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Zechariah’s Song

We have just read through the Christmas Story together. It’s a strange one, isn’t it? It’s got a virgin girl, an upset fiance, angels, shepherds, “wise men from the east”, a king, an emperor — it’s like a Game of Thrones episode, but with less nudity. 

And if you think about it, the Christmas Season is a strange season. Once every year, every mall in Malaysia is transformed with a lot of nonsense decorations…and then people go around singing songs about the birth of a baby and “peace on earth”. 

But what does a baby born two thousand years ago in Palestine have to do with world peace? 

Oh, and by the way: where is this famous “peace on earth”? I’m not seeing it. Are you? 

Really, what are we on about here? We get together, we read this Christmas story, we sing these Christmas songs — but what are we doing? What’s the point? 

… 

Well, we are not the first to ask those questions. Two thousand years ago, during the time of the Christmas Story, there was an old Jewish priest named Zechariah who was wondering the same thing. 

He lived in Palestine, quite near Jerusalem, which was the Jewish capital city. But Zechariah’s Jewish homeland was occupied a foreign military power: the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had brought “peace on earth” — but it had brought peace by absolutely crushing all resistance all the time. And the Romans were especially brutal with the Jewish people. 

And so Zechariah, this very religious Jewish priest, was thinking, “God, you promised to take care of us. You promised to send us a king to save us from our enemies and give us ‘peace on earth’. But I’m not seeing it! I go to the temple, I do my job, I offer the sacrifices, I sing the songs, I say the prayers — but what am I doing? What’s the point when we’re living in slavery under the Romans?” 

And then, one day, an angel appeared to him and said, “Guess what? God is sending a rescuer to save you from slavery. How can you know for sure? Because your wife is going to get pregnant, and your son is going to be the prophet who announces the rescuer’s arrival.” 

At first Zechariah could not believe it! but nine months later his son was born and then he knew for sure: God is about to rescue his people! 

It is at that moment, the bible tells us, God’s Spirit entered Zechariah and turned him into a prophet. And he sang this song, that we just read: 

[68] “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [69] He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David [70] (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), [71] salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us--- [72] to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, [73] the oath he swore to our father Abraham: [74] to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear [75] in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” 

Now, what is this song about? What is this talk about “a horn of salvation” and “the house of David”, “the oath he swore to our father Abraham”? 

This is what it’s about: Zechariah is remembering that God has rescued the Jewish people from slavery before! — one thousand five hundred years before, in what we now call The Exodus, because the Jewish “exited” from slavery in Egypt. 

Let me tell you that story: 

It actually starts more than four thousand years ago, with a man named Abraham, who lived in what is now the land of Iraq. God appeared to him and told him that he would be the father of a mighty nation: the Jewish people. “But,” God said, “bad news: your decendants will be slaves in Egypt for a long time. They will suffer terribly. But, good news: after four hundred years I will send a rescuer who will lead them out of slavery into freedom.” 

That is the “oath” (the promise) God “swore to our father Abraham” which Zechariah talks about here in his song. 

And sure enough, God kept his promise. Abraham’s family did become slaves in Egypt, and four hundred years later, God provided a rescuer named Moses. In the middle of the darkest night in Egypt’s history, Moses led Abraham’s children out of slavery, into the eastern desert. And when the sun rose they were free. 

So Zechariah, in his song, is remembering how God rescued the Jewish people from the Egyptians. 

But he is also remembering that God has promised to rescue the Jewish people again. “This time,” God said, “my rescuer will be a king from the family of King David.” (David was the greatest king to ever rule ancient Israel.) 

That is why Zechariah sings in verse 69, “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David [70] (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago).” 

— I should explain that in that culture the horns of a goat or a bull symbolized power and strength. So when Zechariah says God has “raised up a horn of salvation”, he is saying, “God has raised up a mighty warrior, a king from the house of David, who is going to rescue us!” 

So, what is this song about? 

Zechariah is singing about the Exodus, when Moses rescued the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. And he is singing about how a son of David is going to rescue the Jewish people again — this time from slavery to the Romans. 

Zechariah knows that God rescued them in the past — so he is confident God will rescue them again. 

But how will this rescue happen? 

That is what the next part of Zechariah’s song is about: 

… 

He goes on: [76] “And you, my child, — talking to his newborn son — you will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord — before the king — to prepare the way for him.” 

Zechariah’s son John will grow up to be like those motorcyclists we see every day here in KL, who “prepare the way” for the MP’s in their limousines. And sure enough, John grows up to be called John “the Baptist” who announced Jesus’ arrival. 

Okay, that’s clear so far. 

But we’re still wondering: how will this king rescue the Jewish people from the Romans? Will he copy Moses, and lead the people on an Exodus out of the land? (But that doesn’t make sense, it’s their land.) Will he raise an army, start a holy war? or will he just use fireballs from heaven? (That would be the coolest — and most effective — option!) 

How is he going to do it? 

Zechariah tells us: he goes on to say that his son, John, and the king who follows him, are going [77] to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, [78] because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven [79] to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Ummmm…where are the fireballs? Where is the warrior king, the mighty “horn of salvation”? And what about that part that talks about guiding our feet into the path of peace — that sounds a bit like another Exodus but, again, that doesn’t make any sense…the Jewish people need to be rescued from slavery to Rome! They don’t need to be led away from their homeland!

And what is this talk about being rescued “through the forgiveness of their sins”? 

Something strange has just happened. The whole character of the song has changed! Zechariah was singing about a mighty warrior king who would destroy the Romans and save the Jewish people. 

But Zechariah has just realized that if God destroys the Romans for abusing the Jews…then, to be fair, God should also destroy the Jews. 

Why? Because Jewish husbands often abused their wives. Jewish mothers often abused their children. Older sisters often abused their little brothers. Small children often abused even smaller animals…and on down the line. But the truth is, this is not just a Jewish or a Roman problem: this is a human problem. 

Can any of us honestly say that we have never used or abused the the people around us for our own benefit? 

Zechariah, guided by the Spirit of God, has figured out something that many people never do. He has figured out that “sin”, “guilt”, is not just a problem for those “other” people over there — it is a problem for his people also; a problem for all of us. 

Zechariah has realized that the line between good and evil does not lie between “Jews” and “Romans”, between “us” and “them”. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every single human being. We are all created in the image of God, and that is glorious! — but we are also all infected with this belief that the image of God in me is better than the image of God in you, and that is poisonous. 

“Me against you,” “us against everyone else”…this kind of thinking rules our world, rules each one of us. This kind of thinking has produced every lie, every theft, every violation, every murder, every war in history. Every time someone says, “We are better than you,” what they are saying, in the last analysis, is this: “We deserve rescue, you deserve destruction. We deserve life, you deserve death.” 

The reason we don’t have “peace on earth” is because we we are all infected with this “us against everyone else” mentality. 

Zechariah has just figured this out. He has just realized that the Romans are not the bad guys and the Jews are not the good guys: we are all both the good guys and the bad guys. 

We are all victims of injustice. We are also all perpetrators of injustice. 

We all deserve justice, because we are all made in the image of God. We also all deserve judgement, because we have all abused others who are made in the image of God! 

So…what is the solution to that puzzle? How can we ask for the justice we deserve while also avoiding the judgement we deserve? 

Zechariah’s solution was to ask God “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah has realized that the prayer for justice and judgement is a sword that cuts everyone down. 

But the prayer for forgiveness is a prayer for the healing of both victim and perpetrator. For the Jew and the Roman. 

… 

Now that, friends, is a radical shift in Zechariah’s thinking. 

Remember, he is a very old man. He has lived his whole life hating Romans, and praying for God’s judgement on them. 

Now he is praying for them! 

How did that happen? 

