Zechariah’s Christmas Chorus
Welcome to the first week in a new series call Christmas Playlist. The tradition of singing at Christmastime is as old as Christmas itself. In this series we’ll see that the central characters in the Christmas story respond instantly to their part in God’s plan with expressions of praise and worship.
All the lyrics we are going to study in this series are recorded in the Gospel of Luke. The four songs, which make up our Christmas concert series, are often known by their Latin titles which are simply taken from the first word or two from the song.
• Today we’ll listen to Zechariah’s Christmas Chorus, known as the Benedictus.
• Next week we’ll tune into Mary’s Music, called the Magnificat.
• In two weeks, we’ll worship along with Simeon’s Salvation Song – Nunc Dimittis.
• And on Christmas Day (online only) we’ll hear the Angel’s Alleluia, commonly referred to as the Gloria in Excelsis.
These pieces of prophetic poetry have been around for over 2,000 years. This Christmas Playlist reminds us of what God has done. And as you will see, what He has done must be celebrated in song. Before we look at the lyrics of today’s song, I want to go behind the music to understand more of the back-story on today’s Christmas composer.
Imagine living at a time and place where God was silent. There were no messages from God, no Bible, no preaching, only silence from above. So, between the Old and New Testaments God’s people were waiting for 400 years to hear from God. On top of that, the gap between earth and heaven seemed insurmountable.
During these “silent years,” some of God’s people were holding onto hope, others were stuck in ritual and routine, and still others had given up on even thinking about God. In the silence, they had forgotten God and His promises. King Herod had built idols. Immorality was rampant and spiritual life among God’s people had lost its vitality. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It reminds me of America in 2022.
Today’s story is found in Luke 1:5-25. Some think the Christmas Story begins with a pregnant couple. It actually begins with a couple that could not get pregnant. It begins with a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Z and E lived during a period of deep darkness and despair.
If we were to color their lives, we would have to choose colors that were dark and depressing. The picture would be gloomy and gray. The sky would be cloudy, much like a dull and dreary December day. God had been silent for four centuries. But Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced another silence in their lives because they had no children. In that time, to not have children was considered a curse. They felt left out of the loop. Their unmet desires had led to unspoken despair.
Perhaps you’re living with some silent pain of your own right now as you struggle with infertility or miscarriage. You are not alone in your pain. Maybe you’re grieving the loss of a son or daughter, a grandchild, a parent or grandparent, a friend, or a sibling. Maybe you wonder how your teenager could turn out to be so rebellious or how your finances went south so quickly or why your marriage ended up in such a mess. Or maybe you’re single and your deepest desire is to be married.
Like Zechariah, you may have been waiting for something to change or for an answer you’re not sure will ever come. Heaven seems to be silent. So, you wait. Humiliated and hopeless, Zechariah was about to hear some words that would not only change his life, but they would change the world. He was a priest, one of twenty thousand, and two weeks out of the year when his division was on duty, he would travel to Jerusalem for his Temple responsibilities. This time he was chosen by lot to be the one to enter the Holy Place and burn incense outside the curtain to the Holy of Holies. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was an incredible privilege for Zechariah.
Inside the temple, Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies to arrange incense and offer prayers of intercession for the people. The people were waiting outside for Zechariah to return. But he didn’t come. Zechariah was delayed.
Inside the Holy of Holies, the smoke from the incense clouded his vision. He thought he saw someone, and then he realized he was face-to-face with an angel sent by God. The text says that he was “gripped with fear.” Zechariah was afraid because there was supposed to be no one else in this Holy Place but him. To enter this place on your own would mean certain death.The dangers of his duty were well known to everyone. The idea was to get in, offer incense and prayer, and get out as soon as possible.
“While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar.” – Luke 1:11 (NLT) Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw the angel who came with a two-part message. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” – Luke 1:13 (NLT) Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a son!
