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December 9, 2012
Luke 1:68-79

It might seem strange to some that for a psalm this week we have a passage from a Gospel. We noted a few weeks ago that the practice of inserting ‘psalms’ or songs into biblical narratives is not unusual. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel we have three such ‘psalms’/songs inserted in the first couple of chapters: Luke 1:46-55, called The Magnificat and related to 1 Sam 2:1-10; Luke 2:29-32, called Simeon’s song or The Nunc Dimittis; and today’s ‘psalm’, Luke 1:68-79 known as the song of Zachariah or The Benedictus. These three ‘Lukan’ songs were gathered, together with many of the psalms/songs appearing in various narrative contexts in the Old Testament, and appended to the end of the Book of Psalms in early versions of the Psalter. Collectively they are known as the ‘Odes’.

The selection of Luke 1:68-79 this week is appropriate alongside the passage from Malachi. Verse 76 of Zechariah’s song picks up themes from Mal 3:1 and 4:5 especially, the idea of the prophet who will come as a forerunner to the Lord, preparing the way for the latter. It is also appropriate as it is attributed to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

The Song of Zechariah is a psalm of thanksgiving at the beginning, vv. 68-75. It gives thanks to the Lord for deliverance for his people, Israel. Of course, the psalm is to be read in relation to the birth of Jesus even though that has not happened yet. We have only had the visit of Mary, while pregnant with Jesus, to Elizabeth, John’s mother. While a psalm of thanksgiving, it anticipates the very deliverance it celebrates. As such it bears many of the themes that undergird the Christian hope of a messiah: from the house of David, spoken about by the prophets of old, a mercy promised to the ancestors long ago in covenant. In this context it epitomizes something about Advent and our Christian hope. Our Christian view of the world awaits with hope the coming of the Lord in all fullness at the same time that it celebrates the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in the world where we live our day to day lives. We celebrate the ‘already’ nature of what we wait for, what is ‘not yet’. That is the essence of Christian hope.

At the end of the song, Zechariah turns his attention to his own child, John, in what sounds like a ‘prophecy’ of what is to become of the child. In these words (vv. 76-79) Zechariah picks up words and ideas from Malachi (v. 76, cf. Mal 3:1; 4:5) and possibly Isaiah (v. 79, cf. Isa 9:2, 6). Two metaphors are used to express the hope for salvation of which Zechariah sings. One is in the form of the child over whom he sings. A child bears all the hopes and desires of those who nurture it in its infancy. As the parents celebrate the child’s birth, they celebrate all that they envision for that child in the future. The second is the coming of dawn. As one sits in darkness the light of the sun begins to spread across the landscape even before the sun rises and is visible. So in Advent we look forward to what is promised, the coming of the Lord in the birth of Jesus. We prepare ourselves for that even as John was to prepare the way of the one to come. On the other hand, our waiting and hope already participate in the celebration of the Lord’s Advent or coming. Our future hope is shaped by past traditions, but in turn it shapes our present living.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

Verses 68-70 can be used in the call to worship. It could be used responsively or be said by the worship leader:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.
Verses 72-77 can be modified for the declaration of forgiveness after the confession:
The Lord has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
And so I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ,
‘Your sins are forgiven.’
            Thanks be to God.
 Finally, the last two verse of the song can be used as an introduction to the final blessing:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
And the blessing of God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
will be upon you, now and forever.
Old Testament reading: Malachi 3:1-4

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