By Steven Norris
What is it like to have speech restored after a prolonged period of complete silence? A few years back, a medical issue required that I undergo extensive jaw surgery. For weeks, I could talk only with very careful and laborious effort. This experience is the closest I think I’ve ever come to walking in the shoes of Zechariah.
As Luke’s Gospel opens, Zechariah is serving in the temple when he receives a visit from an angelic messenger announcing the birth of a child. Since his wife Elizabeth is advanced beyond child-bearing years, Zechariah expresses doubt at this celestial message, a doubt that renders him unable to speak until the child’s birth.
When Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, he proceeds to name the child John and breaks forth into prophetic song — the second “Christmas song” found in Luke’s Gospel. It is known as the “Benedictus” because of its opening words, “Blessed be…” I would encourage you to read through the song in its entirety if you have the ability to do so (Luke 1:67-80).
Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit” as he sang. The Spirit-inspired words demonstrate continuity between God’s promises scattered throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and their fulfillment in Jesus. Zechariah appeals to God’s first covenant with Abraham, God’s covenant with King David, and God’s mighty act of deliverance in the Exodus. These promises pointed beyond their historical context to the coming deliverer who revealed (and continues to reveal) God’s saving power.
John’s role is to prepare the way for the Advent (coming) of the Lord. Zechariah expresses this coming in metaphoric language, describing the rising of the sun to bring light in the darkness. Such an Advent, however, required repentance and preparation.
Commentator, Scott Hoezee, describes John’s role this way: “If Jesus was the one who would plant the mustard seed of the kingdom into the soil of this world, then John was to be the one who did the hard work of plowing the soil to get ready for that planting. John would be the one who would sink down his plow blade into human hearts that were the spiritual equivalent of a parched field whose dirt had long ago hardened into something resembling concrete. If Jesus was God’s divine Visitor to this world, then John was the one who was sent to prepare the way.”
Too often, our celebrations of Christmas jump right to the baby in the manger without letting John the Baptist come first. We want to welcome the sweetness of a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, but we don’t want to do difficult work of repentance, confession, and cleaning out the recesses of our hearts.
We would panic if guests started showing up for a Christmas party before we had the time to properly clean, bake, and decorate our homes. And yet, we want Jesus to visit us without first letting John the Baptist clean house, as God sent him to do. May the Benedictus of Zechariah remind us of the hard work of Advent — our task is to prepare the soil of our own hearts to receive Christ once again.