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TEXT: Luke 1:67-79
SUBJECT: Songs of Salvation #3:The Benedictus
Three men walk into a bar: a minister, a priest, and a rabbi...
Without saying another word, you all know what kind of story I'm going to tell: It's a joke, highlighting the differences between Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. You know it's a joke because that's how jokes begin.
Here's another example: Once upon a time. What kind of story is sure to follow? A fairy tale, of course, because that's the way a fairy tale begins.
The Bible is not a joke or a fairy tale, of course, but its authors employ the storytelling conventions of the day; they signal to their readers what kind of story they're going to tell.
Today's New Testament lesson is one of the Bible's most common and recognizable story lines. It's the story of a woman unable to bear children. The story is first told way back in Genesis where an aged couple--Abraham and Sarah--are promised a son, a son in whom--
All the families of the earth would be blessed.
The fulfillment of that promise was a long time in coming, but come it did because God is incapable of failing or going back on His Word--
The counsel of the Lord stands forever;
the thoughts of His heart to all generations.
The same story occurs in the Book of Judges, when the people of God were occupied by the hateful Philistines. For forty years, this cruel people oppressed Israel, and though many prayers went up for relief, no answer was given. Until it was. Here's how the author begins the story of their rescue--
Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children.
Inside a year, Manoah and his infertile wife would have a son, whose name and exploits you surely know--Samson--a man whose superhuman strength would wreak havoc on the enemies of Israel.
A few years later, another barren woman appears in the Bible by the name of Hannah. Her husband, Elkanah, has a second wife, and this other woman is a baby-making machine, pumping them out every year. But Hannah, who is loved by her husband is deeply grieved and provoked by her rival's success in having babies and her own failure.
She goes to the Tabernacle one year and begs God for a son, whom she promises will be given back to the Lord forever. Her pain is so great that her lips move while she's trying to pray in silence, and the High Priest, Eli, takes notice. Obviously, she's drunk--he thinks--and he orders her to sober up before she comes back to the Lord. But she corrects his misunderstanding, assuring the old man that it's not wine that has put her in such a state, but terrible grief. In that case, Eli assures her--
Go in peace. The Lord grant you the petition which you have asked of Him.
While Eli was not a good man, the word he spoke that day was good. The Lord answered Hannah's prayer, she had the baby boy she asked for, and when he was weaned, she brought him back to Eli, and dedicated him to the Lord for life.
The little boy was Samuel, who grew up to be one of the saviors of Israel, saving them first from the Philistines and then from themselves.
When a devout Jew heard the story of a woman unable to have a child, he knew what kind of story it was going to be: it was a story of...Salvation! Of God breaking into human history to deliver His people from the enemies.
A barren woman bearing an unexpected child was the kind of story Israel grew up on, and expected to hear again some day. But that day was slow in coming. Though there were many infertile women in every generation, a miraculous son had not been born in a very long time. Centuries had past since God had acted in this way, and many people in Israel wondered if He ever would again.
You'd think the doubters would only be the village atheist, the crank who believed 'God is dead' or some other misfit. But the fact is, unbelief had crept into the priesthood, even the best of whom were wondering if God would ever make good on His Word.
One of the doubting priests was name Zacharias, and you'd think the Bible would describe him as a dissolute man, a drunkard, for example, or a husband who cheated on an embezzler. The truth, however, is just the opposite, Zacharias was one of the most devout men in Israel, who, along with his wife, was--
Righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and statues of the Lord blamelessly.
No one is sinless or perfect, but this was a couple who feared the Lord and did their level-best to obey Him from the heart.
(I this quite encouraging: that true devotion to the Lord is compatible with doubts, with the struggle to believe His staggering promises. Like the demoniac's father, all Christians have to pray, Lord I believe: Help my unbelief!. While the Lord is never pleased with doubt, He loves doubters and still accepts us as His own. Christ is so great that--even the smallest faith in Him--is enough to save us from our sin and misery!).
Back to the story: While working in the Temple one day, Zacharias is met by an angel, Gabriel, the Messenger of God. The sight terrifies him, of course, but Gabriel hasn't come to scare the man, but to bring him Good News from Heaven.
He and his wife, Elisabeth, will have a son, and this son will be assigned the greatest task ever done up until that time: he would--
Go before the Lord, to prepare them for His coming.
The old man is shocked by the news, but not in a good way. Though the news comes from God and he's got it from the mouth of an angel, no less, Zacharias does not believe it! He cannot believe it, in fact, because he and his wife is are past the age of child bearing
If the angel had come twenty years before, maybe, but at this point in their lives, no. Though God is very great, some things are beyond His power and grace. That's what he thought that day, and what he said to the angel.
Angels, it seems, are rather thin-skinned creatures and don't cotton to being called a liar. For offending Gabriel--and the God who sent him--Zacharias will be struck dumb until the Promise comes to pass.
He leaves the Temple, and while the people have gathered to receive his benediction, he opens his mouth and nothing comes out. If the old man cannot say, 'Amen' to the Word of God, he'll say nothing at all until he can!
Zacharias goes home and guess what happens? The Word of God happens! He finds his aging wife pregnant for the first time after maybe forty years of marriage--
With God nothing shall be impossible!
Nine months pass with the priest sitting silently in the home under God's discipline. Till the happy day finally comes, and it comes time to name the baby. The neighbors expect him to be named after his father or some other relative, but Elisabeth knows better: the angel told her husband that his name would be John, and she insists on it.
Her friends try to talk her out of it, and turn to the father thinking he'll side with them. He motions for a writing tablet, and on it he writes--
His name is John!
After months of doubt, the priest finally submits to the Lord and gives his son the name God chose for him. The moment he does, the curse is removed, and the man who had sat silent as a stump, breaks into song, a song we call The Benedictus.
Blessed is the Lord God of
For He has visited and
redeemed His people,
And has raised up a horn of
salvation for us
in the house of His servant
As He spoke by the mouth of
His holy prophets,
who have been since the
That we should be saved
from our enemies
and from the hand of all
who hate us,
To perform the mercy
promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy
The oath which He swore to
our father Abraham;
To grant us that we,
being delivered from the
hand of our enemies,
might serve Him without
In holiness and righteousness
all the days of our life.
And you, child, will be called
the prophet of the
For you will go before the
face of the Lord to prepare
To give knowledge of
salvation to His people
by the remission of their
Through the tender mercy of
with which the Dayspring
from on high has visited
To give light to those who
sit in darkness and the
shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the
way of peace.
PSALM OF PRAISE
If you know your Bible, you know that this is Psalm, modeled on the Book of Psalms, the hymns Israel had sung for a thousand years. You also know what kind of Psalm it is: it's a Psalm of praise, a celebration of God's eternal character and His saving acts in history.
In the past, God had often acted on behalf of His People, but never had He acted so decisively, never had He saved them as He was about to do in the near future.
The old man's son was not the Savior, but only His herald, announcing His arrival and preparing the people to meet their King. This means the God who had done next to nothing for several hundred years, would more than make up for His inactivity in the next few years. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about to act, to bare His mighty arm and bring salvation to His people.
If the saving acts of God were celebrated in the past, Zacharias would revive it in the present and push it into the future. While the song was first a solo, it was not sung in private. The people of God in every time and place are urged to sing along with the dear old man, to join him in praising the Lord--
Blessed is the Lord God of
Let His name be remembered with gratitude and His praises sung from the heart!
WHY PRAISE HIM?
Why should we praise Him?
Some Christians do everything they do in a spirit of fear, the fear of being caught of getting in trouble with God is their chief motive. But the Benedictus says nothing about this! The priest is not praising God to stay out of trouble, but because of what the Lord has done--
Visiting and redeeming His people.
The word, visit is often used in the Old Testament, and typically means something like 'noticed' or 'gave His attention to'. And so it is usually a positive, something to hope and pray for.
That meaning is retained here, but it is also deepened. For in Christ, God has not only 'visited' us in that sense, but He has also done it quite literally. God did not redeem us from Heaven; He redeemed us on earth, and not from a place or temple or mountaintop, but on a Cross!
In Jesus Christ, God joined the human race; He became one of us; in the words of the other John--
The Word was made flesh.
Though we have many things to praise God for--from life itself to family to friends to a free country, jobs, money, homes, time off to rest--the thing we're to be most thankful for is for our redemption, the forgiveness of our sin and reconciliation with God.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so!
WHAT KIND OF CHRIST WE PRAISE
Having urged us to praise the Lord for His saving acts, he goes on to describe the acts (or, to put a finer point on it, the One who performs them).
The Savior, he says, will be from the House of David. He knows this because that's what the Bible has said from II Samuel onward. When David offers to build God a house, God declines the offer, promising to do the opposite: to build a house for David, and from this house to bring in a King who is David's Lord! This King is Jesus, as Luke is at pains to tell us in Chapter 3, Matthew in the first chapter of his Gospel, and others in the Scriptures that follow.
What will Christ be? V.69 describes Him as--
A horn raised up for us.
