The New Testament
We will continue our reading of the Bible by looking at Luke and Acts in the New Testament. We will conclude our study with some epistles - apostolic letters to 1st century faith communities - especially Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome. Why focus on these particular books of the New Testament? Well, first we are in year C in the liturgical cycle, which means we are mostly reading through Luke in the Sunday morning liturgy. Second, Luke continues his account of early Christianity in his second volume traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles. In these two volumes we get sense of how the early believers encountered Jesus in both his incarnation and resurrection body and that ongoing relationship with Jesus changed the world.
Luke likes to tell his story through poems or songs, which compress the key themes which are elaborated in the subsequent narrative. Indeed, he begins his story of Jesus and his movement in chapter one in the story of Zechariah and his song.
Songs are the proper medium of hope (and many other passions). So as the Jewish people thought about the promises of God they often reminded each other of them in song. They remembered the covenant and that God promised to eventually bring a deliverer, so that its purposes would be fulfilled. Intermittently, over a millennium, they had been the door mat of one evil empire after another: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and now, the Romans. These old Jews, like Zechariah, kept the rumor of hope alive.
It is in this context we must hear Zechariah Song, for it is a poetic recalling of the all those ancient promises that sustained God's people in times of oppression. The song is an unfettered praising of what God has done and is doing. The most natural form of this kind of praise is poetry – which is exactly what we have in Luke chapter one (both Mary and Zechariah sing). This song is also the Bible in miniature. If you mastered this poem, you would know your Bible well indeed. In this regard, it is like TS Eliot’s poem the Wasteland. IF you want to understand Western Civilization since the Enlightenment, I would say master the Wasteland. If you want to understand the Christian antidote then I would say master TS Eliot’s 4 Quartets. (And if you wonder how one person could write both, then study Ash Wednesday.)
So this poem is a portal into the whole Bible and its message of redemption.
First, consider how works. All poems are made of three parts:
- Lines – which do not go to the end of the page
- Sentences – which may run many lines
- Image – the governing motif, which is usually discerned by the nouns and key words
IF you want to understand the body of the poem you must understand its anatomy. Each poem has lines – the skeletal system which supplies the rhythm of the poem. Lines sing the music of the poem. Each poem has sentences, which pumps the meaning of the poem down the lines. Sentences tell the story of the poem. If you have difficulty getting the story or message of the poem keep following the lines till you get to the end of the sentence. Let’s do that with Zechariah’s poem.
This poem (if written on a full page) has 24 lines but only two sentences. The story of the poem is in these sentences. Pay attention to the last word or phrase of each line as you work your way through the sentence:
Look at these first two verses (v68-69):
- His people
- For us
- House of his servant David
We can see that this poem wants to tell us something about the people of God.
Now read now at v72-73:
- Promise to our fathers
- Holy covenant
- Grant us
- Deliverance from our enemies
So we begin to see that this poem sings the deliverance, the salvation of the people of God.
Is Zechariah saying anything new here? No, I don't think so. He is saying it in a new way, but every line is a quote or strong allusion from somewhere else in the OT.
Now look at the second sentence. The subject changes. It is no longer Blessing God for remembering his covenant. Zechariah addresses his newborn son, John the Baptist. And what does he tell him? He tells him his job description. He will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. He then enumerates those ways with three infinitival phrases:
(77) to give knowledge of salvation – to the Jewish people
(79) to give light to those in darkness – a reference to all non-Jews
(79) to guide our feet into the way of peace – to those who choose to follow Jesus
The rest of the narrative of Luke shows Jesus on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the Temple to the Cross, from the Cross to the Grave, from the Grave to a New Earth. And as Jesus is on the way, he teaches the way.
And what is Luke’s characteristic word to describe this way? It is the way of peace. It is the last word in Zechariah’s poem. And it is a key motif of Luke’s gospel. The word occurs 14 times in Luke’s gospel. And they are strategically placed in the narrative, like here. In another place Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem in ch 9, v 51. Jesus instructs his disciples to look for "a man of peace" whenever they approach a new town (10:5-6). As Jesus approaches his destination, Jerusalem, note what he says is missing (19:41ff):
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes!
This mission of Jesus in Luke is a peace mission: peace with God first and foremost, but peace on earth as well, just as the Angels announced at Jesus' birth (2:14). John came to help prepare the way for Jesus' mission of peace. And there should be a little bit of John in us all....
This is what that old man Zechariah was praising his guts out about 2,000 years ago.
Let's see if Luke's narrative of Jesus' Way has the same impact on us?