Luke 1:14-17 “He (John the Baptist) 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. 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.”
How many ways could the Lord impress on Zechariah (and us) that his son John was going to be no ordinary boy? He would bring joy to people far beyond his family. He would be great in the sight of the Lord. Now that’s an impressive statement. How often do you find God giving a man such unqualified praise? We hear that God is gracious to us and loves us. But to call a man great sets him apart. 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. Zechariah had obviously hit the jackpot!
Did the angel make this extraordinary announcement just to build up a proud papa? No, these words are for our benefit, too. During this Advent season, we spend a great deal of time hearing about John the Baptist’s ministry in the gospel lessons and singing about it in our hymns. 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. No prophet ever spoke with a clearer commission from God himself. If the message itself doesn’t make us sit up and pay attention to John’s words, then let the angel Gabriel convince us that this is a man we dare not ignore.
But why? Why is it so important that we 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.” A godly man like Zechariah could not have missed the angel’s reference. He was quoting the very last words of the Old Testament. Zechariah’s son John would be a new Elijah, sent to prepare God’s people for their Savior to come immediately.
God’s people desperately needed that preparation. The religious establishment of that day 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. It looked on the surface 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. John was coming to make the people aware of the problem with their empty hearts. He was coming to turn their hearts to a Savior who would fill them with his forgiveness and grace, and lead them to a life of love.
Have you looked at your December calendar and heaved a heavy sigh at the load of activity this month? Even when its 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. Let’s rest our hearts in the grace and forgiveness of the Savior whose coming we celebrate.