The Gospel text for today is often called the Canticle of Zechariah or the Song of Zechariah. But, as often is the case, before there is a song, there is a story. Zechariah is the father of John The Baptist – and like Mary, he is visited by an angel. And things happen – as they do when an angel comes to call. So I’m going to share the story, then we’ll read the Scripture, and then we’ll think some on what Zechariah has to sing.
As the Gospel of Luke opens, Zechariah is a priest in the Temple. He and his wife Elizabeth are, Scripture tells us, “well along in years,” and they are childless. One day, Zechariah is in the Temple doing his priestly duties – preparing the space for worship – lighting candles (or lamps), preparing the Scripture, tending the holy spaces – when an angel appears and says, “Zechariah, fear not, your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth is going to have a son. This son will not only be your joy and delight, but he will bring the people back to God – he will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah takes a step back, in the quiet of the place, and he says, “How can this be? We are old.”
And the angel replies, “Oh, Zechariah, it can be, and it will be. I am Gabriel, I stand in God’s presence, and I’ve been sent to tell you this good news. But because you have not believed my words, you will not be able to speak until this comes to pass.” And Zechariah goes silent.
Elizabeth does conceive, and then for nine months we hear nothing from Zechariah – silence – as the other Advent stories we know so well unfold. The angel comes to Mary (Elizabeth’s cousin), and announces that Mary will bear the Christ. Mary runs to her cousin Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb, and she calls out to Mary: “Mother of my Lord!” And Mary sings the Magnificat – “My soul glorifies God. God is bringing down the powerful, and lifting up the lowly.” (We’ll talk about that song in a couple of weeks.)
And then, nine months later, we circle back to Zechariah – who has been silent for these 9 months of pregnancy – unable to speak – and Elizabeth gives birth. A crowd gathers, and they are ready to name the baby after his father. That’s how it’s done. But Elizabeth steps in and says, “His name is John.” And, she’s a woman, so, don’t you know, the crowd looks to Zechariah, the man. Well?
And Zechariah looks to Elizabeth. And he motions for a tablet. And he writes out: “His. Name. Is. John.” And in that moment, Zechariah can speak. After 9 months of silence, Zechariah can speak, and don’t you know it, Zechariah has something to say. And what he says – or sings – is today’s Scripture:
68 “Blessed be the God of Israel, for God has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them. 69 God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of God’s servant David, 70 as spoken through the mouth of God’s holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered the holy covenant, 73 the oath that God swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before God all our days. 76 And you, my 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.”
Now, it’s not surprising that Zechariah sings of salvation. God has done what God said God would do. This child to this couple well along in years. A way out of no way. The impossible possible. Here, embodied in this baby. Indeed, this is the song that their people – God’s people – have been singing for centuries. Think of the Psalms. This is a people crushed and oppressed by Empire, and again and again, the people cry out – they sing – for God to save them from every kind of hurt and harm – from violence, from oppression, from enemies, from fear, from ourselves. So it’s not surprising that after nine months of silence and this miraculous birth, Zechariah opens his mouth and sings – maybe he shouts: “God is raising up for us a savior! A savior who will save us from all our enemies.”
But then Zechariah sings something that startles. In this song of salvation, Zechariah sings that God is doing this, God is saving us – through God’s tender mercy : “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.” Salvation is coming, not in the power of mighty armies, but in the power of God’s tender mercy. It is a tender mercy that will bring down every despot and lift up the downtrodden – it is tender mercy that will save us from everything that does us harm.
That’s not what I’d expect to find here. In their world of violence and oppression and power-over and the brute force of empire, the powers will be brought down – by tender mercy. That’s what Zechariah says. And it makes me wonder – if that’s what Zechariah says – what has Zechariah seen? In these 9 months of silence, what has he seen and heard and experienced that has led him to this particular exultation – or, in the words of the text, this particular prophecy: God is saving us by tender mercy.
What has happened to Zechariah in the silence before this song?
We can only imagine – because we know Zechariah has had some time to think. After the angel leaves him in that temple, unable to speak, Zechariah probably can’t do most of what he usually does as a temple priest, and to be honest, he probably wasn’t welcomed in the temple and its holy places – because he would have been seen as incomplete, broken.
So Zechariah goes home – to Elizabeth – and at first, he probably spends most of his days there. (I think of how my grandmother used to joke that when my grandfather retired what a blessing it was to have him at home – All. The. Time.) And while he is at home, Zechariah has time to watch Elizabeth – to really see her – maybe for the first time. He sees how early she gets up in the morning and how hard she works on into the night. He sees that she is a leader in the community – that the women who live nearby come to her for advice and help – this woman well along in years. He sees how the community of women work together so that each of their families will survive in a world of bare subsistence living – extra cooking for another family when one of them is sick, carrying water when someone is down in the back, weeping with each other in times of death and loss. He is there that day when Mary comes in a panic, and she and Elizabeth huddle and talk in hushed tones, and then sing in loud shouts—something about God lifting up the lowly.
