Zechariah’s Christmas Chorus
November 30, 2013 | Brian Bill
A couple years ago I was one of the chaperones for my daughter and some of her classmates while they rang bells for the Salvation Army at a local grocery store. For 2 ½ hours this group of girls sang every Christmas carol they knew.
It was fun watching people come out of the store with sour looks on their faces but when they heard the carols of Christmas, they immediately started smiling. One commented, “This is the best thing I’ve seen today.” Another said, “This makes me happy.” At least three individuals started dancing. Many sang along with the songs.
One woman came out of the store and immediately started crying. She came over and put some money in the bucket and thanked the girls. She then moved about 10 yards away and kept crying. She came up again and put some more money in. Now she was smiling ear to ear. When we found out it was her birthday, the girls serenaded her with “Happy Birthday.” She cried some more and put some more money in.
During this entire time, the girls took only one five-minute break. When they were gone, I rang the bell and all the people went back to being grumpy and Grinch-like with their money. The girls came back and told me that they had been asked to sing inside the store! As soon as they cranked up the carols the smiles returned and the money started flowing again. I just slithered into the background. It’s a good thing I’ve never been asked to sing for the offering or wouldn’t have enough money to turn the lights on.
We’re kicking off a seasonal sermon series today by focusing on the very first Christmas carols. The tradition of singing at Christmastime is as old as Christmas itself. We’ll see that the central characters in the Christmas story respond instantly to their part in God’s plan with expressions of praise and worship. All of these original lyrics are recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Here’s an assignment right at the beginning of the message today – read the first two chapters of Luke as many times as you can between now and Christmas.
These four songs, which make up our Christmas concert series, are often known by their Latin titles which are simply taken from the first word or two from the song.
- Today we’ll listen to Zechariah’s Christmas Chorus, known as the Benedictus. I actually worked on pronouncing the first five words of the song in Latin: Benedictus esto Dominus Deus Israelis. I guess my time as an altar boy in the 60s was not in vain.
- Next week we’ll tune into Mary’s Music, called the Magnificat.
- In two weeks, we’ll worship along with Simeon’s Salvation Song. This has the best title because it’s fun to say: Nunc Dimittis. When I asked a pastor friend if he knew what this meant he thought it was something from Monty Python!
- And on Christmas Day we’ll hear the Angel’s Alleluia, commonly referred to as the Gloria in Excelsis.
These pieces of prophetic poetry have survived for over 2,000 years. Philip Ryken refers to them as “the last of the Hebrew psalms and the first of the Christian hymns…the gospel is and must be musical…what He has done must be celebrated in song.” For those who know me, the whole idea of a series about songs probably makes you smile because I am not musical at all. While I’ve been listening to Christmas music on my Pandora playlist every day, because I don’t have a good voice, I don’t have a good musical self-image.
Some time ago, the Christmas devotional we used as a family suggested a song for us to sing. None of us recognized the tune and then one of my daughters said, “Daddy, I’ve never heard you sing except at church.” Beth replied, “I think it’s because he doesn’t have a song in his heart.” She was kidding (I hope). She knows that I’m actually too shy to sing most of the time so she said, “Just let your inhibitions go and sing…take a deep breath and belt it out.” To which my daughter said, “I don’t want to be here when he does that!” Well, don’t worry. I’m done quoting Latin and I’m not planning to chant or rap the sermon. And I am working on singing more, just not around people I know.
Before we look at the lyrics, let’s go BTM (Behind the Music) for a few minutes to get the back-story on our Christmas composer for today.
Behind the Music
Imagine if you lived without any message from God…no Bible, no preaching, only silence from above. Since the time of Malachi in the Old Testament God’s people had waited four hundred years to hear from Him. On top of that, the gap between earth and heaven seemed insurmountable. During these “silent years,” some of God’s people held on to hope, others were stuck in ritual and routine, and still others were not even thinking about God and His promises anymore. King Herod had built idols, immorality was rampant and spiritual life among God’s people had lost its vitality. Kind of sounds like our country and culture today, doesn’t it?
