Mysterious Mercy – Luke 1:57-80
December 6, 2015 – Second Sunday in Advent
One of the blessings of being a pastor is seeing newborn babies when they are just a few hours or a day or two old. Though there will be a baptism or dedication in a few weeks or months, I really enjoy the privilege of going to the hospital or the new parents’ home, holding that tiny child, and giving thanks to God for the new life He has created.
I also get to observe new parents in those weary but wonderful moments right after birth. There may have been a difficult labor or some anxious moments, but just a little while later there’s a great sense of relief and peace in the room. Once again, God has been good. He has granted another couple the grace and mercy of a healthy infant, and you can see the wonder and gratitude in their faces.
In John the Baptist’s birth at the beginning of our text, his mother Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives saw those feelings in her face. Verse 58 says they had “heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
We are now a little deeper in this season filled to overflowing with the thought of gifts, whether it’s merchandise you are going to buy and wrap in red and green paper to put under a tree or the greatest Gift at the center of the season. And somewhere between that mundane and often overdone exchange of presents and the supreme Donation of the Son of God is the fact that our very existence is a gift.
Those who rejoiced over God’s mercy to Elizabeth in the birth of her son were thinking of the fact that she had been childless into old age. The pregnancy and birth were unexpected and miraculous, an incredible divine mercy. But any birth, any new spark of human life, occurs only by the great mercy of God by which He creates and sustains all our lives. We exist only because God has mercy on us, gives us a gift no one deserves.
When I come home from one of those new baby visits, the first thing my wife Beth wants to know is, “What did they name him (or her)?” Sometimes I have an answer, sometimes parents are still thinking about it. But just like the neighbors and relatives at the birth of Elizabeth’s son, everyone wants to know, and some have their own ideas.
It was unusual that the baby’s circumcision eight days later was the occasion for his naming. It was not Jewish practice of that time, but the helpful relatives took it upon themselves to insist that the boy have a name before the sign of the Covenant was imposed on his little body. It was common to name a boy after his grandfather, but in verse 59 the relatives decided he should be named after his father, Zechariah.
Elizabeth stunned them all in verse 60. She said, “No; he is to be called John.” How did Elizabeth know this? Zechariah had been rendered silent by the angel. Think about that when you complain your husband doesn’t talk to you. But clearly, he wrote it down for Elizabeth, just like he wrote it down again in verse 63.
Like siblings, cousins and relatives we all know, the relatives felt free to question the new mother and complain in verse 61 that “John” was not a name in the family. Why call him that? They asked the father to straighten out the confused mother in verse 62. Evidently Zechariah was not only unable to speak, he couldn’t hear. They motioned to him. He’s lived for nine months in total silence. But now he took a little wooden tablet covered in wax and scratched out “His name is John.”
Luke tells us the relatives were amazed. It was a common enough name. In the New Testament we find at least half a dozen Johns. But for Zechariah’s family it was odd, unexpected. But it was full of significance. It’s from the Hebrew name Johanan, and it means “God is gracious,” or “God is merciful.” God had shown mercy in giving a child to an old man and woman and His mercy was recorded in the baby’s very name.
Verse 64 tells us that as soon as Zechariah finished writing his son’s name, he began to talk. His first words were praise to a merciful God. He spoke and that quieted the relatives. A little holy fear came over them in verse 65 as they recognized a miracle. Of course they didn’t remain silent long and baby John and his parents became the topic of conversation for the whole region. Groups of women gossiped as they drew water and men drinking wine together asked what it all meant. “What then will this child become?”
It was a good question. Verse 66 says, “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” The baby named for God’s mercy had a special future. And God was merciful enough to give his father a glimpse. Verse 67 explains that Zechariah was inspired by the Holy Spirit to deliver a song of prophecy. It’s the first Christmas carol, the first poetic celebration of the birth of not just John but of Jesus too.
When Scripture was later translated into the new common language of Rome, Zechariah’s song became known as the Benedictus, its first word in Latin, which means Blessed. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” sang Zechariah in verse 68. We sang an English version of this hymn a few minutes ago.
Because of God’s mercy, for which the old man named his son, he went from silence to song. For nine months he quietly contemplated God’s plan. From enforced quiet emerged beautiful words telling the great deeds God was just beginning. After being mute, Zechariah had a song to sing, because God is merciful.
One of our Advent themes today is “Worship Fully.” Our reading from Philippians 1 ended with Paul encouraging us to be faithful in Christ so as to produce a “harvest of righteousness” that is “for the glory and praise of God.” That’s our first priority in this season. It’s not to complete the shopping and get the cards out, or even to find some really good deeds of kindness to do. It’s to bless the Lord our God like Zechariah did, with joyful praise for His goodness and mercy.
Some of you are sharing songs or hymns you love with the rest of us this Advent. Thank you to Kathy for organizing this and thank you all for encouraging the rest of us to join you in singing God’s praise. It’s one way we can share in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s praise and gratitude to a God who is always merciful to us.
You can sing. A theologian name Stanley Hauerwas was our guest preacher here years ago. He’s a brilliant Christian, but he has a terrible voice, even when he’s just speaking. And when he sings… oh my. He stood here in the front row and loudly praised God. Beth said standing between Stanley and me while we sang was the least musical experience of her whole life. But what counts is that we sing praise to God. It’s our heritage as Christians, starting with an old man named Zechariah who probably didn’t sound that great either.
