By Dr. Philip McLarty
Our Advent series concludes this morning with Zechariah’s song. It falls into two parts: The first praising God for the promise of redemption; the second, prophesying the role of John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of the Promised Messiah. Luke writes,
“Zacharias, was filled with the Holy Spirit,
and prophesied …” (Luke 1:67)
It’s a short intro, but packed with meaning. Zechariah is not speaking as a proud father of a newborn son, he’s speaking as one of the prophets of old who speak on God’s authority by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
This is no small matter. Now, as then, there are any number of people with strong convictions and persuasive abilities. Just watch the television or listen to the radio talk shows or read the political commentary in the newspaper or online.
You’ll get an ear full, but it won’t necessarily be the Word of God. It’ll be personal opinion based on the news of the day. At best, it’ll be well informed and contain a measure of truth, but it’s not likely to have a long shelf life. There’ll be other topics to talk about tomorrow.
God’s Word, on the other hand, is eternal and relevant to every age. While nations and kingdoms rise and fall, and principalities and powers come and go, God’s Word is sovereign over all generations. Isaiah said it best:
“The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God stands forever.”
Before Zechariah ever opened his mouth, the Spirit filled his soul and inspired him to sing God’s praise. And this is what he said:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people;
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David …
salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show mercy towards our fathers,
to remember his holy covenant, …
to grant to us that we … , should serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness …all the days of our lives.”
The history of the people of Israel is filled with long periods of subjection and slavery. They were captives in Egypt for over four hundred years. Once in the land of Canaan they were defeated by the Philistines, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians, only to be conquered by the Romans. Their glory days under David and Solomon were a brief exception to a recurring pattern of dispersion and exile.
Little wonder their hope lay in the promise of a Savior from on high, who would set them free, once and for all; a king whose kingdom would be forever.
Inspired by the Spirit, Zechariah sees that day coming. The long-awaited Messiah – the “horn of salvation from the house of David” – is on his way. It’s only a matter of time. The people will be able to worship and serve God without fear of further oppression from their enemies.
This raises two fundamental questions for us today: Who are our enemies? And what is our ultimate goal?
If you listen to the news of the day, our enemies include Al-Quaeda, North Korea, Iran, Muslim extremists, and terrorists in general. While I don’t doubt that these and others pose a threat to our national security, I wonder if these are the enemies we need most to fear?
Our greatest fear ought to be the enemy at work within us – our own selfish pride and the preponderance of greed and lust and narcissism that prevails in our culture. As a nation, we’re killing ourselves with unbridled consumerism and every form of entertainment and violence. We can’t seem to get enough to eat and drink or toys and gadgets to play with. Pogo speaks for us all:
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
As we stand on the threshold of Christmas, we need to be reminded that we are the ones who need to be delivered from the shackles of sin and death. The promise is Christ comes to unlock our prison doors and set us free. The question is: Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone and let Jesus be Lord of your life?
The promise of redemption applies only to those who are willing to be redeemed – those who are willing to turn from their sinful ways and surrender their lives to the Redeemer.
For several months now I’ve been getting a daily devotional from a longtime member of AA. They’re brief and to the point. They all have to do with the dynamics of following the Twelve Steps. They rest on one cardinal principle: You can’t have it both ways. You can’t continue to drink and stay sober. In order to experience a new life of sobriety, you have to leave your old life behind and turn to a Higher Power.
Whatever the addiction this is the essence of new life in Christ: Turn from sin and turn to Almighty God.
The second part of Zechariah’s song has to do with John the Baptist. He prophesies:
“And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God …”
There’s a difference between the knowledge of salvation and the real thing. A lot of people talk about being saved but fail to experience the joy of new life in Christ. This is nothing new. Paul ran across a group of Christians like this in Ephesus. Luke writes,
“Paul, having passed through the upper country,
came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples.
He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’
They said to him, ‘No, we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
He said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’
They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’
Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with the baptism of repentance,
saying to the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him,
that is, in Jesus.’
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them,
and they spoke with other languages and prophesied.
John told the people to repent of their sins, and that’s all well and good. You can’t embrace new life in Christ if you’re still holding on to your old way of life. It’s just that repentance is only half the story. The other half is turning to Christ. When that happens, you awaken to a new reality. You become a new creation. You’re born again into the life of the Spirit. Zechariah put it this way:
“… whereby the dawn from on high will visit us,
to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death;
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Charles Wesley took this image and set it to music, and it’s with his words that I’d like to close. The hymn begins with praise and ends with prayer. May it speak to each of us and lead us to new life in Christ.
Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Christ,
the true, the only Light;
Sun of Righteousness, arise;
triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Daystar, in my heart appear.
Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee;
Joyless is the day’s return
till Thy mercy’s beams I see;
Till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.
Visit then this soul of mine,
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, Radiancy divine,
scatter all my unbelief;
More and more Thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.