Passage: Luke 1:68–1:79
Jesus is God’s sunrise on your darkness.
What is the most common thing that little kids are scared of? The dark. Kids get scared of the dark. What is it about the dark that is scary? An article on WebMD said that this fear usually begins around the age of 2 or 3 when kids are old enough to imagine but aren’t wise enough to distinguish between fantasy and reality. “This gives the unknown an opportunity to turn scary.” The dark has a way of playing tricks on our minds.
Even as adults, we have a strained relationship with darkness. Darkness can have an effect on our mental and emotional health. There’s a type of depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder that comes in the winter months. But even without this, many of us find it difficult to deal with less daylight and more darkness in winter. Doctors and therapists sometimes recommend light therapy to get through.
Darkness is often used to describe and depict sadness, depression, and grief. We wear black at funerals, not at weddings. When bad things happen, it feels like darkness. Darkness is often associated with loneliness. When it’s dark, you are alone. You can’t see anything or anybody. It’s just you there.
Light then is often associated with hope. We say things like, “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Or we say there was a ray of hope using the image of a ray of sunshine piercing through the clouds. When people are in a place of despair and find hope, they might talk about it like light breaking into the darkness. When we were first under the stay at home order in the spring, our neighbors lined the sidewalk outside their home with candles. They said they wanted to shine some light in the darkness.
Today we are continuing a mini series leading up to Christmas Eve called The First Christmas Carols. Every year, we sing these beautiful songs called Christmas carols about the birth of Jesus and its significance. Many are hundreds of years old, but they are far from being the first songs sung about Jesus’ birth. As you are reading the first two chapters of The Gospel According to Luke, it’s almost like a musical because the characters keep bursting out into song about what God is doing through Jesus’ birth.
What causes them to burst out into song like this? These were people who had been sitting in darkness for a long time.The people of Israel had really messed up with God. In 586 B.C., the Babylonian Empire took them into exile. Their land was taken over. Everything was lost. Eventually, the Persian Empire took over. In 538 B.C., the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple. They did that but it was never quite the same. People who had seen the old Jerusalem and the old temple wept because there was no comparison. Eventually Persia was defeated by the Greek Empire and the Greek Empire was defeated by the Roman Empire. In the 1st century, the people of Israel still lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. They didn’t have their own say in how their country was run. Roman soldiers walked their streets. They didn’t have their own king on the throne. They were not a free nation.
On top of this, God had gone silent. He was no longer sending prophets. The Old Testament closes with the book of Malachi who was the last prophet to speak. Malachi lived and ministered around 450 B.C. so God was silent for 450 years.
So these are people who are sitting in darkness. They are in the darkness of oppression by another nation: suffering, frustrated, confused, wondering. They are in the darkness of silence, not hearing from God. They are also in the darkness of their own sin. The reason they went into exile in the first place was because of their own sin. And the reason they still don’t have their land back is because of their own sin. They were unfaithful to God. They broke their commitment to him. They turned away from him and so they are living with the consequences of that.
Let me pause for a moment and ask: what sort of darkness do you find yourself sitting in today? Do you find yourself sitting in the darkness of suffering and affliction? Are you grieving and mourning loss? Are you saddened by how things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in this world? Do you find yourself sitting in the darkness of your own sin? Has the shame and guilt led you into hiding and distancing yourself from others? You might not even know why there’s darkness there, you just know you are in it.
Whatever your darkness is, my hope and prayer is that Zechariah’s song could become your song too. Because Zechariah has some beautiful words for people sitting in darkness.
We are going to look at this song in two parts. In the first part, Zechariah blesses God for bringing salvation. In the second part, Zechariah speaks a blessing over his newborn son. Let’s look at the first part in verses 68 through 75 where Zechariah Praises God for Bringing Salvation.
