“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God is showing grace to you. For I have come to tell you that your prayer for a child has been answered. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you are to name him John… His birth will bring you much joy and gladness. Many will rejoice because of him. He will be one of the great ones in the sight of God. He will drink no wine or strong drink, but he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even while still in his mother’s womb. And he will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God. He will go before the Lord as a forerunner, with the same power and anointing as Elijah the prophet. He will be instrumental in turning the hearts of the fathers in tenderness back to their children and the hearts of the disobedient back to the wisdom of their righteous fathers. And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.”
(Luke 1:13-17, The Passion Translation)
Last week we looked at the first part of the messenger’s proclamation to Zechariah. He was informed by the angelic visitor that his prayer had been answered–he and Elizabeth would have a son. They would call him John. As if that message was not startling enough, there was more. This child would be set apart, great in the sight of God, filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb. He would be a forerunner–THE forerunner. The one who would prepare the way for the long-awaited Messiah. I wonder if Zechariah was remembering these words from the prophet Malachi as he listened to the angel:
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers [a reconciliation produced by repentance], so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse [of complete destruction].”
(Malachi 4:5-6, AMP)
Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son, finally. And they would know much about what he would be like and who he would become before he ever inhaled the air of earth. He was the one who would prepare the way, according to the angel’s message. His would be a life filled with, as Pastor John detailed, potential, power, and purpose.
He would grow up close to the presence of God, and that would increase his human potential astronomically. He would never experience a moment without the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. And he would know his purpose: to break the silence and announce the coming of the Messiah.
In verse 17 of our passage, the Passion Translation reads: “And he will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing.” The footnote says that the words “a united people” are the words used in the original Aramaic. I couldn’t find much else about it, unfortunately. But it stands out to me. We know that when Jesus came on the scene, and certainly when he began his ministry, not all people were united or ready for his coming. There were many opinions and judgments made about him, and there was much division among the people because of him.
Perhaps what John was to do was to bring together all those who were waiting expectantly for the coming King, and unite them under a message that Jesus himself would reinforce. Maybe the words of that verse meant that those who were ready for the Lord would be united under the message John preached, and it would be that message that would prepare them for the coming of the Lord?
What was the message that John preached? He began his ministry preaching about repentance. He invited the people to change the way they thought, to change the way they saw God and others. The spiritual leaders of that day had modeled self-righteousness, arrogance, and rules-based living. John’s message challenged their teachings. He told the people that those who have should give to those who don’t have. He told them to stop robbing from each other, to refrain from extortion, and to treat others with dignity and honor. He exhorted them to stop falsely accusing one another and to, instead, treat others with kindness. He told those with power to stop using it against the powerless. John preached about a whole new way of thinking and being in the world, and about forgiveness and becoming new. This was the message that would prepare those who had ears to hear. This was the message that would unite those who accepted it.
It was a message not unlike Jesus’ first public proclamation about himself just a chapter later in Luke, as he quoted the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
John was the voice in the wilderness that prepared the way for the message of Jesus to be heard. Those who were excited about John were excited because he brought something new to the old teachings. He brought word of a coming Messiah, and the new way that this coming kingdom would operate. It was a message that assigned value and worth, dignity and acceptance to those who could accept it. It paved the way for the radical ways and message of Jesus. That message would shake up the whole world, turn powerful systems upside-down, and extend an invitation to all. Everyone. The whole world.
We are all the voice in the wilderness today.
What message are we proclaiming? Pastor John said on Sunday, “Let the message of Jesus be your life.”
Our lives–the way we live, the way we love, the things we say and do–they speak. They expose what we believe, whether we think we are proclaiming a message or not. Do we offer Jesus to a waiting world? Do we love in a way that prepares hearts for an encounter with our Messiah?
As we live and move and interact with those around us, I pray that our lives will reveal the message of Jesus the way that John’s did. And I pray, especially during this season of Advent, that we are willing to be the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the arrival of our Savior.
I am writing my portion of the blog on week 3, day two of this year’s advent season. This year is different from others that I remember. This year, it seems that everywhere I turn, John the Baptist–his birth and his ministry–are being emphasized. Usually, in my experience, the story has begun with Mary or with Old Testament prophecies, but this year, curiously and intriguingly John the Baptist seems to be at the forefront of many advent devotions and messages. Anytime I see a common theme arising from multiple locations, I pay attention. Why does God have John the Baptist on the hearts of so many?
John, the advent announcer and forerunner of Jesus, is often treated as a minor character in a greater story. We gloss over his impact and move on. However, when we pause and spend time with John’s story, we realize how profound a role he played. I can’t recall another prophet whose birth story is so emphasized.
God wanted us to know both of his parents came from priestly lines, were considered righteous and blameless, were mature in years and mature in their faith, and that despite the tremendous disappointment of not having a child, they continued to serve God faithfully.
God wanted us to know about the angelic visit and the prophecy spoken to Zechariah regarding his not yet conceived son. Laura wrote out the prophecy above from the beautiful Passion Translation, I’m going to reiterate it here from The Voice paraphrase:
Zacharias, your prayers have been heard. Your wife is going to have a son, and you will name him John. He will bring you great joy and happiness—and many will share your joy at John’s birth. This son of yours will be a great man in God’s sight. He will not drink alcohol in any form; instead of alcoholic spirits, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is in his mother’s womb. Here is his mission: he will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. Do you remember the prophecy about someone to come in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah; someone who will turn the hearts of the parents back to their children; someone who will turn the hearts of the disobedient to the mind-set of the just and good? Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God. (Luke 1: 14-17)
This is an incredibly big deal. God had been silent for 400 years. In those 400 years, the religious fathers had added rule upon rule upon rule upon rule for the Israelites to follow. The weight of trying to be right in God’s sight was heavy and becoming heavier all the time. The entire religious structure had become behavior-based and the religious leaders determined who was in and who was out; who was righteous, who wasn’t; and who was being punished by God and therefore not allowed to participate (the sick, the disabled, the foreigner, women, etc). Into this mean-spirited time period, a sweet elderly couple was visited by an angel who spoke the words of the prophet Malachi regarding their impossible to conceive, soon-to-be on the way son. Their son would fulfill Malachi’s prophecy. The silence was shattered and huge things were about to happen.
