Luke 1:57-80: Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’
Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.
All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. 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.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Today we mark the birth of St. John the Baptist. On the surface that might seem a rather humdrum occurrence, but I think John’s presence in the story gives a wonderful flavour to the story of our faith
The details of John’s birth are couched in the opening history provided in Luke’s Gospel, history that we don’t get anywhere else in Scripture. Luke was a physician, an historian and perhaps most interestingly a gentile. Because Luke did not come from a Jewish background, he felt a great need to relay this early history in terms that those who were not part of the tradition, would understand.
So the opening chapter of Luke we hear of Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah to tell him that his wife would have a son in her advanced years. We’ve heard this story before. Zechariah doubts the angel for just a second and thus loses his ability to speak until such time as the child was to be named.
Soon Elizabeth is with child and then comes the visit from her cousin Mary who also is pregnant under difficult to explain circumstances following a visit from the same angel. The story of the child leaping in Elizabeth womb as Mary arrives carrying Jesus is one of joy. Elizabeth delivers the child in today’s reading and a suddenly loosed tongue Zechariah confirms the child shall be called John, which would be a totally unexpected name. Zechariah praises God in a passage most familiar to those of us who have grown up with the BCP as the Benedictus, the third of three Canticles sung at morning prayer.
Luke jumps from Zechariah to the birth of Jesus, His naming, presentation in the Temple and the story of Jesus as a young boy literally preaching in the Temple before we get to John’s arrival on the scene and ultimately Jesus is baptized by John and for the most part, John exits the story.
So why do we celebrate John? Why does it matter to Luke that he tells us a story that no other writer did about John being related to Jesus and eventually being part of the formal kick off of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism?
Well, there isn’t a hard and fast explanation, save that Luke was more interested than most in history and also helping non-Jews understand the Jewish connotations of Jesus who would be the Messiah .
But let me suggest this – story is important. A guy by the name of Paul Harvey made a comfortable living by telling us “The Rest of the Story” for many years. If you don’t know the reference, google it. If you don’t know google, you will most likely know Paul Harvey already.
Fleshing out the story of John the Baptist, gives us another lens through which to see Jesus. Knowing of their connectedness shows us a broader picture of how God chose to enter the world in human form. Understanding the quirky, some might say downright weird, lifestyle of John gives us a view to the inclusion God has for all people. Having the supposedly past child bearing years Elizabeth having a son, takes us back to the Abraham and Sarah story which began the tale of a people set apart as special by God.
We are a people built on and for relationships. Our story is not about just us, but about encounters with people from bygone eras. The explosion of people searching for their ancestry, their story, shows just how important that history is to who we are. When we discover that there is more to us than just the history we know, that we might be connected to people in parts of the world and cultures we didn’t imagine, it adds to the collective story of us.
Ultimately, God could have accomplished entry into this world without Elizabeth, or Zechariah or John. The other Gospel writers downplay their role. But Luke gives us that fresh understanding. Luke opens for us new eyes to see how the life of Jesus unfolded in the beginning.
We all have parts of our story that we didn’t know, that we have discovered through a relationship, a chance meeting. Who doesn’t want to be able to say they are related to someone famous? But beyond that, the stories of these people broadens our understanding. Think of the people who have opened your eyes to God, to those people whose story has taken you to a new depth of faith. This is the special understanding of faith that we receive from Luke’s story of John. The humble and dedicated priest Zechariah; the most likely sad Elizabeth who in her community would have been looked down on for being barren; the son of this couple who lived in the desert and gave people pause by his behaviour. These are the parts of the story God wanted us to know and the Spirit inspired Luke to write.
Rev. Keith Nethery