Commentary on Luke 1:68-79
What better text to preach on the Second Sunday of Advent than Luke 1:68-79 (or even better, vv. 67-79).
First, the passage is exquisite. The psalm that Zechariah sings in Luke 1 is one of the most beautiful psalms in the New Testament — well, in the whole Bible, for that matter.
Second, the song is perfect for Advent. The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally “the prophet’s day” — with texts devoted to John the Baptist. But the Luke 3:1-6 Gospel reading — which has the adult John the Baptist striding out of the Judean desert to prepare the way for the adult Jesus Christ — is oddly out of place in Advent, at least the way Advent is celebrated in the 21st Century. The Luke 3 text disturbs the narrative flow of the church year as we celebrate Advent today as the preparation for the commemoration of Jesus’ birth. The Luke 1 text, which marks John’s birth, fits the narrative logic of both Luke and Advent much more nicely.
Third, the song’s theology is perfect for Advent. The song rehearses fidelity of “the Lord God of Israel” to the divine promises spoken in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus. What more perfect message can there be for Advent?
But first, a word each about Zechariah.
Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist. Like so many key figures in the Old Testament drama, Zechariah was an aged priest. And like so many of those Old Testament figures, Zechariah was childless. He and his wife Elizabeth were childless. We are told that Elizabeth was a “relative” of Mary, meaning that she was part of the same kinship group as Mary. Perhaps a member of the same “clan” — meaning a sub-group within one of 12 tribes of Israel, in this case the house of Aaron — the priestly tribe (Levites).
Oh, and Zechariah was mute. “Once when he was serving as priest before God” and he was chosen “to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense,” the angel Gabriel had appeared to announce to him that Elizabeth would finally have a child — who would be the fulfillment of the word promised by the prophet Malachi that the prophet Elijah would return before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” to turn the hearts of parents and children to each other.
When Zechariah was a bit skeptical about this promise — he and Elizabeth, like Abraham and Sarah and so many before them — were kind of old to have kids, Gabriel lost it a little bit, pointed the angelic clicker at Zechariah, and hit the “mute” button.
Zechariah’s prophetic poem
The song Zechariah sings is not just a psalm. It is a prophetic song. Even more to the point, it is a song of the Holy Spirit.
Luke’s narrative makes the point over and over again in the first chapter that everything occurring in, with, and under the births of John and Jesus was “of the Holy Spirit.”
- The angel said “even before [John’s] birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit”
- “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn many of parents to their children”
- The angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you … therefore the child to be born will be holy, he will be called Son of God”
- “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’”
- And in Luke 1:67, which should probably be added as a preface to the singing or reading of the psalm, “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy”
The phrase translated “spoke this prophecy” is an inelegant and inexact rendering of the Greek (epropheiteusen legon), which more precisely means “he prophesied, saying … ” The point being that the speech is not a prophecy, as if “a prophecy” were a thing or prediction, but rather that the speech itself was spirit-event, a moment of God’s Holy Spirit breaking into the ordinary, mundane world. And bringing with it God’s preferred and promised future.
That Spirit-breaking-in reality is what the entirety of the whole Jesus event was about, according to Luke.
And it should be missed that the “prophesying” of the old man Zechariah, old woman Elizabeth, young woman Mary, and prenatally prophesying John, were all fulfillments of what the prophet Joel had uttered:
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,
your sons and your daughters shall prophecy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (2:28-29)
The tender mercy of our God
The theology of Zechariah’s song is elegant and ideal for Advent. The Spirit-empowered poem recalls God’s promises. The words of promise to David that “he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” and “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham.” The promises of salvation from enemies, of redemption from danger, of freedom to love and serve God in holiness and righteousness.
And the song announces that these promises are kept in the nearly-twin arrivals of John and Jesus.
John’s own role would be to serve as “prophet of the Most High.”
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
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,
darkness and the shadow of death,
to guide feet into the way of peace.
And when the first Christmas morn was dawning, the tender mercy of our God broke into the darkness of this world for all. That light still shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it.