Perhaps it’s because I’ve been re-reading Walter Brueggemann’s big Theology of the Old Testament, but I notice as I read the song of Zechariah just how Exodus-shaped it really is. Israel has enemies, and the song praises YHWH for defeating those enemies. God promises salvation to Israel, and it’s always a salvation for the sake of serving the true Lord. And the road out of here always leads to a peaceful there, and that road always demands both fidelity to the one true God and an imagination that invites neighbors to share the peace.
The Exodus gives shape to the tension in the song as well: on one hand, the beneficiary of God’s mighty act is the one oppressed by enemies, yet at least part of the message of Jesus, to the dismay of those who hoped most zealously for YHWH’s deliverance, was that the enemies weren’t where one might expect. Against the nationalistic and militant expectations of the day, Jesus would draw on the grand traditions of Jeremiah and Isaiah, proclaiming a word from the LORD to all nations, never excluding Israel but neither allowing Israel to exclude. The covenant with Abraham, to the horror of those most wanting revenge, would be the promise that, in Abraham’s seed, all nations would be blessed. The mission of Jesus always flies in the face of those who search the Scriptures for the shape of God’s deliverance, and the gospel of the Kingdom always stands faithfully within and at the heart of the holy books of Moses and the prophets and the writers of wisdom. In short, without Jesus there to bring Israel into the new era of the Messiah, the faithful are unable to anticipate, much less take the lead, in the ways that God, remaining faithful to what is written, would give the gift fo the Messianic age.
And that’s the point.
Zechariah’s song is not one written to spur Israel to take up arms, to become grand moral martyrs, to effect their own salvation. It’s a song of thanksgiving, of jubilation at the grand gift of his son and the wondrous age towards which his son would point. John will not himself be king but prophet, one who speaks the words the YHWH has given, words that will set the stage for the coming King and the coming Kingdom. Those who are in darkness, Zechariah sings, will not remain in darkness forever, testifying to the inadequacy of divine grace, but will themselves come out of darkness into the light, eventually to be guided into peace by the one who is coming.
Next Sunday’s Advent theme, in some churches (including my own) is peace, the life that divine abundance and generosity makes possible. What passages like the Song of Zechariah keep in the foreground is that the peace that God offers, the peace into which the Son leads, is not the abstract lack-of-conflict that some writers would posit at the terminus of historical evolution or the protection racket run by empire after empire, from centuries before Jesus to centuries after. Instead this peace is the peace of Exodus, the life that free subjects live when ruled by the one, true, good, holy King. To sing such a kingdom is never to deny that we, in the age that hopes for the kingdom, can and should make distinctions among political orders, that the new boss is in every way identical with the old boss. It is, however, to remind us that true peace is among us, because of the gift of the Spirit; and always beyond us, because the Reign of God remains a horizon in our moment.
May our Advent prayers always come from Peace and pray for Peace.