Luke 1:67-79 “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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.’ And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.”
I want to say three things by introduction:
i] This is Zechariah’s own song of praise. It tells his own story; it reflects his own experience. Nine months earlier he was in a long term state of resignation to having no children. What a change has taken place! God has given him a son in spite of his disbelief and Zechariah is filled with a spirit of assurance. He is so confident of God’s redeeming work that he can speak of the achievements of the coming Messiah in the past tense. For him the Lord of Israel is as good as having appeared; he has come and redeemed his people, Zechariah says. Where has such faith come from? There was the word to him from God whose truth had been validated by the conception of his son. So Zechariah has learned not to question the word of God but to accept it as truth; “I will never doubt the Scriptures again.” This godly priest had of course been meditating upon the word of God all his life, but with nothing like the intense application of heart which has marked these months of silence. Unable to speak, under the cosh of Jehovah, we can see the fruit of his listening, reading, and meditating in this psalm of his. Now he sees it lucidly – God has come and God has redeemed! To the heart gripped by full assurance of faith a promised act of God is as good as done. There was their baby sleeping in its crib in the corner of the silent room. Jehovah had given to him his heart’s desire. With this God nothing was impossible. Zechariah had finally become a Dad in his old age, just as Gabriel said. Zechariah had been gazing at and holding his child for eight whole days overwhelmed with wonder, love and joy. His own firstborn son! God has come and has redeemed his people.
Luke’s story vibrates with such personal hopes and fears of ordinary people like those we meet in this first chapter. They are real people battling with doubt and misunderstanding. They are being summoned to total trust in God in these last days; this is a new period in redemptive history. These little snapshots of the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary and Simeon and Anna matter as much as the great panoramic picture of cosmic redemption. The general picture declares the Creator is coming to rescue a groaning creation, but the general embraces a multitude of particulars. God also rescues one elderly lady named Elizabeth from barrenness, and Zechariah from his sadness. He numbers the hairs on their heads. So I have been saying in this first introductory point that Zechariah’s song reflects his own pilgrimage and the other people his life touches; everything about his life has national and international implications.
ii] Nine months of a being a mute under the judgment of God ended suddenly when Zechariah wrote down what his son was to be called; “His name is John.” Immediately his powers of speech were restored; the God who took them away gave them back. My point is this, that that change in Zechariah’s life was a reflection on a smaller scale of what had been going on in the Israel of his day. The voice of prophecy had been silent for centuries, but now it had begun to sound forth again. Zechariah prophesies here, just this one time, but his son, the prophet John, will summon the nation back to following Jehovah in his constant sermons in the wilderness by the banks of the Jordan. The rebuke of God is being lifted; the silence from heaven has ended and divine words flow again. The end of the punishment for the lack of faith turns into a sign that God is doing a new thing in the world.
iii] This is the song of a priest. This is the first time, but it is not the only time in the early chapters of Luke when the evangelist presents to us a priest, someone from the line of Aaron, from the house of Levi, prophesying about the Lord Jesus Christ. In the next chapter it is going to happen again when Simeon the priest will do the same thing when he sees the baby Jesus being presented in the temple. Both their songs are found in the first two chapters of Luke. We have looked at the song of Mary; she comes from the royal line of Judah. She speaks words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about the Messiah who will be the mighty King of kings. Then we are introduced to these two priests speaking of the Christ who will be our great High Priest for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
So Luke is using Hebrew poetry and psalm to speak to the Gentile Theophilus concerning who and what this great Jesus is, and what his mighty works will be. This is still done today isn’t it? There may be the inauguration of a president, or the coronation of a king, or the opening of a Scottish parliament, or the dedication of the first Welsh assembly building, and a poet laureate or national bard is asked to write an ode to celebrate the special event. So this is no ordinary baby whose birth we are anticipating; three psalms are written about his appearing. Now let us turn to the psalm of Zechariah:
1. GOD IS BLESSED FOR THE COMING OF A REDEEMER.
The psalm is about what the coming of Jesus is going to mean for the world. Its ethos is one of doxology; “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.” Three things I want you to see about this
i] The whole psalm is characterized by a spirit of thanksgiving. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. Zechariah’s thanksgiving is patent, it’s open and overwhelming. Here is a man thrilled by God’s plan of redemption. God is working away in the world according to his own purposes. What happens to us Christians day by day is according to God’s plan – not the devil’s plan. God is working all things according to the counsel of his own will. How crucial for us to remember this especially on our worst days.
