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“And you, child, will be called the 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.” — Luke 1:76-77
A Time for Praise
Have you ever heard news so good that you were dumbstruck, unable to speak? A whole genre of television “reality programs” are based on helping a needy family by renovating an inadequate home or building a new one, then capturing their response at a big “reveal.” The happy recipients are often at a loss for words, dissolving into happy tears before calming down enough to speak.
A man named Zechariah once received the best news of his life: that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a long-desired son despite their advanced age. He was also dumbstruck, not from joy but as punishment for not believing the news. In today’s text, Zechariah finds his voice again.
Here’s the backstory. After a short preamble (1:1-4), Luke recounts the story of how the angel Gabriel visited an elderly priest named Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth was also from a priestly family. The couple had longed for a child, but “Elizabeth was barren.” Like the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah, they were past the normal age of childbearing.
Jews from priestly families far outnumbered positions in the temple, so priests served two-week stints on a rotating basis. Even then, priests were so abundant that they had to draw straws for the honor of taking incense into the temple, where it would simmer over charcoal on a small altar just outside the Holy of Holies.
Zechariah may have been waiting for that honor as long as he had dreamed of fatherhood, but his turn finally came (vv. 8-9). As the old priest approached the altar, though, the incense was forgotten: the angel Gabriel appeared, leaving the old priest terrified and overwhelmed with fear (vv. 11-12).
The angel told Zechariah not to fear, and announced that he and Elizabeth would have a son, who should be named John and taught never to drink any wine or strong drink, after the fashion of the Nazirites. John would be a great man, the angel said, filled with the Holy Spirit and destined to become like the great prophet Elijah, calling many to repent “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (vv. 13-17).
Zechariah was dumfounded, though not yet dumbstruck. Struggling to believe, he reminded the angel that he and Elizabeth were old, and asked how he could know the angel was telling the truth (v. 18).
What greater sign could one have than a personal visit from an angel in the heart of the temple? Gabriel reminded him who was speaking: he stood in the presence of God and had been sent from God with the message. Because of Zechariah’s unbelief, the angel said, he would be unable to say another word until all had been fulfilled (vv. 19-20).
Can you imagine how frustrating that must have been? In today’s text, the aged but happy father, silent for many months, finally gets his chance to speak.
A present story(vv. 68-75)
Elizabeth became pregnant, as the angel had predicted. Meanwhile, Gabriel also visited Mary, who happened to be related to Elizabeth. Mary responded with a song of praise that has become known as “the Magnificat” (vv. 46-55), in which she spoke of her child as the coming savior of the world.
After Elizabeth gave birth, neighbors and relatives gathered for his ceremonial circumcision on the eighth day. They called for the baby to be named for his father, but Elizabeth insisted that his name would be John. When they turned to Zechariah for his opinion, he took a tablet and wrote “His name is John” (vv. 59-63).
Immediately, Luke says, Zechariah’s “mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God” (v. 64). While the neighbors were filled with consternation and questions (vv. 65-66), Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and launched into a song of praise that has become known as “the Benedictus” (vv. 67-75).
Zechariah spoke as a prophet would, interpreting present events with an eye toward their future unfolding. He began by blessing God in words familiar from the Old Testament: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (v. 68a, compare 1 Sam. 25:32, 1 Kgs. 1:48, and Ps. 41:13, among others).
He then cited reasons why God should be so blessed: “for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (vv. 68b-71).
Through John’s birth and Mary’s pregnancy, God had set in motion the long-awaited promise of deliverance through a savior born from the house of David. Here Zechariah seems to be speaking of Mary’s son, who had yet to be born. Since Mary had spent three months in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home (vv. 39-46), Luke assumes that Zechariah would have heard about the angel’s annunciation to Mary and the predictions that accompanied it.
The belief that a ruler would arise from the house of David goes back to 2 Samuel 7 and the story of how David sought to build a house for God, but God promised instead to build a house (in the sense of a dynasty) for David, pledging that a descendant of David would rule forever. David’s earthly kingdom lasted only a few hundred years, but after the kingdom was destroyed, Israel’s prophets reinterpreted the promise to predict the coming of a messiah anointed by God to deliver his people.
The Jews had longed for a messiah who would rise up to lead Israel to vanquish their enemies and set up a new kingdom on earth, and many were disappointed to discover that Jesus had a different agenda. Zechariah spoke of how the savior would come to save Israel “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (v. 71), but said nothing about how such deliverance would take place.
When Zechariah spoke of “we” and “us” as the objects of God’s beneficence, he probably had in mind the Hebrew people and the promises made to the ancestors (v. 72). Zechariah did not yet understand that the messiah’s mission would be to all people, but he did recognize that God’s salvation had a deeper purpose than allowing the Jews to run their own country. What is unsaid can be as significant as what is said: Zechariah mentioned the promises to Abraham, but said nothing about Israel being a great nation or controlling the land. He spoke of a descendant of David, but said nothing about the messiah ruling over anyone.
Rather, Zechariah seems to perceive a more spiritual purpose for Israel: God’s deliverance would come so “that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (vv. 74-75).
A future story(vv. 76-79)
With v. 76, Zechariah turns from the promise of salvation through the messiah and addresses his own baby boy, who would have his own role to play in the drama of redemption. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,” the proud prophet/father proclaimed, “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” (vv. 76-77).
Readers who know the gospel story might interpret “the Lord” as Jesus, as John later spoke of himself as coming “to prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4). Both John and his father, however, were quoting from Isa. 40:3, where the word “LORD” is Yahweh, the personal name God had revealed to Israel. Later followers of Jesus would refer to him as “lord,” but Zechariah had not taken that step. Neither he nor Mary could have fully understood the cryptic messages they had received or the specific roles their children would play.
Zechariah believed that John would do important preparatory work in the fulfillment of God’s emerging plan of redemption. Significantly, he understood this plan to be motivated “by the tender mercy of our God,” leading to a day of fulfillment when “the dawn from on high will break upon us” (v. 78).
Again, Zechariah’s prophetic benediction avoids any language of conquest or an Israelite hegemony. The dawn he foresees will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” and “guide our feet into the way of peace” (v. 79). John’s work would not prepare the way for a conquering king, but for the Prince of Peace.
The story of John’s birth and Zechariah’s “Benedictus” may be entertaining or informative, but what might it say to modern readers? How might we respond to this story?
First, Zechariah’s experience challenges us to listen for guidance God may send our way. Angelic visitations are not required: if we are attentive, the reading of scripture, the pastor’s preaching, or a faithful friend’s advice may bring the words we need to hear
Zechariah’s prediction also reminds us that God’s ultimate work is not one of conquest – even in the realms of culture or civil law – but of peace. How have we experienced peace through knowing Christ, and in what ways do we follow his observation that peacemakers are those who “will be called children of God”? (Matt. 5:9). BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for December 6, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Luke 1:68-79
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
There is a flood of information that washes over our students every day. They are connected to so many different mediums and hear so many different voices it is hard to understand how anything gets through to them, much less sticks and influences who they are. One way to guage who they not only hear, but listen to, is watch and listen for what they repeat. This may be the key to understanding who influences them. The goal is not to then emulate who they listen to and insert your own message, but know the conversations that they are part of so that you know how to communicate with them. But the most important thing is to continue to be present. Students choose to listen to who they want to listen to, but when they need someone to talk with, the people that they hear from are rarely there. But if you have created a space for them to hear from you, they will turn to you and listen to what you have to say.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Evan Speaks with God” from Evan Almighty via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Luke 1:68-79