24 December – Speaking truth to power

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

(Luke 1.67-79)

He had been unable to speak, for over nine months. When he doubted the word of the angel who came to him in the Temple to tell him that his wife, even though she was beyond the age of child-bearing, would have a son, he was struck dumb. It was only on the eighth day after the birth of the child, when he was named, that Zechariah got his voice back. He wasn’t lost for words.

Zechariah bearing the words of the Benedictus

Zechariah bearing the words of the Benedictus

This is the second ‘song’ that St Luke gives us in the opening chapters of his gospel. Luke says that he spoke this prophecy, but in turn the church has sung it as the Benedictus, every morning as part of Morning Prayer or Matins. Like Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ it is a wonderful song, all embracing, full of celebration, full of prophecy.

So John the Baptist, often called the last of the Old Testament prophets, the bridge between the old and the new, the one who straddles the false divide in our Bible, is the son of a prophet. Zechariah finds his voice and rather than denying God’s promises and losing his voice he affirms and celebrates God’s promises and finds his voice.

The French aristocrat, writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book, ‘Night Flight’ says

“In every crowd are certain persons who seem just like the rest, yet they bear amazing messages.”

Perhaps to their neighbours Zechariah and Elizabeth seemed like any elderly couple, a familiar part of the village landscape. Then extraordinary things begin to happen to them and in the end they bear ‘amazing messages.’ They seemed just like the rest – and in many ways they were – but both, in the end, allowed themselves to be the agents of prophecy – Elizabeth in her womb, Zechariah on his tongue.

We have to ask if the age of prophecy is dead or is it that we just don’t hear prophecy in the same way any more – and what is prophecy anyway? We can easily get it confused with predicting the future and of course there is an element of that in it. But it is much more, I think, about speaking God’s truth into the situations in which we find ourselves. Often this is described as ‘speaking truth to power’ and in many ways that is what the child John grew up to do. Another way in which this calling is often described is ‘disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed’. It may sound slick and clever as a description, yet that is an essential part of what it means to have ‘a prophet’s tongue’.

The prophetic witness

The prophetic witness

In fact prophecy is much more central to the vocation of the church than we sometimes give credit for. We can imagine it to be a rather peripheral activity which has really died out and so some words of the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre are salutary

“All men are prophets or else God does not exist.”

Sartre sees prophecy as that important. The journey we are on is a prophetic one, looking to the future, listening to the voice of God. That was what made us Bethlehem bound and it is the spirit that continues to encourage us to travel and to speak truth on the way to those we encounter.

give me the courage of the prophet
to speak truth to power
and the wisdom to know
when that is needed.

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