Sasse once opined that the place that the invocation of the saints came to have in the Church arose as a result of a truncated development in Trinitarian theology resulting from the collapse of the ancient world, and that what rightly belonged there were not prayers to the saints, but prayers directed to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. I have often wondered if he got that right or not, but there can be little doubt that one of the features of the great prayers of Lutheran Orthodoxy is a robust calling on God the Holy Spirit. This has struck me forcefully since using Lutheran Prayer Companion on a regular basis.
The following samples are offered just as illustrative; they are by no means exhaustive. There are many more!
O God the Holy Spirit, sanctify us, one and all, in Your truth, and grant that we may with right devotion and holy reverence attend to Your precious Word, which is able to save our souls, write it and seal it on our hearts by true faith, conform our lives to it most diligently for the glory of Your great name, and one day come to Your eternal glory, and in the choir of all the holy angels and elect forever worship and glorify You. Amen. 19. Prayer from the first petition of the Lord's Prayer
O Lord God, Holy Spirit, direct me and other Christians, whom You have adopted in Holy Baptism as fellow citizens of Your kingdom, that we may renounce all ungodliness and worldly passions and shun all works of the flesh, such as adultery, sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, murder, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these, about which You warned us through Your chosen instrument, Paul, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Strengthen us in the true faith and in true godliness, that in the kingdom of Christ we may lead a Christian life, and serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him. Finally, take us to heaven, the eternal kingdom of joy and glory, and when our soul must leave the body, let it hear the gracious voice of our Jesus: "Come, you blessed of My Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world. Amen. 24 Prayer from the second petition of the Lord's Prayer
O Holy Spirit, give me a new heart and a new spirit, and make me a new man henceforth, walking in the commandments of God, keeping His statutes and acting according to them. 29 Prayer from the third petition of the Lord's Prayer
...the power of the Holy Spirit enlighten me. ...my Comforter be with me. 35. Evening Benediction on Wednesday
O God the Holy Spirit, renew my heart from henceforth, that I may not let the heavy debt of my sins increase anew, nor the righteous wrath of God heap upon my soul by unrepentance, but that, as long as I live, I may have the words of the Lord before my eyes, and consent to no sin against His commandments. Yet should I sin out of human frailty by the seduction of Satan and my own flesh and blood, stir me up at once to genuine repentance, and help me with all humility both to seek the forgiveness of my transgressions and to receive it. Strip my heart of all callousness and bitter feeling, and kindle in it true and fervent love for my neighbor, that I may forgive the faults of my brothers and sisters from the heart, bless those who curse me, do good to those who hate me, pray for those who injure and persecute me, and so demonstrate that I am a true, obedient child of my Father in heaven. Enlighten and convert all other sinful men and women, all unholy, hardened and impenitent souls, that they may truly acknowledge their great sins, fear the fiery wrath of God, recoil from the ceaseless torments of hell, repent of their iniquities, in true faith take hold of the bloody merit of Jesus, amend their ungodly lives, and be sustained to eternal salvation; through the blood and wounds of Christ. Amen. 39. Prayer from the fifth petition of the Lord's Prayer
O Holy Spirit, when the evil last hour comes, put on us the whole armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. Equip us with the shield of faith, that we may able to extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. Teach us to wield the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, that we may do well in all things and hold the field. 44. Prayer from the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer
O God the Holy Spirit, do not forsake me, but abide with me constantly until the final moment of my life, and keep Your powerful comfort close at hand to oppose all the tribulations of the evil one. Be my strength in greatest weakness, that my last meal in this world may be the Holy Supper, my last thought to imagine Jesus crucified and dying, my last word may be to call out with my mouth, "Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit." 49. Prayer from the seventh petition of the Lord's Prayer
O Holy Spirit, of the same essence, power, and glory with God the Father and His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our governor, leader, and director: I beseech You from my inmost heart to grant me Your divine grace and to help me, that I may receive worthily the Holy Sacrament to the salvation of my soul, and then kindle in me, above all, a true, genuine faith, that I may learn to trust firmly the words of my dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and not doubt that I truly receive under the bread and wine His essential body and blood, forcefully though my reason may strive against it, and especially that, in this precious pledge, I may sincerely remember and take comfort in the fact that my dear Lord Christ was given into death for me, and that all that He reaped by His bitter suffering and dying was also done for my good and is truly effective for me. Additionally, by the use of this high and heavenly feast, also work true love in my heart, that I may be true and faithful to my neighbor, serve him insofar as I may, and show him every good, even as my dear Lord and Savior has done for me. And help me, good and faithful God, from henceforth to amend my life, to guard myself against sin, to increase in piety, and never again to anger You, with my heavenly Father and His dear Son, Jesus Christ, O highest Counselor, Advocate, and Helper in every need, for the glory of Your holy name and the salvation and blessedness of my poor soul. Amen. 308. Prayer before receiving the Holy Supper, to the Holy Spirit