In his silence, Zechariah listens. He listens to Elizabeth. Now, he has to hear what she has to say. He gets to hear her wisdom – hear her chatter – hear what the world looks like to someone who is not a privileged male priest.
And in the evenings, they sit together – this couple well along in years, expecting a child – they sit together as the twilight fades, in the silence at the dimming of the day. His hand in hers.
But Zechariah can’t stay around the house all the time, so he wanders back to the temple – to the places he knows – or at least to the temple courts – and he sees what he used to just pass by. He sees the moneychangers in the temple courts, exploiting the poor. He sees the people coming and going – the Pharisees and the priests and the teachers of the law – in their fancy clothes – saying their prayers, loud and long , always taking the best. He sees them talking with the Roman soldiers, yucking it up, complicit in the power of empire.
And over the course of days, he starts to notice things even more subtle. He sees this widow who comes every week and leaves her offering – just two coins – but it’s everything she has got. He starts to notice every day – always at a distance – this woman standing at the fringes of the temple court – not allowed in because she suffers with a bleeding disease – she will suffer for years until that day when she can reach out and touch the hem of the garment of the One who will heal her hurt.
And as the days go on, Zechariah starts to wander out a bit further, out into the streets – maybe even to the nearby villages. He sees the lepers at the city gate – a blind man begging – he sees folks not in their right mind (“possessed by demons” as they’d say in Zechariah’s day) – desperately in need of calm and clarity. He sees these 4 boys, who carry their friend everywhere on a mat because he cannot walk – they’ll do this for years, until one day they will lower him down through a roof, with fervent healing hope.
In his days of silence, Zechariah sees the world that Jesus will see. He sees the trouble and the hurt – the violence and the injustice – and the kindness and the hope, and the will to survive.
So in that moment, after nine months of silence, after nine months of seeing and listening and paying attention, when the crowd of men is shouting at Elizabeth to name this child after his father, Zechariah keeps his eyes on Elizabeth, standing there steadfast, and he remembers. He remembers God’s saving love – faithful over the years – leading those in slavery out into freedom, finding those in exile and bringing them home. And Zechariah sees this child that they never thought they’d have. God’s faithful saving love, again and again over time, and right here, right now. And Zechariah writes on a slate, with a broad grin toward Elizabeth, “It’s like she said. His name is John.” And maybe it’s not all that surprising that Zechariah then opens his mouth and sings, “God is raising up for us a savior... 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.”
Zechariah sings of tender mercy writ small – those tender mercies we know in our bones. A mother’s voice singing her child to sleep. A hand to hold in our deepest loss. A cool sip of water on a dry dusty day.
AND, Zechariah sings of tender mercy writ large. He explicitly connects salvation with tender mercy: God’s liberating work and God’s acts of tender mercy – are not two different things – they are one and the same.
You see, the work we do to bring down systems of oppression, we do so that everyone can live free in every moment of their ordinary lives. This church has worked so long for Palestinian rights, so that real people are no longer harassed at checkpoints, no longer segregated by the walls of apartheid. Real people in their real lives. The tender mercy of basic human dignity. We do anti-racism work, so that after a long day of working two jobs, a mother doesn’t need to fear for her black son’s life when he walks down to the convenience store to get a Coke. We work to end oppressive economic and political systems so that actual, real, specific people will not go to bed tonight hungry, so that they will sleep in place of shelter, so that they will have opportunity, so that they can build lives of dignity.
Zechariah’s song invites us into the saving work of tender mercy – to embody good news to the poor – to bind up the broken-hearted – to work for the release of every captive, for the full freedom of all who are oppressed. What does God require of us? To do justice, love kindness – to love tender mercy, and walk humbly with God and with each other. Out of the silence, Zechariah’s song suggests to us that when we are gone from this earth, the thing that will matter most are the tender mercies that we’ve done while we were here. Out of the silence, Zechariah’s song gives us something to do – the saving work of tender mercy.
And, it feels to me – in these days – with the Scripture and its promise of tender mercy – that one more word is needed. And it is this: Maybe you walked in here today in need of tender mercy. Maybe there’s some part of you that is hurting, or grieving, or just plain bewildered. I don’t know what it is. But I do know this. This promise of God’s saving love, this promise of tender mercy, it is a promise for you. God has loved you from the moment of creation. For all time, God has loved God’s people and accompanied them through every minute of every day. And when things were worst, God came to us in Jesus Christ, God comes to us in Jesus Christ, and walks with us, and talks with us – extends to us a healing touch, and a strong shoulder – gives us a song to sing – inviting us and empowering us to live the lives of tender mercy that we were created to live.
In his silence, Zechariah saw the world that Jesus sees, and the song that Zechariah sings – this song of Advent – it is a song for you, and for me, and for all people and all time:
“God is raising up for us a savior...
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.”
© Scott Clark, 2019. All rights reserved.