At the 10:00 service today, we will have our annual service of Advent lessons and carols. If you’ve never attended, it brings together readings from Hebrew Scripture, primarily from the prophets, and the New Testament, to help us focus our attention on some of Advent’s major themes. It is intended to help us prepare for Christmas. The songs of Advent draw on prophetic imagery; they are filled with expectation and hope, they express the promises of Hebrew Scripture that Christians believe are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
There are other songs that we are singing this Advent, songs we sing every Advent, songs that Christians have been singing for nearly two thousand years. They are the songs that Luke puts in the mouths of characters in his story of Jesus’ birth, like the one we said together a few minutes ago, the Song of Zechariah. In fact, in the first two chapters of his gospel, Luke includes at least five such songs. Among them are the words Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth says when she greets her young cousin Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” There’s the song sung by the angels when they appear to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the Highest.” There’s the song Mary herself sings, the magnificat, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And finally, there is the Song of Simeon, the words he said when the infant Jesus was brought to the temple to be circumcised, “Lord, you now have set your servant free.”
These are the songs of Advent. They are also the songs of our liturgy. The song the angels sang is the song we sing in the Eucharist, the Gloria. The others have been sung by Christians for 2000 years, and if you say daily prayer, the Magnificat, the Songs of Simeon and Zechariah appear as canticles, said or chanted regularly. They are also the songs of the earliest Christians. We assume that Luke didn’t write them but rather adapted them from hymns that were sung by early Christians. He adapted them for his use, putting words he heard in worship into the mouths of the characters in his story, adding or changing emphasis to fit the particular contexts in which they now appear.
But these songs weren’t even invented or composed by those early Christians. Instead, these early believers were adapting hymns, songs, imagery with which they were already familiar to a new context. For all of them, all of these songs that appear in Luke’s gospel, draw heavily on early songs, the songs of Judaism, the collection of hymns we know as the Book of Psalms, and that has served in one form or another, as the hymnal of Judaism for some 2500 years. So to sing these songs of Advent is to sing the hope, expectation and promise of two and a half millennia, to join our voices, not only with angels and archangels, the host of heaven, but with all those who have gone before us in the faith.
So these songs deserve our closer attention. But before we turn to the words Luke put in the mouth of Zechariah, I want to remind you of the story that surrounds this song. Here, too, Luke draws our attention not only to the birth of John the Baptizer, but he connects that story with the archetypal stories of the Hebrew Bible, the stories of patriarchs and prophets.
Unfortunately, we don’t hear Zechariah’s story today, we only sing his song, and while the song makes those deeper connections with the story of God’s salvation history, the narrative that surrounds the song makes those connections even more strongly. Zechariah and Elizabeth are elderly and childless. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, they have wanted children but their desires have remained unmet. Like Abraham before him, Zechariah receives a divine message that his elderly and barren wife will have a son. Like Abraham before him, he doubts the message and the messenger.
There are echoes of another story from the Hebrew Bible, that of the birth of Samuel. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Samuel’s parents, Elkanah and Hannah were barren. Like Zechariah and Hannah, Samuel’s story plays out around the temple. When he is born, he is dedicated to God as a Nazirite, one who didn’t cut his hair or drink wine. Hannah’s song of praise when he is born will be transformed into Mary’s song, the Magnificat. So Luke’s readers would hear all of these echoes and understand immediately what is going on. Luke is making a connection between events in Jesus’ story with the larger story of salvation history. He is showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and hoped for by Jewish people for centuries.
Zechariah is struck dumb for ten months, from the moment he doubts the angel’s words until the birth of his son. When he can speak again, it is not through mortal agency, any more than it was through mortal agency that his son was conceived or he lost his voice in the first place. Luke writes that when John was born, Zechariah was suddenly able to speak and began praising God. The canticle we read earlier are the words that Luke puts in Zechariah’s mouth, words that came about because Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophecy.
His words are words of promise and fulfillment, restating the hope of salvation coming through the long-awaited Messiah. But he sees signs of that promise fulfilled in the birth of his son, who will himself point to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. When we join with Zechariah in singing this song, we place ourselves in the middle of the season’s expectant hope. Our words are the words of ancient Hebrews and first-century Jewish Christians. With them, we proclaim our faith in God’s promises; we look forward to our salvation. And we can sing from the position of Zechariah, who with the birth of his son knows that “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.”
One of the miracles of Advent is that for a few brief weeks, all of salvation history, the whole story of God’s reaching out to us, is collapsed into our lives in these darkening days of December. Through our prayers and worship, we unite with the voices, the hopes and faith of countless generations, in awaiting the coming of the Savior. God’s tender compassion comes to us as it has to the generations before us and will continue to come for generations to come.