“You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.” – Luke 1:14-15 (NLT) Verses 16-17 describe the message their son would preach. “He will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.” – Luke 1:16-17 (NLT)
When Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to be a parents, Zechariah immediately asks for some sort of sign: “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” – Luke 1:18 (NLT) Zechariah was having a hard time believing what the angel said. He wants proof. “How can I know for sure that what you are saying will happen?” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news!” – Luke 1:19 (NLT)
This was no ordinary angel. Gabriel was God’s top gun. He had appeared to Daniel. Later, he will visit Mary, the mother of Jesus. It was like Gabriel was saying, “You might be an old geezer on Medicare, maybe you are a card-carrying member AARP, but I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God. Don’t you think God can handle this, Zechariah?” On one hand, his question seems legitimate. He and his wife were well past normal childbearing years. But on the other hand, he should have known better. He was a priest. Apparently, he was so busy asking questions and focusing on problems and limitations that it was difficult for him to hear from God.
Gabriel is about to resolve that problem by giving Zechariah nine months to listen. “But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.” – Luke 1:20 (NLT) I don’t know which is the greater miracle here – Elizabeth having a baby in her old age or a preacher keeping silent for nine months!
“Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah to come out of the sanctuary, wondering why he was taking so long. When he finally did come out, he couldn’t speak to them. Then they realized from his gestures and his silence that he must have seen a vision in the sanctuary.” – Luke 1:21-22 (NLT) Zechariah is going to be a new father and he can’t tell anyone! He was silenced.
When it comes to silence, could I make an appeal to all of you? As we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas, please be careful about the noise, the competing sounds and competing voices that can keep you from hearing the true music of the season. Most of us need to figure out a way to slow down and be quiet. If we don’t, we’ll miss the message of Christmas because God speaks in the SILENCE.
Could that be why you haven’t been hearing from God yourself for so long?
When is there any quiet or any space for Him to speak? What do you think you would learn if you were silenced for 9 months? Or how about 9 weeks? Or 9 days? 9 hours? 9 minutes? For some of us, it would be tough to be silent for 9 seconds.
We pick up the story in Luke 1:57. “When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her.” – Luke 1:57-58 (NLT) Eight days later, the whole town comes out to the circumcision ceremony because it’s the baby’s big day where he enters the covenant community and is given his name. Everyone assumes it will be Zech, II or Zech Jr. Elizabeth insists that he be called John. The people were all worked up because the firstborn son was almost always named after the father or a relative.
Zechariah asks for a writing table, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” I love what happens next. The song in Zechariah’s heart explodes with pent-up praise. After not saying a word for nine months, his first words he says are not directed to his wife or to his family. He says nothing about sports, food, hunting, or fishing. His first words were an exuberant eruption of praise and adoration! And all the family and neighbors gathered there were shocked and amazed.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah breaks out in prophetic praise. His song begins in verse 68. “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior.” – Luke 1:68-69a (NLT)
Then dropping down to verses 78-79…“Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79 (NLT) These verses capture the main theme of this Christmas chorus.
The wait for a Messiah was about to come to an end. God’s silence was broken. God had seen their sin-sick state and He was about to send His Son to redeem them. That’s what happened at Christmas! Jesus came to save us from our sin. The longing that God’s people had for God to come down to our world is captured in…“Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down! How the mountains would quake in your presence!” – Isaiah 64:1 (NLT)
It’s hard for us to fully comprehend this because we live on this side of Christmas. The prophets had predicted His coming, but nothing was happening. It has been almost 1,000 years since King David ruled and four centuries after the Old Testament prophet Malachi’s last message. While some had lost hope, others held on, longing for a visitation from God.
As Zechariah looked down at his baby boy, he knew that help was on the way. Somehow his son would help prepare the way for the One who is the Way. The long wait was now over! The song, “O Come, O Come Immanuel” sums it up well. Zechariah’s song is all about God’s coming to earth. Nearly every phrase in this Christmas Chorus is filled with biblical references, especially from the Prophets.
1. Christ’s coming provides SALVATION.
Zechariah mentions God’s saving purpose in four different ways:
• Redemption: “He has come to redeem his people.” (68)
To “redeem” means to release from bondage through the payment of a price.
• Salvation: “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us.” (69)
• Rescue: He promises to rescue us from the hand of our enemies.” (71, 74)
• Forgiveness: Verse 77 tells us that we will find salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.
Zechariah is letting us know that Jesus did not visit this planet simply to see how we were doing. He knew how we were doing. That’s why He came! We were in trouble. We were lost in sin. But Jesus was coming to save us. That’s what Christmas is all about.