Blessing God for Bringing Salvation (1:68-75)
As we read this, there’s an important background story to have in our minds. We need to know the most important event in Israel’s history that happened 1500 years before Jesus’ birth. For 400 years, the people of Israel lived in Egypt and were eventually made slaves. They were treated horribly and they were in need of salvation. God had made a covenant with their ancestor, Abraham. So in faithfulness to that covenant and its promises, God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. He heard their cries of distress and in mercy and compassion sent a man named Moses to lead them in an exodus out of Egypt. Through displays of his mighty power, he defeated their enemies who hated them. He led them to Mount Sinai so they could worship him and he could become their God and they could become his people. This exodus event became the model salvation event for the nation of Israel. When the prophets talked about the future salvation God would bring, they talked about it using the language of the exodus.
Zechariah uses the language of exodus in his song. He sees that God is performing that new exodus event now. Listen to the words he uses in this song:
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. (Luke 1:68-75)
So what’s got Zechariah singing God’s praises? Zechariah sees that God is coming to fulfill what he planned and promised long ago through his prophets and through his covenant with Abraham. And what did he plan and promise? Verse 71 says what God spoke through the prophets. God said “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Then verse 74 tells us part of the covenant he made with Abraham. He swore “to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear.”
Have you ever been bullied? Or had someone at work or in your family whose presence just made you feel tense, uneasy, and on edge? When you are around a bully, there’s a constant fear. We watch movies with bullies in them and we naturally want them to lose and enjoy their downfall. For Zechariah and other Israelites, they had been living with bullies for a long time. They were ruled by enemies and people who hate them. Zechariah’s excitement is that God is going to deal with the bullies!
How will this come about? He said it in the opening verses:
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, (Luke 1:68-69)
When God “visits” people, it can either mean he is coming in judgment or in grace. Here, he is coming in grace to redeem his people. “Redeem” is a word from the slave market. “To redeem” a slave means to free a slave and you do it by paying the ransom price. So God is coming to free his people from slavery.
He has also raised up a horn of salvation. The horn of an ox or a bull was what the animal used to defeat enemies so it was a symbol of their strength and might. “A horn of salvation” means God is sending a Mighty Savior for his people. And this person will come from the house of his servant David: the royal family line of the kings. So he will be a Mighty Savior King. This is how God is coming to redeem his people: through this Mighty Savior King. We already know this king’s name from earlier in the book: it’s Jesus.
So who are the enemies from whom God’s people need saving? Certainly, the people of Israel had earthly, physical enemies: the Roman Empire had taken over their land. And one of the enemies God promises to save his people from are all earthly enemies that oppress them and that rebel against him. But what the book of Revelation makes clear is that behind all those earthly, physical enemies is a spiritual enemy named Satan. He is the Enemy of enemies who opposes God and wants to destroy God’s people. Jesus was born, died on a cross, and ascended to heaven and left the Romans right where they were. He didn’t defeat the earthly enemy. But what he did do was defeat the Enemy of enemies. By his death on the cross, he won the decisive victory against Satan because we can now be free of sin’s penalty and death. Jesus opened our way back to God. But Jesus said he will return to bring his kingdom to earth and all those who have not given allegiance to him as king will be defeated. Satan is currently defeated but not destroyed and he still is behind those who are hostile to God’s people. But when Jesus returns, Satan and those who are loyal to him will be defeated. Sin and death will also be no more.
So what enemies line up in formation against you every day? What do you feel like you are fighting against? We live in a fallen, sinful world so sometimes we experience the effects of that: poverty, injustice, greed, sickness, death. We also live in a hostile world to our faith so sometimes we see and experience that. But we also fight against sin in our lives and against Satan’s deception and temptation.
Here’s the good news. If you have turned to Jesus and surrendered to him, God is on your side. God is bigger than our enemies: Our enemies can stand against God like a sand castle can stand against a wave. We fear people who aren’t on our side. We think our enemies are bigger than God: people, sin, Satan, death. We think what stands against us is bigger and stronger than the God who is for us. But Jesus is our mighty Savior King.
God is against what is against us. God is on our side against our enemies. God fights for us against all that is against us. This song is all about how God is on our side, coming to fight the battles that we need fought on our behalf.
