A sermon on Luke 1:68-79 and Isaiah 11:1-5, 10-12 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church
Our New Testament reading today is known as the “Song of Zechariah.” Luke introduces this as a prophetic word spoken by Zechariah, uttered as he was moved by the Holy Spirit. It is a deeply poetic expression of hope for what was happening in Israel as a result of God’s activity in Zechariah’s own family. You may recall Zechariah’s story. He was a priest in Judea, and his wife Elizabeth was also born from a priestly family. They were getting on in years, and Elizabeth had not been able to have any children – not until, that is, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, while Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple, and told him that his wife Elizabeth was going to conceive and bear a son in nine months, whom they would name “John,” which in Hebrew means “God has shown favor.” Zechariah said, essentially, “Yeah, right. Why should I believe that?” Gabriel replied, “I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you a sign. You will be mute, unable to speak another word for nine months until what I have foretold comes about.” This, in turn, prompted the “Song of Elizabeth,” an exuberant hymn of praise to God that has not been recorded in Scripture.
Zechariah now knows that his own son is going to be special, having been announced by an angel as very few babies had been announced in Israel’s history. Six months later, cousin Mary comes to visit the pregnant Elizabeth with surprising news of her own – she, too, is to bear a son, about whom the same angel, Gabriel, said even more amazing things:
“He will be great, and will be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever – there will not be an end to his kingdom!” (Luke 1:32-33).
Zechariah has three more months to ponder these things until Elizabeth comes to full term and gives birth to their son. At the baby’s circumcision, with all the family gathered around, Elizabeth announces that the child will be named “John,” as the angel had instructed. The extended family has trouble with this, since it’s not a name in the family, so they go to Zechariah and make signs to him to find out what he wants to name the baby. He reaches for his writing tablet and wrote down, “His name is John.” Actually, the first thing he wrote down was, “Really? Sign language? I’m mute, not deaf, you idiots!” Nevertheless, when he fulfills the angel’s word by naming his son “John,” he is able once again to speak, at which point he shouts the hymn of praise that we heard read today.
In this song, Zechariah says that God is doing great things for Israel, raising up a “horn of salvation” for God’s people. This is an image that has long since ceased to communicate, but in the literature of ancient Israel a “horn” was a symbol of strength and ascendancy. In a number of texts, it is specifically connected with the Davidic king and with God’s restoration of David’s line of kings:
“The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10 ESV).
“There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed” (Ps. 132:17 ESV).
This seems to be Zechariah’s expectation as well: “He raised up a horn of deliverance for us in the house of David, his servant, just as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Luke 1:69-70).
But what was Zechariah really expecting? What was Zechariah looking for in a Messiah, God’s “anointed one”? I dare say that he had no expectation of seeing Mary’s child nailed up to and dying on a Roman cross; he had no expectation that his own son, as the forerunner and herald of this Messiah, would end up imprisoned and beheaded by a king not from David’s line – Herod Antipas, a Jewish puppet king propped up by Rome, whom Jesus would leave on the throne of Galilee alongside the Roman governor ruling Judea.
We have the benefit of looking back on Jesus and his Messiahship from a vantage point almost two thousand years after his resurrection from the dead. We have the benefit of centuries and centuries of re-reading the Old Testament and seeing from beginning to end what we now think of as “prophecies” about Jesus, about the kind of deliverance that Jesus accomplished for humanity, and about the shape that his Messiahship would take – a process that, according to Luke, started with Jesus himself as he walked with two of his clueless disciples on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection:
“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:25-27 NRSV)
I have frequently heard people remark, “How could the Jewish people not recognize their Messiah when Jesus lined up with so many prophecies in their own Scriptures?” What is clear in hindsight – and from the position of having experienced being accepted and adopted by God in Jesus, of having experienced the resurrected Lord and being enlightened by the Holy Spirit – was so far from clear for those in Zechariah’s day looking ahead to God’s deliverance that no single Jewish author prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and no single Jewish author outside of the Jesus movement that formed after Jesus’ death and resurrection, gave expression to this kind of Messiah. He was truly a Messiah that no one expected, at least, no one that’s left us anything in writing from the period – and that’s a lot of writing. I’ve been through almost all surviving Jewish literature between the Old Testament and the second century AD – the Apocrypha, the collection known by the horrible title “Pseudepigrapha,” the Dead Sea Scrolls, the writings of Philo and Josephus, and the earliest rabbinic texts – and not one, I repeat, not one Jewish author talks about a Messiah who would teach, heal, lead a peaceful resistance movement, die a condemned criminal, rise from the dead, and ascend to God’s right hand until some future coming in judgment.
Now, the Jewish people were not all expecting the same kind of Messiah. Hopes for what the Messiah would do and who the Messiah would be depended in large measure on what particular Jews thought was most wrong in the world as they were experiencing it. There was a great deal of consensus about a few things that were wrong, however. Gentiles, whom God had not chosen, were in charge of the land and the people that God had chosen. The majority of the people that God had chosen were scattered across the Mediterranean and Middle East outside of the land that God had given to them as a result of centuries of Gentile conquest and domination. The Jewish rulers who had enjoyed authority prior to Rome’s intervention, and the Jewish rulers who now enjoyed authority in cooperation with Rome, were not the people to whom God had promised such authority, which belonged to the family of David.
