Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour 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.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
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.
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 in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
In his book “The First Christmas”, Marcus Borg explores how the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke may have come about. And in the case of Zechariah’s great hymn declaring the fulfilment of God’s promise for the transformation of the world, there is a suggestion that Luke may have adapted ancient Christian hymns, which predated his own writings, and placed them in the mouths of characters in his gospel as a way of affirming, near the very beginning of his account, the credentials of his gospel. If this is the case, it is intriguing to consider that these early ‘hymns’ were what the Good News meant to the pre-gospel Christian communities, and consequently what the Good News meant to Luke as the gospel which bears his name steadily took shape.
As he pursues the theme of fulfilment, Luke echoes teachings and insights from ancient Israel’s scriptures – phrases and sayings which would have been the natural language of praise and thanksgiving among the early Christians. So it is no surprise that resonances from the Psalms, Exodus, Ezekiel, 1 Samuel, Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah can all be discerned in Luke’s declaration, through Zechariah’s hymn of praise, that the One who is to come, for whom John the Baptist shall be the prophet and forerunner, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.
For us today, the vision of hope and the sense of forward momentum in Zechariah’s hymn can be difficult to maintain. We are at a time of year, and in geographical co-ordinates, where we still have longer periods of darkness and coldness to come before the year turns slowly towards warmth and light. But Zechariah’s declaration that “the dawn from on high will break upon us” can give us the challenge we need to continue our journey towards God through the darkness, the difficulties, the frozen times and the occasions when our own voices fall mute.
The season of Advent always looks beyond the birth of a Messiah towards the eventual fulfilment of God’s Kingdom. So, whatever we perceive our own calling to be, the light of hope and the warmth of peace which Zechariah envisaged are still the hallmarks of the Kingdom that we, as today’s disciples, are challenged to own and to share with those who, for whatever reason, see no way out of the darkness, difficulties, frozenness and voicelessness of their lives – “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.
bless me to be a blessing to others
as we journey together into your mystery.
And may Zechariah’s glimpse
of the glory of your coming Kingdom
inspire me always to seek your light in darkness,
to share your peace in times of fear,
and to travel onwards to the hope that is to come.
Philip Jones is an Elder of Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC in Chorlton, South Manchester, and the Secretary of the South Area Pastoral Committee of the North Western Synod.