Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Premature Birth Announcement?

As a theme for this week, I’m looking at the canticle thatis appointed for Sunday in place of a psalm. It’s the Song of Zechariah, and it’s one of my favorites. I wrote yesterday about the the compulsory use Benedictus as the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer. Now, I’d like to look at some of the text itself.

As you may recall, Zechariah was a priest who was struck dumb while serving in the Temple. He saw a vision of an angel who promised him a son, and, when he doubted that prophecy, the angel made him mute. Then, after his child was born and he confirmed his wife’s decision to name the boy John, his mouth was opened, and he immediately burst into song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.”

But then things get confusing. The second line of the song declares, “He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David.” But, of course, Jesus wasn’t to be born for another six months. What sort of timing is that? What sort of mighty savior did Zechariah (or Luke, the author of the gospel text) have in mind?

That might just be one of those editorial liberties that gospel writers took. In other words, it might not have an answer. I’m pretty sure that savior was indeed yet-to-be-born Jesus. I don’t know how to square that away. But I do think it leads to a better question: when are God’s promises fulfilled?

There are two ways to look at it. Either we wait until everything is accomplished to announce their fulfillment, or we claim that victory in process. The former suggests more than a lifetime of disappointment, while the latter proclaims the greatness of God already revealed even if not yet completed. As Christians, I think we are supposed to internalize Zechariah’s song and realize that God’s promises are already fulfilled even though they are still working themselves out.

Consider the nature of the one making the promise. When my wife asks me whether I will feed the dog or take out the trash, she’s really asking me to do it—not whether I’m willing. But, when I respond by saying, “I will,” yet remain occupied by my computer, cell phone, or television, the fulfillment of that promise is not accomplished until I get up and do the thing she has asked. Trust me, too often she ends up feeding the dog before I “have the chance,” leaving me embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

When God makes the promise, “I will,” there isn’t any doubt of its fulfillment—even if it takes generations or perhaps millennia for them to be realized. If God tells you he’ll do something, he’ll do it. The achievement of those promises, therefore, depends less on our waiting around and more on our willingness to see them taking place—to see the process itself.

The birth of John the Baptist signified a change in human history. Zechariah, who had heard from the angel what his son would do, knew that the ancient promises of God were being fulfilled in a process that was particularly active at that time. Even before that savior’s birth, he could see where God and his creation were headed, thus enabling him to declare, “He has raised up for us might savior,” even if that was a little premature. With God, there is no such thing as premature. As soon as you can see him at work, that work is done.

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