The Benedictus

Luke 1:57-79

December 17, 2017

I’d like for you, at least for a moment, to put your feet in Zechariah’s sandals. Here he is, an old man, having been denied a child in his younger years because God had kept his wife’s womb closed, finally, after a lifetime of service as a priest, after a lifetime of prayer to see the hand of Rome lifted from the people, finally he sees this taking place. Yet, he has been rebuked by the Angel Gabriel for his lack of faith and as a result, has been mute for 9 months. Now, he holds the child of promise in his hands for the first time. Can you imagine what feelings he must have been experiencing at that point in time: fear, love, rejoicing, inadequacy…you name it…

And now, his friends are over and asking what the child should be named and he writes on a tablet: “His name is John” — not a normal Hebrew name, though in Hebrew, the name means “Yahweh has been gracious.”

Verse 64 records that the first words that came out of his mouth were a blessing to God…which is the poem that follows our text.

Sometimes, I fear, we miss the humanity of the people in the text and sometimes, when it comes to poetry especially, we gloss over those sections because we are looking for the narrative that seems more interesting to us, robbing ourselves of the richness of the text. You see, good poetry is like good food or fine wine; it must be savored slowly if you are really going to appreciate it…you need to give it time to get it into your soul by pondering it and contemplating its meaning.

So, the poem of Zechariah, the prophesy we are told, as he is filled with the Holy Spirit (the phrase being uniquely Lucan in its nature), we are also told that we have a blessing to God within it. Historically the church has referred to this as the “Benedictus” which is Latin for “Blessed”…from “Benediction” (which we close our services with), which means “Words of blessing.” The difference is simply that the Benediction is God’s blessing on you as His people and the Benedictus is Zechariah’s blessing of God for what he has done.

Which raises the question of application…how do we bless God? It seems like an answer that we should know as the Scriptures repeatedly command us to do just that…passages like Deuteronomy 8:10; 1 Chronicles 29:20; Nehemiah 9:5; and Psalm 103 to name just a few. So, how do we bless God. I would suggest that if you compare Zechariah’s blessing with the various blessings we have in the scriptures — like the 15 times in the Psalms that we are commanded to bless God — the one thing you will consistently find is that our blessing to God is giving him thanks because he has been faithful to his promise — a promise that Paul reminds us is “yes and amen” in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20-22).

So, the question I will ask you this morning is, how do you pray? Are your prayers blessings to God (in a Biblical sense) or do they sound more like Santa’s wish-list? Do not misunderstand me, we are commanded to pray for that which we need, be how often that is all we pray for. So, pay attention to how you pray and make your prayer life something that blesses God, not just you and your loved ones.

So, we arrive at Zechariah’s blessing — his prophetic poem. And what does he say?

He begins with the phrase: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” and why is this God to be blessed? It is because he has visited and redeemed his people.

Now, I want you to think back to the book of Judges and to the cycle that the people faced. They would pursue “The Evil…” (while many of our English Bibles do not show this, the Hebrew has a definite article before the word “evil” — which most commonly is a reference to idolatry). So, they pursued their idols and as a result of their sin, God sent a pagan nation to conquer and subjugate them. And the people suffered under the foreign power until something happened…until they repented of their sin — they cried out to God for deliverance and he visited them through the person of a Judge, who overthrew the enemy and delivered the people, giving them a period of peace and in many cases, the phrase “the land had rest” is used, a reference to the sin of the people being ceased for a season. Sadly, with the death of the Judge and a new generation came more sin and idolatry…and the cycle continued.

The cycle, though, is not about foreign nations and their campaigns, it is about the people’s sin. Sadly, this cycle is not limited to the book of Judges, we find it running throughout the life of God’s people. Thus, when Solomon dedicates his temple, God says that when war and pestilence and famine take over the land — signs of judgment for sin — they must do something…and we have this well-known passage that many of you, I am sure, have memorized…

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

This is God’s promise that he will continue doing for the people what he did with Gideon and Samson, what he did with David, and would do with Nehemiah and in Zechariah’s case, that God was about to do much the same thing once again. Except this time, God would deliver his people from the greatest enemy of all time…not Rome…but sin and death.

