In a ritual that seems to repeat itself approximately 82 times per week, my young son will be getting ready for school on a weekday morning and suddenly realize that he’s left his shoes in the back yard. At 5:45 in the morning, it’s pitch-black outside. He knows he’ll never find anything stumbling around in the backyard in all that darkness, about which he’s vaguely afraid anyhow. So he goes to a handy switch that’s been installed on the wall and flips it into the “up” position. Now the back yard is flooded with bright light; it’s practically daylight back there, and he is able to find his shoes.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Christmas story is the promise that a Great Light has dawned upon Man in the midst of his darkness. That’s why it’s all the more tragic to hear the stories each year of millions of people who are depressed during the Christmas season—people who are living and walking in a sort of perpetual darkness, for whom the season isn’t bright and cheerful.
67And Zacharias his father was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has come and accomplished redemption for His people,
69for He has raised up a horn of salvation for us, in the house of David His servant,
70just as He spoke through the mouths of all His holy prophets from of old,
71Salvation from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us,
72To show mercy toward our fathers and to remember His holy covenant,
73The promise which He promised to Abraham our father, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, would serve Him without fear,
75In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
76And you, child: you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,
77To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins,
78Because of the profound mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from heaven will shine on us,
79To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80And the child continued to grow and become strong in spirit, and he stayed in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel.
The old priest Zacharias is filled with the Holy Spirit in today’s readings and begins to prophesy. When he does, he repeats a pattern that we found in Mary’s song of praise the other day. As it was in that section, (1.46-56), our author, Luke, has preserved the praise in poetic verse. In his poetic prophecy, Zacharias uses aorist active indicative tense in his verbs—indicating an action that has already been accomplished, but whose effects are ongoing (just like Mary did). And just as in Mary’s song, Zacharias speaks of some future events as though they have already taken place: “He has come (ἑπεσκεψατο, 1.68) and accomplished (ἑποιησεν, 1.68) redemption for His people”, and “He has raised (ἡγειρεν, 1.69) up a horn of salvation for us”. When Zacharias is speaking (circa 4 B.C.), none of these things appears to be anywhere near being true where Israel is concerned. She is under the thumb of Caesar Augustus as a Roman province. Her land is defiled with Roman legions keeping the fabled Jewish nationalism in check. Later, as we’ll find in Christ’s ministry, she is under a sort of double-oppression: her scribes and Pharisees have elevated the Law to the status of their God. If anyone seems to be “sitting in darkness” (1.79), it seems to be Israel. How can Zacharias say this?
It’s simple: because God told him, and Zacharias believed Him. It’s a theme that’s as old as Mankind: Zacharias even references the original promise to Abraham (1.73-74) as the origin of the promise that’s coming true with the advent of the Messiah. So even though he must live in the dark oppressive times of 1st century Judea, Zacharias is overjoyed to see God fulfilling His promise in His own inimitable way. He’s read the end of the book, and he knows Who wins—and this is the chapter where He redeems the creation that fell in Eden. Note that Zacharias even uses Gabriel’s own language in prophesying to his son: “And you, child: you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1.76). Flip back to 1.17 and read Gabriel’s words, and you’ll see that the entire incident has made Zacharias even more of a true believer than he started out. He is overwhelmed with the conviction of this unimpeachable truth:
What is happening in my house and the house of my relatives is the coming of God—He is now in the process of bringing redemption to His people and salvation from our enemies so that we may serve Him in righteousness and holiness without fear.
You don’t have to be Secretary of State to surmise that Israel is not living in complete salvation from her enemies (either in 4 B.C. or today): this is Zacharias rejoicing over what’s coming, as though it’s already there. And when he turns his prophecy toward his son, he speaks of the broader promise of God toward not just Israel but all Man: “you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins” (1.76-77). John the Baptist is going to prepare the way of the coming Messiah by introducing His people to the concept of forgiveness of their sins. Think of how revolutionary this would have been to the heavy-regulatory environment in which these folks lived. And this forgiveness will be accomplished by something far more stupendous in power than the blood of an innocent lamb from the Levitican law: this forgiveness will be accomplished by the “profound mercy of our God” (δια σπλαγχνα ἑλεους Θεου ἡμων, 1.78). The One originally offended by Man’s choice to sin in Eden—causing Creation to fall—will Himself “accomplish the redemption” (ἐποιησεν λυτρωσιν, 1.68) of Man. He will be a great Sunrise from heaven that lights up Man’s world, and shines on those sitting in darkness.
And that’s the good news—the gospel—in its first nutshell: Man sits in darkness and shadow of death, but God Almighty has acted. He has intervened in the history of Man to accomplish redemption—and this is the light that vanquishes our darkness.
I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of unbelievers for friends. I hear them go out of their ways to defile the sacredness of Christmas as a sort of rebellion against what they think is superstitious Christianity. I see their Facebook posts wishing me a “happy Solstice” and displaying pictures and memes that ridicule the “Christmas spirit.” And underneath the callousness, the sarcasm, the cynicism, and the vitriol is something deeply saddening to the heart of God: people sitting in darkness. These people—my friends—are sitting in darkness. They live and move in the shadow of death. They don’t really have hope—in this life or the one to come. They are the statistics about which you read each year around this time: the people who are depressed every time the holidays come around. And just as God brought the “already/not yet” salvation to Israel with the Incarnation of the Christ child, He has brought salvation to Man. He has brought a great light to shine in the lives of these friends of mine—a great light that is given by His profound mercy.
They’re stumbling in the backyard in the darkness. The light is there; their whole world could change and be flooded with the light of the Great Promise that came true on Christmas.
It’s been installed and wired, and only needs for someone to flip the switch.