Sunday, December 12, 1993

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Malachi 4
Isaiah 4:67-79

To give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins, through the

tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high has visited us to give light

to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of


Luke 1:77f.

In their Biblical context, these verses have a very specific reference. The angel Gabriel

had told a priest named Zacharias that his barren and aging wife would have a son.

Zacharias doubted this, and was therefore struck dumb. The child, John the Baptist, was

born in due time, and when he was brought to the temple for circumcision and naming,

Zacharias regained his tongue. The first words he spoke were those long familiar in our

church--"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people."

Some of the subsequent verses them be found on page four of our Book of Worship, and you

might want to have it in front of you for a few moments.

This could well be called a New Testament Psalm. It is in many respects in the style of

the Old Testament Psalms of praise, and it certainly picks up on Old Testament themes.

After the opening statement, it goes on to speak of how the Lord God is visiting and

redeeming his people, and to anyone at all familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the

message would have been unmistakable. Since the beginning of the world, Zacharias says,

God has communicated with the people through prophets. For this particular people, Israel,

there was a special promise to Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation,

secure against their enemies. This promise was fulfilled under David, and he as the model

king was given the further promise that his dynasty would last forever. Then when the

nation proved faithless and was exiled, the prophets brought the assurance that ultimately

God would remember this promise and raise up a descendant of David to restore the nation's

fortunes. Now, finally, according to the spirit of prophecy poured out on Zacharias, the

time had come.

That is the part of the psalm that was included in our first order of worship, but it was

not where Zacharias stopped singing. He went on to address his newborn son as one who was

to be the herald of the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord. This is very much the

way John the Baptist would describe himself when he was beginning his ministry--as the

voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths


At this point, the image has suddenly shifted. Literally, the Messiah was not the Lord,

but the Lord's agent. The shift is even clearer if one remembers the fuller wording of the

prophecy that is being cited, "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God." The

prophecies, however, made it very clear that there would be a special measure of divine

presence in the Messiah, the descendant of David. In some way, this was to be a divine


The quality of that visitation, though, involves another shift, quite conspicuous if we

take the Old Testament prophecies as literally as they would have been taken in the time

of Zacharias. For background, the promise of nationhood, the oath sworn to our father

Abraham, was almost always presented as conditional. If the nation observed the laws, God

would let them dwell in the land. Jeremiah added a new dimension to this with his promise

that in the last days, God would write his laws in people's hearts so that they would no

longer have to teach each other, but by and large it was assumed that obedience to the

laws was the responsibility of the people themselves and that there was no way of evading

this responsibility.

Now it appears that God is going to act much more in the spirit of Jeremiah, and we are

given the lovely image of the dayspring from on high, the dawn of a new light. This light

is the gift of a merciful God who is forgiving of sins. This God seems to see the nation

not so much as willfully sinful but as "sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,"

and is promising to lighten this darkness and guide into the way of peace.

We also seem to be losing track of the political and military expectations in which the

prophecies have been embedded. From the initial thought of being "saved from our enemies,"

we have moved to the thought of deliverance from our sins. It is the same striking

transition that is found in the naming of Mary's son in Matthew. "You shall call his name

Jesus," the angel says. This is the Greek form of the name Joshua, and the historical

Joshua was the one who led the Israelites in their conquest of the promised land. But this

child is to be called Joshua, or Jesus, because he will save his people not from their

circumstances but from their sins.

We might see a touch of Moses here. Moses in many ways loomed larger in Israelite

consciousness than David, and certainly much larger than Joshua. David ruled over the

nation at the height of its success, but Moses was the founder. So it is especially

significant that Moses was not really a military leader at all. He was a lawgiver first

and foremost, a prophet in the elemental sense of one who relayed God's messages. He was

both geographically and morally a guide.

Now, says Zacharias, there is to be a new guide, the dayspring from on high, to guide our

feet into the way not of war but of peace. This picks up a time-hallowed image. "Your

word," said the Psalmist, "is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." The image shifts

a bit in our text, though. The lamp image comes from the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm,

which is an extended hymn of praise to the law. This Psalm does not talk about any direct

divine, enlightening presence. It talks of reading and studying and obeying the law,

finding delight in it. Quite clearly, God's part has been the merciful gift of this law,

and our part is loving, learning, and following it.

In some ways closer to Zacharias's thought is the opening of Psalm twenty-seven: "The Lord

is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" Here the light is not the Lord's law but

the Lord, but here the idea of guidance, of this light enabling us to see our way more

clearly, is absent.

Perhaps the closest parallel, then, is the one in our Old Testament reading. The prophet

Malachi conveys the divine message, "Unto you who fear my name will the sun of

righteousness arise, with healing in his wings." Here we have not just the sun, but the

sunrise, the dayspring, and while we do not have it giving guidance, we do have it

bringing healing and freedom--"You shall go forth and grow, like calves of the stall."

It is in the Gospel of John that the image of the incarnate Lord as light takes center

stage. In the first chapter, we are told that John the Baptist came to bear witness to the

light, the true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. There is a kind

of tie to the one hundred and nineteenth Psalm when we begin with a statement about the

Word, when that Word is personified and is said to have within it a life that is the light

of humanity. This individual, then, is the word that is a lamp to our feet and a light to

our path. It is the light that is present for just a little while, so that the disciples

should rejoice while they have it. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever

follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."

There is more to it than this, though. There is a kind of negative side. This light that

is sought by the righteous is shunned by the wicked because it will reveal the evil

quality of their deeds. In Malachi, the negative side of the rising sun actually comes

first. "The day is coming that will burn like an oven; and all the proud, yes, all that

act wickedly, will be stubble." It is only to those who fear the Lord's name that this sun

will rise with healing in its wings. It is perhaps understandable that Zacharias does not

touch on the more forbidding side of the image. He is in the temple for what would be a

joyous occasion for anyone, and he has more than the usual to rejoice about. After all,

this newborn son had been born against all expectation, and Zacharias himself has just

been delivered from his inability to speak.

But let us come out of the first century and into the twentieth, out of the temple in

Jerusalem and into the church in Bridgewater. This is the Advent season. We are preparing

to observe an event that changed the course of history, yes, but we understand it to be an

event that can and should in some way happen to us as individuals. Whatever intricacies

the theologians may become involved in, the music of the season speaks clearly. This holy

child is to be born in us. We pray in song that Emanuel may come and ransom captive

Israel. We ask to be led to the manger as, with gladness, men of old were. Those who toil

along life's climbing way may know that glad and golden hours are coming swiftly. Can we

in our time be visited by the dayspring from on high, or have those days really passed

forever? Are our beloved Christmas carols simply romantic illusions or poetic fictions or

distillations of nostalgia?

Our theology would insist that the promises are real and solid, but only if we move beyond

superficial understandings. If we are expecting to be flooded by some unearthly light, if

we are expecting to have all our problems solved for us, then we are caught in romantic

illusions. To find the level at which the promises are true we must look toward the

quality of our relationships with each other, with our Lord, and with ourselves.

In one sense, it is very simple. If we are condemning ourselves and others and are

believing that the Lord shares in our condemnations, then we are sitting in darkness and

in the shadow of death. The dayspring begins to dawn for us when we hear the message,

offered out of divine mercy, of "the remission of sins." It is the message that we are

loved and cherished, that the spirit of condemnation has no place in the divine. If we

cling to a gloomy view of our world, with our horizons filled with everything that is

wrong, we are again sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. The dayspring begins to

dawn for us when we face the fact of countless people living well, the message that the

Lord's mercy is at work among us here and now, and not in vain.

Just as Zacharias's image of dayspring has deep roots in the Old Testament, the dawning of

awareness of the Lord's presence has roots in our own individual histories. We have had

moments of insight, of vision, when the power and purity of the Lord's love seemed

abundantly clear. We have had times when the only kind of life that made any sense at all

was a life of love to the Lord and love of the neighbor, when selfishness simply looked

stupid. Times like these are oases in the wilderness or moments with the fog lifts and we

can get our bearings again.

Times like these are also harbingers of things to come. Just as Malachi's words looked

forward to a time of transformation, our moments of clarity look forward to a time when

clarity will be the rule and not the exception. Zacharias announces the dawning of a new

day, a new era; and indeed, history was changed by the Lord's coming.

In a closely corresponding way, each Advent we celebrate is a promise of a new day, a new

era in our own individual lives. Bit by bit, line upon line and precept upon precept, we

are being led toward that dawn. The fact that we can see at all is a sign that the

darkness has begun to life, however slightly, as we begin to have a subtle sense of the

shapes around us before there seems to be a visible dawn. It is good news, a cause for

rejoicing. It is the news of the presence and the beauty of the tender mercy of our God.

It is the dawn of the Lord's day, which is to last to eternity.


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