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Dec 14 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

December 12, 2010

Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79 (read vv. 57-80)

INTRO: A day or two after our most recent grandson was added to the clan, I went to see him

When I asked the baby’s name, my son-in-law began to explain how he came up with “Indy”
– he got it from the movie character, Indiana Jones–only Sid didn’t care for “Indiana,” but he liked the nickname Indy
– my daughter, who was lying on her side gently stroking her fourth child, said with a sigh of resignation, “That was our deal. I got to name the girls and Sid got to name the boys.”

We enter the biblical story on the day that the infant John formally receives his name
– keep in mind that this is still prelude–the main character has not yet appeared
– there are two parts to this passage:
The first part is narrative (vv. 57-66)
The second part is poetry (vv. 67-80)

Part 1, The Birth Narrative of John the Baptist

In this story, we observe normal life events that become mixed together with acts of God
– what’s more normal than childbirth?
– yet from the beginning, the Lord’s mercy is highlighted because of Elizabeth’s previous infertility
– and at the end of this episode the Lord’s hand is obviously on John’s early development (vv. 58 & 80)

As this next scene opens, we rejoin Elizabeth
– Zacharias isn’t mentioned at first, which may be meant to remind us that he had been silenced
– in terms of physiology and culture, everything about John’s birth is normal

Eight days later, it looks like their meddling neighbors are going to name the baby
– this creates tension in the story because we know the angel already said, “you will give him the name John” (v. 13)

  • We can imagine Zacharias and Elizabeth had the normal discussion regarding the baby’s name
    – in spite of his inability to speak, Zacharias let her know what was revealed to him
  • But now it looks as if the helpful neighbors are going to take over, assuming Zacharias would be pleased if they named the child after him
  • Elizabeth, however, stopped them and announced, “No indeed; but he shall be called John”
  • Three things then happen in quick succession:
    – first, they take the issue to Zacharias
    – second, Zacharias asks for tablet on which he writes, “his name is John”
    – third, Zacharias’ speech returns immediately and he praises God

So even in this normal, ordinary human task of naming the baby, God’s hand is at work

Luke likes to point out when people take things to heart (v. 66)
– it is his way of letting us know that we should also take these things to heart
– we can take to heart the way God’s ongoing work is mixed into our normal life experience

Part 2, Zecharias’ Prophetic Psalm

First of all, we need to understand that “prophesy” does not mean predict
– the idea behind prophecy is inspiration (notice how Zacharias was “filled with the Holy Spirit”)
– more specifically, prophecy came to be understood as the direct revelation of God’s word
– pronouncements about the future play a role in prophecy, but they are not its primary function

Of course Zacharias is going to praise God
– but his poem quickly moves out from and far beyond his personal experience
– regardless of how well he really grasped the significance of his son’s calling, his inspired words report the grand event of God intervening in human history to fulfill his promise to Israel

We do not have time to go over the whole poem, so I will briefly point out Zacharias’ dream of the “good life” in verses 74-75; namely, “To grant us that we, being”

  • rescued from the hand of our enemies
    In Voyage to the Far East, Helmut Thielicke describes his limited travel in communist China in the 1950s. From early morning to late at night loudspeakers broadcast propaganda and “incentives” to keep the workers motivated at their tasks. Thielicke says, “I cannot deny it, these scenes brought about a feeling of depression. I felt, almost physically, that I could not bear the oppressive climate of lack of freedom.”
    – that is how Israel felt under the rule of the Roman Empire
  • might serve Him
    – serving God defined the life of a believer (v. 38, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord)
    – they were denied this
  • without fear
    – the way we would probably say this is to “Live in security”
  • in holiness and righteousness
    – the world that engulfed them was profane–it left a stain on everything sacred–, making compromise easy and faithfulness to God and his Law difficult
  • before Him
    – this a special kind of consciousness–like what Zacharias experienced in the temple in verse  8
    – it is being aware of God being aware of me – walking together
    In this sense, the good life is having enough freedom and affluence to cultivate the soul
    In Fiddler On the Roof, Tevye sings, “If I were a rich man,” fantasizing what that life would be like
    – he “wouldn’t have to work hard.” He would build a big conspicuous home in the center of town. He would own lots of livestock and outfit his wife like a princess with servants to yell at. But in the last verse his song changes. Slowly and thoughtfully he sings:
    If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
    To sit in the synagogue and pray.
    And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
    And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men,
    several hours every day.
    That would be the sweetest thing of all.