If you’d like to follow along, I’m going to retell the story as found in Luke 1:5-25. A priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth lived during this time of deep darkness and despair. If we could color their lives, it would be gray and gloomy and the sky would be cloudy all the day. They had another silence in their life because they had no children. In that time, to not have a kid was considered a curse. Every couple had hopes that the Messiah would come through them. Their unmet desires had led to unspoken despair.
Perhaps you’re living with some silent pain right now as you struggle with infertility or with a miscarriage. You are not alone and there are others here at Edgewood who can help you with your pain. Maybe you’re grieving the loss of a son or daughter, or grandchild, or a parent or grandparent or a friend or a sibling. Maybe you wonder how your teenager could turn out to be so rebellious or how your finances went south so quickly or why your marriage ended up in such a mess. Or maybe you’re single and ache to be married. Like Zechariah you’ve been waiting for something to change or for an answer you’re not sure will ever come. Heaven is silent. But then, humiliated and hopeless, Zechariah was about to hear some words that he could hardly believe.
He was a priest, one of twenty thousand, and two weeks out of the year when his division was on duty, he would travel to Jerusalem for his Temple responsibilities. This time he was chosen by lot to be the one to enter the Holy Place and burn incense outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a huge privilege! Jewish tradition taught that the priest who offered this incense would be “rich and holy” for the rest of his life.
Zechariah arranges the incense and offers prayers of intercession for the people. While he’s doing that, a multitude is out in the courtyard praying as well. They’re waiting for him to come back and pronounce the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine upon you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”
But Zechariah is delayed. As the smoke from the incense shielded his eyes, he thought he saw someone, and then he realized he was face-to-face with an angel and became afraid. Actually, the text says that he was “gripped with fear.” Zechariah was afraid because there was supposed to be no one else in this Holy Place with him. Perhaps he was thinking about what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they carried out this ritual in a wrong way and were vaporized by God (see Leviticus 10). The dangers of his duty were well known to everyone. The idea was to get in, offer incense and prayer, and get out as soon as possible.
And then, on the right side of the altar, which was considered the side of favor, the angel Gabriel appears. His initial message has two parts. First, “Do not be afraid.” And then, “Your prayer has been heard.” They were going to have a son! Verses 14-15 explain what kind of man he would turn out to be and verses 16-17 describe the message he would preach. Among his tasks would be to bring people back to the Lord and to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children,” which we heard first from Malachi and we so desperately need in our culture today.
When Gabriel tells him that he is going to be a father in Luke 1:18, Zechariah immediately asks for some sort of sign: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.” [That’s a nice way to say Elizabeth was old] Zechariah was really saying, “I can’t believe it.” The phrase, “I am an old man” is a very emphatic statement. In verse 19 Gabriel responds by using the same emphatic expression: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.” He was no ordinary angel – he was God’s top gun, appearing earlier to Daniel and later to Mary. It’s as if Gabriel was saying, “You might be an old geezer, but I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God. Don’t you think God can handle this?”
He was too busy asking questions and focusing on problems to really hear God
On one hand Zechariah’s question seems valid (he and his wife really were well past normal childbearing ages); on the other hand, he should have known better. He was too busy asking questions and focusing on problems to really hear God. Now he would have nine months to listen. We see this in verse 20: “But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.”
Interestingly, Zechariah had asked for a sign and now for nine months he had to use sign language to communicate. Someone has wondered what the greater miracle is here – Elizabeth having a baby in her old age or a preacher keeping silent for nine months! The people now wonder what happened to him because he can’t talk or hear (see verse 62). He’s going to be a new father and he can’t tell anyone!
By the way, in the din of the Christmas madness and endless commercials appealing to commercialism, don’t let the cacophony of competing sounds and voices keep you from hearing the true music of the season. We need to figure out a way to slow down and be quiet. If we don’t we’ll miss the message of Christmas because God speaks in the silence. What do you think you would learn if you couldn’t speak or hear anything for 9 months? Or how about 9 weeks? Or 9 days? 9 hours? 9 minutes? For some of us, it would be tough to be silent for 9 seconds.
We pick up the story in 1:57. About nine months later, their baby is born. Notice that Zechariah is still deaf and dumb. Eight days later, the whole town comes out to the circumcision ceremony because it’s the baby’s big day where he enters the covenant community and is given his name. Everyone assumes it will be Zech, Jr. Elizabeth insists that he is to be called John. The people get all worked up because the firstborn son was almost always named after the father or a relative. John asks for an iPad (it does say a “tablet”), and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Actually, in the Greek New Testament, Zechariah wrote: “John is his name.”
