- Joy and mercy
“When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy and they share her joy.
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.”
From Songs in Waiting “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.”
Throughout Luke’s infancy narrative mercy is the prominent theme. Mercy is the determinant of God s purposes in history. All of Gods actions are governed by this overriding dimension of mercy.
In the early church’s Christmas tradition, mercy is regarded as the gift of the Incarnation, with Christ’s coming among us viewed essentially as the fullest demonstration of the mercy of God.
Zechariah, who had lost his speech now, after the birth of their son, miraculously received his speech back. With true gratitude he offered praise to God for the birth of a son, and for his restoration to the blessings of speech. He burst forth in song, the Benedictus, that God has come to “show mercy.”
However, the reason for the rejoicing is not just the birth, but the Lord’s “great mercy”. God’s mercy is a theme that occurs throughout this opening chapter of Luke (1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78) and only once afterwards (10:37).
This word for “mercy” is defined by Lowe & Nida as “to show kindness or concern for someone in serious need.”
Who is in “serious need”? It might be that the barrenness of Elizabeth had put her and Zechariah in need, but that wouldn’t have been the case with Mary. The “needy” are defined in 1:78-79. They are “us.” People sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. People who are not at peace. Although in v. 58, God’s great mercy has been shown to Elizabeth, the end result is that his mercy will be given to the needy world.
Zechariah’s people have been waiting for a Messiah to bring salvation to them. Zechariah comes across in this passage, especially in the prophetic poem, as someone who has pondered the agony and the hope for many years. He now comes to an epiphany that, through this favor from God, prophecies from the “Old,” promises to our ancestors and the “holy covenant” with Abraham, all are fulfilled. His homeland, occupied by the foreign oppressors, captures the complexity of the situation: “to grant us that we being rescued from the hands of our enemies.”
He now believes their salvation is near. His son John, a shortened form of Jehohanan means “God’s gracious gift” is going to “go before the Lord to prepare his way.” Is this not truly what we hear John pronouncing in the Gospel?
John’s challenge is to repent and prepare. True repentance (metanoia in Greek) means literally to change one’s mind, turn around, and reorient oneself. People are called to prepare for the Lord by making crooked paths straight, lifting up valleys, and making rough places plain. The punch and promise of the poetry is saved for last: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”3 He is making an announcement of a new order of life that is intended to change our hearts and the way we live and treat each other.
Salvation of God” is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our world wracked with divisions, poverty, greed, violence and war.
Prophets of the Old and the Gospel surely proclaim: “Because of God’s heart of mercy, God comes to our aid over and over again, just as he did for Zechariah. 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.
How long must have Zechariah and Elizabeth been waiting? For years, they were waiting, praying, longing for this child that simply did not come. It is amazing to me how important the whole act of waiting is to the life of faith.
We tend to think of it negatively.
But Simone Weil, that great twentieth century Christian mystic, said, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” We do not like to wait, but God teaches a great deal when we wait in expectation. John Calvin said, “There is no place for faith if we expect God to fulfill immediately everything He promises.“
In waiting gifts come to us, as uncertain and painful as that waiting may be. We learn patience and we learn humility. We cannot make things happen on our own apart from God. We learn trust and maturity and, of course, we learn to persevere.
Zechariah is silenced by God. We often think of his being silenced as a kind of punishment for his lack of faith in God to deliver on His promise. And in a sense the story leaves us with that conclusion. However, there is something holy, something sacred, something utterly life-giving about silence before the Lord.
“It is silence in which God in known,” says Dietrich Bonheoffer, “and through the silence of His mysteries that God declares Himself to us.” Bonhoeffer said, “We are to be silent at the beginning of the day so that God can have the first word to us. And we are to be silent when we lie down to sleep at the end of the day so that God can have the last word also.”
Baron von Hügel, that great nineteenth century mystic, said, “Be silent before all great things. Let them grow inside you.” Von Hügel said, “Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.”