Luke 1:13 “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.’”
Some have the impression miracles and angels appeared all over the place in Bible days. But no one was more shocked to be visited by an angel than Zechariah. He lived at the end of what has been called the 400 silent years. It had been 400 years since the Lord had even sent his people a prophet. No doubt Zechariah believed in angels, but this sort of thing just didn’t happen anymore. Yet here he was, standing face to face with an angel!
That unexpected messenger had an unexpected announcement. This elderly couple were going to become parents for the first time. And their son would be no ordinary child. “He will be a joy and delight to you and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth” (Luke 1:14-15). We hear that God is gracious to us and loves us. But to call a man great sets this man apart. The command that Zechariah’s son not drink alcoholic beverages indicates he was to live his life under the Old Testament Nazirite vow. His life was dedicated to God’s service in a special way. That this child was under the influence of God and empowered for great things by his Spirit would be obvious from the time he was born. Proud parents hope for their children to do great things. Christian parents hope for their children to grow up faithful workers in God’s kingdom. But Zechariah had hit the jackpot!
This other-worldly birth announcement is for our benefit, too. During this Advent season the Sunday gospel lessons direct our attention to John the Baptist’s ministry. So do many of the hymns we sing. Listen carefully! John the Baptist preached in a style that doesn’t play well on main street today. It’s sharp. It bites. It’s urgent. It demands a response. But no prophet ever spoke with a clearer commission from God himself. If John’s own message doesn’t make us sit up and pay attention to the Baptist’s words, then let the angel Gabriel’s announcement convince us this is a man we dare not ignore.
But why is it so important for us to hear this message? No prophet ever spoke with such promise. “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 116-17). A godly man like Zechariah could not have missed the angel allusion to the very last words of the Old Testament spoken 400 years earlier (Malachi 4:5-6). They announced that Zechariah’s son would be a new Elijah sent to prepare God’s people for the imminent appearance of their Savior.
God’s people desperately needed that preparation. To a godly man like Zechariah this might have been obvious. To much of his nation, such an idea might have seemed strange. The religious establishment felt that they were on top of the situation. This was a rare period in Israel’s history in which the people were not worshiping all sorts of strange foreign gods. Immorality was held in check. Public sinners were not accepted, applauded, and imitated. They were identified and avoided. On the surface it looked as though God’s people were doing the right things.
But their religion had become an empty shell. People were doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Zechariah’s son John was coming to make the people aware of the problem with their empty hearts. He was coming to turn those hearts to a Savior who would fill them with his forgiveness and grace, and to the life of love that that forgiveness and grace produce.
Have you looked at your December calendar and heaved a big sigh at the heavy load of activity this month? Even when it’s full of church events, that very busyness can make it hard for us to keep our eyes and hearts turned toward Christ. We, too, need a voice calling with the spirit and power of Elijah to turn our hearts from all the worldliness and externals of this season, and to rest those hearts in the grace and forgiveness of the Savior whose coming we celebrate.