Reading: Luke 1:5-25
The first thought I had when I looked at this passage was: “The gospels always start with John the Baptist;” so, I decided to look through old sermons and I saw that I focused on that about a year ago. Reading my old sermon, I see that I observed that John’s life has some parallels to Jesus’ life, and thus we get hints about where the Jesus story is going by remembering John’s story. I also quoted my fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom, who pointed out that you can’t have a completely original teacher, somebody needs to say it first; as she said: “Standing on your own is suspect, even today.”
I think that this is important enough to mention again; we need John, because without John we wouldn’t be ready to hear Jesus. We not only needed John, but we also needed the law, and generations of prophets who interpreted the law. God had been working in the world for hundreds of generations before the time was right for Jesus; God not only sent John, but God also sent Moses and Isaiah and others.
This is one thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about this year — how there are a number of tropes in scripture. When we were going through Genesis, we heard similar stories told generation after generation. Abraham called his wife sister, and his son Isaac did the same with Rebekah. Abraham favored Isaac, Isaac favored Esau while Rebekah favored Jacob, and Jacob favored Joseph over all his other sons. Brothers fought; Cain and Abel fought, Esau and Jacob fought, and Joseph and his brothers fought.
The trope I see here that is repeated in scripture is the story of a woman who has given up on the hope of having a child. We see this happening with Sarah. Sarah goes so far as to try to get a son through her servant Hagar. Rachel, when she can’t have a child tries to get one through Bilhah, of course, another woman having a child really isn’t a successful strategy, and it is not the strategy that Elizabeth used.
There are a number of women in scripture who were concerned that they didn’t have children, and either prayed for a child or just gave up on the possibility. Isaac prayed that Rebekah would have children, because she had none — and Rebekah had twins. Manoah’s wife was barren, and an angel Manoah and his wife and told them that they would have a son — that son’s name would be Sampson. Hannah prayed for years that she would have a son — her prayers eventually became so desperate that she was thrown out of the place of worship for being drunk, but she shared with the priest Eli why she was praying and he blessed her saying: “may God grant you what you asked.” She gave birth to the prophet Samuel, the prophet who anointed both king Saul and King David. There are a number of miracle babies throughout scripture. Elizabeth and Zechariah were one of many who had a miracle baby.
Why is there a trope of miracle babies? In the case of Abraham, he needed a miracle because without one, everything that he had and worked for would go to one of his employees and his family line would die with him. With everything that was promised, and apparently everything that was expected of him (Abram, meaning exalted father, implies that something was expected of him); clearly a miracle was needed. In the case of Rebekah, Isaac prayed on behalf of his wife. In the case of Manoah and his wife, Sampson was a bit of a savior to the people of Israel — he saved them from the Philistines. In the case of Hannah, her son was one of the greatest prophets — the prophet who made messiah-kings; the prophet who created David’s royal line.
One reason for this is that having babies is important, especially in ancient societies. Even ordinary farmers with a bit of land and migrant herdsmen need somebody who will inherit and take on the work. There is a sense that through children, our place in the world is bigger than ourselves and the world will grow.
Another reason is as simple as shame. Women were expected to marry and have children. When things don’t go as expected – especially when it is an expectation of society, people do suffer shame. Unfortunately, it can go beyond personal shame, people say things. I once spoke with a woman who miscarried, and the idea of where to place blame came up. Even though there was nobody to blame, it is how we often react when things don’t go as expected.
In a case such as Elizabeth and Zechariah, there was another thing that was a bit significant. Zechariah was a temple priest; he served in the Holy place. You know that priests are Levites, and the inheritance of the Levites is positions between the religious and government bureaucracies. Priests were not just Levites — they were a single family within the Levite tribe. Not having a child meant that Zechariah would know that when he retired from his position, it would be given to a nephew or a younger cousin. His name would never be mentioned when people listed their male ancestors from their father all the way to Aaron the brother of Moses.
With all these social pressures, it is no doubt that Elizabeth would be absolutely devastated when she admitted to herself that there would be no son. But, like all these other stories, before there is a miracle baby, an angel makes a special visit — in this case Gabriel appears to Zechariah. When Elizabeth is pregnant, she says: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25 NRSV)
The older story that this is most similar to is that of Hannah, where the priest Eli blesses her at the place of worship, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. It is similar, not only because it included a message from God at a place of worship, but because John and Samuel are similar. Samuel is special, because it is Samuel who creates the monarchy, and establishes David as king. Samuel is the man who introduces David to the world. John is special, because he preaches the gospel of repentance before Jesus appears on the scene — John baptizes Jesus and announces what Jesus is to the world.
The most important thing though is that David and Jesus established a kingdom; a kingdom that is supposed to be something different, something righteous. A kingdom where the people try to follow God’s law, and are governed by God’s principles. David’s kingdom of course failed in many ways; he is honored because he built something great, but he didn’t quite live up to the standard of Righteousness found in the Torah. David’s descendants, with a precious few exceptions didn’t even try. For all the good intentions to for a nation where God is God, and the people live in righteousness, Judah and Israel became very much kingdoms of the Earth.
Jesus said that he was here to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven, or in some passages the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ kingdom is different — it is not one of the Earthly kingdoms ruled by corruptible human leaders. One thing that I’ve learned from history is that theocracies don’t seem to go well. They start with good intentions, but eventually someone who abuses power gains power. What started as a light shining in the darkness becomes just as dark as everything around it. God’s kingdom is different — it isn’t a kingdom of the world, and it won’t become a kingdom of the world. Samuel introduced a king that would produce a dynasty lasting for about four centuries, but John introduces a King who’s rein lasts for eternity.
Matthew 3:2 has the adult John saying: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John preaches that God will overthrow the current systems, and that there is one that will baptize with the Holy Spirit — and then John baptizes Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is as near as Jesus is. This is the good news that starts with John’s message — the kingdom of Heaven is coming, and it came with Jesus and through Jesus we are given a place in the eternal kingdom. This message starts with Zechariah in the temple meeting an angel who tells him about his miracle baby.