We don’t know anything about John’s formative years, but we do know that when he reached adulthood and appeared on the scene, he caused a bit of a ruckus.
His is the voice that God chose to use after 400 years. He is the prophet who came in the spirit of Elijah. His message is bold.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke let us know that a large portion of John’s message was about repentance and producing fruit in keeping with repentance.
What would fruit in keeping with repentance look like? John’s listeners would have understood that repentance wasn’t about sin. The word–metanoia in the Greek—literally means new mind. In other words, change the way you think, allow your current thinking to be challenged, produce fruit that shows you are thinking in a new way, God’s way.
All of our outward actions begin in our minds. All of them. So the message of repentance is about allowing God to renew our minds. It’s only been in the last century that the word repent got twisted into having something to do with condemnation, shame, and sin, which is not the ministry of Christ. If we ponder that, we’ll realize that thinking new thoughts–thoughts that produce fruit that looks like Jesus makes a whole lot more sense–and John is paving the way for that.
When the people ask him “what shall we do?” In other words…what is the evidence of this fruit…
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3: 10-14)
Hmmm. This is certainly different from all the rules and behavior-based striving that had become the religious system of the day. Rules and behavior-based striving are self-focused. John is preaching an others-focused mindset: Share what you have with those less fortunate, don’t cheat people in order to line your own pockets; don’t speak poorly of or lie about others, don’t slander another’s character; those of you who have power, don’t use it to take advantage of those who have less power; don’t finagle ways to get more and more–be content and live generously with what you have. John’s preaching looks very little like the majority religious culture of his day and very much like counter-cultural living.
The angel addressed this counter-cultural mindset in speaking to Zechariah in Luke 1:16…
He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. (NIV)
He will turn many of the children of Israel around to follow the path to the Lord their God. (The Voice)
He will persuade many in Israel to convert and turn back to the Lord their God (The Passion Translation).
He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. (NASB)
Bring back and turn back indicate they had lost their way. Have we?
The prophecy continues: “he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to:
turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and
the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—
to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)
Who are the fathers? Yes, it could be that the biological fathers had turned their hearts from their children, but it could also be the spiritual fathers. The religious leaders of the day would have been their spiritual fathers, and we learn from both John the Baptist and from Jesus that those fathers did not minister with the heart of God. John called them a brood of vipers, Jesus called them white-washed tombs and talked about the heavy yoke they placed upon people, keeping them from God rather than drawing them to God. They were judgmental, critical, exclusive, and mean-spirited.
What would it look like for these fathers’ hearts to turn to their children? If John’s message is one of repentance…what would new thoughts look like for “the fathers”? Is it possible it could mean that rather than a shaming, condemning, exclusive message and being known for all they’re against, they could cultivate loving thoughts that would turn into loving actions toward those they were called to shepherd?
And the disobedient…who are they? The sinners? If we read the apostle John’s understanding of this, he writes: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (2nd John 1:6)
Jesus himself makes it super simple: If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15) What are his commands? Jesus says the greatest one is “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself… (Mt. 22:37-39)
So the disobedient would be those who don’t walk in God’s love. Hmmm. Strong’s concordance defines the disobedient as the unpersuadable. The unpersuadable would resist repentance (thinking a new way)…so the disobedient are stuck in their ways, convinced they are right and can’t be persuaded to love God’s way.
Another thing John the Baptist was going to do was turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous. What does that even mean?
If, as Strong’s defines it, wisdom means understanding, or knowledge and holy love of the will of God and righteous means equitable (in character or act), or as others have put it, righteous means being rightly related to God and others, we begin to see a theme developing in John’s life purpose.
The last phrase of this prophecy is Your son is the one who will fulfill this prophecy: he will be the Lord’s forerunner, the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God (The Voice) or He will prepare a united people who are ready for the Lord’s appearing. (TPT).
Are we a united people ready for God to do whatever he wants to in our midst? Are we a united people ready for the Lord’s appearing?
As we ponder John’s mission and ministry, and as I ponder why I keep running into advent readings this year that are centered around him, I also must ponder what the Holy Spirit is communicating to the church.
Could it be that we’ve lost our way? Have we turned our hearts away from the children we are to shepherd? Are we the unpersuadable, stuck in our ways and disobedient because we’ve forgotten that love is our highest calling? Have we forgotten to seek understanding from God on every matter, or forgotten to love his will, (which is for us to bring his kingdom to earth by loving others into his presence)? Have we forgotten to be equitable, to live generously, to place ourselves in the shoes of another, to see life from another’s perspective and work toward the flourishing of all people everywhere?
Could it be that we are not prepared for a real encounter with the real Jesus who deeply loves and is for everyone everywhere, and who detests our manmade traditions? Will we allow him to turn our hearts toward the world? Will we be unpersuadable or are we willing to change our perspective, think a new way and see things from His point of view?
The word advent means “to come”. Jesus is the one who was and is and is to come. (Rev. 1:8 and 4:8). Are we prepared for his coming, both in the future and in the right here, right now? Are we ready to let him use us his way, producing his kind of fruit, to draw people to God?