but it worked for them.

We don’t know what Zechariah prayed about, but it was probably for the coming of the Messiah, fulfilling God’s promise to His chosen people. Actually, the angel did address this prayer but with a twist, telling Zechariah that Elizabeth would have a child, a very special son whom they would name John. John would fulfill the 400 year old prophecy of Malachi and the 800 year old prophecy of Isaiah. The angel referred to these prophesies when he said, “Your son, John, will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” In other words, Zechariah’s son would have the great privilege of preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. As you can imagine, Zechariah was overwhelmed but then doubt started creeping into his mind.

He says to the angel that this is impossible. He and his wife are way too old to be bringing a baby into the world. So the angel dug in his heels and said “how dare you question me. Who do you think I am, anyway. I’m not just any old angel, I am the Angel Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this great news. You should be jumping with joy, not questioning my word. To prove to you that this is God’s truth, you will be mute for nine months, until the day that John is born. Hmm, think about it. How often have you not trusted God’s promises? How often have you not listened? I’m thinking it would be very quiet in the world if everyone who didn’t listen to God and trust in God was muted.

So now, poor Zechariah was mute and one of the duties of this once in a life time privilege of being in the Holy Place was to offer a benediction. You see, during his time in the holy place, many people were outside of the holy place lying prostrate, waiting for him to come out and right about now wondering what was taking Zechariah so long. They knew something special had happened when Zechariah appeared trying to pronounce the traditional blessing through improvised sign language.

He finally did make it through and went home where I’m sure Elizabeth was perplexed but maybe grateful for his silence. Nine months later their baby was born and on his eighth day he had his circumcision ceremony. Friends and relatives were gathered, assuming that the baby would be named after his father, which was the custom back then, but no Elizabeth said..”He shall be called John”. When the people questioned Zechariah he wrote (he’s still mute at this point) his name is John. As soon as he wrote that, he was able to speak and he broke into song. Well, some Bible translations say that he sang and some say he spoke. Some have called it the first Christmas Carol. It has been called the first song of Christmas and “The Benedictus or Blessing.”

This has been kind of a long background for this Song of Zechariah, but I think it is a great story. Hear now the Song of Zechariah:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
Who has come to set the chosen people free.
God has raised up for us
A mighty savior from the house of David.
Through the holy prophets, God promised of old
To save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us;
To show mercy to our forebears,
And to remember the holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our ancestor Abraham
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship without fear, holy and righteous in God’s sight,
All the days of our life.
And you child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,
To give God’s people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God,
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

In the lyrics of this first Christmas Carol, Zechariah sings of three essential truths about God.

(1) God always answers prayers, not necessarily in the way we think He should or when we think he should. He gives us answers we need, not necessarily what we want. When our prayer requests are destructive, or self-serving, or shortsighted, or if God has something better in mind for us – if the request is wrong in any of these ways, the answer will be no. And God will answer in God’s own time.

(2) The second essential truth in the song is that God is involved in our world. Colossians 1:17 says, “the universe as a whole in Him hold together”. If you or I don’t show up for work one day, things would still get done but if God ceased His involvement in this universe even for an instant the universe would come to a grinding halt. There is a psychiatrist in New York City named John Rosen who works with catatonics. Instead of just spending an hour in his office with his patients, he lives right in the ward with them. He lives among them, he hugs them and literally loves them back into life. Dr. Rosen provides a similar example of what God has done in Jesus. He came to walk the roads we walk. He entered our existence. He took the punishment for our sins. Through His great love He made it possible for us to have eternal life. God couldn’t become more involved than that.

(3) The third essential truth is that God keeps his promises. Lewis Smeades writes. “with one simple word of promise a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.” In his song, Zecharia says, “God has done as He said he would through His holy prophets of long ago..He has remembered His holy covenant that He swore to our father Abraham..”  Hebrews 10:23 urges us to “Hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”

I have peace in my life because I trust the grace-filled promises of God. We buy into the promises that we read about in the Bible because they are backed by the character and nature of God and there is nothing more secure than that. So you belt out that song, Zechariah because you are right. God always answers prayers, God keeps His promises, and God is involved in this world. Keep God involved in your life.

Amen.

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