“Wait Upon the Lord with Gratitude” – Luke 1:67-79
1. Introduction: A Sign for Zechariah?
Our Gospel reading for this service is a song that Zechariah sang after the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Let’s just review… the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple, and told him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a son even though they were old. Zechariah questioned it, disbelieved it, and the angel Gabriel gave him a sign that what he said would actually come true. Now, if Gabe appeared to Zach today – you see, we have to give them cool names, like Gabe and Zach because it’s 2021 – if Gabe appeared to Zach today, the sign he would give might be a sign for his front lawn that reads – “Un-Baby-lievable!” OR one to hang at his front door that reads “Daddy in the Making.” Or maybe Gabe would hand over a t-shirt for Lizzie with some words on the front – maybe that “Intel inside” symbol, but “Baby inside” instead; OR maybe “Currently in Quarantine (with small print “Arriving July 2022”); OR maybe “I tested positive, but not for COVID” (with some baby feet just below the words); OR what about this one:
1. The Sign for Zechariah – a talking “time out”
No, those weren’t the signs that the angel gave. I guess you can’t blame him. After all, he didn’t have all the technology available for him like we do in 2021. It was only 4 or 5 B.C. So, the sign the angel gave was rather traditional, but still surprising… He took away Zechariah’s voice until John was born. That was the sign – Zechariah couldn’t speak. It was a talking “time out.” That was a real hardship.
Just think… when something good happens to you, you want to tell other people. If you got 100% on your math test, you want to tell your mom and dad as soon as you get home from school. In fact, these days, you’d probably even text them before you got home from school. If you just got engaged to be married, you want all your friends and family to hear about it. And yes, when that first baby is born… well, you’ve got to “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere!” We have all kinds of ways to share good news these days, but just imagine that Zach lived now, and Gabe told him that Lizzie was going to have a baby, and Zach didn’t believe it, and Gabe said, “Hand me your phone… no devices until the baby is born!” Well, he’d feel really discouraged because he couldn’t tell anyone.
And that was the sign for Zechariah. He couldn’t tell anyone, because Gabriel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak. Usually signs communicate something, but this sign was that Zechariah couldn’t communicate anything, at least not in a verbal way. He tried to use American Sign Language, but nobody in the Jerusalem area knew it because America hadn’t been discovered yet. He went back home after his service in the temple was completed, and Elizabeth was happy to see him again, and soon she was pregnant. As soon as the baby – John – was born, Zechariah was able to speak again.
2. Appreciating what you don’t have
Have you ever thought about what it was like for Zechariah for those nine months? How hard must it have been to communicate when he couldn’t do it in the way that he had become accustomed to? And then how much would he appreciate the ability to talk once John was born?
We kind of know what that’s like, don’t we? We tend to be a whole lot more grateful for something after we don’t have it for a time. If you ever break the arm with which you do everything, you tend to appreciate it more when you try to write or eat with the other hand. There are those who have braces on their teeth for a couple of years, or even have their jaws wired shut for six weeks or more. They are so grateful when those braces or wires come out, and they are able to eat regular, solid food again. We were all a whole lot more grateful for the ability to worship together with other people when church sanctuaries opened up again after the coronavirus shutdown.
So, you can imagine how Zechariah felt after nine months of verbal silence. Zechariah was so grateful that he was able to talk again, that right after he told the crowd that the boy’s name would be John, he sang a song to the Lord to proclaim what the Lord had done. It is a song that we still have in our Bibles and one that we have in our church hymnals – in services called “Matins” and “Morning Prayer” and in one of the Biblical Canticles near the end of the hymnal. It is called the “Benedictus” – which is the Latin word that starts Zechariah’s song – Benedictus… Blessed be…
Oftentimes when we don’t appreciate the gifts of the Lord, we don’t use them as we should. The gifts of the Lord get neglected, and instead of using them for the Lord’s glory, we let them go unutilized or underutilized. Bibles sit on shelves. People stay home instead of gathering for public worship. We don’t use our talents and abilities to their fullest.
In countries where God’s gifts are scarce, they are in much higher demand. Maybe you’ve heard stories of people – in countries where Bibles are banned – who smuggled Bibles into their countries in whatever way possible, even with the threat of being arrested. Maybe you’ve heard a missionary give accounts of people literally walking all day to make it to a worship service and then the service lasting three hours or more so that these people can get their time’s worth. Yes, where God’s gifts are scarce, they are valued and appreciated. People are grateful.