Do you see the continuity of God at work here?

What that means for you and me is that if there is continuity in the deliverer, then there must be continuity in what God expects of those people being delivered: namely repentance. Sadly, I’m not convinced that the professing Christian church in our nation is ready to repent of its power, its greed, its hypocrisy, its bad theology, its self-interest, or its pride…and so the enemies of God and the Scriptures flourish in our nation.

The next verse contains language that is unfamiliar to many Christians…Zechariah speaks of God sending a “horn of salvation.” Do not think of that as a reference to a musical instrument like the shofar, but it is a reference to the altar of sacrifice. You see, this altar was constructed with 4 horns, one on each corner and there was a tradition in ancient Israel that if you clung to the horns of the altar you would be given sanctuary from your oppressors. Adonijah does this as does Joab (see 1 Kings 49-53 & 1 Kings 2:28-35 respectively).

Now Solomon would end this practice by having Joab pulled off the altar and executed, but the idea was that this is the place where the sacrifices were made and so to cling to the horns of the altar was an appeal to grace and forgiveness of sins.

Interestingly, in Amos 3:14, God tells us that the horns of the altar would be cut off — a symbol of divine judgment.

So, here we have the language of God raising up a horn of salvation for his people, a promise that the Judgment that God promised through Amos is about to be over…again, not by sending another judge, but by sending a Judge who would also be king in the line of David, just as had been prophesied by the prophets of old (namely Samuel).

And so, in verse 71, we are promised that we will be saved from our enemies (again, Old Testament Language with a New Testament application) — saved from sin and death — and to show mercy to us, which was promised (verse 72) to our fathers and to remember his hoy covenant which he swore to our Father Abraham. — a covenant not only to make Abraham a nation, but to make Abraham the father of many nations…even gentiles!

The promise to Abraham is ultimately summed up in Jeremiah 30:22: “And you shall be my people and I will be your God.”

So, what is the purpose of this deliverance?

“that we might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all of our days.”

By the way, folks, this was the reason that American was founded in the first place and later sought independence from Britain. State-run churches had been tried and failed in Europe for generations and the people wanted to worship in the freedom of their conscience. And so, George Washington called America the “Second Land of Promise” and James Madison called our nation “An asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion.”

And so, we have enjoyed the privilege of serving God without fear in our nation for generations, but how sad it is that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer great persecution throughout the globe.

Yet, don’t forget that the promise is not just worship without fear, but worship in holiness and righteousness…I wonder though, how many of us think about our worship and ask whether we are doing it in a holy and righteous fashion…

Verse 76 changes gears and Zechariah now speaks directly to his son and utters words of blessing and prophecy over him…

First, he says that he will be the prophet of the Most High (fulfilling Malachi 4:5)

Second, he says he will go before the Lord and prepare his way (fulfilling Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3)

Third, he says he will give knowledge of salvation to the Messiah’s people in the forgiveness of sins…what did John do, but preach righteousness (remember 2 Chronicles 7:14)

Why does this happen? The Mercy of God.

Verse 78 speaks of the “sunrise” visiting us, there is some debate in interpretation here, but it seems to be a metaphor for the east, which arguably anticipates the coming of the Magi.

And the purpose is to give light to those in darkness in shadow of death (fulfilling Isaiah 9:2) and guiding our feet in the way of peace. Paul alludes to the language of the way of peace in Romans 3:17…a reminder that apart from Christ working in us we do not have peace or anything of value.

And that closes Zechariah’s inspired prophetic, poetic, song. We will leave the language of John in the wilderness until next week, but I will leave you with this — every stage and every line of this song is drawn from the Old Testament (one more reason we need our Old Testaments to understand our New Testaments — but more importantly to recognize that God is faithful through the generations…even to us today…so ponder God’s faithfulness to his people and to you and you will find you are not only blessing God, but yourselves as well.

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