Inside the Music
I love what happens next. The song in his heart explodes with pent-up praise. The first words he says are not directed to his wife or to his family, nor does he talk about sports or shopping. His first response is an exuberant eruption of adoration! All the neighbors are filled with awe and all the shoppers start smiling. By the way, this is a perfect example of how God’s discipline does not disqualify us. His time of silence was really an act of mercy, not judgment.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah breaks out in prophetic praise. Let’s look at the opening stanza of the song in verse 68 and also verse 78: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people…through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us.”
Zechariah is blessing God for blessing him. These verses capture the main theme of this Christmas chorus.
Do you see that the word “visit” is used twice? This word originates from a root that means, “To visit personally” and was used by Jesus in Matthew 25:36 when He said, “I was sick and you visited me.” God saw us in our sin-sick state and sent His Son to come and visit us. This word was used of seeing someone in a bad situation and then intervening personally in order to provide a solution.
I should move on but I can’t because there’s another nuance that is so meaningful. The word “visit” can also be translated as “to tent upon.” That’s exactly what’s behind John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” Friends, that’s what happened at Christmas! Jesus personally visited us and dwelt among us to save us from our sins.
I like Isaiah 64:1 because it captures the longing for God to come down to our world: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That you would come down!” It’s hard for us to fully comprehend this because we live on this side of Christmas. The prophets predicted His coming but nothing was happening. Almost 1,000 years had passed since King David ruled and four centuries had gone by after Malachi’s last message. While some had lost hope, others held on, longing for a visitation from God.
As Zechariah looks down at his baby boy, he knows that help is almost here. Somehow his son would prepare the way for the One who is the Way. The long wait is now over! The song, “O Come, O Come Immanuel” sums it up well. The Benedictus is all about God’s coming to earth. Nearly every phrase in this Christmas Chorus is filled with biblical references, especially from the Prophets. Here are five specific facts about the Divine Visitation.
1. Christ’s coming provides salvation.
Zechariah mentions God’s saving purpose in four different ways:
- Redemption: “For He has visited and redeemed His people.” (68) To “redeem” means to release from bondage through the payment of a price.
- Salvation: “And has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” (69) The horn is not a musical instrument but the deadly weapon of a wild animal. It symbolized both strength and victory as the animal’s strength was concentrated in the horn. Likewise, the Father’s divine strength is concentrated in Christ, who has gored Satan, pierced death and gutted sin. This power saves us and protects us.
- Rescue: “That we should be saved from our enemies.” (71) “To rescue us from the hand of our enemies.” (74)
- Forgiveness: “To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” (77)
Zechariah is telling us that Jesus did not visit this planet simply to see how we were doing. He knew we were in a mess. That’s why He came! We were drowning in our sins and He came to save us. That’s what Christmas is all about.
2. Christ’s coming fulfills prophecy.
As a godly Jew, Zechariah can’t get over the fact that God has at long last kept his promises. Zechariah sings three stanzas extolling fulfilled prophecy:
- Promised by the prophets. “As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets.” (70)
- Cherished by the fathers. “To perform the mercy promised to our fathers.” (72)
- Guaranteed by oath to Abraham. “And to remember His holy covenant, the oath which He swore to our father Abraham.” (72-73)
The point is clear: God is now doing what He promised He would do. The prophets saw it coming. Micah spoke of it, and so did Isaiah and Jeremiah. Even old Abraham looked forward to this day, as did Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. They all saw it coming; they just didn’t know exactly when it would happen. Zechariah is telling us something very crucial: God has visited the world in the person of Jesus Christ and nothing will ever be the same again.
3. Christ’s coming gives us purpose.
In verses 74 and 75 Zechariah speaks of the total transformation Jesus will make in the lives of those who follow him. Salvation leads to sanctification which always leads to service:
- Sanctification. “In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.”
- Serving. “Might serve Him without fear.” I love how salvation leads us to live lives of serving. He saved you so that you might fulfill the highest calling in the universe – serving God without fear in righteousness and holiness forever!
