It seems like everybody sings in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth: Mary sings (1:46-55), Zechariah sings (1:68-79), the angels sing (2:13-14), and finally, Simeon adds a chorus (2:28-32). So much singing.
From our distant 21st century American vantage point, we might be surprised to hear individuals break into song at significant moments like these—unless we’re fans of the great Broadway musicals! But I live in Nairobi, and as my Kenyan friend Elizabeth Mburu wrote in her book African Hermeneutics, “Song is the genre that best represents the heartbeat of African peoples. Whether in our traditional or modern contexts, songs are never far from our lips. What is a wedding without songs of rejoicing? Or a funeral without songs to express our sorrow? How else would politicians express their political agenda except through songs and poetry? . . . This feature of life has not changed in modern Africa” (p. 166).
Songs are everywhere in Africa, even today. Liz Mburu reminds us that “the culture of the Bible resembles African culture in so many ways” (p. 6). Even spontaneous songs in Africa can be very personal, with someone expressing their own experience and perspective through music. Likewise, have you noticed the incremental changes in emphasis from Mary’s song to Zechariah’s song to Simeon’s song?
Read Luke 1:46-55. Do you see how Mary emphasizes God fulfilling his promises to rescue his poor and lowly people from the oppression they’ve faced? “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv. 52-53). There’s nothing in this song about sin, there’s nothing in here about forgiveness, there’s nothing in here about eternity in heaven. But there’s a lot about mercy and justice. A powerful deliverer is coming!
Now read Luke 1:68-79. If it feels like a good bit of repetition from what Mary said, you’re right. When I moved to Ethiopia, I was impatient in meetings when each person seemed to repeat what the previous person had just said. To me it seemed like a waste of time! But then I learned how the repetition—enhanced by small changes and additions that each speaker made—built consensus and led to unity in Ethiopian decision-making. Yes, in Zechariah’s song we hear again about promised rescue, about mercy and righteousness (or justice, the same word in Greek). But the small thing that Zechariah adds comes in verses 76-77, that Zechariah’s son John “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Now we hear a whisper of something significant and new! Not only is a powerful deliverer coming, but one who brings forgiveness of sins.
Finally, read Luke 2:28-32. What does Simeon add to the chorus? In verse 32 he announces that this baby will become “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” Simeon is quoting Isaiah 49:6: “It is too light a thing [or, ‘too small a thing’] that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In Isaiah 49 the intended servant was most likely Israel as a nation. But Israel did not manage to take God’s message of salvation to the Gentiles or to ends of the earth. Now, Simeon adds, that’s what this baby will do. He’s the servant, a powerful deliverer, who brings forgiveness of sin—to the whole world!
A powerful deliverer who brings forgiveness of sin to the whole world. It takes three songs to fill out this picture of Jesus in Luke’s story. What about your own song? What have you personally found to be true and essential about Jesus that you’d like to add to the chorus as you sing his birth this Christmas?
© 2023 Stephanie L. Black
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Black is an International Theological Education Specialist serving under a co-op agreement with Serge. Based in Kenya, she travels to Asia and elsewhere in Africa to teach in theological seminaries, help develop programs, and strengthen partnerships. With a heart to train the next generation of leaders for the global church, Stephanie is a gifted educator, leader, and life-long learner. We are so glad to have her in the WO family.