“Hail Sovereign love that first began
The plan to rescue fallen man.
Hail matchless, free, eternal grace
That gave my soul a hiding place.”
ii] A new spirit of expectation had come to believers throughout the land of Israel. For centuries the Jewish people had languished under the feeling that God had withdrawn himself from them: the spirit of prophecy had ceased, Israel had fallen into the hands of Rome. Now true believers in Israel were being stirred from heaven to expect an immanent visitation of God. Luke introduces us in the next chapter to two such people, the devout Simeon who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25), and the prayerful Anna who often spoke to many spiritually minded people who were all “looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:38), in other words looking forward to the coming of the Redeemer, the Seed of the woman, the Servant of Jehovah. A new hope had been kindled and the flame was spreading. There was the breathtaking news that an angel of the Lord had come to a priest as he was serving in the Temple – “Have you heard? Yes, it’s true. How wonderful!” Also a young woman in Nazareth had also been confronted by Gabriel and given some remarkable words from God. And shepherds also were claiming to have seen and heard Gabriel who had been joined by a multitude of the heavenly host of angels – you couldn’t shake those rough men from their conviction of the divine glory they had all seen and heard. At the same time many people in Judea were talking of the amazing things that had characterized an elderly priest and his wife who’d just had their first baby – “throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it” (vv.65&66).
“Earth was waiting, spent and restless with a mingled hope and fear,
Faithful men and women praying, ‘Surely, Lord, the day is near:
The Desire of all the nations – it is time he should appear!’
Then the Spirit of the Highest to a Virgin meek came down,
And he burdened her with blessing, and he pained her with renown;
For she bore the Lord’s Anointed for his cross and for his crown.”
All these perforations of the life of the world by the life of heaven created a buzz in the air; they were days of great expectation. It was no false dawn – and we’ve had many in our days with so-called ‘prophecies’ of revival. The people of Zechariah’s day were believing that the long awaited visitation of God was about to happen. Their hopes were not dashed. He was indeed coming, but in a way no one expected. Actually they still had thirty years to wait actually to hear and handle and touch the Word of Life himself. Many of them would never see Jesus in the flesh, but they were convinced that God was doing a great thing in their midst.
iii] The coming one was going to redeem. How did Zechariah first envisage this concept of ‘redemption’? I suppose it would have been similar to Moses’ understanding when he spoke of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. In Exodus 6:6 Moses quotes God saying, “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.’” Zechariah too was longing a similar day to come to Israel when she would be delivered from her oppressive Roman overlords, and the network of publicans serving Rome (the tax-collectors) who bled every penny from the people keeping a sizable percentage for themselves. How wonderful it would be when the Messiah, the king of David, would reign over a liberated Israel. That was surely one view Zechariah had of redemption, quite a horizontal, social view of redemption, and yet Zechariah knew the history of his people, and how brief those periods of political liberation had been. Wouldn’t Zechariah be longing for more? Yes, far more than ever before, for a greater and more spectacular redemption when this long–promised Messiah actually came to the land. Who knows what the Christ of God would do when he entered the world? Hadn’t God promised their father Abraham that through his Seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed? What kind of mighty redemption would this be?
I am not saying that Zechariah grasped everything about the God-man, Jehovah Jesus, dying as the Lamb of God to accomplish eternal redemption for the cosmos, yet Zechariah’s son, John, at the beginning of his ministry would point to Jesus of Nazareth and tell his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world.” Wouldn’t this father and son in the years they lived together in Judea talk and pray often about John’s future ministry as a prophet and forerunner? We can properly speculate that there were occasions when they had discussed Isaiah chapter 53 and Psalm 22 and the coming of the suffering Servant, how the wonderful Redeemer and his redemption would touch the ends of the earth. Young John would ask probing questions and his father would attempt to answer them.
Our own redemption changed everything in our lives didn’t it? You yourself may remember a time when the grace of salvation came home to you in such a way that you were overwhelmed. Your mind may go back to that time in your youth when the Lord spared you from straying, and he brought you back to your family, back to church and back to God. You can remember being under the word of God and it impacted you so greatly you didn’t want to leave that place that night. The reality of the great Redeemer was very powerful. Redemption had been accomplished and then it was applied to you. You wondered about your future serving this Lord; you had your longings, hopes and prayers. Every true Christian knows how God has helped us across the years, and we are thankful that the Lord pressed home the greatness of his salvation upon us. How they sang this hymn in Wales a hundred years ago.
“Redemption! Oh wonderful story, glad message for you and for me;
That Jesus has purchased our pardon and paid all the debt on the tree.
No longer shall sin have dominion though present to tempt and annoy
For Christ in his blessed redemption the power of sin shall destroy
Believe it O sinner believe it. Receive the glad message – ‘tis true;
Trust now in the crucified Saviour, salvation he offers to you.”
S. M. Sayford
Those eight days following the birth of his baby boy was a period in which Zechariah could have been utterly self-focused. His whole song could have been about his baby boy; “Jehovah has given me my Johnny. Aren’t I a blessed man?” But this psalm is rather about God and his great redemption. It is so God-centred and God-focused. God is coming to save his people. So God is blessed for the coming of the Redeemer.
2. GOD WILL PLACE THE MIGHTY DELIVERER ON THE THRONE OF DAVID.
“He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago)” (vv.69&70). Zacharias uses this striking metaphor to describe a leader of omnipotent strength. He thinks of the wild ox and his horns, such deadly weapons. How cautiously a mountain lion parades around the ox as it keeps him at bay with its deadly horns. This is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is called a horn, but Zechariah is speaking as an Old Testament Christian. How familiar that picture of a horn would be to him not only from watching cattle herders but from the word of God; Psalm 92 and verse 9, “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered. You have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox.” Or Micah 4:13 “Rise and thresh, O Daughter of Zion, for I will give you horns of iron; I will give you hoofs of bronze and you will break to pieces many nations.” If you visit the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show in Llanelwedd in any July you will see cattle pens containing various breeds of bull, and the close-up sight can almost take your breath away. The Welsh Blacks, the Highland cattle from Scotland, or the mighty Charolais from France; those bulls are as big as a hippopotamus. Their backs are as high as a tall man. Their necks are as thick as a barrel, and what horns they possess. You walk past their pens and are glad of those iron rails keeping them inside. “What if that animal got angry?” you think. Bulls with horns like that could kill with a simple lunge of their heads. To the Old Testament people of God those horns were emblems of magnificent strength and victory.
Long ago God spoke through his holy prophets and said he would raise up a mighty conqueror in David’s line; “I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one. I will clothe his enemies with shame, but the crown on his head shall be resplendent” (Psa. 132:17). When horns have grown on a wild bull’s head and they’ve become as hard as iron then its enemies are clothed with fear as the animal charges them. A significant fact is that where the phrase “horn of salvation” occurs in the Old Testament the reference is always to God: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation” (Ps. 18:2). David is rejoicing in the power of the Lord, that he is his protector, his shield, and the Lord is also his horn as a deadly weapon of offence.
Think of the enemies that Christ overcame. You think of the illnesses that plagued Jerusalem and Galilee and people who had gone to physicians for a dozen years and were no better but worse, and then the Son of God comes and he nods his gracious head to this sufferer and to that sick person and their illnesses depart immediately, blind eyes see, the deaf hear, the cancer departs, the withered arm is as strong as its partner. What a horn of salvation God sent. You think of the power of the winds and storms and the threatening waves of tempestuous Galilee and Christ moves his head saying, “Peace! Be still,” and the hurricane is no more. Think of the legion of demons that have taken over and destroyed the life of the Gadarene demoniac and hundreds more. The demoniac has power to break the mighty chains that men have put upon him, and yet when Christ approaches they shriek with terror and flee and the man is healed. Or you consider the power of the last enemy of death over Lazarus, or over the son of the widow of Nain, or over Jairus’s daughter. What is stronger than Death? There is this mighty Horn who makes death itself impotent when the Lord of life comes and delivers the dead from the grave. Ask you who this might be? Christ Jesus it is he; the horn of salvation whom God has raised up in the house of his servant David. It means “Salvation from our enemies” (v.71).
