To Guide Our Feet in the Way of Peace
To guide our feet in the way of peace
For many years Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son—someone to carry on their name, someone on whom to place their hopes, and someone to take care of them in their old age. They had prayed when there was still hope. But when Elizabeth passed her childbearing years they stopped praying and resigned themselves to being childless. And then on that day when it was Zechariah’s turn to offer incense in the temple—on the day of that once-in-a-lifetime experience—the angel Gabriel had come, announcing that God had heard their prayers and that Elizabeth would bear a son. That was nine months ago as we now come to 1:57.
But think about what took place for Zechariah during those nine months. His wife had conceived just as the angel had said. Zechariah had had nine months to ponder the angel’s words: that this miraculous son would be filled with the Holy Spirit, that he would revive the ministry of the prophets, and that he would “make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Six months into his wife’s pregnancy, her cousin Mary had arrived. Mary was miraculously pregnant too. Just as the Spirit was involved in his own son’s birth, the Spirit was somehow involved in the conception of Mary’s son. Mary was betrothed, but had somehow become pregnant by the Spirit, having never been with her husband. When Mary arrived at their home, Elizabeth had been filled with the Spirit and had recognised her Lord as her baby leapt in her womb.
When John had expressed his doubt to the Gabriel, the angel had reprimanded him by taking away his speech and his hearing. And unable to hear or to speak, Zechariah had nine long months to think on all these things. He knew that the angel had announced what was coming using language associated with the coming of the Messiah and of the Last Days. God had heard his prayers for a son, but this was bigger than that. God had heard the prayers of his people for deliverance. Zechariah’s sons would somehow prepare the way for Mary’s son who would come to bring that deliverance. And Zechariah’s silence speaks prophetically. In the Old Testament the prophets had spoken to the people for God, but for four hundred years they had been silent. Half a millennium ago the people had been carried away into exile because of their sins. Even after they returned, they were still living in exile. They were living in the promised land, but that land was controlled by the Romans and the Herodians. They had a beautiful temple, but it had been built by Herod, the evil pretender and Roman puppet king. Even though the people had returned to the land, God’s presence had never returned the temple. For all intents and purposes they were still in exile. The Pharisees called the people to greater obedience and devotion to the law so that God would return and deliver them, but God was still silent; the people were still in exile. Zechariah’s lack of faith and his being silenced by the angel represented the exile of Judah. But that’s all about to change.
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:57-58)
Everyone was excited for this elderly couple who wanted a son so badly. In fact, they even saw the Lord at work in all of this. Remember that to be barren in that culture was to be seen as cursed by God. No matter how outwardly upright and pious Elizabeth appeared, everyone “knew” that she was hiding some secret sin. That was the only explanation for her barrenness. And so as she becomes pregnant in her old age her friends and neighbours acknowledge that God had chosen to show her mercy.
Being observant and upright Jews, Zechariah and Elizabeth present their new son for circumcision when he is eight days old—they bring him into God’s covenant. And as it’s common for Christians to name their children in baptism, so it was that the Jews would sometimes choose to name their sons at the time of circumcision. But when Elizabeth announces the baby’s name—remember that Zechariah is still deaf and mute—everyone is shocked.
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” (Luke 1:59-61
The people gathered assumed that the boy would be named Zechariah. In fact, Luke says that they tried to name him that, but Elizabeth intervened. This was weird. A son was supposed to be named after his father or his grandfather, but no one in Zechariah’s family was named John. Maybe Elizabeth was taking advantage of her husband’s inability to speak or to hear. And so they so they go to him.
And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. (Luke 1:62-63)
To everyone’s surprise Zechariah confirms the name. In fact, he’s very to the point. He doesn’t say that he will or should be called John. He says that they baby’s name is already John—he’s had a name since the day the angel announced his birth. Zechariah’s insistent reply, written on that tablet, speaks to his faith and his submission to God. He’s not doubting anymore. And Luke tells us that the friends and neighbours gathered there “wondered”. They may simply have wondered at the unusual name or they may have been wondering at how a man who was deaf and mute could be so insistent—it’s not clear. But their “wonder” falls by the wayside as Zechariah’s mouth is suddenly opened in response to his faithful obedience. Look at verses 64-66:
And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Once his mouth was opened, Zechariah’s first response was to give praise to God for his answer to prayer and for the deliverance he was about to bring. And as his being made mute caused Zechariah to realise that God was near and doing something wonderful, the restoration of his speech does the same thing for Zechariah’s neighbours and the people of the whole region. They “feared”, Luke says, because here was evidence that God was near. They laid these events up in their hearts—they pondered them. It was clear God was near, that he was at work, and that this boy, John, would have a part to play in God’s plans and they wondered what that part might be. The time of exile was over; through John God was going to speak once more to his people.
