The familiar scenes of Advent bring to mind the image of shepherds, angels, and wise men. The living nativities presented by either wide-eyed children or self-conscious adults always brings a sense of warmth and anticipation.
But the Gospel of Luke also includes a picture of unexpected intervention into the normal courses of life, times when God shocks, surprises, and terrifies. The preacher’s use of Luke 1:67-79 should take into account those moments in life when God takes the initiative to disturb, disrupt, and challenge the easy pre-conceptions that can govern the way we go about our normal, mundane religious practices.
When he is finally able to give voice to what he now understood about God’s intended purposes for his son, Zechariah pours out his heart and mind in an ecstatic declaration of praise and anticipation. In doing so he first reaches back to the ancient prophets, to the promises made to Abraham, and to the deep longing of the people of Israel for deliverance from their enemies, their oppressors, and from the destructive power of sin over their lives, both individually and corporately.
The song of Zechariah reveals the deep anguish of the Jews over the dominating power of Rome. Despised, hated, and often attacked, the cries to God for deliverance were frequent, sometimes accompanied by rebellious resistance. By the time of the writing of the Gospel of Luke, some 70 years after the birth of John, Zechariah’s son, the Temple had been destroyed and Jerusalem had been sacked and burned. The hated Romans had devastated the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people that God would intervene and deliver them from under the heel of Rome. The historical retelling of the coming of Jesus the Christ must be read with the angst that characterized the Jews, and by extension, the followers of Jesus at the time of its writing.
It is in light of that deep sense of loss and dislocation, of deprivation and oppression, that the prophetic song of Zechariah must be read. And it is in light of that anguish that the song promises what must sound to most people as little more than wishful thinking.
But if you read the song as a declaration that the rescue is much more than deliverance from Rome, but is a declaration that all the brokenness that has come to characterize humanity in every age, and under every circumstance, is far worse than Roman domination, economic or military oppression, then this song is for us all. Deliverance from Rome will not be the mission that John the Baptizer will announce. He will call the people to repentance. He will challenge their sin, their alienation from God, and from one another. And according to the song of Zechariah, the outcome will be peace, holiness, and righteousness before God and humanity.
The song of Zechariah challenges all our self-oriented preoccupation with our own personal preferences and desires. What will please God? How will we live before God? Our hope is in the One who is to come, to whom all the life and ministry of John the Baptizer will point. And even though John himself will experience the “shadow of death,” his message will find its fulfillment in the dawn that breaks in from on high!
Sing it, Zechariah! We need to hear your song!