22 December 2019 The Songs we Sing Martin Baker
Luke 1:5-13, 57-80
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. 8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." 61 They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, "What then will this child become?" For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. 67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." 80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
This morning we hear one of the greatest poems or songs in all of scripture. Called the Benedictus. It starts off: Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68 "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
And it is the song an old priest sings to his new born son, John. John who would become John the Baptist and whose role was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus and the Gospel message.
Does everyone have a favourite song?
Does anyone have a song that reminds you of a particular time and place?
I have a memory of my year 4, or standard 4 teacher. He had fairly long hair a moustache and shorts. And socks. In sandals. He played the guitar. And he taught our class his favourite song. From 1969. It was ‘Call out the Instigation’ by Thunderclap Newman. I still remember the words Call out the Instigation because there is something in the air. We have to get together sooner or later, because the revolution is here’
So this was the class song which we sang with great gusto to our school assembly.
At High School our third form or year 9 music teacher, Mr Morris, loved Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. He taught us as our class song, to sing I’m going to wash that man right out of my hair. Interestingly, it was a boy’s school.
In 1981 I was living in a Kibbutz in Norther Israel and the song of the moment Anarchy in the UK.
One critic wrote of the punk song that ‘it reflected the pervasive sense of embittered anger, confusion, restlessness, economic frustration and social alienation which was being felt by a generation of disenfranchised youth amidst the declining economic situation and bland music scene of the mid-1970s.’
I read that quote because it reminds us that most of our songs come out of a context. A place, a situation.
In fact I would guess that the musicians among us could listen to a song or music and give us some sense of when that song or that music was composed.
So we need to keep these things in mind, when we hear Zechariah’s song today.
It was a song that had a place and a time.
Zechariah sings: 69 He has risen up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Many historians tell us of the context here. A nation of mostly impoverished small farmers who paid rent on the land they used. A small group of the wealthy supported by the regional representative of the Roman Empire. Soldiers to enforce Roman law and to make sure local taxes were paid. Taxes to landowners, the temple to Rome. Emperors who wanted to put up statues of themselves to be worshipped. The so called peace of Rome enforced by acts of brutality and terror. Crucifixion was the most feared, most humiliating.
So think about this environment, this situation as we think about Zechariah’s words: He has risen up a mighty saviour that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
In other words, there were plenty of people around that could be considered enemies. The collaborators. The land owners. The tax collectors. The religious hypocrites. The roman soldiers. All these people feature in our gospel. Worthy to be called enemies. Even to be hated. For good reason.
And that’s the first part of Zechariah’s song.
But then these words in the second verse of Zechariah’s song to his baby son John:
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
So in this song we first hear of the conquering of enemies. We hear about being delivered from the hand of those who hate us.
But then the song goes in a different way. To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet in the way of peace.
So the song starts off with words about conquering enemies and those who hate us and as we follow the song through there is talk of serving God without fear, then the song moves to words of forgiveness, of light of peace.
And so right at the start of the Gospel this morning we hear about these reversals.
We start with Zechariah recognising around us the people and things we see as enemies. The things that seem the things of darkness. The things we hate.
And then we come to a place of forgiveness where sins are forgiven where light shines.
And the song almost seems to sum up all that is to follow.
John making a way for Jesus. Born in this obscure village, but spoken about as the saviour of the world. Bringing healing and hope to so many. Including hypocrites, soldiers, wealthy tax collectors and collaborators. In fact some of these types of people, these enemies and those worthy of hate, would become Jesus’ closest disciples.
And then as the story goes, Jesus who John has prepared the way for would be convicted as criminal, as a blasphemer. Being crucified and offering from the cross the words of forgiveness. And then the angel and the light and the witness to the resurrection. And the hope for the world.
I am not sure that many of us would look around today and see others as enemies or worthy of our hatred.
But perhaps we all have some song that we sing. Words that go around in our own heads about how we see ourselves, how we see the world, how we see people and the challenges we face and how we see the future.
Last week someone was talking to me about the thing she hated – and that was the pressures she felt under at this time of the year. And in many ways it has been a tough year for our country with White Island, with the mosque attacks.
Zechariah‘s song is about the things we need most.
More than anything, we need light and hope.
We need to know we are not alone; that God has not abandoned the world.
God is still here!
God’s word stands for all time – God is compassion and kindness.
And God’s dawning light will shine on us in our darkest hour, and guide our feet into the ways of peace.
Zechariah believed God’s promises; he knew he would never see his son grow up – that is the curse of older parents – but still he believed; his son would be a prophet of God; he would have a special task, to prepare the way, to declare God’s promise of JOY and hope would be fulfilled.
So let’s make his song our song for Christmas
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace, hope, and joy.
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