O God the Holy Spirit, who proceed from the Father and are sent by the Son, of the same substance with them, coeternal with them, in one divine and indivisible nature: I adore You, I honor, praise, and glorify You and give thanks to You from my inmost heart for all Your benefits, and most especially that by Your grace You have called and brought me to the holy Christian faith, poured Yourself out in my Baptism, and never cease to work in me Your own works. 365. Thanksgiving for Sanctification
Warning: Lutheran polemic ahead. I was just thinking the other day about the image of Mary as the Queen Mother that I've heard both Orthodox and Roman Catholics allude to (and Luther early on in his Magnificat commentary even grants that she may be called "queen of heaven"). The image trotted forth is usually that of how Solomon commanded a throne to be set next to him for his mother Bathsheba and how he promised her he would not refuse her "small request." (See 1 Kings 2:19ff) But what a singularly odd story to use to try to explain the intercession of Mary as Queen Mother. For though Solomon tells Bathsheba he will not deny her, when he hears what she wants (that she is interceding for Adonijah to be given David's concubine Abishag), Solomon not only does NOT grant the request, but he is so enraged that the request itself costs Adonijah his life. He regarded the request as a threat to his own kingship. And perhaps significantly, that's the last we hear of Bathsheba in Kings. It's almost as though the message is "don't try to get to the King through His mother. He doesn't like that!" And our gracious King Jesus has Himself issued a promise to us: "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." We don't need to work our way around Him; we need to trust that what He desires for us is better than anything we could ever dream, imagine, or ask for ourselves, or that anyone else could ask for us!
Luke 15:1-10 (ESV) 1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." 3 So he told them this parable: 4 "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
They nailed Him. "This man receives sinners and eats with them." Truer words never spoken. And when they grumble about it, Jesus opens His mouth in stories that are intended to invite to awe and astonishment at what goes on in the heart of God when the sinner repents, that is, when the sinner returns to Jesus and gives an ear to what He would say, and finds delight in being with Him.
And so He asks a question that we dare not slide past. "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?" Stop and think about what He's asking here. What man of you? The only honest answer is: "None of us? I mean, that would be kinda stupid, don't think you? To leave 99 sheep in the open country and go after one?"
And then there's the rest of the question. What man of you, when you found your sheep would lay it on your shoulders rejoicing, and when you got home throw a big party for all the neighbors to rejoice with you because you found your lost sheep?
Again, the honest answer? "None of us? I mean, they'd think I was kind of demented if I got that worked up over a lost sheep, wouldn't they? They think I need some help with my mental health."
How did God put it in Isaiah 55? "My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts" says the Lord "and my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine." It's hard for us to get this, but it's vital that we do. We like to imagine that what seems reasonable and rational in our opinion is what is actually reasonable and rational to God. But that couldn't be more wrong.
Do you remember the words right BEFORE My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts? They are these: "Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them return to the LORD that He may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for He will forgive generously. My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts..."
Woah! Jesus really did come to seek and to save the lost. He came for the sick, not the healthy. He came for the sinner, not the righteous. Which means He came for you, just like He came for me. And so He does what makes not a lick of sense to us. He leaves everything to go after His lost sheep. And the singular there, the fathers are pretty unanimous in stressing that that is Adam and all his children in him, it is the human race, and so every particular member of it.
He still goes hunting the lost sheep. He does it the same way. He welcomes sinners who draw near to hear Him as He opens His mouth to teach, and He dares even to eat with them. His thoughts are nothing like our thoughts. With the Psalmist we can cry out: What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? Psalm 8:4 And shocking as the answer is: They are my brothers and my sisters. I made them in my image. I took on their flesh and died their death so that they could live in me and share in my joy and the joy of the holy angels forever."
