Benedictus: An Epilogue to St. Luke’s Gospel
St. Luke - An Epilogue
The common advice that’s given to speakers, whether giving a lecture or a sermon or some other sort of presentation, is to tell your audience what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then sum it up by telling them what you told them. We began our study of St. Luke’s Gospel just over two years ago. The Sunday before last we reached its end, but before we continue on to other things I want to take one sermon to bring it all together as best I can. I want to do that by returning to the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There are three magnificent hymns in Luke 1 and 2. They’re familiar to us especially through their use at Morning and Evening Prayer. In the first, the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary sings praises: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. Why was she full of such joy? Because she was pregnant with the baby who was the long-promised and long-awaited Messiah. This baby represented the hopes of faithful Israel: hope in the God of promise, hope that he would bring justice to a world filled with injustice, hope that he would scatter the proud, bring down the mighty, hope that he would fill the hungry and have mercy on his people. In Jesus the story of Israel was finally to reach its denouement, its climax.
The third of these hymns, the Nunc Dimittis, was sung by Simeon. The Lord had somehow revealed to Simeon that the Messiah, the one who would be Israel’s consolation and saviour from her suffering, would come in his lifetime. And so the aged Simeon spent his days in the temple awaiting this Messiah. When Joseph and Mary presented the infant Jesus in the temple Simeon knew—somehow he recognised him. And taking Jesus in his arms he sang out in praise. He could now die in peace having seen the Lord’s salvation. In this child, he sang, had come a light for the Gentiles and fulfilment of the promises made to Israel, going all the way back to Abraham. The Lord had promised to set this fallen world to rights. Isaiah had given assurance that one day the whole earth would be full of the knowledgeof the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). The prophet Habakkuk had given similar assurance, that one day the earth would be filled with the glory of Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). This unassuming little child, born to a simple carpenter and his young bride in a stable, was the one through whom the Lord would restore his Creation.
Bu this morning I want to turn our attention to the hymn that falls between these two, to the Benedictus of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. It’s found in Luke 1:68-79. You’ll recall that Zechariah was a priest. He and his wife Elizabeth were both elderly. She was past child-bearing age. They longed for a son—a son was security in that time and place—but Elizabeth was barren. In their childlessness, Zechariah and Elizabeth were a picture of Israel in her own seeming hopelessness. And then one day the lot fell on Zechariah to offer incense in the temple. It was a once in a lifetime experience. And as he sprinkled incense on the altar, an angel appeared to announce that God had heard his prayers—and with his prayers he had heard the prayers of Israel. Elizabeth, despite being old and barren, would give birth to a son who would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
Israel had a long history of crying out to the Lord for mercy and for deliverance. She had cried out to the Lord from her bondage in Egypt. She had cried out to the Lord from her exile in Babylon. And in the days of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and Simeon and Anna many in Israel continued to cry out for deliverance, from the crushing weight of foreign pagan oppression, from the apostasy of so many of her leaders, from the darkness that felt so close. The Lord consistently heard the cries of his people. He came in judgement on the Egyptians, he exposed Pharaoh as a pretender to deity and a pretender to kingship, and he rescued his people. Throughout her history, the Lord heard Israel crying out and each time he came in judgement on her enemies and rescued her. And so at the birth of his son, John, the herald of the Messiah, Zechariah broke into song. A new chapter in Israel’s history was beginning. The Lord was once again visiting his people. His song was all the more powerful in that Zechariah had been mute for nine months. He had questioned the angel’s announcement and been left speechless—given nine months to think and to ponder in silence on the announcement. But here, having been given his voice back, Zechariah breaks forth into praise and he offers both a fitting introduction to and a fitting summary of the Good News as recorded by Luke.
The first half of Zechariah’s song praises God for what he had done and what he had promised in the past. The second half looks forward with joy to what must happen through the ministry of the Messiah. Zechariah sings out the story of God’s redemption and it’s the same story for which you and I gather here each week, are gathered here today to praise the Lord. It’s the same story of loving kindness, of grace and of mercy, of redemption and reconciliation that lies behind our faith in Jesus, that lies behind our obedience to Jesus, that lies behind the hope that infuses our lives, that lies behind the joy and mercy and grace and love that we take from this place out into the world. It’s the same story that we tell as we call others to repent because the kingdom of God has come in Jesus the Messiah. Yes, much of what Zechariah looked forward to in anticipation we now know as past history—the story Luke tells in his Gospel and in the book of Acts. But Brothers and Sisters, Israel’s story, Zechariah’s story, Luke’s story is our story and we must never forget that.
