John the Baptist
“Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” Luke 1:64
You might be wondering why John the Baptist has shown up in June. We’re used to meeting up with him during Advent, that season leading up to Christmas in which we usually find him shouting about preparing the way for his cousin Jesus. He comes back to us each January when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where John does the honors in the Jordan River. We remember John as a colorful figure – dressed in camel’s hair, dining on locusts and wild honey, and yelling at anyone who would listen.
The images of adult John are so dramatic that it’s easy to forget he was once a baby. And like all babies, there’s a story surrounding his birth.
To get us ready for John’s origin story, I want you think back to a time when you lost your voice – from a cold, from laryngitis, from yelling too loudly for your favorite team. It’s frustrating not to be able to speak, isn’t it? I remember a Sunday morning here when I had no voice. I could basically only squeak out the words of institution during Holy Communion and had to delegate the rest. Poor Bill Fallon was the Assisting Minister and had to read my sermon. (Thank you again, Bill!) I remember how frustrating it felt not to be able to use my voice. On every other Sunday I had taken my voice for granted.
John’s parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth. We learn much earlier in the first chapter of Luke that Zechariah was a priest. Elizabeth also came from a priestly family and was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old, and they had given up any hope of having a child. But one day Zechariah is chosen as the priest who will enter a special part of the temple and offer incense to the Lord. He does so faithfully, but while he’s there, an angel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will soon have a son, a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will point many people to the Lord. Zechariah is (understandably) terrified and overwhelmed. He asks some questions about this surprising news, and in return he loses his voice. He’s told that his voice will return only when the angel’s words have been fulfilled.
So one thing that we learn from the story of John’s birth is that sometimes being forced into silence can help us listen more deeply. Zechariah had a long time to ponder the predictions of that angel, to wonder what God had in store for the baby boy he still couldn’t quite believe was on its way, to prepare for the role of father – a role he never expected to have.
Sometimes silence makes space for someone else’s story to emerge. When I think of anything that I’ve truly come to understand in a different way, the times I have changed my mind about something important – those times were always shaped by the stories of people whose lives and experiences were completely different from mine. I needed to stop talking long enough to hear them.
Fast forward nine months or so, and we find ourselves picking up with today’s gospel. The baby arrives, much to the delight of his parents and all their friends and relatives. Eight days later they take him to the temple for his circumcision, fully intending to name the baby after his father. But Zechariah, still mute, grabs a tablet and writes, “His name is John.”
At that moment Zechariah is suddenly able to speak, which generates both fear and curiosity among the neighbors. What will this child become? they wonder.
Once Zechariah starts talking, he doesn’t hold back. He speaks of God’s story of salvation, the story of a God who keeps promises, including the promise to send a savior to rescue the people from despair and death. Listen to the power of his words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah knows his baby boy will grow up to be a part of that story, pointing people toward the promised arrival of the Savior. Maybe all parents imagine that their children will grow up to do amazing things. In this case Zechariah was absolutely right.
Silence has its power, but so does speech. The force of Zechariah’s words pushes me to consider how often I hold back when something needs to be said. We’ve all done it. We hesitate to tell people we’re Christian because we know the assumptions people will make about us. We see or hear something awful, but we choose not to challenge it because we fear the conflict that might result. We forget that God gives us both the gift of silence and the gift of words. Both can be used to bear witness to our faith.
Most of us won’t have the opportunity to deliver a barn-burner of a speech the way Zechariah does. But there will be many smaller moments that are just as powerful. Maybe your kid asks you a question at bedtime, and you’re not sure how to answer, but you try anyway. Maybe a friend or family member is trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world. Listen to their struggles, and share your own – including the challenges of approaching this crazy life as a follower of Jesus. These ways of using our voices may not seem significant, but they are. They are the holy ground on which we stand as we continue to grow and to learn.
One of my favorite podcasts has a weekly feature in which listeners call in to share the best thing that happened to them all week.
- My husband and I found out that we’re expecting our first child.
- United Airlines found the Kindle that I left on a plane last month and sent it back to me.
- I was able to celebrate my father’s 89thbirthday in Cleveland, Ohio with all three of my brothers who are scattered all over the country.
- I found the first black raspberry of the season.
- My dad came home from the hospital with a brand new lung after transplant surgery.
The best thing that happened to me this week was taking my 2½ year old on a bus ride. It was so much fun to sit beside him on the bus and have him sit up top and look at all the things below and get excited at everything he saw. Ooh. Mail truck! Ooh! Another bus! Ooh! A dog!…It was just so much fun to spend a few minutes seeing the world through his eyes, and it reminded me that I need to do it more often.
Hearing about Savitha’s time with her little boy made me smile. And this week it made me wonder why we’re so hesitant to talk about our faith. We often refer to the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the good news. But it’s not just the good news. It’s the best news. It’s the best thing that’s happened to us this week and every week. And yet we hold back, we hesitate, we get scared.
Savitha’s little boy pointed her attention toward things she probably wouldn’t have noticed that day. John grew up and pointed people’s attention toward Jesus, begging them not to overlook this Savior who was right there with them.
Does our salvation depend upon pointing others to Jesus? No. That salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus. But we can still introduce people to Jesus.
May we, like Zechariah, find our mouths opened and our tongues freed to share this good news, this best news, this light that comes to those who sit in darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