Sermon series: The Songs of Christmas
- Simeon's Song, Nunc Dimittis - Luke 2
- The Angels' Song, Gloria - Luke 2
- Zechariah's Song, Benedictus - Luke 1
- Mary's Song, The Magnificat - Luke 1
Isaac Watts was a genius. At four years of age, he had learned Latin, at nine Greek, at 11 French, and at 13 years old Hebrew. His poetic re-working of the Psalms was magnificent. Unfortunately for poor Isaac, he was not a looker. His one chance at love came and went with a young lady named Elizabeth Singer, who actually fell in love with Watts sight-unseen through his published poems. Elizabeth was so taken with this man who could write so deeply and passionately that she threw caution to the wind and asked him to marry her in a letter.
But when they finally met, she retracted her offer. She later wrote that Isaac Watts was "only five feet tall, with a shallow face, hooked nose, prominent cheek bones, small eyes, and deathlike color.....I admired the jewel but not the casket that contained it."
Isaac never married, but he spent his single life focused on the glory of God. In 1719, Watts published his poetic work based on Psalm 98 that would go on to become what many consider the greatest Christmas hymn of all time: "Joy to the World."
I have chosen this famous song as the title of a series on the very first Christmas carols. They are contained in the opening chapters of Luke, when some of the key characters of that first Christmas suddenly wax musical.
What they sing is amazing, first because of their ability to spontaneously compose something so profound, and second because they capture the sheer explosive impact of the birth of a baby boy, not only upon their time, but upon all times. These are songs of comfort and of challenge, songs of quiet peace and of global upheaval, and songs that wrap mind and heart around the most important moment in the history of the world.
In this season, so full of song, I invite you to consider four original compositions that capture the meaning of the greatest miracle of all. Songs come and go; these have endured for two millennia. We want to go behind the scenes with each songwriter and feel the revolution set to music. Our first stop on this tour is joy is Zechariah, whose song, named in Latin "Benedictus" after the first word in the song, is recorded for us in Luke 1:67-80.
Let me introduce you to this one-hit wonder
Back in v. 5, we learn that he is a priest in Jerusalem who is married to the daughter of priest named Elizabeth, which was considered a rare and wonderful thing for a priest. She would understand the demands of the priesthood better than others. What is more, she loved the Lord with all her heart, just as Zechariah did. Their happiness on their wedding day could not be contained. Many congratulated Zechariah I'm sure, pronouncing blessings upon this special couple. "May God be pleased to give you many children," they might have said in so many words. "And may He send Messiah through you to set His people free."
Ah that was the dream of all newlyweds in Israel. Every Jewish bride was taught early to have a large family because the next son born might be Messiah, the heaven-sent Deliverer of Israel. Every Jewish husband married with that theological hope. If ever there was a couple that had all the right ingredients from a strictly human perspective to be chosen as the instrument through whom God sent this Hero to set all things right, it was Zechariah and Elizabeth.
That's why v. 7 holds so much pain. It states the facts only: But they had no child, because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years. There are so many prayers, so many tears, and so many unanswered questions in between those lines. With the incredible cultural and familial pressure to have children, childless parents felt deficient, passed over by God. If you've ever longed for something with all your heart, then you know the kind of self-examination and surrender that Zechariah and Elizabeth made. You know how disappointment turned into sorrow, and sorrow to despair, and despair into resolve. Now, with the passing of the years, they had long-since packed away their hopes.
Zechariah is a card-carrying AARP member by the time we reach v. 8-9. He would already be drawing Social Security if he would retire (which priests never do) . . . which is why he so totally caught off guard by what was about to happen! I've heard the joke all my life about why God gives us children when we're young, when you have the energy and patience to put up with their energy and impatience. Zechariah knew that joke, I'm sure, and believed it. But all that was about to change.
It was already the most important day of Zechariah's life. A priest could go years without pulling Temple duty; there were that many priests in Jerusalem. But Zechariah was about to have a dream come true. No only has his name been drawn for Temple duty, but he is assigned to offer incense, which was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. When a priest offered incense, he was just outside the Veil, behind which was the Holy of Holies where the Shekinah Glory of God's presence was manifest. Only the high priest got closer to the revealed presence of God, and that was only once a year. Jewish tradition described a priest who gets to offer the incense as "rich and holy" for the rest of his life.
Zechariah had been trained for this possibility for much of his life and was carefully going through the steps assigned to him when he was interrupted by the angel of the Lord, Gabriel. Can you see this old man standing there with a censer in his hand and his mouth hanging open as he heard the words of v. 13ff: " But the angel said to him: Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord . . . " Gabriel goes on to tell Zechariah that this son would go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready for the Lord a prepared people" (v. 17).
Zechariah's son was the long-foretold forerunner to the Messiah, who would be Jesus.
Well, Zechariah refused point blank to believe the angel. His answer in so many words is "senior adults don't have babies." And he implies he won't believe without a sign. So Gabriel basically says, "Here's your sign!" and from that moment forward through the next 9 months of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Zechariah didn't speak another word. How would you like that ladies? One man told me after first service that evidently his wife was pregnant because she hasn't heard a word he's spoken in awhile.
