Light Shining in Darkness

Darkness is not just seasonal nor the challenges of 2020, whether medical, political, or cultural. At the heart of the darkness that Zechariah describes in Luke 1:76–79 is the darkness of sin.

Believe because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Believe the good news! Gabriel’s news had been overwhelming to Zechariah, and he was struck mute until the birth of his son, John. The punishment worked faith in Zechariah. Picture his frustration at the inability to speak. Imagine trying to explain (in writing and through gestures) that the reason you are unable to speak is that your faith was not great enough to accept the message of an angel that you and your aged wife were about to become parents! But during the nine months, Zechariah’s faith grew. Every time he tried to speak and couldn’t, he was reminded that at least one thing the angel had said was coming true. He came to believe, not only what became progressively obvious, that they were to become parents, but also that this child would indeed be the fore-runner for the Messiah. God calls you to believe the good news that in his Son he is involved in our lives. He comes to deal with our deepest problems–the sin that separates us from a holy God. Remember that the trials in your life can be used to help nurture your trust in your God.

But this faith is not self-initiated. Believe through the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit, here in the birth narratives, and throughout his two-volume work. These fillings in the birth narratives have an Old Testament character, where the Spirit does work, but far less fully than in the New Testament. But Jesus at his baptism will be filled with the Spirit for his work of being the Messiah. And, when that is completed, Volume 2 will open with another baptism of the Spirit–this time coming upon the church, so that it can carry on the work that Jesus began to do. It had been the quiet working of the Spirit in the heart of Zechariah that had led him from doubt to trust. “[T]he intimate details concerning Mary and the Baptist and the other secondary figures of the story are set forth only because they illumine the significance of the birth of Christ and so contribute to the proclamation of the gospel. In particular these historical details provide the occasions for a long series of inspired disclosures which cast a brilliant light upon the Child who was born in Bethlehem.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Luke to Christ, p.47) The same Spirit draws you to the Savior. But God has poured out his Spirit. That Spirit does draw you to the Savior. Recognition involves obedience. Zechariah not only began to believe, he obeyed by naming his son “John,” as the angel had commanded. The trust the Spirit works in your heart will be expressed in your life, or it is not genuine faith.

Sound praises to God for his tender mercy. Respond to God’s message. Mary’s song is a psalm or hymn. Zechariah’s words are also poetic, but they are more in the nature of a prophecy. God not only acts, he also provides the interpretation of his activity, showing us what it means.This song is a genuine composition by Zechariah. It reflects his being steeped in the Old Testament prophecies. Though some have speculated that this is a hymn of the church placed here in the mouth of Zechariah, note that this song has an Old Testament character. Salvation is being described in terms of deliverance from enemies, verses 71, 74, rather than the more explicit language you would expect from a Christian reflecting on the completed work of Christ. At the heart of the song is the message that God has been faithful to his covenant promises. He is coming to be with his people, and this child is going to prepare the way for God. Trust that faithfulness of God as you wrestle with your own sins, doubts, and failures. That faithfulness is not just an attitude of God’s. It is part of his nature, and it comes to expression in the gift of his Son. Luke includes this song because of the light it sheds on John’s work, and ultimately Christ’s. He wants Theophilus and you to understand.

Trust the God whose Son is the light of the world. Zechariah’s song is the Benedictus. He blesses God for his saving work. It draws from the rich songs of praise and prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Among the passages cited are Psalm 106:10,45-46,48; 107:14; 111:9; Genesis 17:7; 22:16-17; Malachi 3:1; 4:2; Isaiah 9:2; 58:8; 60:1-2. The child who has just received the name, John, is the messenger of the Most High. But the coming of the Lord is not in fiery judgment, but in grace. The tender mercy of God has shined down into the darkness of sin and rescued those who are perishing. The way of the Lord, for which John would prepare, involves the feet of God’s people being guided in the path of peace. God has come to forgive you, to cleanse you of your sin, and to draw you to himself. He calls you to respond. “In the birth of his son John the Baptist, and the near approach of Christ, Zecharias saw this kingdom close at hand…. Do we know anything of pardon? Have we turned from darkness to light? Have we tasted peace with God? These, after all, are the realities of Christianity. These are the things, without which church-membership and sacraments save no one’s soul. Let us never rest until we are experimentally acquainted with them.— Mercy and grace will give them to all who call on Christ’s name.— Let us never rest till the Spirit witnesses with our spirit that our sins are forgiven us,— that we have passed from darkness to light, and that we are actually walking in the narrow way, the way of peace.” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the GospelsLuke, pages 46–48) The “preparing the way” of v.76 is explained in v.77 as the people gaining the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. That message will be elaborated by John as he commands the crowds to repent, Luke 3:3.

As a priest in Israel Zechariah had a special calling to speak to the people for God and to God for the people. That task was interrupted by his silence, but, by faith and though the power of the Holy Spirit, was resumed in a more eloquent and meaningful way as he proclaimed the light of God’s presence in Jesus. Your knowledge of that light is richer than Zechariah’s Old Testament perspective. Can you respond with less than a voice of praise and a life of obedience?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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