    – this is what living “before God” meant to Zacharias; it was “the sweetest thing of all”
  • all our days
    – basking in the goodness and presence of God would define, not mere moments, but all of life

Zacharias’ poem takes a turn in verse 76
– he becomes the dad looking into the face of his infant son, “And you, child”
– the rest of the poem has to do with John’s ministry, which was to prepare way for Jesus

We will conclude our visit with Zacharias and Elizabeth on this happy day with the description of Jesus’ arrival (vv. 78-79)

“The Sunrise from on high”
– not the sunrise that begins on eastern horizon
– this is the light of a new morning breaking over the world, ushering in a new era

It comes to people sitting in darkness and the shadow of death

There are many ways that darkness comes over a person

  • a broken heart or a broken mind that will not heal
  • a “gateway” action that may involve drugs, theft, or some other moral or spiritual compromise that carries you into a dark place from which you cannot escape
  • a doubt that is not handled well (perhaps an authoritarian Christian teacher rebuked or ridiculed you for asking questions)
  • a misrepresentation of God that is so gross you decide that you don’t want him or else it leaves you feeling that you must live estranged from him, expecting only his rejection
  • disadvantages that set you back in your education and now you feel you are always in the dark compared to other people who seem to know what to do with their lives

Jesus entered this darkness of ours

It was now about [noon], and darkness fell over the whole land until [three o’clock], because the sun was obscured (23:22)

Jesus does not join us in the darkness to condemn us for being here
– I have been moved by Jesus’ compassion for people in the gospel of Mark this last week. He is forgiving, understanding, and caring. The people who anger and grieve him are those who would deny food, healing, or help to people because they are sinners or because Jesus wanted to heal on a Sabbath day

No, Jesus steps into our darkness not as judge or as rules or as religion but as Light, “to guide our feet into the way of peace”–that is to say, shalom, a condition of contentment and wholeness that we could never find or achieve on our own

A few centuries before Zacharias, there was another poet who sat in darkness (Psalms 42 & 43)

The question:
Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?
(Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5)
The answer or solution:
O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me;
Let them bring me to Your holy hill And to Your dwelling places
(Ps. 43:3)

CONC: What is the Christian life?

  • It is this light of Jesus coming into us
    I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life (Jn. 8:12)
  • It is this light mixed in with our normal life situations and experiences

How can I, such as I am, take hold of this?
– I have no qualifications
– I’ve done plenty to disqualify myself

Jesus smiles . . . “Oh child, it’s not the healthy who need a physician”

Now back up:
v. 50, “His mercy is upon generation after generation”
v. 54, God acts “In remembrance of His mercy
v. 58, “. . . the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her”
v. 72, “To show mercy toward our fathers”
v. 78, “Because of the tender mercy of our God”

Mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy

“tender mercy” – tender translates a word that means viscera–our innards–and represents the deepest place that a person can feel emotion
– if you are working with a person’s internal organs, you have to be gentle
– we are tender on the inside and need a gentle  touch

“Tender mercy” describes Jesus–he knows how to be gentle; his touch is light yet power-filled

I have no idea how the church that is called by Jesus’ name has moved so far away from mercy, but I know that we can do something about that

As we experiment with mercy–that is, as we begin showing mercy to others in ways that may at first seem radical–I beg you to learn how to show it to yourself
– it is when we feel unforgiven that we are unforgiving

Can you do this? Can your rest your soul this week in Jesus’ merciful hands?

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