The story of Jesus and the story of John the Baptist are heavily intertwined, something that Luke shows us by interrupting the story of John’s birth with the story of Jesus.
Now, as we get back to John the Baptist, we see that each element of the story of Johnny’s birth is either a fulfilment of what was promised at the announcement of his birth, or it builds on the big Luke themes of ‘fear of God’, joy, Holy Spirit, God’s mercy, our praise, and salvation for all.
Verse 57 says very matter of factly that Elizabeth had a son in due time – a very dry report that points back to verse 13 where Zechariah is told, ‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son’
When her neighbours and relatives heard of the birth they rejoiced with her, fulfilling the prediction in verse 14 that ‘many will rejoice at his birth’.
John’s name is the name that the angel Gabriel gave him, and when Zechariah declares emphatically that his name is John and thereby gets his voice back again, it sets the capstone on John’s birth and annunciation, and sets everyone in the region to wondering what kind of boy this was going to be.
The neighbours hear about John’s safe birth, and celebrate God’s mercy to Elizabeth.
The celebration here was probably two-fold: the fact that Elizabeth could have a child at all after so many years of barrenness, and then also that the child and mother both came through the delivery safely.
Giving little Johnny a name
But things start to get interesting when it comes time to circumcise the boy and give him his name. As some of us know, giving a boy a name can be more complicated than it seems
He is circumcised on the eighth day, this essentially incorporates John into the covenant, which means that he was now an official ‘Israelite’, one of God’s special and chosen people, and was obligated to live according to the Old Testament Laws and Commandments. Little 8 day old Johnny was now going to have special status, and was going to be expected to live according to that status. He was also born the son of a priest, which meant that he also would one day become a priest.
John’s circumcision is a celebration, it’s a big event, and so there are a number of people there – probably some of the same people who are mentioned in the previous verse.
What happens next is hard to explain from a cultural or traditional perspective: there is no apparent strong tradition that says that boys have to be named after their fathers, although there certainly were some who were. It’s also odd to me that the friends and relatives don’t let Elizabeth name her son, because there are many many instances in the Old Testament of mothers naming their sons: Eve named Cain, Hagar named her son Ishmael, Jacobs two wives, Leah and Rebecca gave names to all 12 of his sons.
So why do these people insist on naming this boy, even to the extent of brushing his mother aside?
I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t one of those situations where one or two well-intentioned but strong people decide that they know what is best for the people at the centre of the situation, and then try and impose that.
But Elizabeth and Zechariah both stand their ground and insist that the little boy’s name is John.
Next, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s fourth appearance in these first 67 verses. So far no segment of the story has gone on without the Holy Spirit: When Gabriel first appeared to Zechariah he told him that little baby John would be filled with the Spirit; When Gabriel appears to Mary he tells her that it is the holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of the Messiah’s birth; when Mary and Elizabeth meet, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit; and now Zechariah is likewise ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’
Zechariah sings a prophetic song like Mary did 3 month’s earlier – many of us will know that Mary’s song is called the Magnificat; Zechariah’s song is called the ‘Benedictus’.
Zechariah’s prophetic words begin in the form of a familiar OT blessing of God (1 Sam 25:32; 1 Kgs 1:48; Ps 41:13; etc). God is to be blessed because he is being faithful to his covenant promises that he made to his people, and is delivering his people through his messiah. Those covenant promises are being fulfilled in the births of John and Jesus.
Again the word that captures what we are talking about is salvation – being saved and restored to God in a full and wholistic way that involves our body, soul, mind and spirit. Salvation is the big, all-encompassing theme here in Luke, the story of Jesus is the story of salvation that comes to all people.
The people of Israel had long expected that God’s deliverance would take the form of deliverance from the domination of foreign powers.
but the goal of this deliverance from the foreign powers is not an end in itself – it is so that God’s people may serve him without fear. They will serve in holiness (they will belong to God), and righteousness (they will live as God’s people should).
The goal of God’s redemption is not just deliverance from political domination – as important as that is – it is the creation of conditions in which God’s people can worship and serve God without fear.
‘The ultimate purpose of God’s salvation… is… undisturbed worship.’ Deliverance makes worship in peace – unhindered worship – possible.
Once again we find something counter-intuitive in the story of Jesus – for clearly deliverance from ‘our enemies… from those who hate us’ didn’t turn out to be as literal as they had hoped or expected. Rather it turned out to be a much stronger and more powerful spiritual reality – the recognition that there is great power and freedom in following Jesus Christ and being faithful to him that cannot be touched by ‘those who hate us’
The first stanza of Zechariah’s song declares what God has accomplished – he has defeated the enemies of his people and created a safe place where God’s people can bless him and life God-centred lives in word and deed.
The second stanza of his song now gets into the nitty gritty of how God makes that safe worship space, and John the Baptist’ role and place in that.
Little Johnny is going to be ‘...the prophet of the Most High.” There had been no prophet among the Jews for 400 centuries, not sionce the prophet Malachi.
After this, Zechariah’s song is not so much about little Johnny so much as it is about his cousin Jesus, who won’t be born for another 6 months or so. And Johnny’s job will be to prepare the way for his Lord, Jesus.
The Way of Salvation
Verses 76-77 paint a picture for us of what salvation is like and looks like.