2. Christ’s coming fulfills PROPHECY.
As a godly Jew, Zechariah is celebrating the fact that God has at long last kept his promises. Zechariah sings three stanzas celebrating the fulfillment of prophecy.
• Christ’s coming was promised by the prophets.
“As he said through his holy prophets of long ago.” (70)
• His coming fulfilled the sacred covenant.
“He has been merciful by remembering his covenant.” (72)
• He fulfilled the oath He had made to Abraham.
“To remember his sacred covenant with an oath he swore to their father Abraham.” (72-73)
The point is clear: God was doing what He promised He would do. He always does. The prophets saw it coming. Micah spoke of it, and so did Isaiah and Jeremiah. Even old Abraham looked forward to this day, as did Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. They all saw it coming; they just didn’t know exactly when it would happen. Zechariah is letting us know that God has visited the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and as a result, nothing will ever be the same again. Christmas Chorus
3. Christ’s coming gives us PURPOSE.
In verses 74 and 75 Zechariah speaks of the total transformation Jesus will make in the lives of those who follow him. “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) I love how salvation leads us to live holy lives of serving others. Salvation leads to HOLINESS which always leads to SERVICE.
He saved you so that you might fulfill the highest calling in the universe – serving God without fear in holiness and righteousness forever! We are saved to serve. I want to encourage you to give careful consideration to how you can more effectively invest your life in service to the Lord.
4. Christ’s coming was prepared by JOHN.
Now Zechariah considers the significance of the infant son he holds in his arms. “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) John will be a prophet of God who will prepare the way for the Lord. He will preach salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
John’s mission was to make the nation ready for the coming of Messiah. He was a prophet, a preparer, and a preacher of salvation. John began his ministry by going out to the desert region around the Jordan River and preaching repentance. He baptized many people and so helped prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. That is why he was known as John the baptizer, or John the Baptist.
When John saw Jesus, he cried out, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) There are only two verses in Zechariah’s song that have to do with his own son. The rest of this chorus has to do with the Savior because Zechariah recognized the subordinate position of his own son. Jesus would be first. John was second.
Parents, train your kids to be servants. Teach them and model for them the fact that they, like John, were created to put Christ first. Teach them to deflect attention from themselves to the Savior. Think of how that could change our world. Help your kids see their role in preparing others to come to Jesus.
John was all about putting Jesus first. He was pointing people to Jesus. He pointed away from himself to Jesus. His desire was that others would see the Savior. We would do well to mimic John’s life mission. Speaking of Jesus, John said…“He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:3 (NLT)
John’s focus was on being second, not first. He prepared people for Jesus’ first coming; as we become less, we have the privilege of helping people get ready to meet Him at His Second Coming.
5. Christ’s coming brings BLESSINGS.
In one final burst of praise Zechariah speaks of three great benefits: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:78-79 (NLT)
• The morning light from Heaven is coming.
• It will give light to those who are in darkness.
• And it will guide us on the path of peace.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. God was about to show up and nothing would ever be the same again.
Christmas is only 21 days away. What songs will you sing in honor of the One who has come? Will it be “Deck the halls with boughs of holly?” “Santa Clause is coming to town?” “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas?”
If Christmas is only cute carols on the radio, or tinsel on a tree, a gift exchange, or parties and food, then we’ve missed the real musical message of Christmas. Christmas is about the transcendent truth that God has at last has visited His people.
All the rest is window dressing. God has visited his people in the person of Jesus Christ.
This same Divine Visitor comes knocking at the door of our hearts today. The question is always the same – Will you open the door and invite Him in? Salvation is not a human INVENTION. It is not something we achieve by going to God.
It is something God has done by coming to us in Christ.
Salvation is not a human INVENTION it is a Divine INVITATION.
It is not only a Divine invitation. It is a Divine Visitation as well. Zechariah’s song is the first song on the Christmas Playlist. Genuine faith will always result in rejoicing. Luke 15:16 says “there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” God came to the earth 2,000 years ago as a baby in a manger. Nobody had to be left out. But do you realize He is still coming. He comes to us individually. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door,
I will come in.