In response we’re told in verse 67 that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and burst into a song of prophecy. If Mary’s Magnificat is the best-known hymn in Christendom, Zechariah’s Benedictus is only slightly behind. Like Mary’s song, it’s been chanted quietly by monks, accompanied by pipe organs, and set to orchestral music. It’s one of the New Testament canticles in our service of Morning Prayer.
The first half of Zechariah’s song, verses 68-75, celebrates God’s redemptive work for his people in the past. The second half, verses 76-79, looks forward in joyful anticipation to what God is about to do as this new work of grace unfolds. Again, this is the Holy Spirit’s ministry: to reveal Jesus as the Redeemer.
Zechariah begins with praise. Look at verses 68-71:
“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;”
Here at the beginning, before Jesus is even born, Zechariah points to his ministry and prepares the way for him. In the power of the Spirit, Zechariah foreshadows his own son’s ministry. God has “visited and redeemed his people”. That’s language drawn especially from the psalms. When God “visits” his people it’s to deliver or to redeem them. And remember that God’s people in that day were desperate for deliverance. And to explain how God is doing this Zechariah describes God raising up a “horn of salvation” from the house of David. The horn was an Old Testament symbol of strength. The image is of the horns of an ox—powerful weapons that could be used to impale and defeat an enemy. Warriors attached horns to their helmets to show their fierceness and in 1 Samuel (2:10), Psalms (132:17), and Ezekiel (29:21) this imagery of the “horn of David” is used to describe one who would deliver the nation. This was what God had spoken—what he’d promised—through his prophets. The prophets had been silent for four centuries, but during their exile the people had held on tight to those promises: a deliverer would come from the house of David. He would save the people from their enemies.
In verses 72-75 Zechariah looks more specifically at God’s past acts in history—he gives the context in which his current act of deliverance needs to be interpreted.
“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.”
God is coming to show the mercy that he had promised to the forefathers of Israel and he does that to “remember” the covenant he had made with them—the covenant going all the way back to Abraham. For God to remember something isn’t just an to recall the memory of something from the past. It’s to bring that thing—that promise—from the past into the present; it’s for God to continue to make good on what he had said he would do long ago.
Think back to that night described in Genesis 15, when God had established his covenant with Abraham. Abraham had slaughtered a bunch of animals and placed the halves of the carcasses in two rows. God had then appeared as a torch and smoking pot to pass back and forth between those slaughtered animals. In doing that he was sealing his covenant promises and saying, “May I be slaughtered and cut in two like these carcasses should I ever break my promises to you, Abraham.” The people had waited and waited and Zechariah now proclaims that this is what is about to happen.
Now, God had already made good on his promise of deliverance, but there’s still more of his deliverance yet to come—something bigger and deeper and even more significant that his past fulfilment of the promise. Zechariah points back to the Exodus when he sings about being delivered from his enemies so that God’s people “might serve him without fear”. He draws on the language of Psalm 106—a psalm that praises God for his deliverance of Israel during the Exodus:
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise. (Psalm 106:9-12)
Consider why God had rescued his people from Egypt. In Exodus 7:16 God told Moses that when he confronted Pharaoh he was to say, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” Zechariah uses this imagery to describe God’s new act of deliverance. As the Lord had rescued Israel from Egypt to create a new community of worshipers—of people who would serve him in holiness and righteousness—so now he comes to do the same again. Just as Mary’s song was a celebration of God, so is Zechariah’s. He sings praises to God for delivering his people in the past. The Lord is a merciful God who remembers his promises and his covenant. And he keeps singing his praises as he points everyone around him to a new act of deliverance that God is going to perform. God is going to take his promises to a new level of fulfilment.
And that’s where Zechariah takes his song in the last section, in verses 76-79:
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.”
Now Zechariah addresses his newborn son. He will be a prophet of the Most High and he’ll go before the Lord—before Jesus the Messiah—to prepare his way. Remember that for Jews in the First Century, their messianic hope was political. They weren’t expecting God Incarnate and they weren’t looking so much for deliverance from sin as they were deliverance from the Romans and the corrupt Herodians. And yet right here at the beginning—before Jesus is even born—the Spirit speaks through Zechariah and draws a connection between the Lord who rescued his people from Egypt and the Lord for whom John will prepare the way. Luke lets us in here as to who Jesus is. For him “Lord” isn’t just a title of respect or honour because he’s the Messiah; it’s who he is—he is the Lord God—Yahweh God—in incarnate for us. From chapters 3-26 everyone around Jesus misses this, but as we see his ministry unfold, Luke makes sure that you and I know. And it’s because he is the Lord that he will be able to give his people knowledge of salvation and forgiveness of their sins. In the Exodus, God dwelt with his people as cloud and fire. He was with them, guiding them, but always apart and always other. But God is coming again to deliver his people and this time he’s coming to truly be with us in deepest sense—he’s taking our flesh upon himself. And here, too, Zechariah—whether he knows it or not—bridges the gap between the physical deliverance of ethnic Israel from Egypt and from all her oppressors throughout the course of the Old Testament, to the spiritual deliverance of a new spiritual Israel—a new covenant community—from her enemies: darkness and death.
Because of his mercies—because of his unfailing loving-kindess—God is sending the sunrise. The King James and the Prayer Book speak of God sending the “dayspring”. It’s the image of the sun rising and dramatically breaking into the darkness of night. It’s a reminder that while God has done great things in the past, he’s going to do something even greater today. He had delivered his people from bondage in Egypt and showed them his love in the wilderness. He had given freedom to a nation of slaves so that they could worship him. Now he’s freeing all humanity from our enslavement to sin that we might be free to serve and worship him. At Sinai he had written his law on tablets of stone; now he’s going to write his law on the hearts of his people.
The exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian exile hadn’t solved Israel’s sin problem, but now the Dayspring will come and drive away the darkness and the shadow of death. He will guide the feet of his people “into the way of peace”—into shalom, into wholeness and wellbeing, and into justice. God’s deliverance always resulted in the creation of a new people set apart to serve him, but all those past deliverances, whether Abraham delivered from Ur, Israel delivered from Egypt, or Judah delivered from Babylon, all pointed to this final act of deliverance. In Jesus God will create a new people, a new covenant community, built on the old one, but broadening the promise and broadening the blessing. Israel will finally be the blessing to the nations that God had promised Abraham she would be and she will bless the nations as she gives birth to the Saviour and calls all of humanity into the light be brings.
Brothers and sisters, Zechariah’s song of praise sets the scene for Jesus’ ministry, but it also points to who we are as the Church. Again, think of Israel—of the Church in the Old Testament—rescued from Egypt and wooed by her saving God in the wilderness. There God formed a new community of believers to serve him and to worship him; he gave her his law and called her to holiness and righteousness. Now in Jesus he creates again. The Jews of Jesus days were looking for someone to come and deliver them from the Romans and to bring a political revolution, but instead Jesus did something greater. In his incarnation and in his death, resurrection, and ascension he broke into the world’s darkness and brought light; he destroyed enemies even greater than the Romans; he destroyed sin and death. Jesus calls us—Jew and Gentile together now—to new life and into a new kingdom. He renews his covenant, but this time we see that the promises of land and temple and family that were the focus of the old promises were only foreshadows that point to a greater fulfilment found in him. The kingdom is found in Jesus himself and we no longer look for God’s presence in a temple built with hands where we’re blocked from the holy of holies, because now he’s given us his presence. He is incarnate; he is one of us and when he ascended he sent his Spirit to indwell us. As his people we are his temple—we ourselves.
As we approach Christmas, let Zechariah remind us of what Jesus came to do and of the new kingdom and the new people he has called us to be; let him remind us of our deliverance from darkness and death. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Herodians, and the Romans were never the real problem. Deliverance from them was simply a foreshadowing and a preparation for our deliverance from our true enemies. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, our true battle is not against flesh and blood. It’s against sin and death. Most of the Jews missed this at Jesus’ first advent and today as we wait and prepare for his second coming, we Christians are prone to forgetting it again. The Romans are gone, but we still have our “flesh and blood” enemies and our “culture war” and our politics. Brothers and sisters, let Zechariah remind us that Jesus has delivered us from darkness and death that we might walk in the way of peace—in the way of shalom, the way of wholeness, the way of reconciliation and justice. We greet each other during the liturgy saying, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” Let us take that peace out into the world. As John prepared the people for Jesus’ first advent, let us prepare the people for his second.
Let us pray: O Lord, as we prayed in the Collect: come among us, we pray, with your power and strengthen us with your great might. Give us grace that we might be the people you have called us to be and that we might walk in the way of your peace, bringing light into the darkness and leading others to your Cross to share in your victory over death. Prepare us that your people might be ready at your coming; we pray through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.