Luke 1: 78-79 Zechariah’s Song, “Into the Path of Peace”
This devotional will focus on the last part of the prophecy of Zechariah at the end of Luke chapter 1.
As a priest, Zechariah’s experience of burning incense in the Temple would have been the most significant point in his life even without the unique story that unfolded. It was the focal point of everything he had prepared himself for, of everything he believed in. But to then speak with an angel and to be promised a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah – astounding! Not much wonder he was tentative in his reply – for which he was struck dumb. So Zechariah, like his wife Elizabeth, had nine months to ponder what God was doing – and he in silence. The latter part of chapter 1 speaks of the birth of John. When Elizabeth announces his name, the neighbours are surprised because it does not follow the traditional naming protocol. When they turn to Zechariah, he writes on a slate that the baby’s name is John. Immediately Zechariah can speak again, and bursts into song inspired by the Holy Spirit. While the whole song is wonderful, let’s focus on the past part.
Luke 1 verses 78 -79.
78 “… because of the tender mercy of our God,
[by which] the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Zechariah ends his song with a prophecy about Jesus and uses what may initially seem to be an unusual image. But, Gabriel had used some of the words of Malachi 4: 5-6 when he had told Zechariah that John was to be born:
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
The first part of Malachi 4:6 had been in Gabriel’s words. And what was it that had Malachi said would happen on that great day - after God sent Elijah - in Malachi 4:2-3?
2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.
There is the reference to the rising sun. Zechariah, having reflected on the angel’s words and the scripture, is proclaiming that the darkness is over, the time of God`s silence, the time of being preoccupied with the Roman occupation, that God is sending the light. Notice particularly the last thing that Zechariah tells us this light is for – “to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
About 15 years ago, I was to be a reader for the December 24th Advent service. The passage I was to read was Luke 1: 76-79. But earlier that day, I had a heart attack and was rushed to St. Paul`s for angioplasty. I didn’t read the passage for the church that year. But I’ve read it many times before and after. And I’ve thought about peace.
What is this peace that Zechariah is talking about?
A few years ago Douglas Todd wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun on Seeking peace, with an edge. He quoted Mohandas Ghandi as saying, “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things inside yourself, not in another.” He also quoted from Alfred Whitehead, a famous philosopher, who defined peace as “a broadening of feeling due to the emergence of some deep metaphysical insight, unverbalized and yet momentous in its coordination of values. Its first effect is the removal of the stress of acquisitive feeling arising from the soul’s preoccupation with itself. Thus peace carries with it a surpassing of personality ... It results in a wider sweep of conscious interest.” But Todd, while he touched on Jesus, failed to point his readers to God.
The idea that Zechariah would have had in mind is even bigger than that. He would have meant shalom, which is one of those rich and multifaceted Hebrew words. John Stackhouse defines it as: a condition in which each individual thing is fully and healthily itself and in which it enjoys peaceful, wholesome, and delightful relations with God, with itself, and with all of the rest of creation. Nicholas Wolterstorff describes shalom as going beyond cessation of hostility and of disruption to encompass flourishing of each element in itself, in relationship with everything else and together with all creation in relationship with God. Sam Chaise introduced a Mosaic magazine with Shalom as its theme with this paragraph:
Shalom is life as God intended it to be. Imagine the best, most vibrant, most whole experience you have ever had, and you come close. Imagine all evil and suffering disappearing and all tears wiped away, and you come close. Imagine the richness of God’s creation freely lavished on all people, and you come close. Imagine the joy of intimate community and the love of sacrificial giving. Imagine every relationship in harmony and operating at maximum level. Imagine all your best and highest longings, fulfilled. Imagine all that God wants for His world, fulfilled. That’s shalom!
Jesus said, in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you."
As many of these references indicate, shalom is not just about peace for ourselves. The Beatitudes remind us that shalom-makers ‘will be called the sons of God’. Jesus announced and initiated what He called, the “kingdom of God”, the reign of God in His world again. Shalom is where God reigns. The mission of the church is to be a sign, a symbol, and a foretaste of the shalom reign of God.
So, back to the end of Zechariah’s Spirit-inspired song... What better gift to you and from you this Advent - may your feet be guided in the paths of shalom!