Look at what he sings in the first part of his song, verses 68-75:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. In this child, John, and in the child promised to Mary, the Lord was acting in fulfilment of the promises he had made down through the centuries. Zechariah recalls all that history—the story—simply be addressing his praise not to a big, vague, impersonal “God”, but specifically to the Lord God of Israel.
Israel had a long history, but in that history there were three particularly exciting chapters that had shaped Israel’s identity, her hope, and her future aspirations. Those three great chapters in the story were the calling of Israel’s father, Abraham; her rescue from Egypt in the days of Moses; and her establishment as a great kingdom under David. All three of these chapters are recalled here by Zechariah. It’s a powerful reminder that Jesus came as part of Israel’s great story and that to understand what he’s done and who he is, we must understand what came before.
What came before began with Abraham as the Lord called him out of Ur in far away Mesopotamia. He called Abraham to leave his home and his family, to leave his sources of identity and security, and to follow him to a new land he knew nothing about. To everyone else in the world it looked like Abraham was simply following his nose into folly, but Abraham knew he was following a God of promises. Zechariah specifically recalls the covenant that the Lord established with Abraham after he reached that new land. Genesis 15 tells us one of the most powerful stories in Scripture. The Lord came to Abraham in a dream, passing back and forth between the halved carcasses of animals that Abraham had sacrificed. In doing that the Lord established a covenant with Abraham, pledging himself to him. He made a promise that one day he would judge the nations, establishing peace for his people in the land he had promised. Over the years the Lord expanded on that covenant. He promised to be the God of Abraham—to be God for Abraham—forever and he called Abraham and his children to follow in faith. That was what the act of circumcision meant—an Old Testament “sacrament” of sorts—by which the people of Israel committed themselves in faith to the covenant promises of the Lord. The Lord covenanted with Abraham, not only to make him great, but to make him a blessing to the nations.
It’s telling that the story Genesis tells just before Abraham steps on the scene is the story of the tower of Babel. Babel is a story that highlights just how far humanity had fallen into paganism. All knowledge of God had been lost. Humanity was bumbling around in spiritual darkness. And out of that darkness the Lord called Abraham and gave him a light. Abraham was called to carry that light—to carry the knowledge of God—in such a way that it would dispel the darkness that had engulfed the nations.
The second great chapter of the story takes place several hundred years later. As the story of the Exodus opens it appears that the darkness has overcome the light. The Israelites, Abraham’s children, have become slaves in Egypt, but as they cry out to God he hears. He sends a deliverer in Moses, whom he calls and equips, to pronounce his judgement on Pharaoh, who pretended at kingship and who pretended at divinity. Through a series of ten awful plagues Pharaoh is exposed, his kingdom is judged, and Israel is released from her slavery. In fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham, she is saved from her enemies and led through the wilderness to the promised land. On the way to that land the Lord first leads the people to Sinai in the wilderness where he gives his law through Moses. The law gave assurance that the Lord was truly Israel’s God as he had promised to Abraham so many years before, but the law also showed Israel what it meant to live as a holy people who trusted in the faithfulness of the Lord. The law showed Israel how to be the light to the nations she was called to be. In the exodus, in giving the law, in the conquest of Canaan the Lord forged Israel into the nation he had promised to Abraham.
The third great chapter of the story that Zechariah recalls is the story of King David. The conquest of Canaan was never faithfully completed. For centuries Israel was not faithful in being the light she should have been. She let in the darkness bit by bit, bowing to pagan idols and trusting in the military might of her pagan neighbours rather than trusting in the Lord. Over and over she found herself threatened and over and over she cried out to the Lord. And each time he heard her cries and delivered her. But with each turn of the cycle things became worse. But in King David the kingdom God had promised came into its own. Strengthened by the Lord, David drove away Israel’s enemies, took control of the promised land, and established a powerful throne. David became the symbol of what the Lord had promised to Abraham and he became the symbol of Israel’s national ambitions. In 2 Samuel 7, the Lord promised to David that his house would be established forever.
And why all these promises? Why had God done all of this for Israel? As Zechariah notes in verse 75, it was Israel “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days”. Many in Israel may have forgotten the calling to be light in the darkness—especially amongst Israel’s leaders. Jesus rebuked many in Israel for keeping their light under a basket. They had forgotten that the Lord had given them the light to take to the nations lost in darkness. Instead they kept it to themselves, patted themselves on the back for having kept it safe for so long and under such hostile conditions, and then prayed for and longed for the day when the Lord would come to smite all those in the dark. Many had forgotten the story. Many remembered the story, but had forgotten its true meaning.
But Zechariah remembered Israel’s calling and many others did to. Mary remembered. Simeon and Anna remembered. And so they praised the Lord, for at the coming of Jesus the world was going to be set right, the covenant reaffirmed, that Israel might once again serve the Lord without fear of her enemies, shining brightly the light of the knowledge of God to the nations.
