John the Baptist, An Almost Familiar Story

November 28, 2010

It is a familiar story for this time of year. A heavenly messenger, a miraculous birth, a normal childhood a short ministry preaching to people who loved his message and hated his message and then an untimely death at the hands of the authorities he had offended.
Most people could fill in the missing details if they were asked and they would be wrong. They would talk about shepherds and wise men, heavenly choirs and stables and little animals, drummer boys and stars and flying reindeer. But none of those were part of the story. I know that you are thinking, “Well maybe not the drummer boy and the flying reindeer but the rest were.” Nope, the problem is that the story is familiar but only because it mirrors another story.
At this time of the year we are all too familiar with the Christmas story and all that goes with it, and most of us can parrot back the details both the details that are biblical and extra biblical. Wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations are facts and legends, poems and songs. And that is why Christians, both committed and nominal will celebrate around the world in less than a month. And even those who would never darken the door of a church 364 days out of the year will take time to at least tip their hats to the birth of Christ.
But the story didn’t start when the Angel appeared to Mary, no the story began half a year earlier and 100 kms away.
Before the angel appeared to Mary and Joseph he had already appeared in Jerusalem to a man named Zechariah to announce the birth of a boy who would be named John. Part of the story was read for us earlier and this morning we are going to look at the tale of Jesus’ older cousin John, because the story of Jesus would never be complete without the story of John.
Many people feel that there is so much detail in the book of Luke about what happened prior to the birth of Christ that it could only have come from one source and that was Mary, and so the feeling is that what we hearing in Luke’s account is a firsthand view of the miraculous.
So let’s begin our journey where our Journey should begin, at the beginning. Historically we are at the end of four hundred years of silence in the Story of Israel. The last recorded words from one of God’s prophets had been written in the book of Malachi and the people of Israel have been waiting to be delivered from the various occupiers of their country.
Luke 1:5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. The Parents of John: Interestingly enough the Elizabeth who is mentioned here is actually a relative of Mary’s. Earlier I called John a cousin because I didn’t know what else to call him. And that’s what he would have been called in those extended families, when you can’t think of anything else to call someone who is kin you call them your cousin. You know if they aren’t your brother or sister, niece or nephew then they have to be your cousin.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary at beginning of the Christmas story he reveals this to her, Luke 1:36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s now in her sixth month.
In the King James Version it calls Elizabeth Mary’s cousin but the word in the original Greek was much broader than that and simply meant someone who was related to you, somehow. And she may have been her cousin, we just don’t know. What we do know is that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron and we are told that Mary was a descendant of David’s so whatever relationship there was on their Mother’s side of the family tree.
But we do know a few things about Zechariah and Elizabeth, we know that they were good folk, the Bible tells us in Luke 1:6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Sounds like good folk to me.
And we know that Zechariah was a priest and that Elizabeth was descended from the priestly line and we know that they were childless. A tragedy for most folks who it happened to but for a priest it was a double tragedy in that there would be no son to carry on his priestly responsibilities.
And we know that they were older, again how old? We don’t know, old enough to be mentioned, but perhaps because it was in relation to their child bearing years maybe it was just relative, maybe they were old in their late forties or early fifties. Not sure.
And we know that they were chosen for a very special assignment, to raise John. This wasn’t just an oops we are pregnant, what now. From the beginning this was to be a very special birth and a very special child.
Luke 1:11-13 While Zechariah was in the sanctuary, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.
The Promise of John’s Birth By this time in history there were more priests than there were jobs for priests, so they took turns working in the temple, good work if you can find it. And Zechariah’s turn came up and he was chosen to enter into the temple and offer the sacrifices and while he was in there the strangest thing happened.
He’s doing the things he supposed to be doing, preparing the sacrifice, getting it ready to be offered, preparing his prayers and the scriptures he will read as part of the ceremony and God interrupts him, with an Angel.