The way of salvation begins with preparation. I have heard many believers say that their life before their life with Christ helped to prepare them for Christ, even though they didn’t know it at the time.
I have a book on my shelf by a pastor who writes that whenever a person came to him for pastoral guidance told that person to begin by thanking God for their difficulty and circumstance, because that situation was forcing them to turn to God.
Anytime that we are compelled to turn away from ourselves and on to God, no matter how difficult and impossible that is for us, no matter how hard that is for us, has at least a little bit of redemption going for it.
This preparation for salvation is followed up by a knowledge of God, an awareness of who he is.
For centuries prior to Jesus the Greeks thought of the God’s as passionless and even capricious – they looked on humanities predicament and were unmoved by it, and even seem to enjoy it. This was no comfort to them.
How do you perceive God? Is he uncaring? Does he not care about you or your situation?
Or is he powerless? Loving and compassionate, but completely unable to do anything for you beyond feeling bad for you and your situation?
Or is God a cruel and mean judge? Is he waiting for you to trip up? To mess up so that he can nail you to the wall and get you for it?
Jesus came to tell of a God who is both loving and powerful, and so is incredibly merciful.
This remarkable God shows us his strength, his love and his mercy to us in the act of forgiveness.
Forgiveness here implies the call to repentance. In chapter 3 John the Baptist will begin his ministry by going into the region around the Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.
Forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card, it is not a wiping the slate clean so that we can go back sinning again, it is instead a restoration of our relationship. In Forgiveness the God who was far away has come near; the God we have feared has now become our friend; the God we thought didn’t care or whom we thought of as severely judgmental and cruel has turned out to be compassionate and merciful.
How does God redeem us? By the power of his forgiveness of our sins
How are we saved from our enemies? From the hands of those who hate us? By the power of God’s forgiveness
How can we serve God without fear? By the power of his forgiveness of sin
How can we serve him in holiness and righteousness? By the power of his forgiveness of sin
How do we receive peace? By the power of God’s forgiveness.
4) There is a new walk in life in the ways of light and peace
By God’s mercy we have entered into a new dawn, a light has shined down on us while we were sitting in darkness, and this light, the light of salvation now shapes how we live.
To be saved is to walk in the light, and to walk in the light is to live out of the knowledge of God that has been given to them. To walk in this light is to be guided into the way of peace.
This way of salvation leads to our walking in the light, and walking in peace. Peace, as we have talked about before is a very wholistic term, so that it doesn’t just mean the absence of trouble, it means all that makes for our highest good. Through Christ we are able to walk in the ways that lead to everything that means life, and no longer to all that means death.
Throughout the Gospel peace is closely associated with God’s redemptive work and the salvation that comes to God’s people. Angels announced Jesus’ birth with the refrain of ‘Peace on earth’ (see 2:14), and those who followed Jesus answered antiphonally, ‘Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’ (19:38). Jesus brought peace to those who received him: Simeon (2:29), the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet (7:50), and the woman with a haemorrhage (8:48). Through faith, each found peace.
There are various kinds of peace. Peace that is achieved by strength is always vulnerable to the attack of one who is stronger (11:21-22). A king whose troops are outnumbered will, therefore, make peace with his enemy (14:32).
Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace but division (12:51). Affirmation of the ‘way of peace’ provokes hostility, often with terrible consequences. Jesus himself suffered violence from those to whom he offered peace, for Jerusalem did not know ‘the things that make for peace’ (19:42). Bringing peace, he died.
Peace then is another one of the paradoxes of our faith – ‘It does not mean merely freedom from trouble; it means all that makes for a man’s highest good’ (Barclay).
all of this is done by “the tender mercies of our God,”
I remember when I was saved…
I remember when I gave my life to Christ. I was 8 years old, and our family attended a Layton Ford crusade at the PNE Coloseum in Vancouver.
That moment was preceded by years of preparation, by faithful parents that raised me in a Christian home, by faithful Sunday school teachers and boy’s club leaders. Later on many others would continue to shape and form my faith in both formal and informal roles within the church and in my life.
The walk of peace has been a rocky one for me, much like William Barclay said it would be. And yet I’ve found that the more I submit to him, the more peace there is.
our section closes by saying that John grew up in the wilderness – this is a further indication that John was set apart, the wilderness was ‘the traditional home of prophetic inspiration.’
The story of Jesus, the story of the great project of God has begun. The great 400year dry season of prophetic silence is over, and God’s fulfilment of his promises to Abraham and David to save his people is about to begin.
The story of Salvation begins in the wombs of two women – one too old to have children, the other too young and out of wedlock.
And yet in that improbable circumstance the Messiah, the salvation of God for all people is on it’s way.
And John will prepare the way.
He will prepare people to discover the knowledge of a God who is not cruel or indifferent or judgmental or thoughtless or uncaring, but full of mercy, compassion and grace.
He will prepare the people to move out of darkness, from out of the shadow of death and into his wonderful light
He will prepare people to receive the forgiveness of their sins, and to walk in the way of peace.
Many of us have received that salvation, and people have played significant roles in our lives to prepare us to receive it.
And we get to play the role of preparer as well.
How cool is that?
Source: Avon Mennonite Church, December 20, 2009
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday of the Birth of John the Baptist
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