This is how it happened: when God’s Spirit entered Zechariah so he could prophesy, Zechariah’s understanding of who God is changed. And because his understanding of God changed, Zechariah changed. 

Most people don’t realize this, but our personal character reveals what kind of God we believe in. If I am judgemental, it’s because I believe in a judgemental God. If I am an angry person, it’s because I believe in an angry God. If I cheat on my wife, it’s because I believe in an unfaithful, self-centered God. 

Of course, some of you are going to say, “I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God.” That’s fine! — but it actually makes no difference. Replace the concept of “God” with “reality” or “karma” or “the universe”…whatever you like: it still works the same way. For instance, if you believe that “reality” is harsh and unforgiving, you will live a harsh and unforgiving life. If you believe the universe is a “survival of the fittest” kind of universe, you are going to live a “survival of the fittest” kind of life. 

We all live an “us against everyone else” kind of life, because we all believe that God — reality, the universe, whatever — is a “me against everyone” kind of God. 

Here’s the bad news: as long as we live an “us against everyone else” kind of life, we are choosing a life of separation and hatred and war. We are choosing to reject peace on earth. We are choosing to remain in darkness and in the shadow of death. 

And here’s the really bad news: we cannot change our “us against everyone else” programming, because it is impossible for us to change the way we see the universe. No matter how deeply we look into it, the universe will continue to look like a destructive, unforgiving, every-man-for-himself kind of universe. 

So what changed Zechariah then? How was he able to undo his “Jews against Romans” programming and actually begin to pray for his enemies? 

This is what happened: God revealed his true character to Zechariah. Zechariah did not change his understanding of God — God changed it for him by showing up. 

And what is God’s true character? 

Zechariah tells us, right here in verse 78: why will the people be rescued? “Because of the tender mercy of our God.” 

Most of us grow up believing that God — reality, the universe, whatever — is harsh, judgemental. And so we tend to live harsh, judgemental lives: “me against you, us against everyone else”. 

But what if we could see God as he really is — tender, merciful, eager to rescue? 

Wouldn’t that change everything? 

Wouldn’t that set us free to put down our pride? to put down our weapons? to open our doors to those who are different? 

Most of us grow up believing that God is a “me against everyone” kind of God. But if we could see God as a “me for everyone” kind of God, wouldn’t we become an “us for everyone” kind of people? 

Oh, friends: wouldn’t that mean peace on earth? 

When Zechariah saw God as he really is, it changed his song. The first part of his song is a celebration of a time when the Jewish people were rescued and the Egyptian people destroyed. 

But here, in these last lines, Zechariah prays for a warrior king who will rescue everyone “living in darkness and in the shadow of death” — Jews and Egyptians and Romans and everyone else born into this “us against everyone” kind of world. 

… 

So here we are, two thousand years later. We get together, we read the Christmas story, we sing these Christmas songs — and just like Zechariah the priest, we look around and say, “Where is this ‘peace on earth’ we were promised?” 

We look around and we see a world still ruled by “us against them” thinking. Today, even as we sit here, the Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia are engineering a terrible civil war against against the Muslim people of Yemen: “us against them”. The Buddhist government of Myanmar is conducting a genocide against their Muslim Rohingya citizens: “us against them”. And in the United States…! — nobody knows what’s going on there, but it is definitely an “us against them” kind of thing, isn’t it? 

So where where is this “peace on earth”? And what does the birth of this baby have to do with anything? 

Here is the answer: 

The birth of Jesus is the first step of God’s plan to reveal himself to mankind. Human beings are consumed by “us against everyone else” because we believe the universe is an “every-man-for-himself” kind of universe. We think God is a “me against everyone” kind of God. 

But actually the Creator of this universe is a “me for everyone” kind of God. 

And to prove it to us, he came to earth and was born as a helpless baby. He became one of us, this man named Jesus, whose name means “rescuer”. Jesus lived a “me for everyone” kind of life in the midst of an “us against everyone” kind of world. And in the end, the “us against everyone” world killed him. The world said, “We deserve rescue, you deserve destruction. We deserve justice, you deserve judgement. We deserve life, you deserve death.” 