And Zechariah was a little spooked; actually he was a lot spooked. After all he was supposed to be alone in the altar area, there were no windows just lit by flickering torches, maybe he’s whistling as he worked. And all of a sudden he’s no longer alone. I don’t think he was spooked because there was an angel there, I think he was spooked because there was anyone there.
And if we read through the conversation the Angel, who identifies himself as Gabriel, I know don’t get me started, tells Zechariah that their prayers are going to be answered that they will be parents and that their son will do great things for God.
And after the angel drops this bombshell, I mean good news on Zechariah he gets this response; “What?” Actually that was a rough translation his actually words were Luke 1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
My wife is well along in years, that charitable, love how it is put in the King James Version Luke 1:18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. Guys just a hint, not sure that “well stricken in years” is the most appropriate way to describe your wife’s age.
You got to love this, for years Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son, They had been praying so long it had become route and I don’t think they really expected it would be answered and had never stopped to consider what would happen if it was answered, there would be diapers to buy, a house to be baby proofed and they’d have to get a baby seat for the camel.
Presumably they knew what caused babies and presumably they had been trying that particular technique without success so the assumption would have to be that there would have to be something miraculous about this.
And to be fair, it may not have been disbelief as much as curiosity that caused his reaction, he knew the other way wasn’t working so what was going to change?
If you don’t know the rest of the story it would appear that Gabriel was a little sensitive about not being believed because he responds by saying in Luke 1:19-20 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Boy, do you know where I’d be if folks who don’t always believe the promises of God lost their voice? Yeah, preaching to a very quiet church.
And the story continues.
Luke 1:14-17 You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
The Purpose of John’s Life I think it’s interesting that in that actual promise these words are spoken by the angel Luke 1:15 For he (your son) will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.
Without commentary don’t you find it interesting how those thoughts are joined? 1) Great in the eyes of the Lord 2) filled with the Holy Spirit 3) must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks, just saying.
There are some who say that the Angel’s words “God has heard your prayer.” had nothing to do with Zechariah’s prayers for a child and everything to do with Zechariah’s prayers for deliverance for his country. Which would explain the shock upon hearing Elizabeth was pregnant. He was praying for God to do something outstanding for his country but I’m not sure he thought he’d be a part of that plan
So here is what Zechariah was promised for his son.
And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.
He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah.
He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.
He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
He will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.
That sounds like a pastor’s dream come true for his child. Pictures of crusades and mass conversions must have gone through Zechariah’s mind. I’m sure that most of us as Christ Followers would want that for our children.
It’s interesting though that while Zechariah was told some of the story he was not told all the story. When his son was born Zechariah received his voice back and proclaimed the goodness of God and his belief in what his son would be called to do. I’m not sure if he would have been nearly as excited had he known how that would play out.
Luke 1:80 John grew up and became strong in spirit. And he lived in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.
The Person that John Became If you were to ask Zechariah to predict the future of his son it would probably of had to do with the priesthood. It was John’s lineage, his father was a priest and his mother was the daughter of a priest. And I’m pretty sure that in Zechariah’s mind that if his son was going to have an impact for God it would be through the religious establishment that the family was familiar with. After all why wouldn’t it be?
But when John had grown up we read that he went into the wilderness and when the time was right he appears preaching repentance, baptising people and telling them that the messiah was soon going to appear. Both Matthew and Mark give us the same description of John. Mark tells us in Mark 1:6 His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey.
And while he is preaching repentance his mantra continues to be that he is not the chosen one, that he is just the messenger and that there is one coming who will fulfil all the prophecies of the Old Testament and will deliver Israel and then we read in Mark 1:9 One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. That was the short account, you may remember that John protested that he shouldn’t be baptising Jesus but that it should be the other way around and Jesus insisted that John baptise him, and then when he came out of the water how the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Christ and a voice came from the sky saying “This is my Son and he brings me great joy.” Talk about affirmation.
