The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 13, 2020*
Sermon Audio: A New and Glorious Morn (Luke 1:67-79)
67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Why do Christians want to share their faith? Why are we evangelistic? Why not be content in simply teaching our children, maintaining our traditions and keeping our conversations with our neighbors to the weather and the Seahawks? Even more puzzling, why do we send Christians to go to other communities, nations, uprooting their families and planting them in wholly unknown and sometimes hostile places, all just to share the gospel with others.
Two years ago a 26 year-old American, John Chau, paddled a kayak to the secluded North Sentinel Island in the Indian Sea, though it was illegal to do so. His aim was to preach the gospel to the Sentinelese people, who had no contact with the outside world and were known to be very violent towards outsiders. Chau was killed shortly after landing on the island. Many news outlets reported on the incident, wondering why one earth a young man would so carelessly throw his life away. Many even considered his desire to preach Christianity to these natives as a vestige of colonialism, and thus profoundly harmful—why would you try to rob someone of their cultural heritage by converting them?
Why do Christians want to convert others?
That was a question a young Charlotte Moon contemplated, nearly 175 years before John Chau set out for the North Sentinel Island. Growing up in a wealthy family with strong Baptist convictions, ‘Lottie’ was given opportunities for education that most young women did not have access to. Standing only at a mere four foot three inches, Lottie’s stature was small (her feet could not touch the floor when she sat in chairs), but her intellect was large. By the age of 17 she was proficient in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian. But her heart was indifferent to the Lord, to the Church, to the entire Baptist conviction of evangelism and missions. A travelling evangelist and preacher was coming through her town one December and Lottie’s friends, aware of her spiritual state, pled with her repeatedly to go. Reluctantly, she agreed, but explained that she would only go in order to mock what was happening. But, that night, 162 years ago today, Lottie was born again.
Though she had many teaching opportunities in front of her, Lottie, a young single woman, decided to travel to China in order to share the gospel with unreached Chinese people. Life in China was difficult and people were often resistant to Lottie’s message. After four years, the small team of missionaries that had arrived in China had dwindled—several had died, more had simply abandoned the work—leaving only four missionaries left in the whole of their region. “This troubled Lottie. Why, she asked, did one million Southern Baptists only have one man and three women witnessing to thirty million souls?” And in time, more help would come. But Lottie remained in China for the next 39 years, converting and baptizing thousands and thousands, and suffering profound difficulties, isolation, depression, physical attacks, hunger, and persecution.
Why? She wrote, “[A Christian] should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The command is so plain: ‘Go.’” There is something about the Christian faith that propels us forward, to speak to our neighbors, to send missionaries to unreached peoples, to go. And in our text today we will see that one of the central elements of Christmas centers on this reality. In Zechariah’s song, he recounts how God has sought to bless all nations through the birth of Christ. This is one of the reasons why Lottie Moon sought to create an offering gathered once a year by Southern Baptists at Christmas to support international missionaries around the globe. The birth of Jesus is good news for all people—we simply must go and tell it to them.
In our text today, we are going to be taken down a winding path through the Old Testament that might seem odd or unfamiliar. But I have been always helped by CS Lewis’ thought from his essay The Weight of Glory: “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.” As we walk through the first half of this song and find ourselves puzzled and we are tempted to just skip by the parts that bore us, perhaps that is a sign that these are the exact places we need to be focusing the bulk of our attention to.
God’s Promise to Abraham
The first half of Zechariah’s song (The Benedictus) centers on what God has promised His people, Israel. The song winds through the history of the Old Testament, tugging on the major threads woven through the Old Testament. These threads point forward to a future fulfillment and Zechariah is praising God because with the arrival of John and Jesus, these promises are now fulfilled.
