And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
The Gospel of Luke is a very interesting book. It doesn’t begin the way you think it will. You would expect “an orderly account” to start with the Nativity; and indeed there is an angelic visitation, an unexpected pregnancy, a song of celebration. Actually, there are two of all those things. Because Luke not only doesn’t quite begin with his main character, he interweaves the narrative of Joseph and Mary with that of another couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Or, as I like to call him around Christmas, the other baby.
The parallels and contrasts are strikingly built throughout what we now call Chapters 1 and 2 of Luke (it had no such divisions originally, of course). An angel visits Zechariah to tell him that his wife will give birth to a son despite being past the age of childbearing; an angel visits Mary and tells her she will give birth to a son despite being a virgin. The names of each child are considered significant enough to be dictated by God. One is to be born to an elderly couple, and the other to a pair of newlyweds—and both births can be considered unexpectedly miraculous.
When I was growing up I was always under the impression (either through my Sunday School teachers not emphasizing enough, or simply my own skipping over the details) that Zechariah was a bit of an idiot. After all, his reaction to the angel’s message is a high contrast with Mary’s. Where she believes and asks only how God’s plan will come about, he asks how he can be sure it will come about, thus betraying his doubt. Because of this he is struck mute until his son’s birth and can only communicate by writing. But though his doubt even in the presence of an angel of the Lord certainly can’t be counted as one of his life’s high points, it doesn’t seem to be counted against him. Because the name he is to give to his son (today one of the most common in our society) is John, which means “Yahweh is gracious”; and as soon as he writes it down and christens the child, his voice returns to him. His first act is to praise the Lord. Then, on being filled with the Holy Spirit, he sings a song of prophecy over his son who will himself become a prophet. This man may have faltered for a moment, but he is no idiot. He is instead the living proof of the graciousness of God.
John the Baptist was not the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel promised by God. But he was a prophet, the first that the Jews had seen in four hundred years. His voice was the one that cried in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He brought back God’s message of repentance and salvation as the precursor to salvation itself. He would anoint his second cousin for His ministry and declare Him as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, as the King who sits on the throne of heaven. Before any king can arrive and be crowned an extraordinary amount of preparation has to be made, and this was John’s mission. Christmas is the arrival of the King; Advent is the time when we prepare for His coming.
The King is almost here. Are we ready to receive him?