Scripture: Luke 1:68-79
The Back Story
Within the broad tradition of Christianity, this text—the pronouncement of Zechariah upon seeing his son John and regaining the ability to speak after months of silence—is called the Benedictus, after its first two words in the Latin translation: “Blessed be.”
In order to truly appreciate this text, we have to consider the back story—the context that precedes it. Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, a descendent of the priestly clan of Aaron. They are both described by Luke as “righteous” and “blameless,” in that they follow the Torah—the instruction of God through Moses (Luke 1:6). They are both getting on in years, and despite their lives of faith and righteous living, they have not been blessed with a child, and now they are too old to conceive.
Remember that in the ancient world of the Bible, barrenness is generally seen as a curse. Eternal life, in the mindset of the OT world, is achieved through one’s children; you literally “live forever” through your descendants, particularly the male kind.
I wonder: how difficult has this been for Zechariah, who has devoted his life to the service of his God, who follows all the rules of his religion, who enters the Temple and makes sacrifices on behalf of others, who lives a righteous life, doing all the right things—and yet. And yet, year after year goes by, hope after hope of an heir is dashed.
Did Zechariah wonder why? Did he begin to think God didn’t really care for him? Did he follow through the motions of his religion, all while losing faith that God could or would reward him for his life of service?
Whatever we might think has happened over the years, the Zechariah we early in Luke 1 is anything but positive, faithful, and confident that God can act.
As the story goes, it is Zechariah’s time to make the sacrifice, and he enters the Sanctuary of the Temple to make an incense offering. This ritual, described in Exodus 30, is to be performed twice daily—when the lamps are lit in the morning and when they are extinguished in the evening. In terms of the priestly rituals of the Temple, this is perhaps the most mundane, the most ordinary, the most habitual.
As such, Zechariah expects the same thing that happens every time he performs this duty: he goes into the sanctuary, burns the incense, trims the lamps, and goes out.
But this time, it was anything but ordinary. He trims the lamps and lights the incense. And then someone else is there. Zechariah should be alone—no one else is allowed in the Temple during this ritual. I don’t know if Zechariah sees the angel first, or if he has that eerie awareness that there is another presence nearby. But something holy has intervened in the mundane, and it terrifies Zechariah.
And while this holy being tells Zechariah not to fear, Zechariah is cynical. The angel promises the fulfillment of Zechariah’s hopes and prayers—the birth of a son—but the decades of wondering “why” has calloused Zechariah and made him skeptical. He tells the angel that what is now promised is impossible.
The angel pulls rank, and reminds Zechariah that he stands in the presence of God and has the authority to rebuke. And so he does. “Gabriel decrees Zechariah’s speechlessness until his prophetic words come to pass” (Branch, Feasting, 37).
When Zechariah at last comes out of the Temple, mute (v.20) and perhaps deaf (v.62), “the people of the village see that something out of the ordinary has happened to him, but they do not understand what he is going through” (Mixon, Feasting, 37).
For the months that follow, Zechariah is tossed about by his doubts and fears until he is forced inside himself. He is powerless to do anything except wait, watch, and wonder. In this way, he is a powerful embodiment of our Advent reflection and expectation.
“His physical state forces him in on himself to consider the entire course of his life—his faithful service as a priest, his faithful love for Elizabeth, his faithful belief that God would redeem God’s people. He has time to consider the long arc of his life and how it has been disrupted by the sudden appearance of the holy at a time and in a manner he was not expecting” (Mixon, Feasting, 35).
But this nine-month “time out” leads to profound changes in Zechariah’s personality & faith. Given that so much of his ultimate pronouncement relies heavily on words in Genesis, the Psalms, Ezekiel, and Samuel, perhaps Zechariah spent much of his silent time studying the sacred scrolls of God’s Word. Maybe this experience has led him to meditate on an upcoming great move of God. (Branch, Feasting, 37).
Whatever happens, when Zechariah reappears in v.67, he has been transformed. “Like an explosion after much pressure, joy bursts forth, cascading good words on all. Zechariah literally sings! This new, energized Zechariah, ready for fatherhood, tenderly talks to [God and] his baby boy” (Branch, Feasting, 37).
