Commentary on Luke 1:68-79
Like a melody in a musical overture, Zechariah’s prophecy hints at things to come, while reflecting refrains from long before.
Together with other “songs” in Luke — such as the songs of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the heavenly host (1:14) and Simeon (1:29-32) — Zechariah’s contribution to the musical score offers a symphony of praise to the God who is, who has been, and who always will be working among God’s people. The prophecy previews several claims of this Gospel:
- God remains faithful to God’s promises
- God’s way is salvation
- God’s path is peace.
As was true for Sarah and Abraham before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth are old, well past the age of childbearing (Luke 1:7); nevertheless, God has given them a son, John, whose life is caught up in the designs of God. John “will be great in the sight of the Lord…and he will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (1:15-16). On the eighth day after John’s birth, his parents bring him to the Temple for naming and circumcision, and Zechariah answers the question that is on everyone’s hearts: “What then will this child become?” (Luke 1:65-66).
God remains faithful to God’s promises
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah’s song begins with words of praise from the psalms (“Blessed be the Lord,” Psalms 41:14; 72:18; 106:48). It continues by pointing backward, to God’s long-established covenant with God’s people. This is the “Lord God of Israel” (Luke 1:68), who has raised up a savior “in the house of his servant David” (1:69). God’s promises have come “from of old” through the prophets (1:70), given first to “our ancestors” (1:72) in an oath sworn to “our ancestor Abraham.” Whatever else might be happening that day at the Temple–or later, through the life of this child–it is in line with God’s holy covenant with the people (1:72).
This is no distant God, content to set the world in motion and then to leave it alone. This is the God who comes “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79), the God who has raised up a savior for us. The promise given long ago through the birth, naming, and circumcision of John is the same as the promise given today: God is active among God’s people, here and now.
How do we know? Because God has been active among God’s people from the beginning. That is the testimony of the Old Testament, of Jesus, of the Gospel writers, and of the church. Zechariah’s song presents an opportunity for the preacher to bear witness to the ways that God is at work among the congregation, telling it’s story as a chapter in the larger story of God’s people.
God’s way is salvation
Just as Mary praises God as Savior (Luke 1:47) and Simeon rejoices at seeing God’s salvation in the infant Jesus (2:30), Zechariah blesses the one who has “raised up a horn of salvation for us” (NRSV: mighty savior, 1:69). Before long, the day will come when his own son will prepare the way for God’s son, participating in God’s mission of salvation by calling people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:77; 3:3,6). It is a mighty task to be prophet of the Most High (1:76; see also 7:28), and the rulers of the age will not go easy on him–John will eventually be thrown into prison and beheaded by the king (9:9).
But on this day, when John is barely a week old, his father is filled with the hope that accompanies new life. It is the hope of salvation for all people: Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders, rich and poor, blind and lame, tax collectors and sinners, women and men, old and young, fishermen and farmers, Samaritans and soldiers, lepers and lawyers, and many others. As Zechariah waits, as we all wait, for the unfolding of God’s purposes in John, we look ahead to the one who is more powerful than he (3:16), the one who is to come, whose own name portends that all flesh shall see the salvation of God (3:6).
God’s path is peace
Long before Zechariah, Isaiah spoke words that resonate today as much as they did for those who awaited a Messiah: “[T]he way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. “(Isaiah 59:8-9). As if in response, Zechariah sings a declaration of God’s purpose as a message of hope to a world in danger of losing hope: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). The heavenly host gives divine affirmation to this purpose when the angels sing at Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God…and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14; cf. 19:38). Simeon does, too, as he holds the infant Jesus in his arms (2:29).
By the time of Luke’s Gospel, the Romans have destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, and news about Jesus has begun to spread beyond Palestine to pockets around the Roman Empire. In that context, no less than in the decades earlier when Elizabeth and Mary were preparing to give birth to their sons, the message of God’s peace comes to a world more practiced at the art of warfare than it is at the craft of reconciliation (cf. Luke 19:42). God’s peace stands in striking contrast to the peace of the Roman Caesars, during whose reign John and Jesus are both born and executed.
Luke uses the word “peace” more often than the other three Gospels combined. Indeed, God’s peace is a message that frames the beginning and end of this Gospel and permeates its message throughout. Here, near the beginning, Zechariah sings that God will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” His prophecy is fulfilled near the conclusion of the narrative when the risen Christ stands among his followers and announces, “Peace be with you” (24:36). In between, God’s peace is the gift granted to those who kneel in faith before Jesus (7:50; 8:48) and to those who receive the message that God’s basileia is near (10:5-6). It is the way of heaven breaking forth on earth when the Messiah makes his appearance (19:38).
In the end, Zechariah’s song is not simply a way to announce the birth of John the Baptist, but rather to proclaim God’s faithfulness, God’s salvation, and God’s peace. During this season of Advent, as we await the birth of the Savior of the world, we can pray together with Zechariah, “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel.”
December 6, 2009