Crazy, right? But when you see it you realize with awe the joy that is in the heart of God over the sinner who repents, who listens to Jesus and eats with Him and finds in Him the great welcome home. Crazy. Astounding. Wonderful.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hymn: "Jesus Sinners Doth Receive" 609:5-7
Joel, Bonnie, Herb, Gene, Paula, Roger, Allan, Jan
And a fascinating listen it truly was. I was particularly intrigued by what the Master was meditating on there at the end. The hymn Vor Gottes Thron Tret Ich was not one I had been familiar with (though, of course, the tune employed, Wenn in Höchsten Not is well known). I tried to render the sense of the stanzas literally, and this is what I came up with:
Before your throne I come, O God
and humbly ask of you not to turn away
your gracious face from me, the poor sinner.
You have made me in your own image, God the Father,
woven and hovering and living in you,
and without you I must surely cease to be.
God the Son, through your blood,
you have freed me from hell's fire,
and fulfilled the hard law, by which the Father's wrath is stilled.
God the Holy Spirit, you are the highest strength.
Grace is the cause of anything good in my life
and so the good is really your work.
And so I thank you with heart and mouth, O God,
in this morning hour, for all the good, faithfulness and grace
which my soul has ever received.
And I ask that your gracious hand may remain
spread over me this day.
I commend to your protection my office, goods, honor, friends, body and soul.
Grant me to be genuinely pious in heart with your entire Christendom,
to be sincere and honest and not just
in mere appearance and hypocrisy,
So that I stand fast in troubles
and not sink in tribulation,
that I may find comfort in my heart and at last overcome with joy.
Remit to me the guilt of my sin
and have patience with your servant.
Kindle in me faith and love and give me the hope of life.
Grant to me a blessed end
and at the Last Day awaken me, Lord,
that I may gaze upon you forever. Amen, amen. Hear me.
What a beautiful text to be praying as death approaches. Apparently as he was meditating on this text his still nimble mind in his rapidly failing body thought of how to express the musical theme one more time. This was dictated by the dying man to his son-in-law, and apparently represents the very last musical notes from his heart, if not his hand. It is Bach’s musical final prayer. You can hear the entire fugue right here:
Heard yesterday from my sister that our Uncle Edgar had died. Uncle Edgar was my father's only brother (four years younger) and only days ago, he celebrated his 95th birthday. He was the very last of our parent's siblings to die. Here's a picture of him next to my father as a little one. Uncle Edgar was always jovial and loud. I used to love the smell of his pipe tobacco. I remember sitting outside his house with him and watching the purple martins swirl around catching their fill of mosquitoes with the pipe smoke kept them away from us!
Has it ever occurred to you that that's a bit odd? Annunciation: March 25. Nativity of Our Lord: December 25. Obviously the Nativity of St. the Baptist was set six months prior to our Lord's given the words of Archangel Gabriel in Luke 1:36. Why does the Nativity of St. John end up a day early? It goes back to the old Roman way of counting time, which counted the days BEFORE the month change (not after). Thus, Annunciation falls seven days before the Kalends of April; Christmas falls seven days before the Kalends of January; and the Nativity of St. John, lo and behold, falls seven days before the Kalends of July. So, since June has but 30 days, keeping to the seven day pattern would put you at June 24th. There, now that doesn't have to keep you up at night wondering anymore.
Hymn: "From East to West, From Shore to Shore" 385
Reading: Luke 1:39-45
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into rthe hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth swas filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, t"Blessed are you among women, and ublessed is vthe fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of wmy Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And xblessed is she who believed that there would be7 a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."46 And Mary said,
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
O Lord, have mercy on us. R.
Responsory, p. 221
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a tad over a week ago that we gathered in this room to celebrate the Nativity of St. John, and now the Church yanks us back to that moment some three month's prior when the Mother of God arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. What gives with that? Surely, you've noted any number of times how the Church Year misbehaves. Dec. 25th you celebrate the birth of the Savior, and suitably you DO celebrate his conception some nine months prior on March 25th. But then Dec. 26th, you're fast-forwarded more than three decades and are suddenly witnessing the death of Stephen and then decades more and St. John the Apostle and then of all things on Dec. 28th, you're back to two years after the birth of our Lord and the Holy Innocents killed by Herod and then on January 1st, you're all the way back to just 8 days after his birth, the Lord's circumcision, but give it six more days and you're back to when he's two and the Magi are visiting and then in a week or less, you're at His Baptism (28 years fastforward) or He's a twelve year old in the temple (10 years fast forward). Huh? It leaves your head spinning, wouldn't you agree?
