A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 72:8-17, Isaiah 51:21-52:6, Luke 1:57-80

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel’ – the opening words of The Benedictus, or Song of Zechariah, found in Luke 1: 68 ff – and not to be confused with another similar song of praise that goes by the same name and which we sing at the Eucharist in the morning – ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.’

Tonight’s Benedictus comes at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and is a song sung by the priest Zechariah. The morning Benedictus is found in Matthew’s Gospel in a very different setting. As the time of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion draws near, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, the holy city of God. He prays a poignant prayer for a wayward people, epitomized by the city.

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’ (Matthew 23: 37-39)

By contrast, tonight’s Benedictus is one of several songs that Luke the Gospel writer gives us in the first two chapters. I wonder if you can name all four of them? We have already sung two of them tonight – the Song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis (Luke 2:29-32). The third is one we don’t generally sing during Advent and Lent and when we do sing it, it is sung in the morning. Can the trebles guess which it is? It’s the Gloria – the opening words of which are sung by the angels to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” (APBA pg 121 or Luke 2:14). The final of the four songs in these early chapters of Luke is the one we heard in tonight’s second reading and is known as the Song of Zechariah or Benedictus.

Listen to the words again.

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Let’s go back a bit and see how this song came about. After the introductory paragraph of his Gospel, in which St Luke tells his friend Theophilus that he is writing an orderly account of the extraordinary things that have happened, Luke tells the story of Zechariah. (Luke 1:5-23). Both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were descended from ancient priestly families. One day, while officiating at his duties in the sanctuary, an angel appeared to Zechariah. Not surprisingly he was terrified but was given the standard angel greeting: Do not be afraid! Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well past the normal age of having children. Not only was Zechariah told that his wife would have a son but he was told to name the boy John. Perhaps not surprisingly Zechariah did not believe the angel and, for this disbelief, was struck dumb. It’s a lovely story, not often read in its entirety but well worth the read.

Luke moves on in the narrative and Elizabeth does indeed fall pregnant. The angel Gabriel is a busy chap and next goes to see Mary in a scene we are very familiar with from our carol services. A young unmarried girl says Yes to the angel and to God and so enters history as the most blessed of all women – the mother of the Lord Jesus. Mary has her own song of praise which the Choir sang earlier tonight – the Magnificat.

Time passes and a son in born to Elizabeth and Zechariah – to the great surprise of the neighbours and the great joy of the couple. There is some dispute as to what the boy should be called but both mother and father are adamant that his name is to be John. Zechariah regains the power of speech and utters the words which form the second half of tonight’s reading from Luke – the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah.

Pause there a moment and come with me to a meeting that took place some thirty four years ago in a far-away country. A group of new parents were being prepared for the baptism of their children. The priest challenged the parents to write a prayer for their child – a prayer they would pray at the child’s baptism. Christine and I were part of that group and wrote a prayer for our newborn son. Earlier today he and his wife were invited to write a prayer for their little daughter who is to be baptized next Sunday.

I wonder what you would write and pray in similar circumstances? Every parent has wishes and dreams for their child. Not all of them write formal prayers – but the hope and longing are certainly there.

Now come back to the Benedictus and the words of Zechariah. The song we heard tonight can be likened to the baptism prayer of a father for his child. It is an extraordinarily beautiful prayer. It begins, as all good prayers do, by praising God. It quickly delves into the past as Zechariah recalls the great promises made to his people by God. They are promises that have kept hope alive in even the darkest of days; promises that God will not abandon His people and that a saviour will be raised up. This promise is one that has been spoken and reiterated through the centuries by the prophets – those who speak God’s word into their day. And the promise that Zechariah recalls goes right back to the very first member of his people – Abraham. It’s a promise that Zechariah and Elizabeth and their respective families have clung to as they have fulfilled their priestly duties in the sanctuary – leading the people in worship.

But the second half of the prayer turns to the child, the baby. As he looks at his child – helpless, utterly dependent on his parents – Zechariah sees something remarkable. This child will be called a prophet of the Most High and will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. In praying this prayer, singing this song, Zechariah draws on his deep knowledge of the ancient prophets who had gone before him – those whose poetry and words he read in his duties – much like our readers have done tonight. This child is a sign of hope to his own and future generations. This child will be the forerunner of one who comes after him. This child will bring light into dark places and, as the song ends, guide our feet into the way of peace.

As he looks at the tiny baby, perhaps held in his own arms or cradled by his mother Elizabeth, Zechariah is filled with a sense of vision, of hope, of joy, of peace.

Each generation needs to hear the words of Zechariah. We need to recognize the hand of God in our children and children’s children. We need to be captivated by the vision that comes with new birth – a vision that offers hope in even the darkest of times. This is the message of Advent; this is the message of John the Baptist. There is one called Messiah who is coming. One in whom, as the words of one of our favourite Christmas carols puts it (O little town of Bethlehem),  the hopes and dreams of all the world are met.

Tonight’s anthem is based on another Gospel writer’s account of John the Baptist. Known as the record of John it is based around words found in John’s Gospel and refers to John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiah. Enjoy. (Grayston Ives – This is the record of John)