Wednesday, December 3, 2014

'The Singers of Luke' - Zechariah

The Singers of Luke: ‘Zechariah’
Advent 2014

The three singers that we will remember over the next three weeks
sang songs that are among the most popular in history.
Their songs do not appear on any charts of the most played songs
or in any anthologies of popular music.

But in the huge spaces of mighty cathedrals,
in the worship spaces of monasteries and convents,
in congregations of all sizes and in the homes of the faithful,
these songs have been sung each and every day
for at least seventeen hundred years:
the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah in morning prayer;
the Magnificat or Song of Mary in evening prayer,
and the Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon in Prayer at the Close of the Day.

The physician, gospel writer, and sometime music historian St. Luke
gives us the lyrics of these songs,
and tells us the stories we have of how they came to be.
All three are songs of God’s mercy and favor upon his people,
songs of God’s action for his people.
These songs proclaim Messiah as God’s decisive act for his people,
the One in whom God defeats his enemies
and in whom he shows mercy and favor.

And the songwriters are swept up in this story;
indeed, they become part of the story.
One an aged priest,
one a young engaged woman,
and one an old man
simply waiting to see God’s salvation before he dies.
So three singers, three songs,
and yet One who is sung.

The canticle for Morning Prayer is the Song of Zechariah.
Zechariah, as we have just heard,
was a priest of the division of Abijah.
There were so many of the priestly line at that time
that those who were to receive the honor
of burning incense before God in the Temple
were chosen by lot.
And the lot fell to Zechariah,
holy but childless Zechariah.
Only God knew why it had not been granted
to him and his equally faithful wife Elizabeth
not to be able to bring children into the community of God’s people.
But here he is in the temple,
perhaps asking God as his fathers before him:
‘Let my prayer rise before you as incense,
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’

He is not praying at this time for a child for him and Elizabeth.
Those days are long gone,
and in any case, a priest does not pray for himself,
he prays for the people.
The people of God were waiting for God to set things right,
for their forgiveness to be completed.
Who knew why God had not raised up a mighty Savior
born of the house of his servant David,
a Messiah to save them from their enemies?
Why he had not come to his people and set them free?
But here Zechariah is in the Temple,
praying to God,
perhaps with the words learned from his childhood
at the feet of a rabbi,
‘O Lord, I call to you, come to me quickly,
hear my voice when I cry to you.’
Not for me,
but for the people,
and for me as I am part of the people.
‘Let my prayer rise before you as incense,
the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’

The angel not only announces that Zechariah’s prayer is being heard and answered,
but he announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth themselves
will be part of God’s action;
that the son Elizabeth will bear in her old age
will come in the spirit and power of Elijah.
The prophet Elijah, one of the most evocative figures in biblical history,
was, according to the prophet Malachi,
to be sent by God before the day of the Lord,
to turn the hearts of the people to God,
to prepare the way for the coming of God.
‘Your prayer has been heard!’
It is not Zechariah’s prayer for himself that has been heard,
but the prayer of the people which he offers on their behalf as priest.
And yet Zechariah can’t believe it.
I’d like to think that it’s not really because he and Elizabeth are old.
For certainly as an Israelite he knows the story of Abraham and Sarah,
how Isaac, the child of promise, was conceived in their old age.
I’d like to think it’s not because he doesn’t believe
that God can’t accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Rather, I’d like to think
that it is because Zechariah can’t believe
that he is to be involved;
even though he is a priest,
even though he has sought God’s will;
he cannot be involved in something so big.
God must mean someone else.

No, says the angel Gabriel,
and if you need a sign,
then keep quiet for a while.
Until the child is born and circumcised,
and the name is asked for.
When it is asked for,
Zechariah gives him the name
which the angel said he would bear.
He is participating in God’s great work for his people.
He is swept up in the story of God’s mercy and justice;
indeed, he is part of the story.

And when his tongue is loosed, he sings the story.
The Lord is to be blessed,
because he has come to his people and set them free.
The sign of the child is good enough for Zechariah.
No more questions,
God does what he promises.
So certain is Zechariah
that he sings of what is to come
as if it has all happened already.
God has raised up a Messiah,
just as the prophets promised he would.
He comes to show mercy to the people
and to remember the covenant with Abraham,
so that Abraham’s children may worship without fear.
Zechariah sings the story,
because God has sung him into the story.
And the little child,
a boy just initiated into the covenant of God with Abraham,
bawling and bloody from his circumcision,
named with the name an angel gave him,
he is part of the story too.
He will be a prophet and more than a prophet,
the one who will prepare the way of the Lord.
He will announce the dawn from on high
which will shine on those
in the darkness of sin and death
and guide them into the way of peace.

When we sing this song,
the song of Zechariah,
we proclaim that God is to be blessed.
This God who has come in Jesus the Messiah,
the God who has acted in him
to set us free from sin, death, and evil.
And we might even dare to believe
that we are part of the story,
that even while singing the story,
we are sung by God into his story.
We are not Elizabeth, Zechariah, or John,
but who knows what messages we will receive
when we are letting our prayers rise before God as incense,
asking him to hear us?