In the second half of his song of praise Zechariah sings to his little boy, to John, knowing that his calling is to prepare Israel for this mighty act of redemption.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)
Another exodus is coming—another exodus of which the first was merely a foretaste. While most in Israel were longing for freedom from Rome, Zechariah—and Mary and Simeon in their songs as well—point to something much bigger. Israel certainly has a problem, but the story was never solely about Israel. The real story—the bigger story—was about the Lord’s redemption of his entire of Creation and of all humanity. Israel was chosen to represent us all that she might draw us all to the light of the knowledge of God. And Zechariah hints here at what we’ve seen throughout Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has come as the Son of David to establish an eternal throne and an eternal kingdom. Jesus has come as a new Moses to lead the people in a new exodus, this time from their bondage to sin and death. And he has come in fulfilment of the promises and calling given to Abraham. Israel had failed to be a light to the gentiles. As it turned out, even given the law to show her the way, Israel was afflicted with the same problem as the rest of humanity. She too was subject to sin and death. And so Jesus came into the world, not to start a new and different story, but to continue to the old one. He came to embody Israel herself, but in him free of her bondage to sin. As she mistook her mission and raged for political deliverance and sought to defeat her enemies with violence, he took her punishment on himself—crucified in a traitorous revolutionary’s death—a death he did not deserve. In that moment the forces of evil did their worst, the same force that had duped Adam and Eve into sin in the first place moved Israel to reject Jesus and to cry out for his death. And yet after three days in the grave he rose from death. Evil did its worst and Jesus overcame it, not with violence, but with suffering; not with hate, but with love. Darkness did its worst, but Jesus overcame it with light. As God, through Moses, parted the Red Sea to lead his people to freedom, leaving Pharaoh powerless, so Jesus parted the sea of death itself to lead us through, leaving the Satan powerless and fuming on the far shore.
And so, Brothers and Sisters, here we are on the other side—on the other side of Easter and the other side of death, in the wilderness as Jesus leads us to a new and better promised land. Here we can serve him without fear. He has taken our rebellion and our sin on himself, taking the penalty we deserved that we might be forgiven and no longer in fear of death. And as he forged Israel into a nation on the far shore of the Red Sea, giving her his law so that she could serve him, so the Lord has reconstituted his people and forged a new nation in Jesus himself. He has led us in an exodus from sin and death that we might serve him without fear. But instead of a law written on tablets of stone, he has poured his own Spirit into us, writing his law of love on our hearts. In Jesus he has redeemed us from the sin problem that has plagued our race and that plagued Israel so that, as Abraham’s sons and daughters, we can truly be the Lord’s light to the nations.
The promised land lies ahead. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead to a new and better kind of life and, as St. Paul writes so wonderfully in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus is the first fruits, he is the down-payment and the earnest, of what lies in store for all of Creation and all who, in faith, are in him—in Jesus the Messiah. Brothers and Sisters, this is the story—again, the story we tell and the story we live. It began with Abraham and it reached its climax in Jesus, but two thousand years later we are still very much a part of it. We have been redeemed from sin and death, we have been given a glorious hope, we have been freed from fear, that we might be light in this world. The little baby Zechariah held in his arms was given a mission to call men and women to repentance because the kingdom was at hand in Jesus. You and I now called to carry on much the same mission as John the Baptist was. Jesus’ kingdom is here, but the wonderful thing is that in his patient love, the Lord still desires to redeem rather than to condemn. He is the God who delights in calling “my people” those who were once “not my people”. You and I are a testimony to that patient love. Like John we are to go into the world and to preach repentance. God’s kingdom is breaking in and we must call men and women to let go and to turn away from the false gods and false lords of this world, for they will one day be exposed when the Lord Jesus returns in triumph. We must preach that Jesus is Lord—the only Lord, the only one worthy of our worship, the only one in whom humanity can trust. And we must witness, we must live, we must manifest the life of his kingdom, shining brightly in the darkness as we show the world what grace and mercy, justice and righteousness, hope and peace, and what love look like. Let us proclaim and let us live the Good News: Jesus is Lord.
Let us pray: Blessed are you, Lord God of Israel, for you have visited and redeemed your people. In Jesus you have given us yourself, you have been faithful to your promises, and you have raised up a horn of salvation. Keep us always mindful of this great story, we ask, that we might know who we are—that we are sons and daughters of Abraham through Jesus the Messiah, that we have been freed from our bondage to sin and from our fear of death, so that we can be light to the world. Give us grace and strengthen our faith that we might serve Jesus and Jesus alone as Lord. And teach us to live, full of the Spirit and bearing his fruit that all would know by our lives and proclamation that Jesus is Lord. Amen.