1. Zechariah explains that God has “visited and redeemed His people,” (Luke 1:68). “Redemption” is the language used in the Bible to refer to people who were slaves, but have been liberated from their captivity, purchased. It is used most often in the Old Testament to refer to the deliverance of the Hebrews from their Egyptian slavery in the book of Exodus. What happened at the Exodus? God’s people were slaves under the sentence of death, but God single-handedly and miraculously saved them by grace, redeeming them from death by the blood of a spotless lamb. After saving them, He made them into a new people, gave them a law, and promised them a land where they would dwell with God in peace and rest. But, God’s people didn’t obey God’s law, so they were removed from the land, sent into exile. But the prophets of Israel foretold of a day when God would again perform a great act of redemption, a new kind of Exodus that would surpass the old in its magnitude (eg. Isa 43). This is what Zechariah is saying has happened now.
2. Zechariah continues to explain that God has also “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David,” (Luke 1:68). “Raising up a horn” is a symbolic metaphor for strength and victory, as in when an animal with horns conquers another animal with horns; the animal that wins the battle raises its head, while the one that loses walks away with a lowered horn. Here we are told that God has raised up a horn of salvation specifically from the “house of His servant David.” This is referring to the messianic promise that God had made to David that he would have a descendant who would sit on His throne forever (2 Sam 7). Psalm 132 is a psalm dedicated to this promise. In it the psalmist records, “There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed,” Ps 132:17. Zechariah is blessing God because now the descendant of David, the horn, has arrived; the kingdom will be reestablished, God’s enemies will be taken care of, and the people of God will find rest. This is why so much of Zechariah’s song speaks of being delivered from Israel’s enemies and serving God without fear (Luke 1:71; 74).
3. Finally, Zechariah rejoices that God’s covenant with Abraham is being fulfilled, “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days,” Luke 1:72-75. Abraham is the father of Israel—literally. In Genesis 12 God chooses Abraham (then Abram) and commands him to leave his country and promises him three things: (1) he will become a great nation, (2) He will have a land that God has promised Him, and (3) all of the families of the earth will be blessed through Him (Gen 12:1-3). In Genesis 15, however, Abraham is now an old man and has no children. How is he supposed to father an entire nation? God formally enters into a covenant with Abraham, reiterating this promise (which is repeated again in Gen 17, and 22). But it is only in chapter 22 where we see God take an “oath”—Zechariah highlights God’s covenant and oath in his song.
Genesis 22 is the famous story of Abraham offering up Isaac, the promised heir through whom God pledged the multitude of Abraham’s descendants would come, for sacrifice upon God’s request. Before Abraham goes through with the sacrifice, God stops Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided,” Gen 22:12-14.
And then, God speaks again to Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice,” Gen 22:16-18. God swearing by Himself is the oath, and the rest of the promises that He recounts are the blessings of the covenant God has made with Abraham. Now, Zechariah is saying that we can sing and rejoice because God has fulfilled this oath and covenant with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the result that now we are (1) delivered from our enemies and thus can (2) serve the Lord without fear, (3) in holiness and righteousness.
Exodus, David, Abraham. All of these rush together into this moment: the advent of Jesus. How does Jesus fulfill these expectations?
Jesus has come to bring about the new Exodus, the greater Exodus, to deliver and save His people from their slavery to sin and death, to make them a new people, give them His law, and lead them to the final Promised Land: the New Heavens and New Earth. He is the truer and greater spotless lamb, the Passover sacrifice, whose blood covers us and redeems us once for all from the Destroyer.
Jesus is the son of David and the truer and greater David. He is the unassuming, unexpected king of Israel, a man after God’s own heart, who slays the giant of sin and Satan, through surprising and humble means (His own death on the cross). Through His death and resurrection He has now ascended to Heaven and has taken His seat on His throne where He rules as the king over all creation, manifesting His kingdom on earth through His church, as we await the final consummation of His kingdom at His return.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant and oath that God made to Abraham when He stayed his hand from sacrificing Isaac. God made the oath with Abraham because, “you have not withheld your son, your only son,” (Gen 22:16). Now, God will not withhold from us His son, His only son. Jesus is the truer and greater sacrifice that is offered up instead of Isaac, offering Himself for His people on the cross so that we would not perish but have everlasting life, that we may be declared holy and righteous. And now, through Jesus’ work, His people are now commissioned to go to the ends of the earth and spread this good news to all nations, till the people of God are as numerous as the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky (which is why the gospels spend so much time recording Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people, demonstrating that salvation is not for ethnic Israel alone).
This is what is leading Zechariah to rejoice, to sing, to praise God. Israel’s great hope, great expectation has arrived. But what is most important to Zechariah?
The Tender Mercies of God
After recounting the numerous ways God is fulfilling what the prophets beforehand have prophesied, Zechariah then turns to his baby boy and prophesies over him: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” Luke 1:76-77. John is to be a trailblazer to clear the way for the Lord, the Messiah Himself. John will be a teacher who will point people towards salvation—and what is this salvation? The forgiveness of sins.
Why would God forgive our sins? Why would He save us? We are told, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,” Luke 1:78-79.
Why are we forgiven? The mercy of God. We are not saved out of the obligations of God. He doesn’t owe use forgiveness. Perhaps it is tempting to assume that forgiving is just God’s job: Of course I am forgiven, isn’t God just eager to have my attention? Isn’t that kind of taken for granted? We are not saved because God owes us anything–it is sheer mercy.
Further, we are not saved because we have slogged it through a tough time, punched the clock, knuckled down and scraped together some spiritual entrée that would please the Lord. We have not created something appealing that has bent God’s gaze our direction and earned a pardon on our sins. We are saved by wholly undeserved, unmerited, doesn’t make sense, mercy.
But friends, we aren’t even just saved by God’s mercy. We are saved because of His tender mercy. The Greek word for that is splanchna (σπλάγχνα), and it literally refers to someone’s internal organs—it is where we derive the English word “spleen” from. In the ancient world people believed that the guts were the seat of the most powerful and sympathetic of all emotions, especially compassion. Here Zechariah recognizes that God’s mercy towards His people is profoundly deep, heartfelt, powerful, tender. God is not just putting up with us; He isn’t just tired of listening to us complain and He knows if He will forgive our sins He can finally get some peace and quiet because, after all, He has much more important things to attend to. No, His heart is tender toward us. Ponder these three passages from the Old Testament that reveal God’s heart towards sinners like you and me:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender,” Hos 11:8. At the height of Israel’s sin and spiritual adultery, God still cannot fathom casting His people off. His heart is warmed as He thinks of His children. Our sin doesn’t cause God’s heart to become brittle and cold, but tender and warm.
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. – Jer 32:41. What was the last thing you did with “all your heart and soul”? What was the last thing you did that expended every drop of sweat, blood, and tears to accomplish? This is the intensity with which God works towards doing good to His covenant people. His heart is not indifferent towards us, He is not mechanically shelling out forgiveness to a faceless mass of people. He is thrilled to work good for His children!
15 “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. – Isa 49:15-16. Think of the attachment a mother feels towards her newborn child. These, according to Isaiah, are an imperfect reflection of God’s more perfect affection for His children. Mother’s may forget. God never will. He will not abandon you, He will not cast you aside–you are engraved on the palm of His hand. This is God’s heart towards you.
You see friends, our salvation–the forgiveness of sins–flows from God’s tender mercy. It is stunningly beautiful, and scandalously given to any and all who come to Christ. This is why Zechariah compares it with a sunrise. In the same way sunlight spills across a dark, cold morning, bringing light and warmth, so too does God’s mercy beautifully spill out towards all persons who will put their faith in Christ. There is no darkness so dark that the light cannot overcome. And there is no sinner too far from God that He cannot be reconciled.
This is why we go. This news is just too good not to be shared. God has promised that through His people all families of the earth will be blessed. The new exodus has global implications. The new David is a King who will rule and reign over all nations, not just Israel. So we go to the ends of the earth and we share the gospel with our neighbors and we support missionaries and pray that God’s Kingdom would come and His will would be done, here on earth as it is in heaven. We want people to see and know that there is a God who is gracious and merciful, who will forgive their sins and save them from destruction.
A thrill of hope
A weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn