Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 6, 2015
Luke 1:68-79 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Has the Lectionary lost its way already on the second Sunday of the church year? The “psalm” the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is, after all, not actually a psalm, but the song that Zechariah sings at his son’s birth. He was, of course, an elderly priest who was unable to bear children with his wife Elizabeth. Yet God promised him that they would have a child together whom Zechariah was to name John.
The sign of this promise was that God would render the doubting priest unable to speak until his son was born. In our text we read that John is, in fact, able to speak again when people ask him what to name his son. Verse 64 reports that when God finally does “loosen” Zechariah’s tongue, the Spirit equips him to break out in a song of praise to the Lord.
While Zechariah’s song shares some characteristics with Mary’s (Luke 1:46-55), it doesn’t emphasize God’s reversals of human fortunes the way hers does. Yet the priest’s song does emphasize, with Mary’s, God’s faithfulness in sending Israel salvation. It speaks of the way God has kept God’s promise to rescue God’s children from God and their enemies. As a result, Zechariah sings, God’s people can now serve God without fear and be guided by “the rising sun from heaven … into the path of peace.” In doing so, Cynthia Rigby notes, he prophecies about the coming roles of both his son John and distant relative Jesus by pointing to salvation history.
Verse 79 points to the human dilemma into which God sends both John and Jesus. We live, Zechariah mourns, in “darkness” and the “shadow of death.” This, of course, echoes Psalm 23’s reference to walking through “the valley of the shadow of death.” It’s a reminder that death, both spiritual and physical, naturally dogs our every step from birth until God gathers us into the new creation.
This reference offers Luke 1:68-79’s teachers and preachers an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the kind of darkness to which Zechariah refers. Darkness is a physical reality in the season of Advent in which the days shrink and the nights stretch out. It’s also, however, a spiritual reality not just in Advent, even as our malls echo with carols and people speak of holiday cheer. Spiritual darkness plagues every day of our lives. Preachers and teachers of this text might invite those they lead to reflect on evidence of that darkness.
Yet Zechariah can praise God because God has responded to that human darkness by redeeming Israel (68). Of course, he repeatedly speaks in the past tense. In doing so the priest doesn’t refer only to the countless ways God has intervened in Israel’s history to rescue her from all sorts of messes, many of which she created herself. He’s also employing a popular prophetic practice of speaking as though God has already accomplished what God has shown the prophet God will do.
Rigby notes that by using past tense verbs, Zechariah is also reminding worshipers that in a real sense, God’s salvation is always both on the way and a present reality. Jesus, God’s “rising sun” has already pierced our spiritual darkness by coming to be born, live, die and rise again from the dead. Yet even as we await Christ’s return, we celebrate his unfailing presence with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). So even as during Advent God’s children prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth, we also look for evidence of his presence now and eagerly anticipate his glorious return.
God has, after all, raised up for God’s adopted sons and daughters a “horn of salvation” to rescue us from those enemies who oppose God’s good and loving purposes. God has also sent that salvation in order to empower God’s children to serve the Lord without fear (74b) and in holiness and righteousness (75). God’s salvation is never, after all, just for human comfort. God rescues in order to free us to serve God and each other in love.
This offers those who preach and teach Luke 1:68-79 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the nature of our faithful response to God’s amazing grace. Saving faith, after all, is never just an intellectual affirmation of Jesus’ role in saving us from our sins. Purely intellectual faith, James reminds us, is dead faith. Faith that receives God’s grace is always eager to respond to God’s gracious act of salvation by serving God and our neighbor “in holiness and righteousness” before the Lord all the days God gives us.
Of course, one of God’s chosen instruments of this salvation is Zechariah’s own child John. His neighbors had asked him, “What then is this child going to be?” (66). The priest’s answer probably startles them. John will not become a priest like his dad or carpenter like his distant cousin. Instead, Zechariah insists, people will call him “a prophet of the Most High.” John will, in other words, speak God’s word to God’s sons and daughters. Because God is so merciful, God will also send John to go before the Lord to prepare the way for him. In doing so John will offer God’s children knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. So Zechariah praises in song not only his son, but also God’s Son, Jesus.
Salvation and redemption are major themes in Luke 1:68-79, as they are in all genuine Christian praise and preaching. However, John reminds us here that we celebrate them not because we deserve God’s rescue, but because of the “tender mercy of our God” (78). God sends God’s “rising sun” Jesus into our spiritual darkness, not because we desire that Light of the world, but because God loves God’s world so deeply that God is determined to do what it takes to redeem that world.
The “rising sun” is a fairly common phrase used in phrases as diverse as the nickname for the country of Japan and the name of a city in Indiana (that, ironically, has a number of gambling casinos). But perhaps few links to the phrase “rising sun” are more evocative and, perhaps, fertile for contemplating Jesus as the “rising sun” than the old folk song, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
While no is sure of its authorship or the house’s exact nature, it’s the song of a young man whose life has careened “off the tracks” in New Orleans: “There is a house in New Orleans/ they call the Rising Sun/ And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy/ And God knows I’m one.” Since the ballad calls the House a place where the narrator has spent his life in sin and misery, preachers and teachers might draw a contrast between the destruction caused by the House of the Rising Sun and the redemption offered by God’s “rising sun.”
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