3. A song of gratitude
Since Zechariah was without a voice for nine months, I’m sure he grew to appreciate more the reasons God gave him a voice in the first place. He understood that his voice wasn’t supposed to be used to question God, or to talk back to him, but to praise him and honor him. So that’s what he did, and we have a very beautiful song still today because of it. And what does Zechariah’s song tell us?
a. Blessed be…
Well, it starts with that Latin word “Benedictus” – “Blessed be…” That seems like a strange way to start that song – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” Normally we think of God blessing us, not the other way around. But in the Old Testament – and Zechariah was still living in the Old Testament times, because Jesus hadn’t been born yet – in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “bless” could be used both ways. When it referred to an action from the greater person (including God) to the lesser, it was about bestowing ability for success. So, when God blessed someone, He may have provided for them, protected them, given them children or a host of other “successes.” When that Hebrew word referred to an action from the lesser person to the greater, it was about praising that greater person for the lesser person’s ability for success. When it was blessing God, it implied bending the knee, and it expressed thanks and praise. So, in the same vein as “Bless the Lord, O my soul” from Psalm 103, Zechariah begins his song with “Blessed be the Lord…” One of our Communion songs today begins that way: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul.” It’s about praise and thanks and worship. Zechariah had been waiting upon the Lord for a child. Now that that waiting was over, it was time for gratitude and singing.
b. He has redeemed His people
The very next phrase gives the reason for that gratitude and blessing: “for He has visited and redeemed His people.” Like I said, Jesus wasn’t even born yet, but Zechariah – oh, yes, when he was introduced at the beginning of the chapter both he and Elizabeth were described as righteous – so Zechariah had a deep longing for the coming of Messiah, and Gabriel’s message to him informed him that Zechariah’s son would go before the Lord, so Zechariah knew and understood that the coming of Messiah was imminent. And Zechariah knew what Messiah was coming for – to redeem His people, and not just the Israelites, but us, too. Bottom line… Zechariah was thankful that Redeemer Messiah was visiting soon.
c. From the house of David
The next part of Zechariah’s song further clarifies that he is talking about the Messiah. He says that the Lord “has raised up a horn of salvation.” That just means a symbol of strength, and of salvation. And he goes on to say that this salvation would arise “in the house of God’s servant David.” Zechariah was a descendant of Levi – the priestly tribe of Israel. David was a descendant of Judah – the kingly tribe of Israel. So, we know that the redeeming of God’s people is not going to come from Zechariah’s son, John, but from that as yet unborn descendant of David. That would fulfill the promise / the covenant that God made with David in 2 Samuel 7 – a covenant that said God would raise up an offspring of David whose throne and kingdom would be established forever. Sounds like Jesus to me!!
d. Saved from enemies
The next concept in Zechariah’s song is that God’s people would be saved from their enemies. In the olden days, the Israelites had lots of enemies – Philistines, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites. In Zechariah’s day, it may have been the overlord Romans. But even more than that are the spiritual enemies of God’s people – what St. Paul referred to as the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Those are the enemies that the Messiah will truly save us from.
e. A blessing through Abraham
Zechariah’s song goes back even farther in time to call to mind the covenant that God made with Abraham – that blessing would come to the whole world through a descendant of Abraham. Again, traditional interpretation of that covenant points forward in time to the coming of Messiah, fulfilled in Jesus. So, Zechariah is bang-on with the content of his song – God is fulfilling promises made to both Abraham and David, promises to redeem and save His covenant people. That would lead God’s people to live in holiness and righteousness (and gratitude – because that’s our key word today) all their days.
f. My son… to prepare the way
The first part of Zechariah’s song has definitely been Messiah-oriented. The last half turns his attention to his own son, John. He begins by calling his son a prophet of God, and, in a sense, John was the last of the Old Testament characters / prophets before the coming of Jesus. Zechariah, himself – because we are told he was filled with the Holy Spirit – prophesied about John that he would be the one to go before the Lord, to prepare the way for the Lord, the Messiah, to come to His people. In that role, John was fulfilling Old Testament prophecies from both Isaiah and Malachi. So that second half of Zechariah’s song starts with pride over his son, John, but then moves back to the Messiah – the one who brings salvation and specifically the forgiveness of sins.
g. Salvation and forgiveness
And that’s the central message of the Gospel. God loves you. He promised to send a Saviour for you and all people. He was just about to do that, and of course now we know that He has done that. We’re about to celebrate Jesus’ birth later this week, but the purpose of His coming was to die on the cross as the once-for-all sacrifice for sins – yours, mine, every one’s. Those sins are forgiven. You are forgiven… because of Jesus, the Redeemer! So the closing thoughts of Zechariah’s song also echo his gratitude – for the tender mercy of God, for the light that He gives to those living in a world of darkness, and for guiding us into ways of peace.
4. Let’s be grateful this Advent
As we finish this Advent season and worship our Lord on Christmas Eve and Day, let us do so with gratitude. Let us be grateful for the ability to worship together in the sanctuary. Let us belt out the words to our favorite songs and hymns with gratitude in our hearts to God! Let us spend time with our families and friends in the days ahead, and be grateful for them, happy that we have them to love, and that they love us back. Let us look at all the decorations and other reminders of our Savior’s birth with gratitude anew that we may truly experience the joys of Christmas as a young child would, with all wonder and excitement. Most of all, let us appreciate all that the Father has done for us in sending his Son to earth to be born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger for us, all so that we may live with him forever. Amen.