Benedictus – Part 2 The Tenderness of the God of History

76 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,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

The story is personalized.

First, as he turns to address his son John: “And you, my child” Zechariah moves from singing about God’s ultimate purposes in the world to affirming the truth of God’s very personal activity in his own life. In a tender contrast, he personalizes the story to himself. He will have a son, and his son is going to play a key role in the greatest drama of all time. The angel Gabriel in effect said to him, “Your prayer for the Messiah is answered and you are to have a son who will prepare his way. 

Zechariah, speaking the Canticle, is praising God for the birth of John the Baptist. The Lucan insertion makes it clear that John is not the messiah, but rather someone who will prepare the way for the messiah, for the Lord. 

Like a ‘prophecy’ of what is to become of the child. In these words (vv. 76-79) Zechariah picks up words and ideas from Malachi (v. 76, cf. Malachi 3:1; 4:5) and possibly Isaiah (v. 79, cf. Isaiah 9:2, 6).

Two metaphors are used to express the hope for salvation of which Zechariah sings.

  1. the form of the child over whom he sings. A child bears all the hopes and desires of those who nurture it in its infancy. As the parents celebrate the child’s birth, they celebrate all that they envision for that child in the future.
  2. the coming of dawn. As one sits in darkness the light of the sun begins to spread across the landscape even before the sun rises and is visible. So in Advent we look forward to what is promised, the coming of the Lord in the birth of Jesus. We prepare ourselves for that even as John was to prepare the way of the one to come. On the other hand, our waiting and hope already participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Advent or coming. Our future hope is shaped by past traditions, but in turn it shapes our present living.

The claim of Christmas is that God broke through the darkness.  As Zachariah said in Luke 78-79,  

78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace

God goes about fulfilling eternal work in the world by meeting our individual needs. God’s bigger plans are all interwoven with each of our own life journeys of faith, the “divine synthesis” of which Zechariah sings.

This care over the life and activity of creation is often referred to as “special providence. It is what the apostle Paul is pointing toward when he writes to the church in Rome, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). Often in speaking of providence, one runs across the phrase “second causes,” which are the ordinary forces and events of nature that God employs to accomplish divine purposes.

Zechariah saw more clearly after his suffering than he could have otherwise; he could see how all things come together in God’s purposes. God’s ultimate purposes are accomplished through personal promises; the two are intricately linked.

The example of person suffering could be shown of Joseph in Egypt or in our time with  Nelson Mandela

-> Who are you models of suffering and sacrifice that demonstrate who all things come together in God’s purposes?

-> How is life connected together?

As children of God we are part of God’s ultimate purposes wherever we are.

This experience can be likened to finding yourself in a large group photograph taken many years ago.

Zechariah sings that the greatest surprise for him was to see that he was playing a part in the ongoing history of God’s redemptive work in the world. In so doing, he gives us encouragement as to the why and how of all this: it is all “because of the tender mercy of our God.” Again he focuses on the mercy of God, yet now he personalizes this trait of God, referring to it as “tender.”

Prior to Zechariah’s song, Luke too placed the event of John’s birth firmly in this context, writing of Elizabeth that the Lord had shown her great mercy.” And in Zechariah’s song, mercy continues as the foundation of God’s activity in the world — not just to the people of Israel, but also specifically to Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth.

Zechariah  is perhaps the last and culminating  representative of the Old Testament prophets. He was of priestly lineage on both sides of his family (1:5), is named by the angel Gabriel as having the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17), and fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (3:4-6).

Similarly, John, moved by the word of God, plays two characteristically prophetic roles: (1) He calls for repentance and, indeed, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and (2) he also precedes, prepares the way for, and foretells the coming of the Messiah, the one who is the salvation of Israel.

When we think of John the Baptist, we probably don’t think of promises of salvation. In the lesson from Malachi, we see a similar promise, but from the way it’s worded it would seem that it is not really a promise but a warning. The Lord’s messenger will come as a refiner’s fire and as a launderer’s soap to purge the people and make them pure. It is an image of judgment that one would not really be looking for.

But in Zechariah’s song there is a different emphasis— in the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah saw the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem Israel.[3] In a very real sense, Zechariah was looking forward to redemption, mercy, salvation, and forgiveness. In Zechariah’s song, the messenger of the coming Lord will bring “knowledge of salvation … by the”forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77). The messenger will effect “the dawn from on high” through the “tender mercy of our God” that will bring light to those who are in darkness as well as “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).

We don’t normally think of judgment in connection with salvation. Usually those two concepts are seen as diametrically opposed. So how is it that the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord is a messenger of judgment and a messenger of salvation?

We have to remember that God’s judgment was always intended to lead to salvation. And so Zechariah sees the birth of his son John as the messenger who will “prepare the way for the Lord” in terms of the promise that the Lord’s coming will set things right. While that does imply a sense of purification and correction, the ultimate goal is to create peace and freedom for “all the families of the earth” and ultimately for all creation. Zechariah was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.

The season of Advent is a time for looking—a time of looking for the salvation promised long ago. “Looking” is something that requires your full attention. Looking is the active part of waiting. During Advent, we look forward in hope to the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).[5] We look for the promise that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).[6] We look for God to fulfill the hope that “The valley of the shadow of death will be filled; it will be lifted up. The mountains of struggle, pain and poverty will be made low.”[7] Advent is a time for living in faith and hope, like Zechariah—faith in the promises of salvation made long ago and hope that God will be faithful to fulfill them. It is the season for looking! 

God chose to fulfill the divine ultimate purpose—sending the Messiah by providing a discouraged couple the greatest encouragement ever. In doing so, our Creator is exemplifying the preeminent divine character traits of mercy and compassion.

->The Christ Child is in effect an “Ambassador of Mercy from God the Merciful and Compassionate.” Perhaps this is the most accurate description of Christ’s life and purpose. Hence we have that wonderful Latin phrase known in church worship as the Kyrie eleison, taken from the many individuals who came to Christ, falling at his feet in desperation, saying, Lord, have mercy.

Augustine – “The mercy of God may be found between the bridge and the stream”

“Because of God’s heart of mercy, God comes to our aid over and over again, just as he did for Zechariah. At the same time, it is these merciful actions that are interwoven with the divine purposes of the world. Zechariah sings a song that has now been sung for almost two thousand years, giving thanks for the gift of perceiving the divine synthesis of God. It is this divine synthesis that is the wild and joy-filled proclamation of Advent and Christmas.”

God’s ultimate purposes for the world are carried out by working through a baby and childless parents: through the strong and the weak, the expected and unexpected, the perfectly natural and the supernatural—and in you and me. All are mysteriously connected to God’s bigger agenda. In this regard, the first words of Zechariah’s Benedictus – “Praise be to God,” are the most appropriate of all.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *