Thursday, December 17, 2009
Who is this John the Baptist? Part I
For that last two weeks we have heard readings from John the Baptist so it leads to the question:
So who is this John the Baptist?
Who was this wild man who had a hair shirt and ate locusts and wild honey? Before he had his head delivered on a platter, who was he?
The short of it is that John the Baptist was the precursor to Jesus. The Old Testament prophets promised a savior. And they also prophesied that before the Savior would be the one to prepare the way of the Lord - that was John.
To fully understand the significance of John, we do need to go back - back to John's parents - to Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well known as holy people. Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron so both were of the priestly line and occupied the highest rung of Jewish society. But although they both were righteous people that served God, they were never blessed with children.
While today childless couples are common, in the Biblical time this was a great misfortune and sometimes interpreted as punishment for some type of sin. The people liked and respected them but there was also an air of disgrace because they didn't have children.
So you can imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth felt. Here they were a righteous couple, serving God and yet God withheld his blessing. What's up with that? But the inspiring part for all that knew them was that their faith never wavered. Even as they advanced in years and hope for any children passed - they continued to serve and lead holy lives.
One day Zechariah was on duty, offering incense in the temple while worshipers prayed outside.
The Jewish tradition from Moses had three distinct areas for the temple. The Outer Court, the Holy Place, and the Holiest of Holies which held the tabernacle and was God's room. Only the priest on duty, chosen by lot, to offer incense was allowed in the Holiest of Holies which was separated by fine linen curtains that were blue, purple, or scarlet and was the veil between the Holy Place and the Holiest of Holies and for the entrance of the tabernacle.
Zechariah had performed this ritual a lot and he was always alone. Just him and God. And while he was a holy man, he never thought that he would ever see an angel. So we can all understand why he was gripped by fear when he came face to face with not just an angel but Saint Gabriel the Archangel.
As he approached the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared beside the altar of incense. Gabriel told Zechariah, “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. 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...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 1:11-17)
Well this would be a shocker for anyone. So, all of us can understand when Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
After all, when God visited Abraham and Sarah and told Abraham that they would have a child - Sarah laughed. They were old too - it's a human reaction.
Well, while we are human, I recommend that if an angel ever visits you with a message from God - asking for proof might not be such a good idea. Apparently, as cool as angels look with the whole wing-things, they can be a little cranky when we question their authority.
How do we know this? Let's look at Gabriel's reaction to Zechariah's skepticism.
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Z-man does not even get a chance to squeak out an apology. All he can do is stumble out of the temple where everyone has been waiting and wondering what has taken him so long. They figure it out when poor Z can't speak and can only make signs to them. I can almost picture it... "One word, starts with a...? Z, stop waving your arms, I can't understand you! Let's start over, is it a movie, or a book?...OK, one word...wings...dude, you need to stop waving your arms!"
So after his service, Zechariah returned home and sure enough Elizabeth became pregnant and as was the custom, went into seclusion for 5 months. While most of us don't know what it would be like for our spouse to be quiet for 5 months, we do know that Elizabeth was happy anyway (or because of...? Nah, couldn't be!). She said, "The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."
Interestingly, at the sixth month, the same Gabriel also visited Mary and told her that she was blessed and would have Jesus (much more on this another time but this post is about John). Please note that Mary didn't ask for proof! Smart girl, she was not full of divine grace for nothing.
The Bible emphasis that John and Jesus were even more special when Mary visited Elizabeth. John leaped in Elizabeth's womb when Mary approached with Jesus in her womb! That certainly doesn't happen everyday and it only emphasized that there was something definitely special about these two and they were linked.
Finally, John was born. Z and Liz's friends visited and wanted to name the child after his Dad. Liz told them that he was supposed to be called John but that didn't make any sense because no one in their family was named John. That's just not how it was done. So the friends started arguing with Liz when Z finally spoke up and said, "His name is John."
Well, they knew there were going to be special things for John after that. After all a man does not break his silence after 9 months for nothing. I can tell you that it's tough sometimes holding your tongue for 2 minutes!
We don't know much more about John after that. We know that he brought much joy and that there were high hopes for him. After having such prominent parents, such an extraordinary circumstance of his birth, John was going places. Definitely a priest like his Dad, maybe even a high priest! You can only imagine then the commotion when John decided to dump all of that and become a prophet of old. Wild clothes, wild hair, wild message.
The wild message of repentance.
And so John became the voice in the wilderness. Preaching a message of repentance and preparing the way for the Lord.
What does that mean for you and me? On one hand, perhaps nothing. Frankly, most of us are not going to have such an extraordinary story. God willing, we will have find our love, get married, have children and try to raise them the best that we can.
It's nothing like what happened to John. Or is it?
Isn't that what really happened to Z and Liz? During the Bible's pause, John was raised by his parents. He learned from his parent's teachings. Saw how they lived their lives and absorbed it all.
John might not have followed the path of what others expected for him but because he went his own way he became John the Baptist and achieved the 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."
God did not select Z and Liz to have John by accident. They were selected because God knew that they would fill in the gaps.
If you have children, you were not selected by accident either. God has plans for your children and for you. With God's help, we can fill in the gaps too and help our children achieve whatever plan God has for them.
They might not be our plans. Hopefully, they won't wind up eating locusts and wild honey but as long as they lead righteous lives, it might be OK that their hair is a little longer than we like, or in a different color than we would choose.
And if you don't have children, God has a special plan for you too.
Whatever it is, we need to open to God's plan and accept His will rather than try to impose our own.
Oh, and remember - don't ask Angels for proof!
As for John, there's more - but that's going to be another post.