The next time Zechariah spoke, it was to name his son John as the angel instructed. In that joyous moment, as he held his son in his arms, Zechariah broke forth in a song of praise to God. It is his "Benedictus." The lyrics to his song take us behind the scenes into the heart of a godly man on the eve of the Incarnation, when God became man.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, just as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times; salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us. He has dealt mercifully with our fathers and remembered His holy covenant - the oath that He swore to our father Abraham. He has given us the privilege, since we have been rescued from our enemies' clutches, to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness in His presence all our days.
And child, you will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God's merciful compassion, the Dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Each line is loaded with deep truth about one overwhelming reality: God has at long last come! Faith will become sight. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah pours out from his heart joy with a melody about the purpose and meaning of God in the flesh, dwelling among men.
I. He sings of saving purpose
Zechariah scatters this great theme throughout this refrain, thrilling at the great purpose of God to save us. This comes out in four different ways:
A. The price to free us is paid
v. 68: "He has visited and provided redemption for His people." God has visited us, emphasizing that His care for us has moved Him to draw near. And the reason He comes is to redeem us, which is rescue at a high price. He has come at extreme cost to Himself to free us from the slavery of sin.
B. The power to accomplish our salvation is His
v. 69. "He has raised up a horn of salvation for us." The horn of an animal is the symbol of its strength, its sheer brute power. To say that God has raised up a horn of salvation for us means that we have a Mighty Savior who has the power to finish what He starts for us.
C. The victory over our enemies is assured
v. 71. "He has raised up . . . salvation from our enemies and from the clutches of those who hate us"(which is emphasized again in v. 74). Zechariah's focus is practical and spiritual: God will deliver His people from any tyrant. But more importantly, God will deliver us from worse enemies: sin and death and hell and demonic power. This Heavenly Hero will have no trouble conquering these enemies for us.
D. The erasing of all offenses is certain
v. 77. "To give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." Zechariah is telling us that God did not visit this planet simply to see how we were doing. He knew how we were doing. That's why he came! We were in trouble and he came to save us. That's what Christmas is all about.
II. He sings of predicted fulfillment
Zechariah just can't stop glorying in God, who keeps His promises. All that he said he would do, he has begun to accomplish. Zechariah emphasizes that what God was doing fulfilled what "He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets in ancient times" (v. 70), that God was remembering "His holy covenant . . . that He swore to our father Abraham." (v. 72-73)
Zechariah is telling us something that makes God distinct from all other contenders. He establishes His Lordship over time for us by binding Himself to promises that the passing of time in no way dims. Someone counted, and there are no less than 456 prearranged signs in the OT to properly identify the Messiah. Guess who is fulfilling them to this day! The One and only Son of the Living God, Jesus Christ. God does what He says, in His time and His way, for His glory and our good. Praise His Name!
III. He sings of transforming enablement
Moved the God's Spirit, Zechariah tells us what this Messiah brings to those who trust and follow Him. There will be spiritual transformation, v. 74: "to serve Him." There will be emotional transformation, v. 74: "to serve Him without fear." And there will be behavioral transformation, v. 75: "In holiness and righteousness in His presence all our days."
So many people live lives of quiet desperation. They eek out an existence on a treadmill of futility, wondering what difference it all makes. But an old priest sees the end to all that in God's Deliverer, whom we know as Jesus Christ.
- He came so that we who were lost in sin might be lifted up into the service of God.
- He came so that we who served another master might serve God our Creator.
- He came so that we who fear facing God might be reconciled to Him.
- He came so that we who felt the disconnection of our lives from all purpose might have life abundantly.
- He came so that we who once could not please God might be pleasing to Him forever.
- He came so that we who were unholy might have our lives aligned to Him and His ways.
That's the transforming enablement brought about by the coming of Christ to the earth.
IV. He sings of unmatched impact
Zechariah's solo closes with one final burst of praise about the Light that God is focusing on this world. He uses three very picturesque phrases to help us feel the impact of God's coming.
1. He calls this the Dawn of Heavenly Sunlight, v. 78: "The Dawn from on high will visit us." Finally, the sun has broken the horizon on a dark world!
2. It is End of Hopeless Living, v. 79a: "To shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death." This pictures someone on death row, hopeless, pining away, beyond all human rescue. And then suddenly - light and freedom.
3. It is Guidance to An Amazing End, v. 79b: "To guide our feet into the way of peace."
This is the difference that Jesus Christ makes. - When He comes into your life, the shadows flee away. - When He comes in, you are released from prison, forever. - When He comes in, our feet walk the path of peace with God. That is the unmatched impact of Jesus Christ!
This is the song of an old man who held a miracle child in his arms and contemplated the seismic shift that was taking place in his lifetime. Nothing like this had ever happened and Zechariah had to sing.
But don't miss the point of his solo. God has visited to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Today that same Divine Visitor comes and knocks at the door of your heart. Can you hear the sound His presence, there in your heart? He stands patiently at the door, waiting for you to open and bid him enter.
Will you, like old Zechariah, drop everything and welcome him into your heart? Or are you too busy to be bothered with Jesus? The familiar words of Phillips Brooks are very appropriate at this point:
May that be your experience this Christmas season.