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The Song of Zechariah: The Day that Shall Dawn from on High
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

DECEMBER 11, 2011

The Song of Zechariah:
The Day that Shall Dawn from on High
Micah 5:2-5
Luke 1:67-80

As a fourth grader I remember our teacher, Mrs. Pacific, requiring long periods of absolute silence from us every day. "Silence is gold. Let's get rich," she would say. It was not easy for this hyper-active fourth grade boy to comply. As an adult, I have chosen on three different occasions to visit monasteries where silence was the rule. While the silence came as a gift to my soul each time, it was only for three days. Then, it was back to speaking whenever I felt the need. I was glad to be able to speak again!

But in our text this morning, Zechariah has been silent, unable to speak at all, for at least ten months. Remember his encounter with the angel Gabriel in the holy of holies, when it was his turn to serve as the Priest? The angel told Zechariah that he and his wife, both advanced in years, would be given the child they had given up hoping they would ever have. Zechariah asked, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years." And because he doubted, he was rendered mute, unable to speak, "until the day" the promised child is given.

So for all this time that the child is conceived by the old couple, and the baby grows in Elizabeth's womb, Zechariah, the priest of God, is silent. Someone said, "Be silent before all great things; let them grow inside you." Well, this is exactly what Zechariah does. And when the child is born, on the eighth day, all assume that the child is going to be named Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, "No, he is to be called John." They protest that no one in the family has ever been named John.

Then, in something of an insult to Elizabeth, they turn to Zechariah. They ask Zechariah, and he writes on a tablet the name the angel Gabriel gave him when they met: "His name is John." All of them were amazed at this, and "immediately" Zechariah's "tongue was freed," and he began to speak again. So after being utterly silent for at least ten months, and now being given the son he has waited for all his life, wouldn't you forgive old Zechariah if he began speaking about how wonderful his son is? Wouldn't we all be inclined to indulge the old guy and let him brag a bit about his boy John? But what does Zechariah say when he finally is allowed to speak once again? He talks about Jesus, not John! The Church has called this song The Benedictus, from the first word of it in Latin, "Blessed." "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has looked favorably upon His people and redeemed them. He has raised up a savior for us in the house of His servant David…." That is not John at all of whom Zechariah sings, but Jesus.

My dear friend Craig Barnes wrote a book of devotions when he was the Pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In it Craig writes about this passage and points out that Zechariah's song contains four strophes, or stanzas, and the first two have to do with Jesus, the third verse is about John, and the fourth is again about Jesus. Craig muses: "Jesus. Jesus. John. Jesus. That's about right." And when Zechariah finally does speak of his own son, John, he speaks of him in terms of how he "will go before the Lord and prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people."

As we approach another Christmas, it strikes me that Zechariah, who had not spoken a word for ten months, when he finally got to speak, used his words wisely. For there is no better news, no more wonderful name, no more important word, to know than Jesus. Russell Maltby wrote a book to the younger generation of preachers in his own Great Britain called, Precepts for Preachers. I love what he says: "You preach the Gospel; therefore, no demand without the gift; no diagnosis without the cure. One word about sin; ten for the Savior."

Well, almost every word Zechariah speaks, when he can finally talk again, is pointed to the Savior! And my favorite verse of all may be the last one. In a sense, it captures the whole Gospel of Christmas in one beautiful stanza:

"By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

If Christmas offers us anything, it offers us a message about "the tender mercy of our God." Christmas tells us that at the heart of the Eternal, the Holy One, the Almighty God, there beats a tender, loving heart. What could be more tender than a baby, a helpless infant in need of care, completely dependent upon the loving care of others? A year ago one of the very best American theologians of our age died suddenly, in his sixties, long before we were ready to lose him. I am speaking of William Placher, who taught at Wabash College for most of his working life. Placher wrote a lovely book over ten years ago that I have returned to often called, Narratives of a Vulnerable God. Placher points out how vulnerable a baby is. And what could be any more vulnerable than a helpless baby, except maybe a man hanging lifeless on a cross? And this is how the Bible speaks of our God! In Jesus Christ, God has spoken of His love for us, even before He knows how we will respond. Only someone with a tender heart would ever take such a risk. Yet the Gospel is so clear on this: "But God proves His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

This past fall might have been the most exciting World Series of all time. The Cardinals barely got into the Series at all. Then Saint Louis won even though they came down to a final pitch twice in Game Six in which they could have lost, their backs to the wall. Their manager, Tony LaRussa, retired after the Series as one of the most successful managers in the history of the game. But I was interested in a detail I only read about after the Series, of a mistake LaRussa made in the Series. It happened in Game Five, when LaRussa muffed two phone calls to the bullpen, sending twice into the game the wrong pitcher to the mound. Indeed, when as Lance Lynn got to the mound in Game Five, as he was wrongly instructed by LaRussa, Lance Lynn was greeted by his manager, "What on earth are you doing here?" Can you imagine any worse words for someone to hear at such a crucial moment? Just when you need to hear that The Man believes in you, he says, "What on earth are you doing here?"

Well the Gospel is just the opposite as Zechariah sees it! God announced His eternal love for us in sending Jesus long before He knew how we would respond to Him. In sending Jesus into the world to be born as a baby, God opened His heart to us, and put it on the table. God came not as a lion, but as a little lamb; not as a big boss, but as a baby. God showed us His tender mercy in Jesus' birth.

Secondly, Zechariah says, "The dawn from on high will break upon us." Christmas comes to us "from on high." It is a top-down affair, this baby born in Bethlehem. It is a God-thing! As you read through the opening chapter of Luke, how can you conclude anything else? Angels announce it, an old woman conceives and has a baby, then a virgin conceives … everything about this story speaks of God's activity, God's initiative, God's beautiful alchemy! How else could you ever make sense of it?

I love how Zechariah responds! Did you hear it in the text? "His mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God." Zechariah finally gets to talk, and he praises God with his first words. And Zechariah names this son, this child, John, which means "God has been gracious."

Isn't this the story of all of our lives, though? Look over all your days, and can't you see as well how gracious God has been?! Your life is "from on high" as well. It is a God-thing, too. Where would any of us be were it not for the graciousness of God?

Then Zechariah says that from "on high" God has come "to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." I love how John speaks of Christmas in his Gospel: "In Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Christmas announces that Jesus is "the light of the world," a light that shines so brightly that not even the world's deep darkness and death itself can overcome it.

And this light shines for a reason, a purpose. That purpose is peace. It shines "to guide our feet into the way of peace." The prophet foretold that Jesus would be called "the Prince of Peace." And the angels would sing on the night of His birth, "Peace on earth and good will among those with whom God is pleased." No fewer than fourteen times in Luke's Gospel is peace mentioned!

Light and peace. This is the message, the promise of Christmas. We who follow the Babe of Bethlehem dare not pray and work for anything less or anything else. Light and peace.

"For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing."

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