We have been rescued from our enemies so we can serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live. (Luke 1:74-75 NLT)
Zechariah does not come across initially as a man of great faith. He is represented as a doubter when we first meet him in Luke’s gospel. He is the first of many men who come across that way in the gospels, among them the disciples Peter and Thomas. But his doubt is not a disqualifier in the story, but a teacher. Though in the first comparisons with the young girl Mary he comes across as the loser, once he believes, once he trusts, he is as able to be used by God just as Mary was. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks out the words of God in prophecy. The words that Luke records have come down through the millennia and are treasured today, because they tell us things about God, things that for Luke were new and extraordinary, though they may be familiar ideas for us. These words speak of the God Luke had come to love and trust, the God to whom he had devoted his life. Zechariah’s prophecy is often called the Benedictus, from the Latin word for blessing, because it starts with the words, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, (Luke 1:68 NKJV). The transformation of Luke’s life by his encounter with Jesus had made him, like Zechariah, a “blesser” of God, and he wanted to record this blessing that had been passed on to him by the early Christians for whom it was also, along with the Magnificat of Mary, a part of their much loved liturgy.
Why did Zechariah bless God? The obvious answer is that he and his wife had received the gift of a child, a son born to them in their old age, long after they had given up hope of children. They were recipients of a miracle. Who wouldn’t be thankful? However, that supernatural event is not the first thing Zechariah mentions, but rather that God has “visited and redeemed his people.” His main reason for thanksgiving seems not to be the son that had been born, as thankful as he was for that, but the son that was yet to be born, Jesus. Like his wife Elizabeth, Zechariah had become aware of Mary’s pregnancy, and he had an inkling that God was on the move in the world. However, his statement in this blessing is pure prophecy, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, just as Elizabeth’s previous exclamation had been.
It comes across clearly in Zechariah’s prophecy that the people of Israel were oppressed, and that Jesus would save them from that oppression. It also indicates that this salvation was something that had been previously predicted through prophecies that had been recorded in the Jewish scriptures generations earlier, the writings we know as the Old Testament. Zechariah speaks of being rescued from their enemies, and the enemies of Israel had been and were many. Finally, it seemed, a way was being made for the people of God to be set free, something that the Jewish people had been dreaming of and longing for since time immemorial. At last they would be able to serve God and worship him in the way he had taught them they should. This longing for freedom to worship is a common desire in humans, and has been a driving force behind many deeds of men and women down through the millennia, as it is today. But here we see that it is God who is acting to make possible this freedom of worship, it is his initiative and intervention, not that of man.
It would be easy to interpret this prophecy as a prediction of Jesus as a political or military leader, except for one small statement when Zechariah speaks of his own son’s role in the plans of God:
“And you, my little son, will be called the prophet of the Most High, because you will prepare the way for the Lord. You will tell his people how to find salvation through forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77 NLT)
Salvation would be found, not through destruction of a political oppressor or foreign power, but by freedom from the greatest enemy, namely sin. Jesus would make forgiveness of sins possible, forgiveness for our own sinfulness, forgiveness for the sinfulness of others. Jesus would destroy the power of sin and make another way possible. John would introduce this idea to the world, but Jesus would make it possible. Here is the great difference of Christianity from Islam and other religions, in which forgiveness is not through Jesus but through ourselves and our own goodness. This idea of being saved by our own achievements is of course not unique to religion, but is built into the very thinking of humanity. We all would rather be saved by our own efforts than by the free gift of another, because then the praise and acclamation would come to us, and not to another. All of us long to be worshipped. But however good we might be, it is never enough, there is alway something that brings our downfall. We know it as well as any, and identifying the evil in even the “best” people has become a favorite pastime of journalists and other writers in our modern age.
God does not offer forgiveness as a reward for our goodness, or our achievements, but as a free gift because of what Jesus has done. But the unveiling of that plan and its fulfillment was still unknown to Zechariah when he uttered his blessing of God at the birth of his own son, John. Luke knew the whole story, of course, when he wrote his gospel. He recorded Zechariah’s famous prophecy as an introduction to the amazing story he was about to tell.
Christians around the world today are oppressed, as oppressed as the people of Israel were at the time of Jesus, maybe more so. We long for freedom to serve God and worship him as we should. Our enemies are keen to see us discredited, ridiculed, marginalized, even exterminated in some cases. As I write, the evil that is called ISIS is slaughtering Christians, along with any others who stand against them. It is easy to let our focus fall exclusively on such explicit enemies and long for their destruction. It is easy to begin to believe that the solution to the problem is primarily military, but that is to miss the point. The only solution to evil in humans is forgiveness by God, and that is what we must work for, and we know the way to that. Military responses to such evils are appropriate, that cannot be denied. We cannot stand by and let evil proceed unchecked. But unless we find a better way to respond to the evil that is in all our hearts, the same thing will happen over and over as it has done since the beginning of time. The ultimate answer to evil is not, sadly, in our human efforts, such as military power, or liberal democracy, or human achievement, as much as we would like to believe that these are the solution, and as much as these have done to check the progress of evil in the world. Utopia will never be the result of some kind of evolutionary progress to perfection, as much as we would like to believe the words of the Beatles, “it’s getting better all the time…” The answer lies in the mind of God and his action in sending Jesus into the world to do what he did.
The reason for Jesus (his purpose) is that we can be saved from the sin that is within us. The reason for us (our purpose) is that we should serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness for as long as we live. That’s it in a nutshell.