57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 The neighbours were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and has redeemed His people. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David 70 (as He said through His holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us - 72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, 73 the oath He swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve Him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days. 76 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, 77 to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.
The man we know as John the Baptist is best known (and for very good reason) as the man who baptised Jesus just before Jesus began His public ministry. As a result of this we tend to miss the significance of the timing of John’s birth in relation to that of Jesus, particularly when we take into account the mission that God gave to John. John’s mother Elizabeth was pregnant when the angel Gabriel gave Mary the amazing news that she too was to have a child. Last week we touched on the perfect timing of God’s eternal plan of salvation, and here we see it again. John’s mission in life was far more than merely being the man who was to baptise Jesus – he was to proclaim the coming King, and prepare the way for the promised Messiah. Before Gabriel appeared to Mary, he appeared to John’s father Zechariah, and told him these words in Luke 1:17 – “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.”
John is a pivotal personality in the Christmas story. When Gabriel gave Zechariah the news that his wife Elizabeth was to have a child, he didn’t believe him because both he and Elizabeth were too old to have children. So Gabriel told Zechariah, “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.” (Luke 1:20) Yet again – at the proper time.
Zechariah would have understood the words of Ecclesiastes 3:7 very well: there is a time to be silent and a time to speak. He had no choice – he was silent until the Lord opened his mouth once more, but for us, we need wisdom to know the difference. We need the Lord’s wisdom to know when and how to share the love of Christ, and sometimes actions do speak louder than words. As we grow in our faith, He will teach us what to say and just as importantly, when. So Zechariah was silent until the birth of his son, and the first words he was able to speak were the words of God as he prophesied over his newborn son.
John was to be the Saviour’s forerunner and herald, and Zechariah’s words speak very clearly of not only John’s mission in life, but also the mission of Jesus. The Messiah had been promised and prophesied for many years and how and when this was to happen was shrouded in mystery, but now, as the first Christmas approached, the how and the where of God’s plan of salvation was becoming clearer.
The first thing we learn about John is that he was sent by God. “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.”
Even before he was conceived God had planned his life’s mission. He would be called a prophet of the Most High, and he was to prepare God’s people for the coming Messiah. John had a very clear understanding of who he was, and what his mission and purpose was to be. Later on in John 1 he is asked, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
The very next day when Jesus came to be baptised, he said, pointing at Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.” (John 1:29-31)
John was very clear in his mind as to who he was and what God intended for his life. Each of us were created by God, and if He has yet to open your heart to the real purpose of your life, then keep asking Him, and when the time is right, He will tell you. The key is to ask.
There is also something very important in John’s words. He said “I myself did not know Him.” We’re told in Luke 1 that Elizabeth and Mary were related to each other. The KJV says they were cousins. That meant that Jesus and John were cousins. John knew Jesus from his childhood. We know very little of Jesus’ childhood, but its quite possible that He and John played together as children. They were after all, born only a few months apart, but it wasn’t until God’s appointed time that John understood just who his cousin really was. All over the world there are people who know about Jesus, but it is only by the Spirit and in God’s perfect time, that eyes are opened to see Jesus for who He really is: The promised Messiah, and the Saviour of the world.
When John’s eyes were finally opened, he understood his task much more clearly – he was to point people to Jesus, and in obedience to God, this is precisely what he did.
Last Sunday we looked at the exclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus. Some people believe that because God loves us we’re all going to heaven when we die, but that is not what the Bible teaches us. Remember, it is the blood of Christ that redeems us. God’s love is the reason or the motive for the atoning death of Jesus, but what clinches our salvation is our belief in the power of the blood of Christ. Forgiveness comes when we turn to God in faith, and as we grow in faith, so we grow in knowledge and understanding of God and His plan of salvation. In Zechariah’s prophecy he says something very important – he says that God will “give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”
Forgiveness from God and the salvation that comes from Him is not only something we believe in by faith. It is something we can learn to know and understand. Of course, complete understanding will only come in eternity, but the point is this: We have the hope of salvation, and we can know that hope. Not a hope so, wishful thinking kind of hope, but an assurance that grows as we mature in our faith. The apostle Paul prays in Ephesians 1, “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better.” And as we spend time in the Bible the mystery of just what God does for us begins to take shape and make more sense to us. Someone once said that the way we understand salvation is tri-dimensional. When we turn to Christ and receive Him, we are saved from the penalty of sin. As we mature in our faith we are increasingly saved from the power of sin. And ultimately, in Heaven, we will be saved from the presence of sin. But the key to all of this is, have you trusted Christ to save you and have you experienced that initial forgiveness of sin? This is God’s intention for each one of us. Even though we have rebelled against Him and rejected Him, God still has a plan of salvation in place. That’s the good news. And He has sent people like John the Baptist to proclaim this hope. That is what the Church is to do today as well: Proclaim the hope we have in Christ.
