The Birth of John the Baptist
- Imagine Zechariah's and Elizabeth's surprise at the angel's news.
- Sense that our God is able to surprise people with good things.
- Share our delight in God's daily surprises in our lives.
So often in the Bible, when God inaugurates a new era of his saving activity, look for a dead end situation (barrenness) and a surprise baby. Abraham and Sarah, Hannah, and now Zechariah and Elizabeth, all "barren" couples (of course the woman was blamed), were promised a surprise baby despite their doubts.
Here in Luke 1, God's biggest saving act of all is about to happen with the gift of his Son. God wants someone to prepare the way by stirring up a sense of need and fostering a renewed hope. So an angel visits old, childless Zechariah in a very strange place.
Luke paints a vivid scene of Israel's life and worship. Zechariah is one of a cohort of priests who were chosen by lot (only once in a lifetime) for the daily sacrifice of incense in the temple at Jerusalem (the sweet-smelling smoke of the incense symbolized the people's prayers ascending to God's throne). The chosen priest placed incense on glowing coals and prostrated himself before the altar in prayer. When the people outside saw and smelled the smoke from the incense, they prayed, "May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people."
In the middle of this solemn act, an angel appeared and spoke to Zechariah about a special promised child who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Perhaps feeling annoyed at the interruption, Zechariah expressed his understandable doubts. To which the angel responded with a strange sign: Zechariah went mute.
He was expected to emerge from the temple with a word of blessing for the gathered people, and, as Zechariah was delayed by this bizarre conversation, the crowd grew restless. Finally he stood there helplessly gesticulating without a word to say. (I think we're meant to at least smile at the scene.)
Zechariah goes home. Although Elizabeth, his wife, begins to bulge with pregnancy, Zechariah remains wordless until he fulfills the words of the angel and indicates the child's name will be John (meaning God's gracious gift).
Luke makes it clear that God's startling new thing isn't brand-new, but is woven into the fabric of Israel's history and worship. The old and the new fit snugly side by side.
This story has the seemingly contradictory elements of surprise and preparation. No doubt Zechariah and Elizabeth are surprised by the angel's announcement. On the other hand, God doesn't just plunk Jesus down into the world. He prepares the way with John. He makes sure the world and his own people are as ready as they can be for the most surprising intervention of all.
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