Most of Zechariah’s song is not about John who will be called the Baptist. It is instead about God, specifically praise to the God who remembers. Zechariah’s name itself means “God remembers,” so we should not be surprised that his story in the Bible is about God remembering: “God has remembered God’s holy covenant, the oath God swore to Abraham our father. God has remembered to show mercy and to rescue God’s covenant people from the hand of their enemies. God has redeemed God’s people. God remembers God’s covenantal promises” (Branch, Feasting, 35).
John, Zechariah prophesies, “will be the bridge between the law and its fulfillment, the prophet who will proclaim the Messiah’s presence, the voice who will call the whole creation to repentance in response to the promise of salvation” (Mixon, Feasting, 37). He will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Peace. In this season of Advent, as we reflect on the coming of the Prince of Peace, we wait, watch, and wonder if we will ever know peace. We long for peace, but we live in a world that knows far too little of it. And maybe we, like Zechariah, have given up the hope that we will ever see this promise fulfilled.
But as we walk these ancient paths of Advent, our challenge is to find peace. And I think the experience of Zechariah provides a map we can use to find peace today.
As preacher Roger Gench points out (Feasting, 32-34), Zechariah vacillates between joy and fear. He is tossed about by the waves of life, as one without an anchor:
Elizabeth is barren and getting on in years—a definitive line down.
Gabriel appears and announces Elizabeth will bear a son who will be the forerunner to the coming Savior—line up.
But Zechariah is terrified with disbelief, so the angel renders him mute—line down.
Then Elizabeth bears a son—line up.
But family and friends are not supportive of Elizabeth’s desire to name him John—line down.
Zechariah places his trust in his own understanding of biology, in his understanding of religion and righteousness, in the opinions and perspectives of his friends; and as such he never discovers true peace.
But after months of forced silence, after months of wrestling with God and submitting to God’s desires in his life, his trust is in God alone and he speaks of peace.
The path to peace, Zechariah suggests, is as simple as following your feet. Feet do not deceive us the way that our eyes and heads and hearts do. Our feet have a way of finding home. They do not get distracted by everything before us, for feet only know one step at a time. And this is the way that God leads us, as we read in Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God does not promise a brilliant blaze of light to illuminate the road for miles ahead. God promises a lamp to our feet, enough light for the next step.
There’s a movie that came out some time ago called A Knight’s Tale (2001). It is, in my opinion, the best Heath Ledger movie of all time, though it was not that well received when it was released. Inspired in part by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” this story follows a squire named William who desire to “change his stars” and become a knight.” We learn, in the course of the story unfolding, that William was given up by his father at an early age with precisely this hope: that he can change his stars. The charge of young William is given to a knight. But the boy is afraid. William says, “Father, I am afraid, I won’t know the way back home.” His father echoes back, “Don’t be foolish, William, you just follow your feet.”
Like young William, finding peace is as simple as finding our way home. We will only know true peace when we follow our feet and find our way back home to the Kingdom of God.
We may be in this world, but we are not of this world, as the old gospel tune proclaims, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passing through.” But unlike the chorus of that tune, we too often feel right at home here in this world.
1 John 3:1 says” See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” We are not citizens of this world; but as children of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus says that the children of God will be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
We will only know true peace—in our hearts and in our world—when we are right with God, when we have laid aside our own ambitions and passions, or at least turned them over to God.
We will only know true peace when we anchor our lives in God. There’s anther hymn I grew up singing called “In Times Like These.” Do you know it?
In times like these, you need a Savior.
In times like these, you need an anchor.
Be very sure, be very sure,
your anchor holds, and grips the Solid Rock.
This Rock is Jesus. Yes, he’s the one!
This Rock is Jesus, the only One!
Be very sure, be very sure,
your anchor holds, and grips the Solid Rock.
This Advent season, Zechariah reminds me that true peace can only be found if my life is anchored on the Solid Rock.
Pray for peace…
Accept God’s peace…
Go and be God’s peace in the world…