for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
-Luke 1: 76-77
No, that quote is not about baby Jesus.
It’s about his cousin.
Did you ever take a few minutes to flip back and forth through your Bible, to notice how the four Gospels start out? Each of them is quite different in a number of ways. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors, from Abraham to Mary’s husband, Joseph. John first gives a theology lesson about The Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Mark and Luke both have stories of John the Baptist up front, only Mark starts with him grown up and preaching, Luke starts with the miracle of his conception! All—all!— of the Gospels have John the Baptist in the first chapter. Why?
At Christmastime, we are used to hearing the stories of the birth of the baby Jesus more than any others: the journey to Bethlehem, the crowded inn, the shepherds and the angels (all of which are found nowhere in the Bible but in Luke). But that is not where Luke starts.
Luke claims that he has carefully gathered and edited the stories that are relevant to the Good News, placing them in order (Luke 1:1-4). Therefore, the first order of business in his story is to explain how John the Baptist figures in the life of Jesus.
It seems that John and Jesus were both miracle babies: John’s mother and father thought they would never have a child: Mary and Joseph were surprised to learn that Mary was pregnant for no earthly reason. In Jesus’ case, the angel tells his mother about the pregnancy: in John’s case, it’s the old priest Zechariah – the un-expectant father— who gets the news. Zechariah demanded that the angel give him evidence: “How will I know that this is so ?” For his skeptical attitude, he was rewarded with nine months or so of not being able to talk (that would be a death sentence, for some of us!).
Luke the Evangelist shows that John (Zechariah and Elizabeth’s miracle baby) was conceived before Jesus precisely because John’s job was to go ahead of Jesus in ministry. Why does that matter?
John preached repentance from sin. Before Jesus’ message of the good news of the kingdom of God can be effective, then in ancient Galilee or now, the hearers must first choose to turn from the way we behaved before: to make straight in the crooked, bumpy, desert-dry wilderness places inside us a highway for our God. Because it is the sin and crookedness inside us that keeps us from experiencing God’s heavenly reign in our lives. Nothing else in hell or the earth or the sky can keep the love of God away from us. That’s why John, the earlier miracle baby, was sent ahead of Jesus.
John became a hellfire and damnation preacher. He called people snakes— vipers! He warned them that they were at risk of being cut off if they failed to repent of their sins. But nevertheless, his ministry was good news: Making way for God’s grace is good news ! And when soldiers, tax-collectors and other regular folks asked John how they should behave after repenting, he told them something clear positive that they could do: “Share and be fair:” “Whoever has two tunics (shirts) is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Luke 3: 11
Thinking of John’s ministry of baptizing people: In the coming year, I hope we can have some baptisms in our Bethel family. We baptize in the name of the Father, of Jesus Christ the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, for a life of grace— not only to wash away sins. We are blessed to be able to share the ‘good news baptism’ that Jesus commanded.
But now, in Advent, as we ponder the births of the miracle babies, let’s go ahead and follow the instructions John the Baptist gave. Beyond our own circle of friends and loved ones, let us give. Maybe not half of all we have, or down to our last shirt, but seriously give. And may we prepare the way for God to enter our world, by doing right and standing for justice.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is near !
- Philippians 4:4-5
Sunday, December 6
Luke 1:68-73; 3:1-6