13 December 2009
Readings: Zeph 3:14-end, Luke 1:57-66
May I speak in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may have noticed that we have a nativity coming up – we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in less than two weeks.
In fact, almost unbelievably, in two weeks time all the frenetic activity of Advent will be over and we will be able to enjoy the season of Christmas. It is perhaps slightly ironic that Christmas seems to be celebrated during the whole of December when we are supposed to be preparing ourselves of the coming of Jesus and then it stops on Boxing Day when the real season of Christmas is beginning and everyone goes to the sales and starts looking forward to the New Year. But I have to be careful not to start sounding like a Grumpy Old Man and that is not really what I want to think about this evening.
As we know Jesus of Nazareth had a forerunner – John the Baptist. During Jesus’ adult life John called the people to repentance and baptism and prepared the way for the coming messiah. John’s own ministry reached its apex when he baptised Jesus in the River Jordan, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and the voice of God the Father declared: “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” From that moment Jesus’ ministry started in earnest and John’s ministry declined until he was imprisoned and beheaded by King Herod.
But the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist started well before they reached adulthood. The first chapter of the Gospel of Luke reminds us not only that Jesus and John were related on their mother’s sides but that John’s nativity was no less miraculous in many ways than Jesus’. It could be said that John prepared the way for Jesus from before the moment even of his birth.
John’s parents were Elizabeth and Zechariah. In contrast to Joseph the carpenter Zechariah was a member of the priestly caste who served at the temple in Jerusalem and, in contrast to the young and virginal Mary, Elizabeth was well advanced in years and was unable to conceive. Being unable to have children when you want to have children is a tragedy at any time and Elizabeth felt that she was a disgrace among her people.
Whilst Zechariah was serving in the temple he was chosen by lot from among the priests to go and burn incense before the lord. Just as an aside I have to say that I love incense in church and when people tell me that it is not biblical I enjoy reminding them of all the places throughout the bible when incense is brought before God, not only in the Old Testament but also when the wise men who brought frankincense to Jesus himself and even in the book of revelation when the prayers of the saints are described as rising like incense before God. But I digress.
Whilst Zechariah was burning incense in the temple the angel Gabriel appeared. This was some six months before Gabriel appeared to Mary in Nazareth. Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would have a son, that they should call him John and that John would be great in the sight of the Lord. Like Mary Zechariah was at first afraid when Gabriel appeared and that is a useful reminder that Angels are not primary school children in white dresses but were an awesome sight – if a messenger of the Lord appeared in our midst right now I have no doubt that our reaction would also be one of fear.
But whilst Zechariah and Mary were both initially afraid of Gabriel their reactions to the news of the impending nativities of John and Jesus were very different. As we know Mary said “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said” and she totally accepted God’s plan for her life whereas, once he had got over his fear, Zechariah was rather more sceptical of the news and he said: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” It is a useful corrective for me at least to see a priest being much more resistant to the will of God than a simple young girl.
Mary was blessed for her reaction of faith but Zechariah was struck dumb because of his scepticism. One can’t help thinking that if God struck all sceptics dumb we would be living in a much quieter world than we do at present.
As Gabriel promised, Elizabeth conceived. In her sixth month her young relative Mary paid her a visit, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, the baby John leapt within her, and Elizabeth cried out in the words that have since become part of the rosary prayer:
“Blessed are you among woman and blessed is the fruit of your womb”
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for some three months and one can only imagine the pair of them during that time – the young girl and the older lady neither of whom would have been pregnant in the normal course of events but both of whom were playing a part in a much larger drama, God’s drama to reconcile a fallen world to himself.
After three months Mary returned home to Nazereth and we next encounter her and Joseph when they set out for Jerusalem, in the events of the nativity that we will be celebrating soon.
But in the meantime John continues to pave the way for Jesus as his nativity comes first in the reading we had this evening. Elizabeth was full of joy at the birth of her son and her neighbours and relatives shared in her joy and in the fact that God has blessed her with a child. It is a much less pastoral scene than the manger in Bethlehem but, in many ways, it is a birth scene with which we can relate much more easily.
Finally there is the family tiff over what to call this new and miraculous baby. The family want to call him Zechariah after his father and this is obviously a traditional family name for them. However Elizabeth is adamant that the Angel Gabriel’s instructions are to be followed and that his child is to be called John. To us John sounds like a much more prosaic name than Zechariah (and I am allowed to say that because my middle name is John and my father and grandfather were both called John) but in Hebrew the name is Yehohanan which means Yahweh or God has shown favour.
The family would not take Elizabeth’s word for the name of the baby so they appealed to Zechariah, who was still unable to speak at this point. Zechariah wrote on a tablet: His name is John and at that moment of obedience to both God and his wife Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and his response was to burst into song, the song of Zechariah, which we use every morning in morning prayer – he sings to his new born son:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins.”
This Christmas we will be saturated with images of Mary, Jospeh and the baby Jesus in the manger. Of course that is right and proper because that is what Christmas is all about. But it is also interesting to remember this alternate Holy Family of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John. Although they were related these families were quite different and yet God made both of those families holy ultimately because they were willing to say yes to his purposes and allow the future to unfold without trying to contain or control what God wanted to achieve.
I am sure that there is a lesson we can all learn from that.