Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Tongue Set Free

One of the goals of the Reformation was to communicate in the vernacular, the language of the people.

For Martin Luther, nearly 500 years ago, this meant translating the New Testament into German.

Today, at the large suburban church I attend, it meant putting the classic Christian song "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the Eagles' 1970s hit "Peaceful Easy Feeling."

The freedom of expression fit with the day's Gospel text, which was Zechariah's impassioned appropriation of his place in the coming Realm of God. After nine months of silence, John the Baptist's father finds his voice at the infant John's circumcision ceremony. The angel Gabriel had struck Zechariah mute, after Zechariah doubted the angel's prophecy that Zechariah's wife, Elizabeth, would give birth to a son. Zechariah's speech would return, Gabriel said, when the prophecy had come to pass.

And that, in Luke's account, is what happens. When relatives gathered for the circumcision express doubt that John is the right name, Elizabeth responds unequivocally that the child's name is John. The relatives then turn to the still-mute Zechariah, who asks for a writing tablet − then suddenly finds his tongue set free.

"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 mercies 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."

John Newton, the former slave-ship captain who wrote "Amazing Grace," had an epiphany akin to Zechariah's when he repented of his role in the slave trade, received grace, and wrote a song in response that is sung over and over again in Christian communities around the world. How sweet the sound to hear it combined with a well-liked pop song so familiar to baby boomer ears.

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