Zechariah also tells us it means salvation “from the hand of all who hate us” (v.71) by “one in the house of God’s servant David.” Do you realize what Zechariah is saying? There had been a promise given to David a thousand years earlier that a man would never be lacking to sit on the throne of Israel, and now in an extraordinary way before Zechariah’s very eyes God was going to fulfill that promise. You understand the great biblical problem facing the Old Testament prophets. Four hundred years after that promise was given to the king, David’s throne fell. There was not one man in David’s line to sit on it. In 586, Jerusalem itself was carried off into captivity, and for six hundred years the people of God had been asking themselves the question, “Lord God, has your promise to David failed? Will you ever come back and restore your people again? Will you ever raise up the fallen booth of David? Will you ever set up the throne of David again? How is it that you could have promised that there would never be a man lacking to sit on that throne, and yet there’s no king of Israel now? We’re ruled by these alien, idol-worshipping Romans who occupy our land.”
Yet Zechariah is now saying that this great horn of salvation has appeared and he is going to be a mighty king in the line of David. What new hope dawns at the end of this long night. Some of you support Glamorgan Cricket Club and that team has been losing for years. It has won two games this entire season. Others are mildly interested in the Welsh rugby team which last season managed to win one solitary game. I am saying that the children of Israel had been on a losing streak for six hundred years, but God had finally come and told Zechariah that he was now going to turn things around. They’d been saying ‘Wait till next season,’ for six hundred years, and now God says, “The season has come, the set time, and I am going to fulfill that promise.” You cannot imagine the joy that created in Zechariah’s heart. Then to be told that his son John was going to have a part in announcing that – so he’s bursting with thanksgiving.
3. GOD WILL NOW FULFIL HIS COVENANT MERCIES.
Zechariah says that God intends, “to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (vv.72-75). In other words, Zechariah is telling us that the Messiah’s coming into the world is the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham and the patriarchs. It’s not just that Jesus’ coming – the Messiah’s coming – is going to bring a fulfillment to a promise made a thousand years earlier to David and his royal line: it is that Jesus’ coming is going to be the fulfillment of the oldest promise ever given in the Bible. It’s a three-fold repeated promise that stretches all the way back 2,000 years made to their father Abraham in Genesis 12, and again in Genesis 15, and also Genesis 17; the promised one had arrived in Zechariah’s home and the baby in the womb of his wife leaped for joy at his arrival. That child’s coming was announced way back in Genesis 3:15; another six months and the Seed of the woman would appear and begin his life of bruising the hapless serpent’s head.
Zechariah is being told, ‘In your own day, Zechariah, that plan which I have been unfolding from the beginning of mankind’s history is going to come to pass. The Messiah will deal a death blow to Satan’s power. This is that which was spoken by God to the serpent in Eden. I am now going to bring into the world the one who is going to establish the promise which I made two thousand years ago to Abraham. You have waited so long, but now in this generation I am going to bring him into the world.’ And Zechariah sings, “God has never forgotten his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham!” He wants to proclaim that now God is coming to rescue his people, and save them from the old serpent.
Do you see how this song constantly emphasizes the activity of God in our redemption? It’s not a song about how men save themselves. It’s not a song about how God helps those who help themselves. It’s a song about God sovereignly coming in response to his own word, his own commitment, his own determination, his own covenant, to redeem and rescue his people. We sinners are going to be able to serve our victorious Lord in a manner he deserves. We shall serve him without being afraid of Satan pulling us into hell with him. We will serve him “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (v.75) because his energy will be energizing us and his hands will never let go of us. None shall pluck us thence. It is a picture of new life, not simply of deliverance but a positive service ministering to others all our days. God is assembling congregations of people who are fearless men and women, the most righteous people this world has ever seen. They will be light and salt to this world everywhere.
