June 24, 2018 / Nativity of John the Baptist / Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Malachi 3:1-4/Second Reading: Acts 13:16-26/Gospel: Luke 1:57-80
Too Good to Be True
On this Day the Church commemorates the birth of John the Baptist – born six months before his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. However, even though Father’s Day was last Sunday, I want to focus today on John’s father Zechaviah. Our gospel reading presents the profile of a father who got things wrong – and then ultimately got them very right.
Zechaviah was a godly man, a priest serving at the temple in Jerusalem. He is described as “righteous before God and living blamelessly”. He and his wife had no children “because Elizabeth was barren and they both were getting on in years”. One day Zechaviah was chosen to enter the holy sanctuary of the temple to make an offering of incense to the Lord. While he was alone in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechaviah. He was absolutely terrified and overwhelmed with fear.
As angels often do in scripture, the angel Gabriel said to Zechaviah, “Do not be afraid.” The angel continued: Your prayer has been heard, and your wife will bear a son. You will call him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
What an amazing, heartwarming message to hear! A lifelong hope for Zechaviah is about to be fulfilled. He and Elizabeth will have a son! You can picture the smile on Zechaviah’s face as he jumped for joy and rushed out to share the wonderful news! (Well – not exactly….) Instead of embracing this good news, Zechaviah said to the angel: “Do you really expect me to believe this? Look, I’m an old man, married to an old woman. Time has run out on our hopes for a child.”
People are odd. We long to hear some good news – and then when we do, we don’t believe it! We think some things are too good to be true. God promised to send a savior, the messiah then when Jesus appeared, many refused to believe in him. You have no problem believing that we are sinners. Yet, we can find it hard to believe the good news that our sins are forgiven – removed as far as the east is from the west. We can hold on to our guilt and regret.
Zechaviah could not bring himself to believe that he would be blessed with a son. He didn’t want to set himself up for disappointment. The angel Gabriel was not pleased with Zechaviah’s response. Listen to what he said.
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Zechaviah’s lips were effectively sealed for the next nine months. Despite being a servant of the Lord, a man of deep faith – Zechaviah could not believe the good news he had been waiting a lifetime to hear, even when the message came from an angel of the Lord. At a pivotal moment in his own life – and in the history of Israel – Zechaviah missed the boat, he dropped the ball, he choked. Instead of trusting God’s promise to him, Zechaviah trusted his own wisdom and judgement. He doubted that what he hoped for could actually come to pass. So instead of taking a leap of faith and trusting God, Zechaviah took several steps backward. Have you ever found yourself in Zechaviah’s shoes? At an important moment, you said or did the wrong thing – or failed to say or do the right thing. Someone was counting on you – and you didn’t come through for them? You were asked for help – and you made up an excuse in order to decline? You made a promise to a friend – but didn’t keep it?
Every day presents opportunities to do the right thing, the loving thing, the faithful thing. And sometimes we fail, we get it wrong. Zechaviah was not a bad man, but at a key moment he really blew it. Zechaviah then had nine months to ponder how he had failed – as he watched the promised child grow in Elizabeth’s womb. I imagine he relived his encounter with Gabriel countless times – wishing he could take back what he said, wondering why he let doubt get the best of him. Do you have moments like that; times in your life which you revisit and wish you could go back and do over? It’s the stuff that can keep you awake at night. Regret is a heavy burden.
However, the story was not over for Zechaviah. He got the chance to get things right when his son was born. And the neighbors were sure that the newborn son would be named Zechaviah, after his father. But when the time came, Elizabeth announced: “He is to be called John” They all said “Wait, none of your relatives has the that name”. They turned to Zechaviah And asked what name he wanted for his son. Still speechless, Zechaviah asked for a writing tablet and wrote for all to see: “His name is John” (the name Gabriel had given him). Immediately Zechaviah was able to speak – and did he ever. We have seen how he blew it big time when Gabriel brought him the news of his son’s birth. Yet given another chance, Zechaviah got it so very right. Listen again to the beautiful words that came pouring out of Zechaviah’s mouth after non months of silence. (By the way, our closing hymn today is a paraphrase of these verses from today’s gospel.)
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Then Zechaviah turns his attention to his newborn son, and speaks lovingly and hopefully of his holy destiny:
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77
John is not the Savior – he is the one who will prepare the way for the promised Messiah.
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
John’s preaching would be all about repentance and forgiveness. The salvation coming to Israel would not be political or military in nature. Salvation happens through the grace of forgiveness. John sets the table for the gracious(?) feast that Christ is bringing.
And then was a marvelous closing Zechaviah offers, full of grace and peace:
78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
He paints a picture of God’s promised salutation: Light shining into darkness, even the darkness of death – a way for all to walk in peace. Mercy is a beautiful word to guys like Zechaviah – those who realize how much they need it. Mercy is a wonderful word for all us to hear as well – the tender mercy of our God.
This day is designated as the day to recall and give thanks for the Nativity of John the Baptist -rightly so. Jesus said this about John: “I tell you, among those born of woman; no one is greater than John” Luke 7:28. Yet it would not be wrong to also refer to this day as the Redemption of Zechaviah – the man who made the most of his second chance. Redemption belongs to each of us as well. The dawn from on high shines brightly on us all
Thanks be to God