In Zechariah's Song, which is in the Gospel of Luke chapter one, verses 67 to 79, we hear the father of John the Baptist prophesying about what his son, and about the Messiah for Whom his son will prepare the way, will do. Actually one could say that it is really and actually about what God will do for Israel, for His people, for us. "Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-..." it says in verse 71. "To rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days," it says in verses 74 to 75.
I think of the history of the Jewish people and how much they have suffered. I think about the slaughter of children, in Bethlehem by King Herod, and in Newtown, CT, and in all the stupid acts of genocide and war in places like Rwanda, Liberia, Eastern Congo, and it hurts me to use this phrase in describing places where children have been butchered and murdered and that is in this little abbreviation, "etc."
Et cetera is a blasphemous and obscene word to describe a continuous string of such monstrous reality. Unfortunately we are reduced to that reality, that this is one of many heart crushing shocks, and it leads me to ask where the salvation is that Zechariah sings about? Is this a mystic inspiring hope to push us all on to a better day, that if we just keep believing and hoping we might someday see this actually happen? Is it like the sentimentality of Christmas that so many secular artists sing about, that there is some kind of sweet and heart warming magic on Christmas day that will make everything all right?
I think Zechariah serves us well to remind us that we do have enemies, that there are those who hate us, that we often live in fear. I don't like fairy tales that create illusions of safety. I don't like the denial of poverty, hatred, racism, and the murder of innocents by using banal sentimentality. Since the world cannot come to grips with a real God, but hides itself in fairy tales like Santa Claus, elves, and good feelings of holiday, it cannot help but produce more God denial in the face of tragedy. "How could there be a God and let evil like this happen?" they wonder. So they create ostrich holes of sentimental belief in nothing but phrases like "believe in yourself" and "children are the answer" and "we are the world." We are the world all right, and we rape, kill, and murder each other, and the babies too.
Yet Zechariah is used as a prophet to promise us salvation, and he uses an interesting phrase in verse 77, "to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." I think the people of the world, the Jews, the oppressed, the fearful, and those fed up with the reality that none of us are safe from madmen, want salvation; salvation from all the violence and the fear that it causes. This I think would most likely include all of those paying attention to reality. I want to live without fear, to be rescued from the hands of my enemies, and from all who hate me.
But the "knowledge of salvation" might be different from simple salvation. Since John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, called the Christ, and this same Jesus was crucified and not spared from violence or the hatred of his enemies, how then can he save me from fear, hatred, and the hands of my enemies since he couldn't save himself? I want a bigger gun, a stronger door, and a safer neighborhood and here I am offered the "forgiveness" of my sins.
The Gospel reality in its clear eyed view of the monstrous nature of people says the knowledge of salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins. So people are not naturally good and we are not harmonious in the world but both the victims and the victimizers at the same time. If there is sin that we must be forgiven for then we must be sinners, and if one reads the Bible clearly then one sees that sin is punished by death and must always be so, and if we are to be forgiven someone still must die for our sins, and that is why Jesus indeed did come, to die for our sins.
It would be nice to believe that we are not the sinners, not the violent, not the depraved. We don't need forgiveness but protection, we don't need someone dying for us but fighting for us against those other people who somehow became evil and just how that happened we are not too sure. God seems sure, He is sure we are the problem and not just victims. So he provides salvation by coming to die for our sins and forgiving us, and in that he gives us a "knowledge of salvation" that it is and must be something more than protection from evil, since this world seems to have so much of that. It is, and this is more permanent and extensive than temporal security, salvation from God's judgment on us personally, and a taste and a part of that judgement is living in such a screwed up world that is broken and full of potentially dangerous, catastrophically dangerous, individuals, tribes, nations, and governments.
Where then is the hope, where is the good stuff that Zechariah seems to promise? It is in the reality that though I am in a "world with devils filled (which) should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us." The knowledge of salvation is not a mystic hope, but a sure foundation that even though we must suffer in this world there is something beyond the misery here which in God's mercy is not all the time, not in everyplace, but enough to brace us to the reality of our own evil.
The knowledge of salvation is that God does have mercy, he does forgive, and eventually for all those who have received that knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins real and existential shelter in the arms of a loving Father who may let our enemies take our lives in this place, but ultimately cannot take from us that which is eternal. My ultimate eternal hope is that even though worms destroy this body I shall see my God, and that someday upon the earth I will be revealed as a son of God, my enemies vanquished, and I will be finally and eternally safe.
Randy Nabors is the pastor emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. He was the organizing pastor in 1976 until his retirement in June of 2012. and the congregation continues its commitment to being centered in the gospel of Jesus Christ, living out the call of the gospel in racial reconciliation, mercy and development ministry to the poor, with a commitment to the city. Mr. Nabors is now Senior Staff with Mission to North America. He and his wife Joan are serving together to encourage the works of mercy in churches, and to develop the planting of churches within poor communities, especially the inner cities of America. To this end, he is seeking to build and establish the New City Network and the Ten Million Dollar Fund.