In today’s Gospel reading we are confronted, for a brief moment by the strange and other-worldly figure of John, son of Zechariah the temple priest (known more familiarly to us as John the Baptiser). Newcomers to the Bible are often surprised to find that the first few chapters of the Gospel of Luke are as much about the story of John as they are about the story of Jesus.
It is to Zechariah (the father of John) that the Angel Gabriel first goes, long before the angel ever appears to Mary. And in a scene which mirrors and anticipates what is to come for Mary, Zechariah is told that his barren wife will bear a child and this child will have the spirit and power of Elijah, as he goes before the Lord who is to come. This child John is so keenly aware of his calling that even before his birth he leaps for joy in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, when he hears the greeting of Mary, when she comes to Elizabeth after her own visitation by an angel. And then, in Luke’s Gospel, before we hear about the birth of Jesus, we are caught up in the most wonderful story about the birth of John, this boy who has also been heralded by an angel, but who comes not to be the ‘main event’ but the one who prepares the way.
Mary has gone home. Elizabeth’s pregnancy has come to full term and she has a safe delivery. The time has come for relations and friends to be told the news, and everyone is delighted. Then the question arises of the name to be given to the baby. The father of the baby, Zechariah, has been unable to speak since his encounter with the angel, and so he is unable to communicate and is therefore ignored. The friends and relations decide to take on the responsibility of naming this child themselves. In itself, there is nothing wrong or even unusual about this. A new baby is a new arrival for the community not just for the parents, and the community has an interest in it.
Two of my four sons were born whilst I had oversight of the Sudanese congregations in the Diocese of Perth, and the elders of those communities not only provided god-parents for those two boys, but were involved in the process of naming as well.
So the families of Elizabeth and Zechariah busy themselves in preparing for him to have a well-known name, consistent with family traditions. They use sign-language to ask his father, Zechariah. The name has to be spelled out. If Zechariah’s answer was, “he is to have the same name as me,” that could perfectly well be signed.
But this baby represents a new start for the whole community. He is not to have an ancestral name. “John” cannot be signed; it can only be spelled. So Zechariah writes, emphatically: “John is his name.” This is the first written piece of gospel that we know about – the first time that anyone writes down a part of what is to become the story of Jesus and his Church. “John – God’s grace” – that is the name for this baby boy.
As soon as that has been declared, Zechariah gets his voice back. He does not complain or blame. He praises God. The whole story becomes public property. Zechariah looks at his Son, and filled with the Holy Spirit, this old priest becomes a prophet. On the far side of his silence he becomes a singer. The gift of the Spirit is not a private privilege for the benefit of the person receiving the gift; it is for the benefit of the whole community, for the enlightenment of all the world.
The words of his song are the words of the canticle which we read together this morning: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free.” Zechariah the priest has to take on a new role. Instead of following a prescribed ritual, he becomes a prophet, with a new and unfamiliar text. His song is a song of liberation. God has intervened in our situation, and has set us free. Prayers have been answered; we are no longer victims of hostile powers. If the Roman police were to hear this song, the next thing for Zechariah would be a spell of darkness in the local cells.
In hard fact, all that has happened is that a baby has been born. But, for this new prophet, there is a new dawn. In the darkness, something has happened of which the police know nothing.
In the past, there has always been hope; the community has remembered the promises, and there have always been people who, in the darkness, have refused to be totally discouraged by the lack of any signs of change. The old priest Zechariah knows this. He would have been familiar with the words of the Prophet Malachi which we heard read a few moments ago – the hope that a messenger was truly coming, to herald the Messiah. The evidence that this is being fulfilled for Zechariah, is only a new-born baby; but that is enough to make the song worth singing.
The primary headline for Zechariah’s song is that the God of Israel has “made redemption” for his people. Redemption was one of the main themes of both the law and the prophets. Redemption was what God had done for Israel, when he brought them out of Egypt, out of slavery. When they were slaves, they had no voice, no rights in the land, no power to make decisions about their work. They had no value except as producers of wealth for someone else’s benefit. That was what slavery was about. It is still what slavery is about. In the exodus from Egypt, God had taken a slave-community and made it a free community. This was redemption. The law, centred on the Ten Commandments, was given to a liberated people to enable them to remain liberated, to prevent them from lapsing into some new form of slavery.
Christians may have a wider understanding of redemption, but the basic idea is still rooted in economic experience. The Jews of Zechariah’s time (in the time of this little baby – John) knew very well what it was like to be unredeemed. They were a colonized people, under the heel of a foreign power, with no outlet for their own initiative, in bondage to the foreign power for taxation and for currency. Zechariah’s song claims that, though outward circumstances have not yet visibly changed, the people need no longer see themselves as victims. God has intervened. It remains true, that, where people have no power to make decisions about their work, where almost all the wealth that they create is taken off for the benefit of a wealthier area, there is slavery; there is a situation calling for redemption. The words of Zechariah’s song Benedictus celebrate a victory over slavery. If we sing this song, we commit ourselves to working for such a victory to come true in our own day.
Mary’s Magnificat (which she exclaimed during her visit to Elizabeth) started with her own sense of being valued, and it then spread out to a vision of God’s purpose for the whole world. Zechariah’s Benedictus moves the other way round. It starts with the big-scale vision of God’s purpose and action for the whole people; it moves into a new mode half-way through, with the mandate to the individual servant of God, this new child. It moves from a statement of what God has done, to a vision of what is in store for the future. Zechariah sings to his baby son (in the words which we have said together this morning), listing the responsibilities which this son is going to be undertaking. This is a wonderful statement of the agenda of a local church; it could be used as a check-list of our church’s work. We are to be the Lord’s forerunner, the roadmakers, the ones (in our day) to announce that he is already here, and that he will come again in the fullness of his kingdom.
If we are ‘Benedictus people’ then Zechariah’s song will be a call to us to help people to understand what makes for their salvation, their health, their security. Their real hope is not to be in scoring points or in crushing an enemy into the ground, but in forgiveness. The word translated as “forgiveness” in the canticle basically means “release” – liberation. Its root meaning, again, is in the remission of debt. Zechariah’s lullaby for his son ends with the vision of the dawn (an image which has become synonymous in the liturgy of the Church with this season of Advent as we both remember the time before Christ’s first coming in our preparations for Christmas; and as we remain mindful and hopeful of his final coming again). That new dawn, will bring a new hope for those who are trapped in darkness and hopelessness. The light of the new day will guide the community into peace. It will not simply give peace, as a commodity; it will guide people on to a road of discovering and working for peace.
How far did all this prophecy of Zechariah come true for John his son? Surely, Luke would not have recorded the song if it was a totally unrealised fantasy. John’s experience, as an adult, was hardly a triumphant vindication of his father’s hopes. He died alone, in prison, not at all sure that he had been right or that Jesus was all that he was claimed to be. But Jesus had chosen to start with John. At a time when there were many rival voices, all claiming to have the solution to Israel’s terrible situation, it was John’s movement that Jesus chose to identify himself with. And in the midst of those other voices, there emerged the figure of John, calling ordinary people to repentance, offering a new opportunity to ordinary people to take responsibility for their situation and not depend on finding fault with everyone else. This was the voice that made sense to Jesus. This is why the story of John is so important, and why the writers of Luke’s Gospel spend so much space in telling us about his background.
John represents the most genuine tradition of Judaism. The son of a priest who behaved as a prophet, John was the answer to the Early Church’s very natural question, “How did our movement start?”
Jesus did not start off in a vacuum. He did not create his movement out of nothing. He worked with what was already there. And, John is also the answer to the continuing question which should face the Church in every time and place, “How do we begin?” – what do we look for as we try to get the Christian movement going in the new generations of this town. And the answer to that question is, we look for the figure of John. We look for someone, or a group of people who are already deeply rooted in the traditions of the context in which we seek to practice our faith, but who are willing to stand on the edge and take risks for us all.
In our Gospel reading this morning we are confronted by John, out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
And here in St Paul’s we are confronted by three types of John-like figures who have been ordained in the Church of God for ministry here in Murrurundi. When we ask the question, ‘how do we begin?” our answer will almost certainly be interlinked with Wendy and Barbara and Peter, with Marie (the lay member of our team). Wendy and Barbara and Peter have been set apart by the Church, for the Church as Priests, not simply to look after those of us who are already here, and to ‘keep the show on the road’ but to be the catalysts for new beginnings here. And as they celebrate the Eucharist amongst us for the first time this morning, we give thanks for the faithfulness which has brought them to this point.
Everything has to start somewhere. The realization that Jesus will be born begins with the experience of John being conceived. The ministry of Jesus himself, is foreshadowed by the ministry of John. We build on the strong foundations of the faithful priests of this Church over many years. And we start a new beginning here this morning.