The birth of a first-born baby may be one of the most exuberating experiences in life. I remember driving home from the hospital after the birth of our son, Dan. It had been a long, arduous labor for Mary. We had been at the hospital two days, and I was sleep deprived, but I had no trouble staying awake on the half hour drive home. Sleepy? Are you kidding? I was a father of a beautiful, baby boy! (Did I tell he was a 8 lb. 13 oz. hunk?) There were several little newborns squirming in cribs as I peered through the nursery window before leaving the hospital.
But I only remember seeing one.
Even back home at the parsonage I couldn’t sleep. After all, I was a father —a Dad!—and needed to tell everybody!
I suspect Zechariah, the old Jewish priest, felt the same way when his son was born. Problem was, he couldn’t share the joy because he was mute. Truly speechless! The cause wasn’t any excitement over his son’s birth, but rather a lapse of faith. Ever since that day, almost a year before, when he had questioned the angel how his elderly wife could possibly bear a son at her age, the priest had not spoken a word.
For nine months Zechariah and Elizabeth were filled with anticipation. Finally the day arrived and they welcomed a healthy baby boy. (No surprise about his gender; the angel had made that very clear.)
Eight days later extended family and friends gathered to celebrate. (Perhaps it was like a contemporary baby shower—except the rite of circumcision, of course.)
I try to imagine what it might have felt like for Zechariah when everyone in the house was laughing and talking, while he sat silently by himself. They wouldn’t deliberately ignore him, but it was so clumsy trying to communicate with a mute. Did he feel like he was invisible?
When it came time to name the baby, all the guests assumed the baby would carry the name of his father, Zechariah. But Elizabeth pushed back, insisting he was to be named, John. Finally, somebody remembered that Zechariah was in the room and asked what he, the father, wanted to call the baby. Motioning for parchment and a writing utensil, Zechariah began to write with bold strokes, “His name IS JOHN!” The name the angel had given.
At that very moment he opened his mouth and began to speak. Words flowed from his lips like singing lyrics from a familiar song. A song composed during those long, silent months. As he sang, Zechariah pronounced blessings upon God and on his baby son. Today we call this song, The Benedictus, from the Latin word for blessing, the first word in the song. To bless someone is to speak well of them such as the eulogy at a funeral.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed is people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 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. 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, 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 1:68-79, ESV)
Zechariah begins his song by blessing or praising God for coming to redeem and rescue his people, Israel, just as the prophets had promised long ago. God had remembered his covenant with Abraham to bless him and to make his descendants a blessing to the world. All this would come to pass through the birth, life and death of Mary’s baby boy.
Zechariah’s focus turns to his own little baby boy, and predicts that John will be the promised prophet of the Most High, announcing the arrival of the Messiah who will bring salvation and forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ ministry would be like a magnificent sunrise dispelling the darkness and hopelessness that had settled on Israel under foreign occupation. His coming will bring shalom —true peace— to the world.
Has there ever been a more noble, more powerful blessing of a father over his child? Every blessing Zechariah pronounced over his new born son came to pass. John was that bold voice calling for repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah. John also had the privilege to announce, “Behold. the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” Zechariah’s fatherly blessing over the cradle of his baby boy is still good news in 2020.
So with all the Christmas carols we enjoy, let’s also sing with Zechariah this Christmas. Let’s bless and praise God for honoring his covenant to make Israel a blessing for the nations.
Only he, Mary’s baby boy, can and will bring true shalom in our fractured and desperate world.