4. GOD WILL MIGHTILY USE ZECHARIAH’S SON JOHN.
Now Zechariah turns to gaze at this little boy and he addresses his son, “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.” (vv. 76-79). We don’t know Zechariah’s age when he died, but he was already an old man when his son was born. Certainly as Zechariah grew more frail he would have been increasingly aware that he wasn’t going to see his son attain adulthood and begin his ministry. I don’t know whether Zechariah was ever able to give the words of his prophecy to John himself. Were the words indelibly inscribed in Elizabeth’s memory and she could repeat them word perfect? Or was there a day when a breathless Zechariah said, “Elizabeth, you must tell these things to our son when he grows up and I’m gone.” Did he himself write them down on a scroll to be sure, and did he say, “Elizabeth, when our son comes to manhood, make sure you give him this scroll”? Or did a relative of Zechariah and Elizabeth ever come to them and say, “You know, you’ve got to write down that prophecy that Zechariah made on the day of John’s circumcision, because the boy must read it some day”? I don’t know whether when Luke was writing this gospel fifty years later, long after this family had all died, that he met one of the relatives and found out about that and got a copy for himself, which he included in his gospel. However, I do know this: these words entail the prayers of a godly man for his son, all his hopes of what he would attain in adulthood.
Zechariah spoke of his son’s calling to be a herald, to go on before the Messiah, to prepare the way for him. To arouse the nation to seriousness about eternal things. Who would soon be in their very midst? The Lord! That is Jehovah Jesus. “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.” In other words Zechariah is telling his son of the appearance of the light of the world! That’s the great honour which one day would be given to him, to go on before Jehovah himself. Then he tells Zechariah what his message will be; “Son, I will have very little to leave you after my days, but what a gift you’re going to offer the people, ‘the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.’”
Then Zechariah added this, “My dear boy John, do remember, it is all because of the tender mercy of God. We’ve got nothing to plead; we deserve nothing from the Lord; we’ve forfeited every right to the smallest blessing, but because of God’s tender mercy we have light, deliverance from the darkness and death in which we live and a safe guide to heaven. That is the message that you’ll preach to the world. What a guide to their feet you’ll be, leading them into the way of peace.” That was the father’s longing for his son’s ministry.
Who are the ones who will eagerly receive such a gift as this – “the knowledge of salvation”? It’s those who know they need it, only those will rejoice in knowing salvation. Only if you have some need is a particular gift appreciated. If someone had given me a guaranteed super-duper rat-trap at Easter, I’d have said, “Oh?” and felt little appreciation. Our rat problem had been solved two years ago. A guaranteed-to-catch-‘em rat-trap is only welcomed if you have rats in the house. Again, if you spoke to me in the vestibule and offered me a quick ride to the casualty department of Bronglais Hospital, I’d look twice at you unless you took out a compact with a mirror and showed me a purple rash all over my face. Then I’d thank you for the offer. If a police car screeched to a stop beside me on my way home from church some night and a man shouted at me to get inside his Black Maria, I’d think he was pulling my leg until I heard there were armed terrorists and suicide bombers further down the road.
So it is in all of life: we don’t appreciate offers and gifts that seem pointless, that meet no need, that satisfy no desires. We don’t value or love an offer for help unless we’re aware that we need help, that we are weak, or sick, or in danger. Vast numbers of people look upon Jesus Christ and his coming into the world like a useless rat-trap, a worthless trip to the casualty department, or some bothersome summons from the police to get inside a Black Maria, because they don’t realise that they are in danger, that they have a terminal illness called ‘unforgiven sin’, that they are going through a minefield without the aid of the one who can guide their feet in the way of peace. For them, the “horn of salvation” is a useless toy. How different it is for us! That mighty Horn of Salvation is our only hope of recovery from the threatening power of the devil who as a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he may devour. Christ is our only protection from Satan, and our only guide into the ways of peace.
John Piper once said that if he were an artist, he would paint for his home a special painting. It would be a big oil canvas; “The scene would be of a distant hill at dawn. The sun is about to rise behind the hill and the rays shoot up and out of the picture. And all alone, silhouetted on the hill in the center of the picture, very dark, is a magnificent wild ox standing with his back seven feet tall and the crown of his head nine feet tall. On both sides of his head there is a horn curving out and up six feet long and twelve inches thick at the base. The wild ox stands there sovereign and serene, facing the southern sky with his massive neck slightly cocked, and impaled at the end of his right horn hangs a huge lion, dead.” God has come and redeemed his people.
5TH August 2007 GEOFF THOMAS