The time arrived for Elisabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had increased his mercy to her, and they came to celebrate with her.
Now on the eighth day, when they came to circumcise the child, they were calling him by his father’s name, Zechariah. But his mother spoke up.
‘No,’ she said, ‘he is to be called John.’
‘None of your relatives’, they objected, ‘is called by that name.’
They made signs to his father, to ask what he wanted him to be called. He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote on it, ‘His name is John.’
Everyone was astonished. Immediately his mouth and his tongue were unfastened, and he spoke, praising God. Fear came over all those who lived in the neighborhood, and all these things were spoken of throughout all the hill country of Judea. Everyone who heard about it turned the matter over in their hearts.
‘What then will this child become?’ they said. And the Lord’s hand was with him.
John’s father Zechariah was filled with the holy spirit, and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord, Israel’s God!
He’s come to his people and bought them their freedom.
He’s raised up a horn of salvation for us
in David’s house, the house of his servant,
just as he promised, through the mouths of the prophets,
the holy ones, speaking from ages of old:
salvation from our enemies, rescue from hatred,
mercy to our ancestors, keeping his holy covenant.
He swore an oath to Abraham our father,
to give us deliverance from fear and from foes,
so we might worship him, holy and righteous
before his face to the end of our days.
You, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest One,
go ahead of the Lord, preparing his way,
letting his people know of salvation,
through the forgiveness of all their sins.
The heart of our God is full of mercy,
that’s why his daylight has dawned from on high,
bringing light to the dark, as we sat in death’s shadow,
guiding our feet in the path of peace.’
The child grew, and became powerful in the spirit. He lived in the wilderness until the day when he was revealed to Israel.
Many people today can’t imagine what life would be like without a television. We are so used to it telling us what to think about all the time that, without it, some people become quite worried, lost in a world of their own unfamiliar thoughts like an explorer whose guide has just disappeared. Take away radio, newspapers and smartphones as well, and … what would you think about all day?
That was the situation, of course, of most people in the world until very recently. It was the situation for everybody in Jesus’ time. If you were Zechariah, what would you think of all day?
Your family, certainly. Local village business, presumably. Your health, quite possibly. The state of the crops, the prospect for harvest.
But behind these obvious concerns, there are deeper questions. Something is wrong in the world. People are suffering. Your people are suffering. Wicked foreigners have come from far away, with hatred in their eyes and weapons in their hands. Darkness and death have stalked the land. Many people in many countries have had all this to think about over many centuries.
Behind that again, there may be a sense that, though much has gone wrong, somehow there is a larger hope. Things can be put right. Things will be put right. Let go of this and you’re sunk. Often it’s the old people, the ones who cherish old memories and imaginations, who keep alive the rumor of hope.
Zechariah comes across in this passage, especially in the prophetic poem, as someone who has pondered the agony and the hope for many years, and who now finds the two bubbling out of him as he looks in awe and delight at his baby son.
It’s a poem about God acting at last, finally doing what he promised many centuries ago, and doing it at a time when his people had had their fill of hatred and oppression. One evil empire after another had trampled them underfoot; now at last God was going to give them deliverance. We can feel the long years of pain and sorrow, of darkness and death, overshadowing his mind. Nameless enemies are lurking round the corner in his imagination and experience.
But we can also feel the long years of quiet prayer and trust. God had made a covenant with Abraham. God had promised to send a new David. God had spoken of a prophet who would go ahead to prepare the way. All these things he had known, believed, prayed and longed for. Now they were all to come true.
Much of the poem could be read simply as the celebration of what we would call a ‘political’ salvation—though few ancient Jews, and not very many modern ones, would want to separate the secular from the sacred the way the modern West has done. But there are signs that Zechariah’s vision goes beyond simply a realigning of political powers. God’s mercy, the forgiveness of sins, the rescue from death itself; all of this points to a deeper and wider meaning of ‘salvation’. Luke is inviting us to see that God, in fulfilling the great promises of the Old Testament, is going beyond a merely this-worldly salvation and opening the door to a whole new world in which sin and death themselves will be dealt with.
Zechariah’s own story, of nine months’ silence suddenly broken at the naming of the child, is a reflection on a smaller scale of what was going on in the Israel of his day. Prophecy, many believed, had been silent for a long time. Now it was going to burst out again, to lead many back to a true allegiance to their God. What had begun as a kind of punishment for Zechariah’s lack of faith now turns into a new sort of sign, a sign that God is doing a new thing.
Luke’s long first chapter holds together what we often find easier to keep separate. At point after point he has linked his story to the ancient biblical record of Israel, to the patriarchs, kings, prophets and psalms. He is writing of the moment when the centuries-old story was going to come round a corner at last, out of darkness into sudden light. He never forgets this larger perspective; everything that he tells us about Jesus makes sense as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises, the hope of Israel come to fruition at last..