Luke 1:5-20, 57-80
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Every morning, an untold number of people in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran and Anglican and Orthodox traditions, in countries all over the world, rise with the sun and prepare themselves for worship. In homes and schools, in monasteries and convents, in small and large churches, in all kinds of different places, they read Scripture and sing psalms and hymns, and – almost without exception – included within the set of songs that they sing is part of the text before us today. The “Song of Zechariah” is one of three songs from the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel – along with Mary’s Song and the Song of Simeon – that is a part of the daily prayer cycle governing the lives of many Christians. Through joy and sadness, in times of warfare and peace, amid the realities of triumph and struggle, these words have streamed from the lips of countless faithful people throughout the church’s history. That’s quite an image, isn’t it? There is something remarkable about the thought of hundreds of millions of Christians chanting and singing and reciting the same passage, day in and day out, their lives being shaped by this song of hope and praise and promise.
Words are powerful, and the songs that we sing have a profound impact on the way we look at the world. I’ve been pondering that quite a bit these past few weeks as the year draws toward its conclusion and I reflect on the year that has been. We have witnessed violence unleashed upon innocent people across the world and in our own country. We have seen people marching in the streets of cities and towns across America in pursuit of justice denied and equality deferred. We have watched as strident and exclusionary voices once consigned to the margins of society are becoming increasingly acceptable in our national discourse. In a world in which more of us can be heard more widely than at any time in human history, what refrains are echoing through our nation and our world, and which ones will we allow to shape us? Will we let our hearts be hardened by the politics of division, by messages that lead us to distrust and hatred of those who differ from us? Will we succumb to the pessimism and cynicism that leads us to believe that we are incapable of working together for the common good? Will we let fear trump the better angels of our nature? Or will we choose to sing a better song, a song that leads us out of despair into renewed hope? What would it look like if we reclaimed the Song of Zechariah for our own day and sang these words in defiance of the prevailing mood?
The first thing that might happen is that we might regain a sense of perspective. We live in a world with a remarkable lack of perspective and an incredibly short memory. We are obsessed with what is happening in the moment and what might be coming next; by and large, we fail to look at the present or the future with an eye toward the past. Zechariah – whose name means “the Lord remembers” in Hebrew – sings a song about what is and what is coming in light of what God has already done.
“Blessed be ADONAI, the God of Israel,
because he has visited his people and accomplished their release.
69He has raised up for us a mighty Savior
from the house of his servant David,
70just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets in ages past:
71deliverance from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us!
72He has done this to show mercy to our ancestors,
to remember his holy covenant –
73the oath that he solemnly swore to our father, Abraham –
and to give us 74who have been rescued from the hand of our enemies
the ability to worship God without fear
75in holiness and righteousness before him as long as we live!”
As we sing this song anew, we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to us in the past, and we have the chance to free ourselves from the tyranny of the present – the tendency to magnify what is happening around us so much that it overwhelms our mind and emotions.
The second thing that might happen is that we might find our eyes open to how God is working in our present. We do well to remember that Zechariah’s situation wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. He lived during the Roman occupation of Israel, when taxes were high and many of his people struggled to simply get by from one day to the next. Zechariah’s song is sung in defiance of the circumstances around him, in the expectation that God was working to bring about salvation despite all appearance to the contrary. God’s promise to Abraham, fulfilled over and over again in the preservation of the people, and in the mercy and grace poured out upon them despite their rebellion, is fulfilled anew in the birth of John and in the coming birth of the Messiah. In the same way, this song bears witness to how God’s power and presence can break out in ways that defy our comprehension but nevertheless change our lives for the better.
Last – but certainly not least – Zechariah’s song cuts through cynicism and resignation to present us with a vision of a hopeful future:
Because of the deep-seated compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to direct our feet onto the road that leads to peace!”
These are not mere wishes, but confident statements about what God will accomplish. The sun of righteousness will rise and illuminate our world. Those who live in the shadows of sin and death will find themselves bathed in the light of God’s grace. A world wracked with hatred and violence will find peace. All of this will happen, not because of human effort, but because God has promised to make it so. As we remember God, watch for God, and hope in God, we sing of a new day that is coming as surely as the rising of the sun.
Brothers and sisters, the songs of the world sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. As Advent draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate once again the birth of our Savior, we have a choice.
What will our song be? Will it echo the discordant strains of the distrustful and divisive? Or will it be a melody bright and clear which speaks to the power of God to transform us and our broken world by the gracious gifts of life and love?
What will our song be? Will it echo the fearful refrains of the loud and angry? Or will it be a melody gentle and calm which speaks to the power of God to soothe us and our weary world with the gifts of joy and peace?
What will our song be? Will it echo the cynical psalms of the strident and self-serving? Or will it be a melody uplifting and strong which speaks of the power of God to restore us and our groaning world with the gift of hope and expectation?
I know which song I want to sing. Let us pray that God would tune our hearts and give us the words to be instruments of God’s will this day and always. Amen.