In the Name of Jesus
Dear Fellow Christians awaiting the coming of Christ:
The inspired Gospel writers were lead by the Holy Spirit to begin at the very beginning. And, as we know from the Sound of Music, the beginning is a very good place to start.
For the Evangelists Matthew and Mark and Luke and John, there can be no beginning at the manger, there can be no beginning with shepherds and angels, there can be no beginning of our Christmas celebration, no celebration of Christ's coming, without observing what comes before the coming, what begins before the beginning: the birth of John the Baptist before the birth of Christ.
Take a look at the four Gospel narratives that have, since the first days of the Christian Church, formed the skeleton of the Church Year and the rhythm, the seasons of our Christian life.
Saint Matthew does not begin with Joseph talking to the innkeeper. Saint Mark does not begin his Gospel narrative with Mary's water breaking. Saint Luke does not begin his account with the cold and clear blue of Bethlehem's night sky and the star that guided magi to the manger. Saint John does not begin the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by documenting the angel's visit to shepherds who search for a new-born wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
The Evangelists begin at the very beginning: a time of waiting and anticipation and hope as God himself begins the countdown toward the fulfillment of all salvation history in the coming of the promised one, the one foretold by angels, the one who's name was given by heaven itself, the one received by some, rejected by many: John the Baptist - the forerunner of Christ.
This afternoon/evening, we hear the beginning before the beginning from Saint Luke, who doesn't even begin talking about Jesus by talking about John the Baptist, but by taking another step back and recounting the circumstances that led up to John the Baptist's birth.
It is Saint Luke that tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were, by God's mercy and grace, believing children of Israel, who put their faith in the Word of God — through Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms; believing people who looked forward in hope to the day God would remember his people and the covenant he had sworn to them — to come and redeem and deliver them from an enemy even greater than evil Pharaoh in Egypt. But Zechariah and Elizabeth had no child. "For [as Saint Luke writes,] Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years." (Luke 1:7 ESV)
For all intents and purposes, the door had been shut, bolted and locked on any possibility that they would ever enjoy the precious gift of a child. They struggled with their own human disappointment and frustration. They had placed themselves under the good and gracious Word of the Lord, they had received God's promises in the Messiah to come, but — in spite of their hope in God's deliverance, they had no child. God had not visited them with the gift of new life.
But as they continued to hope in the midst of hopelessness, as they continued to put their faith in the mercy of God despite all their worry and doubt, despite the temptations to abandon the Word of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came and drew Zechariah to his holy Temple. He brought Zechariah to himself and the altar of his mercy. Through the mouthpiece of his holy angel, God announced that fear would give way to God-given trust. The burden of barrenness would be exchanged for the gift of new life. Elizabeth would surely bear a son, and his name would be "John," meaning, "The Lord has been gracious."
And so, for more than fifteen hundred years, God's struggling, frustrated, waiting people — languishing in a barren world of sin and longing for new life — have, in faith, placed themselves under the promises given to Elizabeth and Zechariah.
And the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. ... and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." (Luke 1:13-17 ESV)
Our Lord, through his messenger, the angel, announced to Zechariah the job description of Christ's forerunner, John. Called to a ministry that will complete the preparations made through all the Old Testament prophets, John will be used by God to "make ready for the Lord a people prepared — for the Lord's own coming." (Luke 1:17 ESV)
Through his holy angel, heaven announces to our old, unbelieving nature that there will be no advent of the Savior before the advent of Elijah in the person and work of John the Baptist. John must first do his God-given work, and then, when that work is accomplished, the Messiah will come and forgive and rescue and save.
And despite the fact that John the Baptist is given such little notice in our own Christmas preparations — his voice today continues to "make ready for the Lord a people prepared — for the Lord's own coming." (Luke 1:17 ESV)
We learn from Scripture that as Christians, we have nothing to say to God (or to our neighbor) concerning our redemption until God speaks a word to us — through his inspired messengers. And this afternoon / tonight we take time to hear the inspired words from Zechariah.
From a man who's mouth was shut and his tongue tied by his own doubt and sin and unbelief, we hear words of renewed faith and heartfelt joy. For Zechariah's faith in the coming Messiah — the same faith that was even then evident in his new-born son — gave way not only to a spoken confession of faith, but a heavenly song.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke, the first chapter:
And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:67-79 ESV)
This song of Zechariah is the first of three inspired songs given to the Christian Church and each of us to sing in repentant joy and faith as we look forward to Christmas Day. Today we join Zechariah in blessing the Lord God of Israel for the holy, one-way covenant he made before Abraham and Moses and David. This gracious promise to send the Deliverer — the very Word of God made human flesh — is the center of Zechariah's Song as it is the center of our song to God and to each other. This is the covenant announced by the Lord as he promised the Seed of the Woman to Adam and Eve as he sacrificed an animal in order to cover their shame. This is the covenant announced to Abraham as the Lord "cut" his covenant in the sacrifice of a heifer, goat and ram. This is the covenant announced as John the Baptist was circumcised on the eighth day, the first day of a new week, the first day of a new creation.
This is the covenant announced at a table in the upper room, on the night when our Lord was betrayed — the very night that led to the Messiah's sacrificial death and the securing of our deliverance from the hand of our enemies: sin, death and the power of the devil.
The presence of John the Baptist will give way to the presence of our Lord as he comes to establish salvation to all who would believe. "He must increase, and I must decrease." John says. But for now, as we wait for the final coming of our Bridegroom, as we patiently wait for the final rising of heaven's sun, we join Zechariah in blessing the Lord — in word and in song.
God grant us the faith to "start at the very beginning" — to sing back to him what he has first revealed to us through his servants Zechariah and John the Baptist. May the Benedictus also be found on our lips this season of preparation as God comes in his Word and gives us a new heart and a new hope and a new song.
A blessed advent-tide to each of you in the Name of the Coming Christ.