And it will drive you batty or you'll recognize that when God enters our time, when the Eternal inserts Himself into the Temporal, weird things happen and unexpected becomes expected and "before and after" and even "now and later" become a tad, well, fuzzy. "For all live to Him" as our Lord Himself would say and go on to show on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Our God entering our time is what the incarnation is about. Except that's putting it all wrong. It was never "our" time to begin with. It's always been His. And He may do with it as He chooses. What He does choose to do with it is utterly mind boggling. Plants the center of it all in a manger and cross, in flesh taken from a Virgin's womb. And that's where today's feast picks up. Mary, with God's tiny heart beating now beneath her own, high tailing it to the Judean Hills. No doubt, wondering at why God couldn't have had the Angel appear to Joseph as well as to her? Well, maybe, she thought, He'll see to it yet. His ways are always inscrutable. And astounding.
And so the call of greeting and the miracles begin tumbling out. Nine days ago we remembered how John would be born again before he was born, filled with the Spirit even in his mother's womb, and today we witness the truth of it: Mary's call and the arrival of John's Lord and Master hidden in that young virgin causes the Baptist to leap for joy in his mother's aged body and suddenly Elizabeth herself is filled with the Spirit and beholds the marvel of it all.
You can see her stand and make her way across to her young kinswoman. You can see her wrinkled hands take that smooth face into their embrace and you can see the look of awe in the old woman's eyes as she stares into the questioning eyes of the Virgin. Mary no doubt wondered if they would believe her story, but she didn't even get to tell it. Elizabeth blurts it out herself. "Blessed are you among women! Blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me. For as soon as I heard your greeting the baby in my womb leapt for joy! Blessed is she who believed (and I always think he was looking at Zecharaiah when she said that) that there would be a fulfillment of what was told her from the Lord."
And like Zechariah in his nine month gestation of joy, so Mary's pondering of the angel's message since she heard it in Nazareth and as she made the journey south, bursts forth in response to the way Elizabeth had greeted her.
Magnificat anima mea. "My soul magnifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!" Did she look down in awe and touch her womb as she sang her song? "For He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden, for behold from now on all generations will call me blessed." And they have. Ever since. Why, it's even in the title we usually give her The BLESSED Virgin Mary. "For He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is his name and his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation." The mighty one, the holy one, is the mercy one. Zechariah had spoken of the tender mercy of our God, what a beautiful name for Christ. Eleos, mercy. Kyrie, eleison. Lord, be yourself, do your doing. "He has shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly, filled the hungry with good and sent the rich away empty" echoes, strong echoes of Hannah's song, cosmically lifted up: the proud angels who fell replaced with us creatures of clay? Amazing. The God who turns things topsy turvy, upside down from our normal way of thinking, because of course we're the one's with the upside down perspective. He's just setting it all back to rights. "He has helped his Servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His SEED forever." His Seed. Did she look down again, did she ever stop looking down in awe at the Lord, her Savior?
Three months she abode there. Can you imagine the lively discussions between the two women as their awe and joy mingled, and the twinkling eyes of silent Zechariah confirmed it all and how he ached to teach from the Word and yet abode silent, waiting his day. Three months would likely have been enough for her to be at the events we celebrated a week ago, as I suggested then. But whether or not Mary was there, the One who would be born of her, had shaken things up royally. No wonder the year that's celebrated in his honor jumps here and there in the story, reminding us that when God enters time, things get strange. When God is born of a virgin, all bets are off. And when God keeps His promise to Abraham, flipping everything on its head, by bringing blessing to all in dying on a tree, well, time just explodes and you can roll with it or fret about how untidy this joy bursting out all over has come to be. I say we roll with it, like Mary did: "Let it be to me according to Your word. My soul magnifies the Lord!"
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Te Deum, p. 223ff.