Zechariah transitions from looking up to bless God to looking down at his newborn son, John, to speak a blessing over him. He praised God for bringing salvation. While blessing John, he tells us John’s role and Jesus’ role in bringing that salvation.
Blessing John: The Roles of John and Jesus in Bringing Salvation (1:76-79)
People could see that God was up to something in John’s life when he was born and they were wondering what he would become. In this special moment with his son, Zechariah answers their question here.
Starting in verse 76, Zechariah begins speaking to his eight-day old son, John:
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, (Luke 1:76)
John will be called a prophet of the Most High. Prophets are spokesmen for God. Why will he be called a prophet? Because he will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. And how will he prepare the people for God’s coming? Verse 77 says:
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins, (Luke 1:77)
God is coming. He has raised up a horn of salvation for his people - a Mighty Savior King. And John will prepare the people for God’s coming by giving knowledge of this salvation to God’s people, a salvation that will come in the form of forgiveness of their sins. And this is exactly what we see in John’s ministry: he baptizes people by the Jordan River, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s why he’s called “John the Baptist.”
But the salvation here takes on a different form compared to the first part of the song. The first part of the song focused on salvation as deliverance from enemies. Here it focuses salvation as forgiveness of sins. So which is it? Are we saved from our enemies or saved from our sins? The answer is: both. The focus of John’s ministry was the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus focused on that too and he died to pay for our forgiveness. This was a major focus of Jesus’ first coming. In his second coming, salvation focuses much more on defeating enemies.
What is the basis for this salvation? Where does forgiveness of sins come from? Why would God do this? Verse 78 says:
78 because of the tender mercy of our God, (Luke 1:78a)
If there were two words to highlight or circle in this song, they would be “tender mercy”. “Mercy” translates the Hebrew word hesed. We talked about it last week. This is God’s compassionate, loyal love that takes action to help his people when they are in dire need. In verse 72, Zechariah said God was saving them from their enemies to show the mercy promised to their fathers.
“Tender” is often translated as compassion. It’s a feeling that comes from deep within. It’s gut-level emotion and affection for someone. It’s sympathy, pity, and tenderhearted love. This is telling us that God’s salvation and forgiveness flow fundamentally from his tenderness and compassion toward us.
I want those words “tender mercy” to sink in for you. If you are sitting in sin, God comes to you offering forgiveness with a heart of tender mercy toward you. Why does God forgive? Because of his tender mercy. God saves from the heart. God forgives from the heart. It flows from his heart for you. It is heartfelt. It’s not a resentful, fed-up-with you action where he says, “Look what you’ve gotten themselves into again. Now I have to come get you out of it.” He is not withholding, stingy, and begrudging in his forgiveness. He is tender-hearted, overflowing, warm, and embracing.
Here’s the thing: often we think God is against us. We think that our sin makes us God’s enemy. And it once did. But while we were God’s enemies, Jesus died for us to take away our sin. God shows love even for his enemies by sending Jesus to die for them. He did this out of his tender mercy. If you have turned to Jesus and surrendered your life to him in order to be forgiven of your sins, you are no longer God’s enemy.
But even after we do that, we tend to think that when we sin, God is against us. When we mess up again, God is against us. When we totally blow it, God is against us. When we don’t read our Bibles enough or pray enough or do enough church things, God is against us. We think that we are God’s enemies. But if you have turned to Jesus, nothing could be further from the truth. God is not repelled by you when you sin but drawn toward you. God does not hold you at arm’s length but pulls you into embrace you. God is not hard and cold toward you but his heart is gushing forth with tender mercy toward you. If you are in Christ, you are no longer God’s enemy. You once were but you never will be again. You are not the enemy God is fighting against.
What will God do because of his tender mercy? Let’s read verses 78 and 79:
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.” (Luke 1:78-79)
Zechariah says by God’s tender mercy the sunrise shall visit us from on high. This is the second use of the word “visit” in this song. The first use occurred in verse 68 when Zechariah said God had visited and redeemed his people. Here he is talking about the coming of the Messiah, the Mighty Savior King. God visits his people through the sending of the Mighty Savior King, Jesus.
