Zechariah's Song

Is God faithful to God’s promises?

December 20, 2015

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Commentary on Luke 1:5-13, 57-80

Is God faithful to God’s promises?

If so, why are our lives, and the world, still such a mess? There is probably no more fundamental question in all of the Christian faith; for when it comes right down to it, our trust in God’s promises is what makes us Christian. We aren’t in full possession of salvation individually or corporately, and the world as we experience it falls far short of the vision of justice, harmony, and fullness described so vividly in Scripture as God’s ultimate will for us and for creation. It is our trust that our lives and this troubled world are ultimately in the hands of a loving God who is moving all things to God’s purposes that makes it possible to encounter life with a measure of confidence and hope; and so a lot is at stake in how we understand God’s faithfulness.

The conviction that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, all God’s promises find their “yes” is at the core of the New Testament. Arguably, though, the author of Luke gives the most eloquent and powerful expression to this conviction in his incomparable birth narrative, comprised of stories and songs that are among the most important and beloved parts of the tradition. There’s a reason there are hundreds of musical settings of Luke’s songs; in fact, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the Christmas rush, stop right now and listen to the performance of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” by Cantus (it’s on YouTube), or almost any of Bach’s “Magnificat.” When your goose bumps have receded, please continue with the commentary below.

But there is a downside to the beauty and power of Luke’s story-telling ability: it can easily — indeed, it often does — slip into a sentimentality that can distract us from the very question it’s designed to address. So it’s worth our while to search in depth both for how Luke attempts to assure us of God’s faithfulness, and what that faithfulness looks like. If we claim too little, our hope is in vain and our preaching is vain; if we claim too much, we force our listeners either into denial about their reality or into cynicism about the gospel.

For Luke’s audience, the question was hardly the stuff of armchair theological speculation. Israel had languished in exile and under foreign rule of varying degrees of ruthlessness for centuries. And in 70 CE, Judea had experienced the cataclysm of the utter destruction of their temple and holy city by the Romans after a disastrous revolt. Moreover, the nascent “Christian” community was encountering hostility and opposition from both the Roman overlords and other Jews. Add to this the economic exploitation that made daily existence a life-and-death struggle, and you begin to see how audacious Luke’s claim is. So what is he really saying?

Luke is often seen as the “universal gospel,” proclaiming a message of salvation not just for Israel, but for the entire world. But Luke wants to make it clear that this universal salvation is inextricably bound up with God’s faithfulness to a particular people — the Jews; for it’s only to the extent that God proves faithful to God’s promises to Israel that the message of God’s salvation for all becomes trustworthy.

Luke uses his birth narrative as an overture to introduce this theme (and several others, of course). More than any other text, it’s the function of Zechariah’s story to underscore the connection between the appearance of John and Jesus with God’s faithfulness to Israel. First, of course, he and Elizabeth’s inability to conceive calls to mind the stories of many of Israel’s most important figures (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel). But it’s especially Zechariah’s song (“Benedictus,” after the Latin translation of the first word), which pours out from him like “Singin’ in the Rain” does from Gene Kelly, that sounds this theme. It’s actually the longest of the several songs in the birth narrative, and it overflows with language from Israel’s Scriptures. (The Nestle-Aland Greek NT provides a list of allusions to and quotations of Israel’s Scriptures in the margins; I count no fewer than 32 for this passage!).

The song falls naturally into two parts: verses 68-75 largely use the past tense (aorist in Greek) to bless and praise God for God’s faithfulness: God “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them … Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors”; verses 76-79 use the future tense, anticipating more specifically what John himself will accomplish in God’s plan.

The two halves are distinguished in content, as well. The first half expresses God’s redemption in terms that would have made a lot of sense to Luke’s audience: A mighty savior who delivers us from our enemies, from those who hate us. The language taps into a well-known first-century BCE description of the Messiah from the Psalms of Solomon: “See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David … Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction … to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth” (Psalms of Solomon 18). It sounds a lot like “shock and awe;” a lot like the kind of “us good guys vs. the evil doers” that still characterizes so much of our interaction with the world.

And that’s what makes the second half of the song so surprising, and so crucial for our question of how God shows faithfulness to God’s promises in Jesus. First, John will prepare the way of the Lord to give knowledge of salvation to his people — how? By the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus, in Luke, will scandalize many of his contemporaries with the seemingly reckless way he throws around God’s forgiveness (see Luke 15!). Second, “the dawn from on high will break upon us” who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death” – how? “By [or because of] the tender mercy of our God.” A lovely phrase, “tender mercy;” but underlying “tender” is the famous Greek word splangchna, which literally means “entrails;” it’s used here and in other places in the Gospel — e.g., the Samaritan’s reaction to the assault victim — to express a deep, wrenching compassion. And “mercy” is the quality Jesus demands above all others from his followers (Luke 6:36). Finally, God’s salvation will “guide our path into the way of peace.” Notice it’s not a glorious “kingdom of peace” that arrives triumphantly, but a way of being in the world that fosters God’s shalom.

Forgiveness; compassion; mercy; peace. These are not states of being, but actions. When we triumphantly claim that in the Christian Church God has completely fulfilled God’s promises — as the church for centuries, in various forms, has done — we not only tell a lie; we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of God’s activity in the world. God shows faithfulness to God’s promises when the gospel so envelops us through the Holy Spirit that we live out these actions in our daily lives, and form communities characterized by them. It is an alternative way of being in the world, one given powerful expression by Pope Francis in his speech before Congress last fall, and one that we will continue to see developed in the next two weeks, as we witness Jesus’ humiliating birth and its announcement to — of all people — shepherds! We still live in the shadow of death, and with many perplexing questions; but what God has done in Christ gives us grounds for genuine hope — and for Shalom-making activity.

One final note: By emphasizing the surprising or unexpected nature of God’s faithfulness in Christ, please don’t imply that this is a “Christian” or “New Testament” way in contrast to a “Jewish” or “Old Testament” way of understanding; Luke — and Jesus — derive these ideas from Israel’s tradition (especially the prophets). If anything, it’s part of an argument for what constitutes the center of that tradition, not some completely new revelation. And that argument continues within Christianity (and Judaism) today, as our culture and politics clearly reflect.

God of the prophets, you sent John into the world to proclaim the coming of your son. Give us ears to hear the proclamations of your promises and eyes to see your presence in this world. Amen.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming   ELW 272, H82 81, NCH 127, UMH 216
Blessed be the God of Israel   ELW 250
Christ, mighty savior   ELW 560, H82 34, NCH 93, UMH 684

Gabriel’s Message, Stephen Paulus