I've been thinking a lot about the birth of John the Baptist - one of the Bible stories we often focus on in Advent. In fact, last Sunday I was preaching about Zechariah's song from Luke chapter 1.
This man was silenced - struck dumb - gobsmacked- by the Angel Gabriel when he couldn't quite believe that he and his wife were going to have a child.
Think about it. Zechariah is a priest. For 9 months or so, he has been unable to fulfil his priestly duties [no, his wife didn’t have to stand in for him even though she, like me, was both minister's wife and minister's daughter!] and I guess he has spent that time praying and immersing himself in the OT Scriptures. He thought of the words said by the angel and read up on similar passages. He probably looked carefully at the stories in the book of Judges - how an angel had come to a man named Manoah and his wife and said they'd have a special son who would never drink strong drink, and who'd be filled with God’s Spirit - and perhaps Zechariah was anxious in case his son should turn out like Samson. He'd perhaps have wondered how he, an old priest, could father a child who would ‘go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah’ By the time the baby was born, I am sure Z had done a lot of thinking and praying. And then he finds his voice again sings this fantastic song of praise to God.
And the words he uses are all from Scripture. When he speaks, he quotes from Old Testament passages. I was quite amazed when I looked at it in detail. In 12 short verses, Zechariah manages to use quotes from 10 different OT books, using 21 separate passages, - historical stuff from Genesis, Samuel and Kings, quotes from the prophets - and verses from 7 different Psalms. That’s fairly concentrated stuff! I saw a magazine which was testing Christmas cakes from the supermarkets - and one failed because it was ‘light with not much fruit’ and the winner was ‘densely packed with fruit and flavour - dried fruit, and nuts and cherries in every mouthful.' This song is like that - take any part of it and you can check the different references to other parts of God’s Word. Zechariah had been immersing himself in the study of Scripture, and when he speaks it just pours out of him. A great paean of praise
But Zechariah isn’t just singing to the baby here - not just foretelling what is going to happen when this tiny bundle grows up to be the manic street preacher, wandering round the Jordan dressed in camel skins and eating locusts and wild honey. He is also telling forth what God’s chosen people should already be doing.
He is praising God for fulfilling his covenant promise, and rejoicing in God's plan of salvation for his people. And recognising that he must serve God too.
One thing I love about God’s Word is the way it sometimes hits you between the eyes, and you think ‘Wow! I had never seen that before’ - even if it is in a passage you are sure you must have read dozens of times. When I was preparing my sermon I suddenly noticed the end of verse 74. “To enable us to serve him without fear” and I thought - surely that’s not right? How many hymns, both old and new, seem to say the exact opposite. Think about “The Old 100th” as its called - which is based on Psalm 100, it begins ‘All people that on earth do dwell...’ and goes on to say “Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell’ - and then there is the much newer song “Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is near - come bow before Him now, with reverence and fear” - and they are both taken from scripture - so how come Zechariah is talking about serving him without fear??
The Holy Spirit has given Zechariah this wonderful insight, this glimpse of the New Covenant. Yes, the OT phrase ‘Serve God with Fear’ was correct - it referred to a holy fear, and respectful worship of almighty God. A sense of reverence which we should feel when we enter the presence of the Most High. But Zechariah has seen the other side of the coin - that when we fully know God’s salvation, and His wonderful love, then, as John would later write in his epistle ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ - that we are not under the law - the legalistic rules of the OT, but under grace - and in the light of that grace we are set free from the fear of sin and death. Cranmer put it so succinctly in his Morning Collect “O God, who art the author of peace...whose service is perfect freedom...’ acknowledging that the might of our Saviour is stronger than our adversaries, and knowing Him is true salvation, and serving Him is a joy. When the Archbishop wrote, he was echoing Zechariah’s song.
For nine months Zechariah has been silent then his wife has the baby, and he writes on a wax tablet ‘His name is John’ and immediately he gets his voice back. And what does he say?
“What a beautiful baby” “Elizabeth, you are a clever woman” “Could someone make me a cuppa, my mouth is SO dry”..... No, Zechariah just tells the world it is all God’s doing - that He has made a way of forgiveness and salvation - and that in loving and serving him we can know peace and freedom and joy. And he is ecstatic - full of it - no wonder the neighbours didn’t stop talking about it. This message was much more important than the news that Elizabeth, who is no spring chicken, has just had her first baby... this is about eternal, life-changing events.
I've been suffering with a sore throat, speaking's been difficult - not a good condition for a teacher/preacher to be in! I cannot imagine how Zechariah felt, being dumb for nine months. When Zechariah found his voice again, he used it for God, to proclaim the Gospel.
How will we use our voices this week?