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
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
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.