Zechariah calls Jesus “the sunrise” or “dawn.” In the Old Testament, there were prophecies about how the Messiah would be like a “star” who would give light to God’s people and to the rest of the world. Zechariah says he will visit “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” These are words used in the Old Testament to describe people who are physically and spiritually oppressed. A famous passage read at Christmas time is Isaiah 9. Verse 2 says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).
Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, comes as a sunrise to our darkness. But what does this mean? The final line makes it clear: “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” They are sitting in darkness. But when Jesus comes, they get up and walk out of it because he guides their feet. To where? They will walk in the way of peace. This “peace” doesn’t just mean they feel calm with no anxiety or worry or stress. This “peace” doesn’t just mean no war or fighting. It’s deeper than that. This comes from the rich Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness, completeness. If things are in a state of shalom, they are in a state of flourishing, wholeness, and delight. One author has summed it up as: “the way things ought to be” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 10).
I want to sum this song up with one big idea: Jesus is God’s sunrise on your darkness. Jesus is God’s sunrise on your darkness.
These were people sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. But God came to them out of his tender mercy and out of his faithfulness to his promises to bring them out of darkness. And he did it by sending the sunrise. Jesus is God’s sunrise on your darkness.
The place of darkness is where the forces in opposition to God reign: sin, Satan, death, fallen world, hostile world. Darkness is the world without God. Darkness is where the world isn’t as it’s supposed to be. Jesus wants to lead us out of that. Jesus wants to lead you out of that.
It’s important to note that Jesus not only saves us from something but for something. Here he saves us from darkness to lead us into the way of peace. We are saved for a purpose: to live how we ought to live. In verses 74 and 75, Zechariah said God would deliver them from their enemies so that they might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all their days. Salvation from enemies enables them to serve God without fear.
So what darkness do you find yourself in today, right now? Do you feel beat up and bullied by this fallen world with everything not the way it’s supposed to be? Do you feel hostility toward your faith, how the world rejects both the morals and message of it?
Are you sitting in the darkness of your own sin? It's a secret. It’s hidden. There’s guilt and shame. It’s lonely. It puts distance between you and God. It puts distance between you and other people. Sin is anti-relational. Brick by brick it puts walls up in every relationship. It puts us in darkness.
Whatever darkness you are in, darkness stands no chance against light. It doesn’t have a fighting chance. There is nothing that darkness can do against light. Jesus is God’s sunrise to defeat whatever enemy you face.
If you are sitting in darkness because of your own sin: Your sin is what got you there but it does not have to keep you there.
God’s action on our behalf does not flow from anything we have done. It flows from his faithfulness and from his tender mercy. This is the kind of God he is: he comes to the aid of people in need. We are not people who get ourselves out of the mess we are in. We are sitting in the darkness and he comes into it.
Jesus comes into that as the sunrise. We know where the story ends for Jesus. How does he bring us out of darkness? He takes our place in it. How does Jesus save us from our enemies? He gets killed by them. He takes our place. In order to the hand of all who hates us, he puts himself under their hand so we can walk free. How does he take us out of the darkness and the shadow of death? He enters into it so we can leave. The bad news is that we deserve the darkness and shadow of death we are in. But in God’s tender mercy, he enters into it to take our place and free us from it. He pays for what we deserve by sending his Son.This is what it means for God to visit us.
As you think about the people you know, there are many sitting in darkness feeling alone and without hope. Jesus is the light that can lead them out. Isn’t that a beautiful picture? Seeing your enemies as people sitting in darkness can help you gain compassion for them. You can imitate God’s tender mercy toward them. You can take on John’s role in giving knowledge of salvation to them in the forgiveness of sins. People who have sinned against you or who are hostile to your faith are lost in darkness. We need to remember what Paul said: our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness. We have Christmas Eve invitations that you can use this week to invite people to hear about the Sunrise who can lead them out of their darkness.