And here’s the amazing part: Jesus accepted their judgement. He believed in “me for everyone” so strongly that he refused to fight. He was God’s warrior king! He had the power to destroy his enemies! but he did not use it. 

He could have said, “Me against everyone!” Instead, he said, “me for everyone. Me for you. I will accept your death; you may have my life.” 

Jesus died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago to show us the true character of God: “me for everyone”. 

He came back to life on a Sunday morning to guide our feet into the path of peace. 

The Christmas story is the beginning of the story of the New Exodus. That is the point of Zechariah’s song. The first Exodus, that Moses led, was only an exodus for the Jewish people. And that was great! But the New Exodus, led by Jesus, is an exodus open to everyone: it is so much greater. 

Moses led the Jewish people eastward out of slavery in Egypt toward the rising sun. But Jesus, the son of David, is leading his people out of the slavery to death into his own rising glory. 

… 

But, seriously, practically speaking, we’re still wondering: where is our “peace on earth”? How is this Christmas Story — this New Exodus — supposed to change our lives? 

The Christmas Story is the beginning of a story that lets us see God as he really is: tender and merciful and eager to save even his enemies. When we begin to see God as he really is, it changes us. We even learn how to love our enemies and pray for them, just as Zechariah did. 

But here’s the thing: the New Exodus is not yet finished. One day, at the end of the story, there will be complete “peace on earth” — but we aren’t there yet. (I would love to talk about that! — but tonight we’re focused on the beginning of the story, not the end.) One day there will be an end to hatred and injustice and war. But for now, we are called to be an “us for everyone” kind of people in the middle of an “us against everyone” kind of world. That is difficult! not only because we are out-numbered, but also because we keep on failing! 

Christians are supposed to be an “us for everyone” kind of people — but very, very often in my own life, I find that I am still a “me against you, us against everyone” kind of person. 

So where is my “peace on earth”, as I am confronted — every day — with my continued failure to live an “us for everyone” kind of life? 

This is how it works: I look at Jesus, and Jesus shows me that God is tender and merciful. He loves to rescue. He loves to forgive. So when I look at my daily failures, and then I look back at my forgiving God, I think, “Okay. Father: forgive me again? Keep on rescuing me. Keep on guiding my feet into the path of peace.” 

I sin every day. I fail every day to live an “us for everyone” kind of life. But I am no longer in despair over my failures. I have “peace on earth” because I am confident of the forgiving character of my God. And I am confident of the character of my God because I have seen him right here, in the pages of this Christmas story. I believe this New Exodus is true — and that has made all the difference to me while I wait for the end of the story. 

… 

If you are here tonight, and this is all new to you, and you are wondering what your takeaway is supposed to be, here it is: take an honest look at your life. You know that you are living in a divisive “us against everyone” kind of world. That is obvious! But I would like to gently suggest that you might also be part of the problem, just like I am. Take an honest look at yourself, and you might find that the “us against everyone else” infection also lives inside you. 

If you are not part of the problem, please introduce yourself! I have never met a perfect person before. 

But if you are willing to admit that you might be part of the problem…then I would like to gently encourage you to take another look at this God who is described in the pages of this book. Ask him to reveal his true, forgiving character to you. I promise you: if you ask, he will answer. And that could make all the difference. You might even find that he will lead you out of darkness and into the paths of peace. 

… 

Now, if you are here tonight and you already see God as your loving, forgiving Father — if you are already a Christian — then what is your practical take-home supposed to be? Here it is: “God rest you merry, Gentlemen!” That’s just an old fashioned way of saying, “May God make you drunk on joy, brothers and sisters!” 

This is your practical application: 

“Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place, And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace; In this holy season of Christmas, of beauty and of grace: O tidings of comfort and joy, O good news of comfort and joy.” 

 

Who Exactly is in Charge Around Here (Part I)?

The Dawn of the End of the World