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What makes you burst into song?
Would it surprise you to hear that we do that a lot at my house?
We are a family of singers, so we spend a lot of time singing. For the uninitiated, this can take some getting used to. When they are home, Ned and Joan are likely to pull out a guitar, or a ukulele, or to sit at the piano, and play and sing, for one another, for me, for the sheer joy of it.
One of my sweetest memories of the holiday season involves the three of us, baking chocolate chip cookies (and for those who will be sure to ask, my secret for “special” chocolate chip cookies: triple the vanilla, and use twice as much brown sugar as white. You’re welcome.). But it wasn’t just the cookies that were sweet. We were listening to a beloved old Shawn Colvin album, and when “Climb On (a Back That’s Strong)” came on, there we were, singing the chorus in three-part harmony, because we’re nerdy like that.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: it wasn’t just the cookies that made us burst into song.
I had a college friend, Steve S., who used to burst into song. He would walk into a room singing a love song from “Brigadoon.”
“What a day this has been! What a rare mood I’m in! Why it’s—almost like being in love!”
Which, of course, would tend to suggest that the boy was in love.
Characters in the bible are known to burst into song from time to time, and the birth or even promise of a child often provides the context. Hannah sings in the Hebrew Scriptures, Mary and Simeon in the New Testament, and now, Zechariah, Temple priest, who has had a long time to sit and think in silence about all the events swirling around him.
This story begins with childlessness, as so many of these stories do. Way back in September, when our journey through scripture began, God promised children to a little tribe that needed populating, and that promise sticks around. This is a family of priests, and at this time, among these people, there was no higher honor. Elizabeth and Zechariah could claim a family tree going back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Priests played a central role in the worship life of God’s people. They offered sacrifices in the Temple. These are important people. We are also told that they are good people.
And: they are people who lack that central, promised blessing. They have no child.
Here is a family with an impressive heritage, and it is about to end… that is, until Zechariah has an encounter with an angel.
Zechariah is engaged in his service in the Temple. Here’s how it worked. There was an enormous number of priests, and they were divided into twenty-four groups. Each group was responsible for worship in the temple for two weeks of the year. During those two weeks, a list was made, a list of all those who have never before entered the sanctuary. Then, lots were cast to see who would be given the honor. There were so many priests, they could only expect to do this once in a lifetime. It was an incredible honor, to enter into the holy of holies, the very presence of the Lord. Zechariah, even though he was “getting on in years,” had never been chosen.
In the biblical era, people drew conclusions about these kinds of things. No children. And, never receiving that honor, entering the Temple for service. We know that Elizabeth and Zechariah were blameless before God, and we know a whole not more about biology and reproduction too. But everyone who knew them probably wondered. Why?
And then, one day, just like that—it happens. Zechariah’s group is up for service. Zechariah’s name is entered, once again, just like it has been every year. And he is chosen. He enters the most sacred space on earth as established by his faith and tradition: The holy of holies. Our selection leaves out the specifics, except for that central, breathtaking promise. The angel says, “Your prayers have been answered! Elizabeth will have a son!” (He says a lot of other things, too. He gives Zechariah parenting tips. He alludes to Jesus, without ever saying his name. He lays a lot of information on Zechariah.) And then Zechariah says, “But how… Elizabeth and I, we’re too old for this!”
And there it is! Zechariah has messed up. He is not sure. He doesn’t understand. He questions the angel bringing the Good News of this extraordinary promise. And so the angel tells him, “I am Gabriel, Zechariah. But, hey, since you have so many questions, since you are such a doubter, how about this: you will say nothing until this baby is born. How do you like that?” (I’m paraphrasing.) And Zechariah is struck speechless for the next nine months.
This is confusing to me. Zechariah has asked a very reasonable question. But fear not. There is more to this story than a harsh punishment for having normal human emotions.
In fact, when we move on to the fulfillment of the promise, the Good News gets even better. The irascible mood of the angel notwithstanding, it turns out, the good news is not dependent upon the faithfulness of the recipient.
I’ll say that again. The fulfillment of God’s promises is not dependent on our perfect faithfulness. The fulfillment of God’s promises is about God’s goodness, not ours.
(This, I would say, would be a very good moment for us to burst into song. God is faithful even when we are not.)
When nine months have passed, and the promise is fulfilled, Zechariah’s speech returns… his tongue is freed from bondage… and he promptly bursts into song.
Here’s what I’ve deduced from my life experience of people bursting into song. First, it’s more likely to happen if you spend your time with theater people and/or people who are used to singing in church. Second, song comes out of us when our emotions overwhelm us, and the spoken word becomes inadequate to expressing them. Words alone just don’t cut it. It has to be a song.
Zechariah is overwhelmed because God is faithful. God’s promises are sure. And he declares that faithfulness, over and over, line after line, singing out all the things God has done. And it all begins with a rather formal sounding phrase: God has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.
This is a little like saying, the newborn child John was placed into Zechariah’s arms, and Zechariah ‘looked favorably on him.’ But we know how it really happened: “Zechariah beamed at him.” “Zechariah adored him.” “Zechariah delighted in him.”
It’s the same with God’s gaze. God is not remote in heaven. God is coming. God is so near. Zechariah expresses the goodness, the generosity, and the faithfulness of God by singing: Blessed be our God, for God has looked tenderly at his people.
Zechariah sings a lovely litany of all the ways God has been faithful to the covenant people throughout the centuries:
God has raised up a mighty savior, just as the prophets from of old said. God has been faithful.
God has made sure that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. God has been faithful.
God has remembered this holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestors. God has been faithful.
Now, we can serve God without fear. God has been faithful.
Zechariah looks back, and he remembers. And the many things he recounts sound like the acts of a God of angel armies—God’s strength, God’s defeat of enemies, God’s giving people courage.
And then, he looks down… specifically, at the child he is most likely cradling in his arms at this very moment.
A child is born… to Elizabeth. God has been faithful.
And then, he looks forward. He looks at the future. I imagine his song turning into a kind of lullaby Zechariah croons to his newborn son.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.
You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.
You tell people about salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
This God of power, this God of angel armies, this God who gives courage… the way in which God does this is through the power of forgiveness. God will be faithful.
His song concludes:
By the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
And here, we see how fatherhood has transformed Zechariah. Hidden in that verse (because you’d have to read Greek to find it) is an odd little word that literally means “entrails.” It’s an attempt to describe the feeling you get in your gut when you are moved by compassion for someone. When you see the face of someone in pain. When you hear the voice of someone crying. When you hold a beloved baby—maybe the baby you thought you would never have—in your arms for the first time. It hits you in the gut. Zechariah sings it: the warmth, the deep down love and care that we know as a physical response. He gets it. He gets God’s love for us (Elizabeth gets it too, but I imagine she’s resting now.) God’s loving gaze is shining on us, and it’s just like dawn breaking, like the welcome warmth of the rising sun after a long, cold, dark night. That warmth comes straight form the heart—or maybe the guts—of God.
What makes you burst into song?
How about the tender compassion of God?
How about the reality of forgiveness?
How about understanding, finally, that not only is God with us, God is for us, and that is all we need to know?[i]
Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Thom M. Shuman, © 2015.