This rather broadly shared sense of what was wrong in the world, given God’s historic promises to the people of Israel, gave rise to a broadly shared set of convictions about what God’s Messiah would do when God chose to send deliverance to God’s people. We can listen to one Jew from about fifty years before Jesus’ birth give expression to these expectations for a Messiah:
Look, O Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, … that he may reign over Israel your servant. Endow him with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers and that he may purge Jerusalem of the Gentile nations that trample her down to destruction. In the wisdom of righteousness he will thrust out sinners from the inheritance; … he will destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth…. And he will gather together a holy people, whom he will lead in righteousness…. And he will divide them according to their tribes upon the land. And neither sojourner nor alien will live among them anymore…. And he will have the people of the Gentiles to serve him under has yoke…. Blessed are they that will be in those days, in that they will see the good fortune of Israel, in the gathering together of the tribes, which God will accomplish. (Psalms of Solomon 17, selections)
According to this profile, our hymn “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” is inaccurate. A Messiah may have been “long expected,” but not the Messiah that Jesus turned out to be. Where did the Jews get their expectations? If we were to be completely honest, we’d have to admit that they have deep scriptural roots. We have to be very selective when reading Old Testament “prophecies” in Advent. Consider our lesson from Isaiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [David’s father], and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” a promised ruler upon whom God’s Spirit will rest, who will judge in righteousness, who will bring peace to the land. But what didn’t we read from Isaiah 11. “They shall swoop down on the backs of the Philistines in the west, together they shall plunder the people of the east. They shall put forth their hand against Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites will serve them” (Is 11:14) – a vision of a restored Kingdom of Israel, specifically, violently subjugating the non-Jewish nations all around Israel’s territory.
Zechariah likely expected his son John, who would become known as John “the Baptizer,” to be the forerunner and herald of such a nationalistic Messiah – a Messiah who would restore the monarchy and kingdom of the house of David; a Messiah through whom God’s promises to Abraham and Abraham’s legitimate offspring, the people of Israel, would be reaffirmed – a numerous people enjoying self-governance in their own land; a Messiah who would gather the dispersed Jews throughout the world back to their ancestral land, which would be redistributed to the twelve tribes just as it had been in the days of Joshua, Jesus’ namesake. Jesus’ own disciples did not want to give up this same set of expectations. Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples about what would happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter took Jesus aside to give him a lesson in true Messiahship (Mk 8:31-33): “No, Lord; that’s not what’s going to happen here!” Recall how, after Jesus forewarned his disciples the third time about his death at Gentile hands, James and John came to him, jockeying to become his wingmen when Jesus took over Israel (Mk 10:35-40). Recall how, after the crucifixion, those two disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their disappointment in Jesus: “we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Recall how, even after Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples still asked: “So will you now restore political independence to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It wasn’t till after Jesus was gone again that his own disciples began to realize that the Messiah God had sent was not the Messiah they had expected.
If we think about where Jesus’ Messiahship took the “Jesus people,” we might get a sense of all the hopes and expectations that Jesus’ Jewish followers had to give up in order to say “Yes” to him. He took them away from the hope for a renewed Jewish monarchy in Israel; away from the hope for the subjugation of the Gentile nations; away from the hope that God’s future meant a return to the “good old days” after Israel’s conquest of Canaan and division of the spoils of the land among them. Jesus inaugurated a kingdom of a very different kind, one that did not privilege one ethnic group to the exclusion of others, one that was not built on political power and military might, one that broke down the dividing walls between people rather than reinforcing them (see esp. Eph 2:11-22). His Messiahship answered the universal problem of what had gone wrong for all humanity, not merely the problems of local and ethnic interest to Israel.
All of this begs the question: do we understand what kind of Messiah has come in Jesus, or do we impose upon him expectations and hopes that are foreign to his mission as God’s Anointed? Have we spent enough time with him, have we meditated long and hard enough on his word, that we also have discarded our false expectations for him and yielded to the kind of Messiah that he really is and, therefore, what it means to experience his deliverance – his salvation – and follow him as God’s Anointed One?
Do we expect a Messiah who will put his power behind our nation and its interests, who will adopt our nation’s agenda in this world as his own? Jesus didn’t advance his own nation’s interests in the world.
Do we expect a Messiah who will save us from life’s pains and unpleasantries, make everything work out comfortably for us, make things go our way, or keep us flush with funds? Jesus told anyone who wanted to follow him that it would mean denying themselves, taking up the cross that he bore, serving as he came to serve, and enduring any hardship or embarrassment that came their way for his sake.
Do we expect a Messiah who will give us the unfathomable riches of his spiritual blessings while we give to him the leftovers, the most token offerings, of our time, energies, and resources? Jesus called his disciples to a radical reinvestment of themselves – to leave everything else behind then and there and to follow him, giving all their time, energy, and resources to advancing God’s kingdom thenceforth.
Do we expect a Messiah who will be our “personal Savior” without also being our Lord? Jesus, as many of you will recall, asked his disciples: “What’s the value of calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ if you’re not going to do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:36)
In all probability, Zechariah died long before he ever came to understand the Messiahship of the One whom his son John would announce to the people, and thus long before his life could be transformed by the encounter with, and by the tutelage of, such a Messiah. I pray that the same will not be true for any one of us.