December 5 2021,
The Second Sunday of Advent
Our King and Savior now draws near. Come, let us adore him.
He was an old man. Year after year, he and his wife lived faithfully and prayed for the blessing of children. He took his turn as a priest serving in the temple, did all that was asked of him; but Zechariah and Elizabeth grew old together with aching hearts, empty arms, and dashed hopes.
When his turn came up again to offer the sacrifice, he gladly obeyed, but while he was alone in the sanctuary he was terrified by a vision. An angel, Gabriel, appeared and told him that the prayers that he and Elizabeth had offered for all those years would finally be answered; they would receive the gift of a son. But this child, to be called John, would be no ordinary baby: he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and would speak as a prophet to the people of God. Overwhelmed, Zechariah questioned how this could happen, given their advanced ages. When the teenager Mary later questioned a similar announcement, she received no reprimand, but the old priest was held to a stricter standard; he was denied a voice until the child would be born.
Elizabeth duly conceived, and during her pregnancy her young cousin Mary, also pregnant, came to visit. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb danced with joy at the closeness of God’s anointed one, and Elizabeth was moved by the Holy Spirit to offer a blessing to the one she now recognized as the mother of God: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Elisabeth’s baby was born, and on his 8th day was due to be circumcised and named according to custom. Elizabeth said the child should be named John, but her word wasn’t enough, so they turned to the father. And when Zechariah signaled his agreement, his mouth was opened and his tongue freed. Now it was Zechariah’s turn to be filled with the Holy Spirit; and the prophetic words he proclaimed have come down to us as the Benedictus, or the Song of Zechariah, that we [RED] read today as our canticle.
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has come to his people and set them free.”
It’s one of the great songs of praise of the Christian church, filled with the joy and delight of the first-time parent who sees the limitless promise of this tiny new life, all made possible by the tender compassion of our God. There is something almost inexpressibly beautiful in the image of the old man singing this song as he cradles his newborn son. It reminds me of a picture I treasure: of my late father in law, in the last weeks of his life, holding his great-granddaughter soon after her birth.
St. Luke follows Zechariah’s song by telling us that the child, John, “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel”. Cue our Gospel reading and the entry of John the Baptist on the public stage.
What was it like for Elizabeth and Zechariah to see their son, their treasure, promised and conceived in the heart of the Jewish tradition, turn his back on that institution and insist on living outside of the community? He didn’t follow his father into the priesthood, as everyone might have expected. He stayed on the margins, in the wilderness, modeling an alternative lifestyle, adopting and adapting the words of the prophet Isaiah to call his people to repentance and transformation. He accepted the prophetic mantle placed on him before birth by the angel, the call to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the call to bring the people of God back to obedience. But in order to follow this call, John had to step outside of the community, to maintain a distance from the religious authorities. Sometimes, if you want to really change something, you have to stay on the margins of all that you love.
The prophetic calling is not easy. Over and over in Scripture we see how the prophets were opposed, silenced, imprisoned, persecuted. The people of God, especially those of us in positions of privilege, are never happy to hear that their lives must change. The prophets knew this, and many of them resisted the call. Jonah took a ship to Tarshish, trying to get as far away as he could from God’s call. Jeremiah protested that he was just a kid. Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips”. They protested, and then they got on with the unenviable job of telling the people of God how far they had strayed from God’s law, and what it would take to put the world to rights.
We don’t hear John protesting: he had been raised for this calling, probably reminded by his doting parents, again and again throughout his childhood, of the special role God had planned for him. That alone might be enough to drive any young man into the wilderness. By John’s time, the Jewish establishment had adapted to the reality of being under the thumb of the colonial authorities. They had made deals with the puppet king and the Roman governor, they had compromised their integrity, in order to retain some of their comforts.
Luke sketches the political situation in a few words, locating his narrative in an exact year, naming emperor, governor, local rulers, and high priests in the same breath. All of this power structure was in place to keep the people quiet; and yet, when the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, out there in the Judean desert, he dared to use his voice to remind the people of God who they were and who they were called to be; he dared to offer hope of transformation and salvation.
John spoke to his people out of the center of their tradition, quoting his predecessor Isaiah. “Every valley shall be filled, the mountains and hills made low.” The prophecy would have seemed utterly impossible to the ancient people hearing the earlier prophet. How could valleys be filled, or mountains and hills made low? Only God could do such a thing. It’s one of the tragedies of our time that we see valleys filled and mountains made low in the service of profit, in the contemporary mining industry.
By John’s time, the Roman legions were starting to change the landscape, building roads and aqueducts through mountains and across valleys. People across Europe and Asia saw human beings wielding power to reshape the earth, power that had formerly been reserved for God; and, worse, the Roman Emperors started to claim divine status for themselves. It must have been a terrifying time for the people of God, a time when they were searching desperately for ways to maintain their faith, to ensure survival as a people, a time ripe for a prophetic voice calling for reform.
We will hear more about John’s call for reform next week, but today we focus on the contrast between the grim, real-world setting in which Luke places his story, and the supernatural events he describes that demonstrate how God’s power operates to bring light even in the darkest times. Both Zechariah’s song and the Isaiah passage that John quotes are filled with hope: hope for peace, hope for mercy, hope for salvation, hope for the transformation of the earth by the God who made the heavens and the earth and who can remake them.
In a time of violent oppression and constant war, there still exists the possibility of peace. In a time of uncertainty and anxiety, there still exists the possibility that God will save us. In a time of darkness, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. This is the message John the Baptist brings to his people, and this is the message we need to hear today, in this Advent season, when we prepare once again to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ out Redeemer.
Our King and Savior now draws near: O come, let us adore him.