We don’t know how much contact John and Jesus had with each other through the years, the bible is silent on that relationship, we can speculate but it would simply be speculation. Some cousins are close, others not so much. We don’t know if the boys played together or if they even knew they existed. The pastor at Hillside Wesleyan Church is Jay Guptill and people often ask us if we are related, Jay will tell them I’m his father, and they nod and smile often believing it without thought even though he is only a couple of years younger than me.
The truth however is that our fathers are something like third cousins and I didn’t even meet Jay until I was twenty years old.
And then we see little snippets of John appear throughout the gospels. He continues to preach and confront people about their behaviour. He preached repentance, he baptised those who repented and he offended people who didn’t . In particular he offended the wrong people.
Luke 3:19-20 John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others.
The Price that John Paid It is an interesting side bar to the Gospel story, Herod of Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who we remember from the Christmas story, Alexander McLaren writes this about Herod. “This Herod was a son of the grim old tiger who slew the infants of Bethlehem. He was a true cub of a bad litter, with his father’s ferocity, but without his force. He was sensual, cruel, cunning, and infirm of purpose. Rome allowed him to play at being a king, but kept him well in hand.”
Apparently Herod’s younger brother, Phillip, had married a woman by the name of Herodias and somehow she ended up married to Herod. The assumption is that she left the younger brother for the older brother. And John began to publically take issue with the morality of the entire situation. I’m not sure that it bothered Herod that much he was probably used to people criticizing him, after all he wasn’t the most lovable tyrant. But it was getting to Herodias and we are told that Herod had John imprisoned as a favour to Herodias. Here was John who had spent so much of his adult life in the wide open spaces of the wilderness now confined to a prison cell. Must have been tough but it would get tougher.
But listen to this little snippet in Mark 6:19-20 So Herodias bore a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But without Herod’s approval she was powerless, for Herod respected John; and knowing that he was a good and holy man, he protected him. Herod was greatly disturbed whenever he talked with John, but even so, he liked to listen to him.
Now maybe you know how the story ends for John, you hear people talk about how immoral our society is, how far we’ve fallen but this account reveals what life was like 2000 years ago in the society that John and Jesus were called to confront.
Herod throws this big party for everybody who was anybody and part of the festivities was a dance performed by his daughter. When the dance was over Herod applauded and told her “that was awesome, I will give you anything you desire, right up to half my Kingdom.” Not sure how the Romans would have felt about that, but I would suspect that Herod had been in the bubbly.
So the girl went over to her mother and had a little girl talk and she came back and we pick up the story in Matthew 14:8 At her mother’s urging, the girl said, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a tray!”
Now that seems a little extreme, and I’m sure that everyone knew that it was the booze talking but we read in Mark 6:26-28 Then the king deeply regretted what he had said; but because of the vows he had made in front of his guests, he couldn’t refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner to the prison to cut off John’s head and bring it to him. The soldier beheaded John in the prison, brought his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl, who took it to her mother.
So that is the story of John the Baptist from start to finish. But if we couldn’t find any lessons in the story it would just be another story.
As I was writing this message a number of thoughts came to me, here are a few of them.
The first lesson is “Prayer delayed is not prayer denied.” I wonder how many times Zechariah and his bride had questioned whether or not God even heard their prayers. But their son was to be born at just the right time. Which made me realize what a gift it was that John was born in Zechariah and Elizabeth’s old age. By the time of his death John was in his early thirties and his parents had probably passed away. And so they weren’t around when their son was executed, they were spared that heartache.
Then we discover that John prepared the ground for Jesus. It was his preaching about repentance that opened the people’s hearts to hear Jesus. He had tilled the soil for Jesus to sow.
The crowd that John had gathered around him had primed the pump, for Jesus, so to speak. There is very little that we accomplish in life that isn’t accomplished with the help of others. If you see a turtle on a fence post you know that he had some help getting there.
And finally doing the right thing sometimes has a price that has to be paid. I get tired of people who preach that as long as we are good and obedient we will be blessed. There will be eternal rewards, that’s true but it doesn’t always translate into earthly blessings. John did the right things and it cost him his freedom and his life. But we are still charged with doing the right things.
And that’s the way it is.