God gives us grace so that we can live for His glory. We’re blessed to be a blessing and saved to serve.
4. Christ’s coming will be prepared by John.
Now Zechariah considers the significance of the infant son he holds in his arms. In verses 76 and 77 he sings joyfully to John and utters three specific predictions about his future:
- He will be a prophet of God. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest.”
- He will prepare the way of the Lord. “For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways.”
- He will preach forgiveness. “To give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.”
This is exactly what John the Baptist did. His whole mission was to make the nation ready for the coming of Messiah. He was a prophet, a preparer and a preacher of salvation. John began his ministry by going out to the desert region around the Jordan River and preaching repentance. He baptized many people and so helped prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. When John saw Jesus, he cried out, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Did you notice that there are only two verses in this entire song that have to do with Zechariah’s own son? The rest of this chorus has to do with the Savior because this dad recognized the subordinate position of his own son. Parents, this is a good challenge for us. Zechariah was good with John being second to Jesus.
We need to train our kids to be servants and not to think that they’re the best or the brightest, entitled to a life focused only on fulfilling their own needs. We need to teach and model that they were created to put Christ first, deflecting attention from themselves to the Savior. One of the purposes of our parenting is to help our kids see their role in preparing others to come to Christ.
He prepared people for Jesus’ first coming; as we decrease we can point people to the deliverance that Jesus offers.
John was all about putting Jesus first and pointing people away from himself so that they would see the Savior. We would do well to mimic his life mission as found in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John was focused on being second, not first. He prepared people for Jesus’ first coming; as we decrease we can point people to the deliverance that Jesus offers.
5. Christ’s coming brings blessings.
In one final burst of praise Zechariah speaks of three great benefits:
- Light to those who are in darkness. “With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us.” (78) This refers to a new day and a fresh start. Above all, it speaks of hope to the hurting as He comes with healing in his wings.
- Pardon to those condemned to death. “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” (79) We’re all sitting in the darkness of our sin, waiting for death to devour us.
- Guidance to those who have lost their way. To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (79)
Nothing like this has ever happened before. God has visited his people and nothing will ever be the same again. Christmas is only 24 days away. What songs will you sing in honor of the One who has come? Will it be “Deck the halls with boughs of holly?” Or, “Jingle Bell Rock?” Or, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas?” or “Grandma got run over by a reindeer?” If Christmas is only cute carols on the radio or tinsel on a tree or gifts and parties and food, then we’ve missed the real musical message of Christmas. Christmas is about the transcendent truth that God has at last visited us in order to save us.
God has visited his people in the person of Jesus Christ. Now that same Divine Visitor comes and knocks at the door of your heart. Will you open the door and let him in? The visitor from heaven is here at last! Will you, like Zechariah of old, drop everything and welcome him into your world? Or are you too busy this year to be bothered with Jesus?
There are three words that capture the essence of Christmas.
- Sin. That’s how we come into the world.
- Savior. He has come to our world.
- Salvation. He came willingly as our Sacrifice and we must come to Him in submission.
I recently read a book by Philip Ryken called, “The Incarnation in the Gospels.” I like how he summarizes salvation: “Salvation is not a human invention, but a divine visitation. It is not something we achieve by going to God, but something God has done by coming to us in Christ.”
Beyond the Music
Here are some action steps that we can draw out from this song.
1. Keep praying no matter how long you’ve been waiting.
Don’t lose heart. Keep seeking the Lord.
2. Go on a God hunt.
Ask the Lord to show you where He is at work. Determine to slow down so that you can see Him and throughout the day look for ways to be used by Him. You just may be surprised and come across an angel unawares (see Hebrews 13:2).
3. Point people to Jesus.
Let’s decrease so that Christ can increase. Begin praying now about who God wants you to invite to our Christmas Eve services at 4:00 or 6:00 p.m.
4. Give your life to Christ.
As you hear the carols of Christmas, how can you not but give something? The issue is not what we may put in a kettle. The number one offering God wants is your life. Zechariah didn’t get his voice back until he acted in faith…until he wrote out his son’s name. In a similar way, we won’t be saved until we scribble out the Son’s name. Will you write the name “Jesus” as your Savior and offer your life to Him?
I like the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.