A reading and reflection for Tuesday, December 4, 2012.
The third day of Advent.
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There's something about singing.
In the Bible, when something significant happens, a poetic response, a song, is often performed. Consider that after the people of God were liberated from slavery in Egypt, Moses and the people burst into song: "I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea" (Ex. 15:1). Or after the barren woman Hannah had conceived her precious son Samuel, her response was poetry: " My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory" (1 Sam 2:1). We don't have the time to look at the other examples, but if you're interested, check out the following: Judges 5; 2 Chronicles 5; Ezra 3; Psalm 26, 28, 33, 68, 69, 81, 96, 98, 144, 147, 149; Isaiah 26, 42.
Often in the Bible people respond to God with memorable poetry that tries to say what simple prose cannot. Isn't that the beauty of poetry and its progeny, the lyrical song? It manages to speak in ways that would be impossible by mere indicative sentences. Poetry is compelling, it is challenging, it is exaggerative and complex and makes enormous overstatements for emphasis. And at its best, poetry provides the human person with a more complex and, I would argue, more accurate cache of words with which we understand our existence.
Our text for today is taken from what the Christian Church has preserved as "The Song of Zechariah" or "The Canticle of Zechariah." The speaker is a man named Zechariah, a priest, who is the first person mentioned in Luke's gospel. He and his wife were both of priestly descent, both were "righteous before God" (Luke 1:6), and lived blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. This is another way of saying they were moral and spiritual examples of the kind of people God was trying to create. They were the ideals. And yet, the text says: "They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting old." So, they have an ideal life, they are living before God blamelessly, and yet, they are unable to conceive a child.
One day, it was Zechariah's turn to enter into the most sacred place of the Temple, the place where it was thought that God's very presence dwelled. And on this special day, he was picked by chance to be the person to enter and make an offering to God. He did so, and had a vision of a messenger from God, who told Zechariah that his wife would conceive a very special child, a servant of God who will speak to God's people "in the Spirit of Elijah" and who will "make ready a people prepared fro the Lord" (Lk. 1:17). Zechariah cannot believe that this is true. He protests the claim and as a punishment, he is rendered mute, unable to speak.
Time passes and Zechariah's wife does indeed conceive a child and gives birth to a son. And after a bit of a naming controversy, Zechariah insists (through his wife, by means of a writing tablet) that they must name him John. And as soon as he wrote this, his mouth was opened and he began to speak, praising God. And then Zechariah sings.
And we come to our text for today. It's a song of praise. Interestingly, it's a praise with indirect reference to God: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them." This kind of prayer was called a berekah prayer, a prayer that was offered to God by naming the things that God had done. Over and over and over in Scripture we encounter this kind of prayer, a prayer that offers a recitation of the mighty acts of God in history. This kind of prayer isn't typically a petition or a confession, but a joyful song that tells anyone who hears it the things that God has done.
For Zechariah, his berekah prayer is structured in three movements.
For Zechariah, God has kept his end of the bargain, he has not forgotten his people. God has remembered his covenant with his people and therefore, we are to "serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all our days." It was a pretty simple equation. God has acted, therefore we respond. Then Zechariah's song shifts to a dedication or a charge to the newborn "prophet of the Most High." And it's curiously objective. This isn't a "may you be" or "Let's hope that you will be..." kind of charge, it's a straightforward declaration about the future of his son. And here we see the vocation of John, who we call John the Baptist, more clearly. He will be a "prophet" who will "go before the Lord to prepare his ways", he will "give knowledge of salvation to his people," he will witness the day when "the dawn from on high will break upon" the people.
This infant John is tasked with tilling the soil of the people of God and getting it ready to receive the seed of God's light. He is the one who will prepare the eyes of the people to see the light of God's dawn, which brings with it life, and light, and peace.
As the church, we are called to this same vocation. We are called to point to Christ, to point to the light of God's dawn, to "prepare his ways." During this Advent season, let me encourage you to remember your call as a Christian. Rooted in God's faithful actions toward us, and joyful in our response, let us all offer ourselves to God and allow him to use us to prepare the way of the Lord, to fix those potholes of sin and unrighteousness, and to keep our eyes always on the one who comes down that road: Jesus Christ.
Complete this berekah prayer.
Blessed be the Lord God, for he has.....
He has shown mercy to me by....
He has been faithful to me by....
He has rescued me by...
Because of this, I will...
Because of this, I won't...
Blessed be the Lord God, for he has...