So the question is, why would God do all of this in the first place? Why has He called and sent people like John? Why is it that God would do anything at all other than bring the judgment on us that we deserve?
Or to put it another way, what is the real message of Christmas? Why did God take on frail human flesh and suffer and die for us? The best answer to all of these questions is the best known verse in the entire Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The one characteristic of God that is repeated over and over throughout the Scriptures is that He is first and foremost, a God of love.
Zechariah speaks of His ‘tender mercy’. God’s mercy and compassion is at the very heart of God. Despite all we have done and all we continue to do to deserve His wrath, His love, mercy, grace and compassion for us has never changed. The reason that God would do all He has done to secure our salvation is that He is a merciful God with a tender heart, who loves us with an unending, measureless love. Its no wonder that Jesus said in Matthew 11, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” In Matthew 23 you can almost sense His heart breaking as He says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” He loves us so much, and His heart breaks for those who are not willing to hear. But, just like John the Baptist, we must not give up telling them. We must not stop loving others with the love of Christ. Our task is to keep telling the world the message of Jesus. Keep preparing the way.
When God called the prophet Ezekiel to preach to the Israelite nation that had abandoned Him, He said, “I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen - for they are a rebellious house - they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you.” (Ezekiel 2:3-8)
In other words, they will not listen, but tell them anyway. People resisted Ezekiel’s message, they resisted John’s message and the messages of countless prophets through the ages. And there are some who will resist your message too. But we cannot give up. We must continue to proclaim the coming of the King and the Saviour of the Universe. That is what the Church’s mission is today – to point people to Christ.
God Himself came into this dark world to bring us the message of peace and hope. In the words of Zechariah’s prophecy, “Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” That is the message of Christmas. The non-believing world tries to disguise that truth and has its own solution to the darkness by putting up pretty flashing lights and tinsel every year, but by mid-January those lights are hidden away in a cardboard box until the following year, and nothing ever changes. Despite the Merry Xmas and Happy Holiday wishes, the world without Christ stays in the darkness. But the true light of the world, Jesus Christ and His Church will never go out. That is the message of hope we bring.
John’s message to the world is that God will take the initiative and become one of us. He will shine His light in the darkness and on those who live in the shadow of death.
All of this is part of God’s eternal master plan of salvation, and He wants each of us to experience His peace.
Remember that Zechariah’s prophetic message at the birth of his own son came even before Jesus was born, and this teaches us three things about what God has in mind for you:
Firstly, God knows you. If He knew John before he was born, then He knew you. Psalm 139 says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” He knows everything about you. He knows your strengths, weaknesses, flaws, hurts, and fears. He knows you!
Secondly, God loves you. God is love, and the object of God’s love is you. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for you. Jesus Himself said in John 15, “Greater love has no one than this, that He lay down His life for His friends.” The Cross of Calvary is the ultimate demonstration of the depth of God’s love for you.
And thirdly, this God who knows you and loves you has a purpose for you. You are not an accident. You are not insignificant. God has a plan for you and for your life. He wants you to be saved. He wants you to have your sins forgiven. He wants to do for you what He has done for so many others. He wants to deliver you out of darkness. He wants you to experience His peace.
And once you have experienced and begun to understand all of these things, you will grow in grace and in the knowledge of God, and as you do that, you will understand that His desire for you is exactly the same as it was for John the Baptist and every other believer in Jesus Christ: To proclaim “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”