Sunday, December 13, 2009



Second of Three Sermons on

the “Christmas Carols” of the Early Church

© copyright 2009 Robert J. Elder

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Luke 1:5-25, 57-80

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

Last week we started a series of Advent sermons by remembering the first song in a trilogy of songs from the gospel of Luke. The first of those was the well-known song of Mary, often referred to by the first word of the passage in the Latin version, Magnificat, which means “magnify.” Luke places the Magnificat during Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who carries in her womb John, who will become the Baptizer.

The second song, which we share today, is the less well-known Song of Zechariah, also referred to by a Latin word that appears as the first word of that passage, Benedictus, or “blessing.” Zechariah sang this song at his son’s traditional naming ceremony, this after months of disbelieving muteness surrounding the late pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – and the birth of John.

The third song we will share next week will be the song of Simeon, which also carries a traditional Latin title from the first words of the passage in the Latin translation, Nunc Dimittis, which mean something like “Now you are dismissing.” The infant Jesus was presented at the Temple, as John had been, and old Simeon realized a promise of God had been kept and he burst into song.


I’ve always had a problem with the angelic appearances in the Bible. Maybe you have too. I come from a long tradition of folks who subscribed more or less to the Scottish Common Sense school of philosophy. We are comfortable with things we can see to be real, things that make logical sense. There is so much that doesn’t seem to make logical sense in this story from the first chapter of Luke:

• There is the modern-day problem with angels just appearing willy nilly all over these stories, and especially nearly giving an old man a heart attack by just showing up at the altar without any warning. There are angels all over the Advent/Christmas stories, popping out of every closet and desk drawer, it seems.

• There is the matter of reproductive biology, that Zechariah and Elizabeth were clearly beyond their childbearing years – “My wife is getting on in years,” Zechariah said, in a total failure of spousal diplomacy – when the news came to get the nursery back in shape, that they would be needing the crib after all.

• There is the medical matter of Zechariah’s sudden and inexplicable muteness after Zechariah expressed what any of us would probably consider completely reasonable questions to the angel. Then followed the equally sudden recovery of his speech, all this quite beyond anything we normally see, outside of the flu season.

There is no point in trying to make a full response to every modern quibble over the biblical witness except perhaps to say, just because many of us may not have seen angels doesn’t mean there aren’t any. The New Testament is full of them, uniformly assigned to duty as messengers of God. Just because Elizabeth was “getting on in years,” doesn’t mean that the God who created the world out of chaos and nothingness could not make a way clear for an older woman to bear a son. Just because we don’t see people struck speechless all that often doesn’t mean that it might not be an awfully good idea in lots of cases, I have a handful of nominations myself. Maybe you do too, present company excepted, of course.

Zechariah, nervous as a cat over his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve as priest in the Temple, had been going about his duty behind the curtain, shielded from the worshiping congregation, preparing to make an offering of incense, probably checking his crib sheet to make sure he wasn’t making any mistakes, hands shaking, he was ready to light the incense when he looked up and big as life – maybe bigger – an angel of God was standing beside the altar telling him to throw away the crib sheet, now he’d be needing a real crib.

Only members of certain tribes could serve as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth came from a line of priestly people, so theirs was a sort of double-priestly family. By the first century, there were quite a few of them, so often it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to enter the sacred space of the sanctuary and make offering to God, as the passage says, “...he was chosen by lot,” meaning, there were many priests waiting, hoping for the opportunity to serve.

For his failure immediately to take the angel at his word, he was made suddenly speechless until the day he saw the angel’s words come to pass. Given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer the prayers in the Temple on behalf of the people, before he even lights the incense, he is given the answer to all the most heartfelt prayers, but because he does not believe, he is left, literally, with nothing to say on behalf of the people. He had already denied the promise for which he had been prepared to pray. Odd, this thing about our prayers being sometimes answered before we can conceive that they would be, perhaps our many prayers are in the process of being answered months, years before we even utter them.

Of course, Elizabeth conceived, and when her son was born and taken to the Temple to be named, everyone thought he would be named for his father or grandfather, as was the custom. But Zechariah fulfilled the command of the angel from nine months before and named him John, which means “The Lord has been gracious.”

Once the command was fulfilled, Zechariah’s voice returned, and, as if from a scene in a Broadway musical, he burst into song: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel...”

I want to pause there for a moment and just consider what a line that is. If you are like I am, probably your prayers often run along this sort of track: “Lord, bless me, bless Uncle Joe, bless my brothers and sisters, bring your blessing to...” and so on. In this song, Zechariah, mute for 9 months, childless until now, bursts into a song blessing God.

Someone once wrote that God’s purpose in freeing and saving his people is so that we may be about our main business, which is worshiping God. So many stories of salvation in the Bible are only secondarily about deliverance from the enemy, they speak of deliverance from the enemy primarily in order that God’s people will be free to worship God. It is God’s primary desire from us, and it is so fitting that the very first words from Zechariah’s lips after months of silence were words of blessing to God.

It had probably not occurred to Zechariah that there was the possibility of a gift for him for which he had long since ceased to pray. Six years ago, in Salem, our Christmas Eve service was videotaped a month ahead of time in order that the denomination could have it broadcast it on Christmas Eve on CBS television. The theme was, appropriately enough to our story today, “Receive the Gift.” Zechariah was like us, inasmuch as we seldom appreciate gifts that meet no obvious needs or satisfy no identifiable desires. The gifts that God longs to give us are often gifts that we do not have the wisdom to request. They may strike us as of little value in our filled-up and too-full lives.

But when the angel stands before us and we begin to see our lives as empty because of a failed purpose we once thought was so central, when the accomplishments of life turn to dust before our eyes, when we recognize that the very thing we most needed was that which we had most neglected, and we realize there is no hope in us, when we become mute in the face of the terrifying discovery that we have devoted our lives to so little and missed so much, that is when the God of Israel, looking favorably upon us and redeeming us, is our only hope.

John the Baptist came by way of ther people in this story, and lived his purpose-filled life well in order to prepare us for the One who would live perfectly, the One who redeemed his people, and redeems us still. He is the gift that gives light to those in darkness and in the shadow of death, the One who places our feet upon pathways of peace.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved