John’s backstory

(Sunday sermon spoiler alert!)

There is a backstory to today’s gospel. Luke gives us lots of context: who was ruling where, and had been for how long; he gives us a snapshot of the political situation, the state of the temple priesthood, a backdrop of desert scrub and wilderness; but the story itself has got a little shaken up by our lectionary selections; last week, Jesus was preaching at the end of his ministry; this week, John is preparing for it; in a week or two, they will both be back in the womb, awaiting Jesus’ birth at the dead of night on Christmas Eve.

It’s like one of those movies which is edited so that flashbacks compete with foreshadowing, and the present thread of plot slithers through, possible to follow but difficult to grasp and hold onto.

So here it is in flashback: the beginning of the story of John, who in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar etc., etc., etc.

Back in the day, when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest called Zechariah, who was married to the daughter of a priest, called Elizabeth, and they were good people, and they lived alone together, each other their all, since they had no children. One day, Zechariah was burning incense in the temple, while the multitudes prayed outside, and an angel appeared and told him that he would have a son, called John, and that his son would be the cause of great rejoicing, and would turn many hearts back to God, preparing the people of God for the salvation of God.

Zechariah was taken aback and tried answering back, which despite the angels’ habitual greeting of, “Do not fear,” was apparently not such a good idea. The angel, Gabriel by name, told Zechariah that for his rash words, he would be unable to speak any more until the child was born. Perhaps Gabriel was concerned that Zechariah’s doubt would spoil the surprise gift for everyone else, and wanted to keep him quiet for that reason. At any rate, Zechariah was not able to speak again until after the angle’s promise was fulfilled, and Elizabeth was safely delivered of a son, and his father, following the angel’s instructions this time, because he was nothing if not a quick learner, wrote on a tablet that the child was called John. And just as Gabriel said, his arrival caused quite a stir, and Zechariah, knowing a little more than the rest from their earlier conversation, sang a song inspired by the Holy Spirit, and told him, “Blessed is the Lord our God, for he has visited us and redeemed us, and saved us; he has remembered us, and brought us into his presence. And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, to tell the people of his salvation, of the forgiveness of their sins, because God is merciful, and God’s light has dawned upon us and upon all who live in darkness and in the shadow of death; God shall lead us into the ways of peace.”

“And the child grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80)

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