The Benedictus

Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Wednesday 24th June 2020 (The Birth of John the Baptist)
Isaiah 40.1–11; Psalm 85.7–end; Acts 13.14b–26; Luke 1.57–66,80

After a short preface, Luke’s gospel goes straight to the birth story of John, where we meet his elderly, childless parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah is on duty at the altar of incense (in the Holy Place) when he’s interrupted by the angel Gabriel.  He’s terrified – who wouldn’t be?  Gabriel tells him that Elizabeth will have a son, who will be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’, filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He expresses his doubts: ‘’How will I know?’ since we are both elderly?  Then he’s struck dumb.  Elizabeth hides for 5 months, just to be sure, and when her cousin Mary, also pregnant, visits her, John, fulfilling Gabriel’s words, recognises Jesus from his mother’s womb!! Great joy for both women.

At his birth, everyone: relatives, neighbours, are full of joy.  He must be named after his father.  ‘No’ says Elizabeth (miraculously) ‘his name is John.’  When his father writes ‘His name is John.’ That settles it, and Zechariah, his tongue loosed, and full of Holy Spirit, bursts into song, plainsong or rap; it is a psalm of praise to God for what God has done – we know it as the ‘Benedictus’, and indulge me as I look at these words missed out of our gospel.

Scholars have speculated a great deal about where it came from, Zechariah himself, a Jewish poem, a poem from Qumran, John the Baptist’s later followers; most probably from an early Jewish Christian psalm and Luke.  The language is that of the Greek Jewish Bible, the Septuagint, with influences from the literature of the deutero-canonical writings (the Apocrypha).

‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel’, it begins and tells what God has accomplished for God’s people. ‘Looked favourably’ on them: the verb (episkeptomai) has the same root as our word ‘episcopal’ of a bishop, our nearest English equivalent would be ‘overseer’, one who ‘looks over’.  But in the Greek OT it came to mean ‘to visit’, of God visiting his wrath on his disobedient people; but also positively: pouring out God’s grace. And ‘made redemption’ for them: brought them back from Exile?  This is particularly political.

He has ‘raised a horn of salvation’ in the house of David.  Horn – as in oxen – is sign of strength, very macho: think of the Bull of Wall street: aggressive and strong.  Military might.  David had lots of it, as well as his poetic side.

As promised by the prophets of ancient time: way back.

‘To save us from our enemies, and from the hands of all who hate us.’  Again, political here. Bringing back from Exile eg. But notice that it isn’t just in the past, but ‘to us’.

To show mercy… To make, to do mercy. Mercy, compassion, is not having nice thoughts, a feeling: ‘Aw!’ But an action.  As indeed with charity: something you DO!

The ancient oath to Abraham: is of offspring and the Land.  To grant (usually of land) but here to be rescued from our enemies (exile again?).  And ‘us’.  Rescued from the Romans?

‘So that we might worship in his presence without fear.  In holiness and uprightness all the days of our life’ – as long as we live.  Then & now.

Vv. 76 & 77 are about John (probably written by Luke?).  ‘You, child, will be hailed as the prophet of the Most High’ (El Elyon) an OT name for God, and in pagan tradition.  This is the answer to the people’s question ‘What will he be?’ Not ‘who?’  A prophet – Jesus is called ‘Son of the Most High’.  John will prepare his way, in the desert, as we’ll see.

To offer his people ‘knowledge of salvation’ (an unusual term) through the forgiveness of sins.  ‘Know’ is existential: ‘have experience of.’  (as in the OT Wisdom tradition).  John’s was a baptism of repentance leading to an experience of forgiveness.

‘In the merciful compassion of God’.  This is visceral, literally, the word means ‘entrails’, (splanchna), ‘bowels’ are the seat of compassion. We would say ‘heart’, but that’s not visceral enough.

‘The dawn from on high’.  ‘Anatole’ ‘rising’: as the star in Matthew’s birth story. [Anatolia is the part of Turkey that looks East, where the sun rises.] It came to refer to the sprout, the ‘shoot’, of Jesse: David.  A clear reference to Jesus again.  Who will ‘take note of us.’  That ‘lookover’ word again (epeskepsato).  This dawn will shine on those who sit in darkness (God’s people? the Gentiles? Both?). It’s an illumination.  An enlightenment.  Our feet, (including Zechariah’s) at a time that Luke saw as the end of an era for Israel and her traditions. Into the path of peace.  That’s where we’ve been heading all along.

After the psalm: John was in the desert as he grew physically and spiritually. There is no further contact between the two families!! His parents probably died when he was very young, but he seems to have been abandoned to the desert.

Until his manifestation to Israel.  His coming out.  In Luke 3.

There’s tragedy here for Luke, because when Jesus is on trial God’s people reject him, which for Luke leads to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

This peace is political, (existential), personal, experiential, all at the same time.  You can’t separate the personal and the political.  As a number of inclusion campaigns have shown us.  Whether Black Lives Matter or for gender, or sexuality, peace and well-being for the Syrians, the Palestinians, the Rohingya people, Refugees, and many more.

Justice, inclusion, are not just good ideas, theory, it is, again, something to do, and requires hard work.  And patience.  And solidarity.

Let’s pray that we have the courage to do peace.

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