What was deeply significant to First Century Jews is mostly lost on us. What does a horn stand for? Two things: first, the horn is a symbol of power, it what a bull or goat uses to fight its rivals and enemies--this is the primary meaning.
But a horn meant more than that to Israel. Horns--a ram's horn--was blown at certain times in Israel's history, the most important of which was...Jubilee, the day slaves were freed, debts were canceled, and a poor man's inheritance was restored.
Christ is a horn in both senses: He is the power of God to save and also the first preacher, to announce the Good News of freedom and forgiveness and restoration.
It is interesting to compare what the angel said to Zacharias and what Zacharias said himself. The angel's message was very brief, less than a quarter the length of the old man's song. Moreover, the angel's message was mostly about John the Baptist, while the song is mostly about Christ. Zacharias developed the short, narrow message into the great good news it really was. How did he make the connections?
He made them because he knew his Bible. The Coming Savior was not a new revelation, but went back to the first pages of the Bible--
His holy prophets,
who have been since the
As early as Genesis 3:15, God had promised a Savior, and He kept saying it all through the Old Testament, Hebrews 1:1 saying--
God who at sundry times and in diverse manners spoke to the fathers by the prophets.
Sending Christ was not an afterthought to God, not a way of making the best of a bad situation. To the contrary! The Fall which necessitated Christ's coming was itself planned as a way of bringing Glory to God in saving us from our sins!
It was St. Augustine who coined the term, Felix Culpa or 'fortunate fall', saying that though God could have prevented sin entering the world, He chose not to in order to make the world better than it would have been without it.
It's a staggering thought that, in Christ, the world will not return to the first Eden; it will become a Better Eden!
Zacharias knew the promises of God and saw their fulfillment in the Christ his son was going to usher in.
WHAT IS SALVATION?
If Christ is going to save us, we have to wonder what salvation is. Many people in his day--and ours--see it as a political settlement of some kind, maybe some kind of benign communism, where everybody works in the interests of all.
There's a grain of truth in this: we ought to think of other people, to love our neighbor as ourselves. But how does this happen? Can a political party bring it to pass? A charismatic leader? Re-education? These have all been tried, and generally made things worse.
Christ is going to save the world by saving people, which, vv.71,74 tell us means two things:
Saving us from our enemies,
(Enabling) us to serve Him in holiness
If you asked Zacharias who the enemies of God's people were, he might well have blurted out, 'The Romans, of course!') But if you'd given him more time to think, he would have known that we are captive, not so much to other men, but to the devil and our own unworthy desires.
The people of God will never be free to serve Him until we are freed from our deepest enemies. And this is what Christ did for us on the cross! When believed and meditated on, the Gospel breaks the power of our sin and guilt and fear, thus freeing us to serve God from the heart.
As for John the Baptist? His work is to announce the salvation God offers us in Christ, to assure us that our sins are forgiven, and to trace all the benefits back to their true source--
The tender mercy of our God!
Have you heard of Jacob's Ladder? You can read the story in Genesis 28, but here it is in brief.
Jacob, fleeing his brother's wrath, runs away to Mesopotamia. En route, he spends a night in a town called Luz. There, sleeping outdoors, he has a dream, a ladder drops down from Heaven to the earth and on it angels climb up and down. When he wakes up, Jacob says--
How awesome is this place!
It is the house of God;
It is the gateway to Heaven.
For many readers, his ladder is a way of climbing up to Heaven, the invitation of God to 'come up here'. This is a terrible misreading of the story. The ladder didn't rest on the earth and rise to Heaven, but it came down from Heaven. In other words, it is not we who ascend to God, but God Himself who descends to us in Jesus Christ!
Salvation is not a matter of human achievement, but of Divine mercy.
The glory, Lord, from first to last,
is due to Thee alone;
Aught to ourselves we dare not take,
nor rob Thee of Thy crown
Our Glorious Surety undertook
to satisfy for man;
and grace was given us in Him
before the world began.
It was a red letter day when John was born, but his father saw it, not as the end of the story, but only the beginning. In his birth and the coming of Christ,--
The Dayspring from on high has visited up.
This is another way of saying, the coming of Christ was like a sunrise, not the end of the light, but only the beginning! For the Christ born a few months after John would do great things than come into the world. He would also go to the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, rise from the dead to announce our justification, ascend to Heaven to plead our cause with the Father, and come again to complete His work and bring in what Peter calls--
A world wherein dwells righteousness.
A redeemed people, living on a redeemed earth in the full favor of a Redeeming God. This is what the Benedictus looked for, and what is coming in its central figure, the Lord Jesus Christ.
God bless us, everyone.
Amen. Praise the Lord!
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