The beginning of Zechariah’s song, verses 68 to 75, is about salvation in terms any Jewish person understood. God would keep his promises to His people, the ones He first made to Abraham. He would raise up a “horn of salvation” says verse 69. An animal’s horns were its strength. A “horn” for Israel is a powerful leader, a man to protect and guide the people. Zechariah was not talking about John, but a king from the house of David.
The first half of the Benedictus is a Christmas carol. It celebrates the coming of Messiah. It’s the promise of Jesus the Son of God born from the lineage of David. It celebrates in verse 69 what the angels told the shepherds in chapter 2 of Luke, “for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Verse 72 highlights the reason for this promise of a Savior, a Messiah who will save His people from their enemies, “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.” Zechariah is overwhelmed by the mystery of the mercy of God. It’s a mercy that gave old people a baby and a mercy that reaches across the ages to keep a promise made long ago.
This part of Zechariah’s song is about direct and tangible salvation. Verse 71 talks about being “saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us and verse 74 says it again, “that we being rescued from the hands of our enemies.” They hoped for a salvation that meant security and freedom for their nation; in verse 75 to be set free that they “might serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
Look at what kind of freedom God wants us to have. Political freedom is a good thing. It gives some liberty to praise our Lord. But real freedom from God is not to choose or do whatever we want. It’s freedom as Zechariah says here, to serve God in holiness and righteousness. So the second part of his song is more personal, both for him and for us. It invites us to into a salvation which realizes we have worse enemies than terrorists.
With verse 76, frail, elderly Zechariah cradles his week-old son in his arms. He’s not looking up to heaven to see the coming Messiah, but down into wide eyes which also reflect the mercy of God. “You my child will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
Eight days into his life, John was told his mission, his purpose, to prepare the way of the Lord. We heard Malachi’s prophecy of that mission today, to be the messenger declaring that the Lord Himself was coming, helping people be ready for an arrival which would sweep over them like fire.
Like people today, people then imagined that if all their human enemies were dealt with, they would be saved. We want to win the war on terror. The Jewish people wanted to win the war of rebellion against Rome. We think such wars will bring us peace. But in verse 77 Zechariah tells his baby boy that his job is “to give knowledge of salvation to his people through the forgiveness of their sins.” God’s salvation begins by saving us from ourselves.
God punished Zechariah with muteness for not believing the angel’s promise of a baby, but then God forgave him and gave him both the baby and his speech. That’s the kind of salvation John prepared, a salvation of saving grace by which God would forgive His people and restore them to health and wholeness.
I love verse 78. In the ancient Christian tradition of the hours of prayer, this whole song of Zechariah became the hymn for morning prayer, centered around this verse which seems especially profound if you say it just as the sky outside is beginning to grow light. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.”
That mysterious mercy of God, now appears as the first gleaming of day shining into darkness. Zechariah the father stood tenderly holding his child and realized that God the Father loves His people with even more tenderness, a tender mercy which shines down upon them from the rising Sun of salvation.
Mercy is true and complete salvation. Because Jesus came into the world and shined upon it, you and I need not fear our worst enemies, all our sins and failures. Our future horizon is not clouded by dark wrath. When we seek God we see light breaking on us. In Jesus Christ there is forgiveness. Jesus is our horn of salvation, our mighty Savior, who’s greatest strength is His tender mercy.
Yet the salvation Jesus brings is still what Jewish people hoped for. God’s tender mercy is meant to make us people who make the world safer, happier and more free. Because we have received mercy, we are merciful to needy people, even to enemies. God rescues us from our sins as He rescued Israel from her enemies, so that we may serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness. The mercy of God in Jesus not only offers forgiveness for how we’ve lived in the past, it changes the way we live in the future.
Harry Ironside told the story of an attempt on the first Queen Elizabeth’s life. A woman dressed as a male page hid herself in the boudoir, awaiting a convenient moment to stab the queen to death. But the royal bodyguards found her among the dressing gowns, took away her dagger, and dragged her into the presence of the queen.
Her case was hopeless. She threw herself down on her knees and pled and begged the queen as a woman to have compassion on her, a woman, and to show her grace. Elizabeth asked her, “If I show you grace, what promise will you make for the future?”
The prisoner looked up and said, “Grace that hath conditions, grace that is fettered by precautions, is not grace at all.” Queen Elizabeth thought a moment and said, “You are right. I pardon you of my grace.” She was set free, and from then on the queen had no more faithful, devoted servant than that woman who had intended to take her life. That is how God’s mercy is meant to work in us—to make us His faithful servants.
The mystery of mercy is marvelous grace. God pardons you with no conditions, requires no oath, expects nothing. Yet the power of His mercy changes you. Because you have been shown mercy, you want to show mercy to others. We serve our God best with a love and mercy which imitates His saving mercy.
When we receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ and find salvation, the light has truly dawned. As verse 79 finishes Zechariah’s song, the dawn from on high breaks “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
There is darkness in our world. You may be sitting in some now, the dark of fear or failure or loss of something or someone you love. But in God’s tender mercy, the dawn is breaking. He is shining on you and His name is Jesus. Stand up now and accept His mercy and walk into His light, letting that mercy shine on through you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj