Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
because he delights in showing clemency.
He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and unswerving loyalty to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our ancestors
from the days of old.
From the Hands of our Enemies
We have just read the words of Zechariah, father of John the baptizer, singing praises to God. We call this text the Benedictus, Latin meaning to bless. Zechariah blesses the Lord for giving him a son in his old age, and for what that son, John represents.
Zechariah blesses the Lord because this child is a sign, as he says that God has:
72…remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, [would be] rescued from the hands of our enemies…
This text is perfect for our times; for today. It’s message is powerful and important for all of us. In this text we are promised that God would rescue his people from the hand of their enemies, and we are given insight about who those enemies are.
We are living at a time in which our world is full of enemies, facing each other across racial, ethnic and religious lines – in Gaza, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, as well as Darfur, Uganda, Somalia, Congo – so many places in Africa – not to mention Indonesia, and Pakistan.
But something remarkable is happening in these times as well. Monday is Martin Luther King day; Tuesday we will inaugurate an African-American as president. The evil of racism has not been completely eliminated, but we have made enormous progress for which we give thanks to God. People who once identified each other as enemies are enemies no longer.
What did we learn? That our enemy was not ever people of another race, but racism itself. The real enemy was inside us: our own pride and bigotry, our selfishness and fear.
Once we have identified the real enemy, then we find release from those we formerly considered enemies.
Romans and Jews were enemies in the days in which Zechariah sang his Benedictus. That fact is powerfully present in his song.
Zechariah named his son, not after himself, but after the last King and at the same time High Priest of independent Israel, before the Romans conquered them.
This song sounds exactly like the announcement of the coming of the next revolutionary leader who would drive off the enemy, Rome, and it is about a boy named after the last free King of Israel.
But Zechariah sang of a release from the hand of enemies far more significant than the Romans.
By the time Luke put pen to paper (or quill to parchment) Roman armies had crushed the Jewish temple and asserted the Empire’s absolute authority. And yet, for Luke, the message of rescue from the hand of our enemies was still valid.
Why? Because the real enemy was not Rome. The real enemy was/is the evil in the heart that wants us to create enemies.
The evil in the heart that creates racism and exclusion, and the evil which identifies the solutions we need as entirely material.
The salvation we need has nothing to do with Rome; rather Zechariah sings that his son, John will be used by God to open people’s eye to 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, – to open their eyes to a new truth:
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
It is sin, evil that we need salvation from. And the beauty is that once we are free from that dark evil condition, we understand why John does not have to start a revolution; rather he knows that it is Gods will:
77...to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Peace, or shalom, is what we are looking for; to be in a state of inner tranquility and contentment; to have peace in our homes and in our relationships, to have peace with God; to be free from anxiety and fear of the future. Peace between our nation and people who are different from us; to have alternatives to violence.
That kind of peace does not come from this world; it is transcendent.
Jesus says “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting … But…, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
When our hearts are set free from seeking our salvation from our material world, then we are truly “not fighting” but, “walking in the way of peace.”
We are so blessed to understand this!
Here is the great irony of Christian faith: it is the lack of ultimacy of the material, physical world that gives us the freedom to embrace the world with open-hearted, generous love.
What I mean is, because we know that our ultimate identity is that we are children of God, citizens of his kingdom, and that he has the power to rescue us and guide us, we find that we loosen our grip on the material world.
We are not so anxious about material possessions because they are not ultimate. We do not obsess about our net worth because that is not the source of meaning for us.
When our grip on the world is thus loosened, then we have the freedom to embrace the world in a new way. If we are not clutching our resources so tightly, we are more freely able to put them to use in the kingdom. When we are relaxed about our security, we are able to be generous when we see needs.
The enemy we need release from is that remnant of darkness in our hearts that tells us to cling and to clench, to hold on and hold back, to harden and ignore.
That is the evil that we have renounced in our baptismal vows – as we will hear again today.
That is the sin that we call on God to forgive; that is the forgiveness that John came to announce, and that is why, when the Temple has been ground under the Roman boot, Luke can say, we have been
74“…rescued from the hands of our enemies, [that we] might serve him without fear...”
“Without fear” without anxiety, without backing into our shells like frightened crabs. We know where our salvation is from; we do not fear.
One week from today we will come to dedicate to God our commitments to “serve him without fear.” We will bring our pledge cards, or our “faith promise to give” cards, and we will demonstrate that the light has come.
By our commitments we will demonstrate that we have been released from the evil enemy of mis-placed security. We trust in God; he will guide us into the peace we long for. He will open our hearts to the pain in the world.
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.