Kyrie, p. 227
Our Father, p. 227
Collect of the Day: Almighty God, You chose the virgin Mary to be the mother of Your Son and made known through her Your gracious regard of the poor and lowly and despised. Grant that we may receive Your Word in humility and faith and so be made one with Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Collect for the Sick: Holy Father, You teach us in Your Word that Your faithfulness is great and Your mercy is everlasting. Confident, then, in Your tender care, we remember before You this day Your servants Joel, Bonnie, Herb, Gene, Paula, Roger, Allan and Jan, and all those afflicted in body or soul, mind or spirit, asking for them every good and needful thing; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Missionaries: Holy One, we thank You that You continue to send laborers into Your vineyard that Your Word may resound, faith in You be strengthened and love toward others be increased. Sustain Chaplain Peter Burfeind and all who have gone forth in Your name that the Word of reconciliation may be proclaimed to all people and Your joyful Gospel preached in all the world; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Grace: O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, You have safely brought us to the beginning of this day. Defend us in the same with Your mighty power and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings, being ordered by Your governance, may be righteous in Your sight, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In today's Divine Service, Pastor used one of the great General Prayers from the Altar Book. Each time we pray these familiar words, I find my heart and mind settling into their old rhythms with a calming peace. I'll know exactly what we are asking together here in this prayer and can give it my hearty "amen." This particular prayer is an update of the one that appeared in TLH, p. 5. Some of my favorite turns of phrase (not all of which survived the editing of LSB):
Almighty and everlasting God, who art worthy to be had in reverence by all the children of men, we give Thee most humble and hearty thanks for the innumerable blessings, both temporal and spiritual, which without any merit or worthiness on our part, Thou hast bestowed upon us...
Grant unto Thy holy Church throughout the world purity of doctrine and faithful pastors, who shall preach Thy Word with power; and help all who hear rightly to understand and truly to believe it...
Be Thou the Protector and Defender of Thy Church in all time of tribulation and danger; and may we, in communion with Thy Church and in brotherly unity with all our fellow Christians, fight the good fight of faith and in the end receive the salvation of our souls...
Bestow Thy grace upon all the nations of the earth. Especially do we entreat Thee to bless our land and all its inhabitants and all who are in authority. Cause Thy glory to dwell among us and let mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, everywhere prevail....
Be Thou the God and Father of the widow and the fatherless children, the Helper of the sick and the needy, and the Comforter of the forsaken and distressed...
Accept, we beseech Thee, our bodies and souls, our hearts and minds, our talents and powers, together with the offerings we bring before Thee, which is our reasonable service...
And as we are strangers and pilgrims on earth, help us by true faith and a godly life to prepare for the world to come doing the work Thou hast given us to do while it is day; before the night cometh when no man can work. And when our last hour comes, support us by Thy power and receive us into Thine everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost forever and ever.
How timeless such intercession! How apt the words are for the tribulations of the Church in the world in our own day and age! How beautifully our holy mother, the Church, teaches us by lifting the sorrows of the world into her arms and carrying them to the throne of grace! How gently she reminds us of our status as strangers and pilgrims here, with our true home in the age to come!
Each time we use one of those old General Prayers I stop and wonder if the liturgical movement in the mid 20th century did a disservice to our prayer life as the children of God by transforming what had been an Ordinary (unchanging part of the rite) into a Proper (a changeable part), and thus suggesting that trying to think up new ways of continually asking for the same things is somehow preferable to taking the words of our spiritual fathers and mothers on our lips and praying with them anew in the old and sturdy phrases (which lean so very heavily upon the language of the Sacred Scriptures).
Weather-wise, that is, after all the rain this weekend. I was able to get out over lunch hour and do my 300 push-ups, then ran sprints. By the time I was done I'd gotten my 15K steps for the day. When I got home, it was so inviting out that pumped up the bike tires and headed down to the store to pick up some cheese. I came home and looked outside again and it was too enticing. Back in the saddle and up the bike trail to the swamp, north of Worden. There was a steady west wind the whole way (so it blew across me both ways), bright blue skies and white puffs of cloud. I got to see a blue bird, several cardinals, some queen anne's lace, some blooming honeysuckle and some flowers I couldn't identify. About an hour's ride all told. Perfect way to cap off the day. Now I have the windows open and the wind is still blowing nicely through the house.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Joy, joy, joy! Zechariah and Elizabeth in their childlessness had learned to embrace a life of less joy than they saw many of their neighbors have. I don't doubt that they had prayed for the gift of a child and finally had assumed that the answer was "no." Some of you may know the pain of that answer. But the One before whom they were righteous, He was after all the God of Abraham and Sarah. And so when the Angel bops into the Temple as Zechariah is offering the incense and giddily tells him: "Oh, stop being afraid! Your prayer is heard! Your wife will bear you a son! His name will be John, Yahweh is Gracious! You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth!" Joy, joy, joy! And Zechariah, of course, dumbfounded: um, my prayer? That was a very long time ago. How can this possibly be? I'm old. She's old. How will I possibly know this joy?
The angel of course gives him a remarkable gift that is so scarce in our day. The gift of silence. He can't talk because he didn't believe the embassy of joy from the mouth of God's joyful messenger.
And so as he awaited the fulfillment through those nine months, he'd learned in silence that when God announces to you great joy the proper response is not: "No way, dude." Gabriel had no doubt: "I was sent to speak to you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words (well, God's words that I was sent to speak to give you joy), which will be fulfilled in their time."
The fulfillment of His promise is joy. But in those nine months, Zechariah gestated along with his wife on the rest of the words of Gabriel and they did swell up in him in a joy that finally grew big as Elizabeth's womb till at last it burst forth in the words of Benedictus. The child would be a source of joy and gladness by his birth because he would be great before the Lord. The child would not a partaker of the lesser gladness from wine or strong drink ("wine which You made to make his heart glad" -Psalm 104 it has its gladness, but that's mere water compared to the joy that would be John's). Filled not with wine but with the Holy Spirit, and not even waiting for that till after birth. He was born again before he was even born! While still in his mother's womb, drinking down the Spirit. And he had a mission for Israel: to turn many of the children of the promise back to the Lord their God, going before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, getting ready for the Lord, that is, for Yahweh, who was coming, a people prepared.
And so when the joy conceived in Zechariah and swelling within him in those nine months bursts forth into Benedictus, he isn't all about the joy of the miracle baby that Elizabeth bore him. First, it is the joy of the God of Israel. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has VISITED and REDEEMED His people." The way Luke gives the narrative maybe hints that Mary's stay lasted through the birth of John and so if she were in the room, well then, HE was in the room. And that's the joy that was brimming over in Zechariah throughout those days. "God has visited and redeemed His people and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and form the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the sworn Oath to Abraham. Blessing to all the families of the earth. Through His Seed. Jesus. So that we might serve him without fear in holiness and in righteousness before Him all our days." This is the joy that swelled in Zechariah and note the angel said: it wasn't just joy for him, but that many would rejoice at this birth! You are part of that many! You come here today to rejoice and share in the joy and awe.
And at last Zechariah turns attention to the little one, his little one - not the little one still hidden in Mary. "You, my child, will be called prophet of the most high, going before Him, the Lord, to prepare His ways" and here's some massive joy, people loved by God, "to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins." And notice how Zechariah can't stay focused on John. He slips right back to the Lord: "This forgiveness is all because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high" (he'd been thinking a lot about Malachi since the angel basically quoted that prophesy in the temple about his son) "to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the path of peace."
Joy, joy, joy. Today, the one once hidden in Mary THEN but the cause of growing, bursting joy to Zechariah and Elizabeth and all who waited for the salvation He would bring, the salvation He would BE, He comes to you, hidden beneath the bread and the wine, but the same one, Mary's flesh and blood, very God of very God, begotten, not made. He comes to you as John would go on to teach, when he proclaimed in Him the forgiveness of your sins: He comes to be your Lamb that carries away the sin of the world, so that you may know in Him the tender mercy of God, this light that breaks through the darkness of death and the shines upon the path of peace, calling you home. Joy at John's birth! Joy at John's witness! Nine-month joy bursting from Zechariah! Joy coming into you! And that great joy has a God-given name, like his cousin, John, that is, Yahweh is gracious. Joy's name is Yahweh saves, Jesus, the one who came and comes to bring those lost and frightened in the darkness back home, to take them back to promised land, back to the garden, back to the Father. Joy. Jesus. Oh, and happy birthday, John!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.