This week I have been thinking about Zechariah’s song (Benedictus) in Luke 1:68-79. Today I noticed just how much political language is in the first four verses of this song.
68 “Bless the Lord God of IsraelCommon English Bible Italics mine
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house,
70 just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
71 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
To Zechariah, Israel was a political reality; or at least an anticipated reality. He saw in the birth of his son a political revolution. Scholars like to point this out, particularly those who lean toward Liberation Theology. It is obvious to historians and theologians that Zechariah, a 1st century Jew, was living in a land occupied by a foreign (and hostile) empire (Rome). Zechariah obviously was singing praise to a God who was going to overthrow this empire and restore self-governance to Israel. This new liberation would be equal to what God did in bringing the much earlier nation out of Egypt.
This is where many people stop thinking, I become a Christian and God will take care of destroying my enemies. God will take out the Roman Empire oppressing God’s people. The fundamental problem with this line of thinking is that those people are well people. People made in God’s image whom God loves. We enjoy the idea that God fights against the Nazi’s or Communists because that makes those empires 100% wrong and by contrast we are 100% right. But that is not how God operates, Making the claim that God will destroy your enemies shrinks God to a manageable size. God becomes like us loving some people and hating others. God takes a very different path.
Zechariah then goes on to talk of God remembering the covenant between God and Abraham, the promise that Abraham and his family would be a blessing to other nations. This covenant was a promise of peace, that Abraham’s family would be the avenue to bring reunion to God to all the world. There you have it in the first eight verses of the song a promise of peace and a promise of division. This is the paradox of Christmas– Jesus’ coming brings both peace and the sword, reconciliation and division, harmony and discord.
The difficulty is that humanity is often so bad at applying this tension to reality. We understand that God wants to heal all humanity and with that restore humanity to its intended position as the Divine Image. We also understand that evil persists and that God wants to overthrow regimes which thrive on greed, corruption, oppression, & injustice. But what ends up happening is we see God’s reconciling work in our own lives and the lives of those who we like or are like us. We then look at those outside our bobble as those cut off from God. And what has just happened is we have repeated the sin of the Garden. We have made ourselves the judges of who gains peace and who is cut off by the sword; “I” have become the guardian of good and evil. But:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”Alexander Solzhenitsyn
These words are brilliant but difficult to remember, and even more difficult to practice. It is easy to see the Democrats as needing the sword because they “support all abortions” or the Republicans needing the sword because they “oppose the poor”. It is far more difficult to take that sword and excise the tumor from myself and those I support. It would have been easy for Zechariah to proclaim peace for Israel and destruction for Rome. The revolution of God seemed to demand that the poor and oppressed (Israel) would be blessed and the wealthy oppressors (Rome) would be humbled. While that did, and does, happen as God reverses human sinfulness, we must recognize that what is separated by the sword is the evil within each of us. We are all made to endure the sword so that we can come into the life of peace. Christmas comes as a time of peace and goodwill to all precisely because we spend a month in removing the self in Advent. If we are not prepared for Jesus then we are the enemies from whom he has brought salvation to his people.
Zechariah’s song concludes:
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
God’s compassion will guide us in the path of peace; this is a message to each of us. God’s compassion is the Word expressed in human form, Jesus. it is only as I let Jesus lead my path that I focus on God’s compassion which is the light. As I focus on Jesus the sword he brings naturally cleaves me from the bonds of evil. He separates me from my natural tendency to practice injustice toward others, and there are times when this places a barrier between me and those who continue to praise such injustice. But at the same time following this path of peace leads me into greater compassion for those around me. And sometimes those I grow more compassionate toward and those I am driven from are the same people. Sometimes I am pushed into the tension of caring more for and distancing from the same person. This is the same tension which God feels toward humanity in our sin. God loves us and yet at times is distanced from us because we refuse to act as the Divine Image.
Again, Solzhenitsyn’s words must be remembered, ” And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” However bent and twisted a person might become that individual still bears the Divine Image and is still worthy of my compassion and love. However clean and upright I might appear to myself I am still only walking the path toward peace, I am not at the destination.