December 21-22 sermon resource

Zechariah’s Song

  • Main Text: Luke 1:5-13 (14-25), 57-80
  • Accompanying text: Psalm 113

What this passage means to us

“…Matthew tells the world’s best story as a very Jewish story” but Luke “tells a quintessentially Jewish story as the world’s story” [1]. In one way a priest burning incense in a temple could have happened anywhere in the world. It would have been instantly recognizable in many cultures. “At its heart”, however, “Christianity is not a not a beautifully complex philosophical system like Buddhism, a towering code of morals like Islam, or a delicate set of rituals as some churches have presented it. The crucial starting point for any discussion about this topic is the fact that ‘Christianity’ — as the word suggests — is all about a person, Jesus Christ” [2]. Luke explains that he has consulted many sources, including eye-witness accounts, in order to supply his readers with an accurate and reliable version of the story of Jesus. It begins in the temple that was built by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by the exiles at the time of Ezra, desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, and restored magnificently by Herod the Great.

The idea of composing or singing a song in response to God’s presence and intervention in our lives might seem strange to us, but here we read that both Mary and Zechariah did so. Singing in the Bible is related often to poetic expression and thankfulness. At creation “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7), and so many psalms recount how praise was made to God in song. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples” (Psalm 96:1-3). “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them” (Isaiah 42:10). Paul encourages us to speak “to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19), “singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).

Perhaps, as we contemplate what God has done for us personally, or as we feel thankfulness for how God comforts and uplifts us, or as we marvel at the wonder of how the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), we could give voice to our thoughts in prayer and in song. A common response might be “I can’t sing” and therefore we remain silent. Was this what Deborah and Barak had thought in Judges 5:3 when they declared, “I, even I, will sing to the Lord; I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song”? Could it be that you, even you, will sing to the Lord?

Let’s join in the angelic song. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’” (Luke 2:13-14).

Context and Story Line

The great Temple building was often being refurbished and adorned by Herod’s designers and craftsmen, and people would have come from far and wide to see it and to participate in the service. There would have been a sense of expectation and wonder. On duty was Zechariah, who had been chosen by lot from those in the priestly order of Abijah, which order typically performed its rotational service in April or in October. For him this was very special, a once in a lifetime privilege as he lit the incense to indicate that God had accepted the prayers of the people. The crowd had been praying for quite some time. Zechariah was slow in coming back out to them. Then when he eventually appeared, “he could not speak to them. They realised he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak” (Luke 1:22). What had happened?

Luke is the only Gospel writer to record this event. It’s of note that “Zechariah and Elizabeth mirror the accounts of Elkanah and Hannah in I Samuel…This time, however, it’s the father, Zechariah, not the mother, Hannah, who is in the house of the Lord. And whereas Hannah presents herself to the priest, Zechariah is himself the priest” [3]. We can see the parallels when we compare Luke’s account to 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11. Both couples are childless, both the children are to be Nazarites, and both Hannah and Zechariah sing a song in response to the birth of their respective sons. It’s possible that Luke’s Jewish and proselyte readers would have made such a connection and that it would have reinforced how miraculous and momentous John’s birth was. Who was this child? Why was he so important? Zechariah provides an answer. After he had called for a writing tablet on which he confirmed that the child’s name should be John, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbours were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’” (Luke 1:64-66). Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and he explained prophetically that the child is the forerunner of the Lord who “has come to his people” (Luke 1:68) for salvation and to show mercy. To the infant John he continued, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace’ (Luke 1:76-79).

John’s birth was a prelude to the birth of Jesus Christ just as his ministry was a prelude to the ministry of Jesus. “And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel” (Luke 1:80), and, in pointing to Jesus, John proclaimed, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:34).

Scripture Resources

  • Matthew 11:1-15
  • John 1:19-34

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Philip Greenslade, The Birth of Jesus: The Turning Point of History (Surrey, UK, GWR: 2002). 21.
  2. John Dickson, Simply Christianity: Beyond Religion (NSW, Australia, Matthias Press Ltd: 1999). 11.
  3. Philip Greenslade, The Birth of Jesus: The Turning Point of History (Surrey, UK, GWR: 2002). 23.
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