Zechariah, the baptist

by James Johnson

"The trouble with politicians is that they are only interested in feathering their own nests; they live in their ivory towers and don't know what life in the real world is like." That is the sort of comment, ordinary people have been saying for thousands of years, all over the world.

Occasionally, you hear of a member of Parliament who is going to try to live on social security benefits for a week to find out how some of his constituents live. Some years ago, a white man in America got medical help to change the colour of his skin to black. He later wrote a book about the racial prejudice he experienced.

Those comments not only apply to politicians. Sometimes, even believers feel that God lives in heaven and is remote from the pain and suffering of real life. Perhaps, we even feel that God doesn't care, but ever since Jesus came in the flesh, none of us can say that God doesn't know or care. Jesus is Immanuel - God with us.

Sometimes when God seems so far away, we may wish we could have a straight talk with God. That's exactly what Job wanted to do, but in the end he had to say, "I know that You are able in all things, no plan of yours can be thwarted. "Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge?" Wherefore I have professed ideas when I was not understanding. Marvellous thoughts from me, that I did not know." ... "With the hearing of the ear I have heard of You , But now my eye sees You. Therefore I recant and repent on soil and ashes." (Job 42: 2,3,5,6).

Many sincere Christians in December each year, look to the advent or coming of Jesus, but before He came, another important event had to happen. John the Baptist had to come to prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah.

Before John was born, a messenger announced the boy's birth to his father, Zechariah. Is this event only of historical interest; of no practical use to us to today?

Let us look closer at the story in Luke 1:5-23. Zechariah was the first person in the world to be told that God was just about to intervene in the affairs of mankind, for the next stage of His plan. And as Job learnt, no plan of God's can be thwarted. Israel had waited seven hundred years for Isaiah's prophecy to be fulfilled. At last Immanuel would appear, and John was to be the prophet to prepare the way for the Messiah.

A few verses later in this same chapter, filled with holy spirit, Zechariah said, "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and has redeemed His people. And you my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins." (verses 68, 76-77)

It must have been an exciting moment to be one of the few people to whom an angelic messenger has spoken directly - and what a message! There are only two angelic messengers named in Scripture. This one is named Gabriel and the other is Michael. It is here that Zechariah joins a list of doubters in the bible: Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon, and the famous doubter Thomas. Many of the people God used to accomplish great things started out as real doubters. With all of them God showed great patience. Honest doubt was not a bad starting point as long as they didn't stay there. It is hardly surprising that for a moment, Zechariah doubted the messenger's promise of a son. After all, he was advanced in years and his wife was barren.

But every day for a year, he was reminded of his moment of doubt. He couldn't speak. And for the past 1900 years, people all over the world have read about or listened to sermons about his story. Perhaps it is as well that holy spirit inspired a change in tradition, otherwise we would be talking about Zechariah the Baptist. Everyone expected the boy to be named after his father. The name John is very appropriate to parents who had been unable to have children - "God has graciously given."

But John the Baptist wasn't named Zechariah, so perhaps we won't associate the Baptist with his father's moment of weakness. After all, how would we like to be branded for ever with some past sin?

It would have been an important day for Zechariah anyway, even without the messenger's visit. A priest might only be chosen to offer incense in the temple once in his lifetime. Today, as believers, we all have an opportunity to go into God's presence, any time of the day or night, to burn "incense". We may think this is a purely Roman Catholic practice, but the book of Revelation, (5:8) shows that, "... incense, are the prayers of the saints."

The first thing that the messenger told Zechariah was that his prayer had been heard. A cynic might have said, "About time too! Do you think I only prayed once? I've been praying for that every day for donkey years." What he had to learn and what we have to learn, is that God answers our prayers when and in a way HE chooses, not according to our wisdom. God will never allow Himself to have to jump when we crack the whip.

Zechariah surely wouldn't have expected God to answer so long afterwards, how He did, when He did. and telling him not only that it would be a son, but what his name would be. We should take note that even though their answered prayer was delayed, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were still described as upright in the sight of God. They hadn't decided that as God hadn't seemed to listen, they would sulk and not observe all the Lord's commandments blamelessly.

One way we know someone loves and cares for us, is when that person goes out of their way to do something, perhaps just a little thing, which they didn't need to do. They just did it because they were thinking about us and that thought triggered an act of love. God didn't have to help Zechariah in this way. He could have prepared the path of Immanuel some other way. But he remembered Elizabeth's shame and their prayers and altered the course of history for these two human beings.

God hadn't forgotten Zechariah's prayer. In fact, Zechariah's name means, "Remembered of Jehovah". Any father is going to rejoice at the success of his children. And Zechariah had much to be proud of. There are at least two qualities that he could bask in -
(1) Jesus himself said of John "Verily, I am saying to you, "Not among those born of women has there been roused a greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). If you wanted a reference for a job, I can't think of a better one.
(2) Despite knowing about God's intervention in his life, it did not make John big-headed. "Now as John completed his career, he said, 'What you are suspecting me to be, I am not. But lo! coming after me is One, the sandal of Whose feet I am not worthy to loose"(Acts 13:25).

In John 3:30 John says of Jesus - "He must be growing, yet mine it is to be inferior."

During Advent many anticipate the coming of Christ. We rejoice that Jesus is Immanuel - God with us. Of course, it is also possible to keep Christmas in one sense and not be a Christian. Japan is not a Christian dominated country, and yet they enthusiastically celebrate the festival. There is a saying in business that if you can't make money at Christmas, you can't make money at all. It is possible to give presents, decorate one's home with glitter, eat too much and get in plenty of 'booze' and be an atheist.

But a believer has far more to celebrate; we can rejoice that Jesus did come in the flesh, that Jesus knows what it is like to be human and that He is our advocate with the Father.

There is something else we might consider. John the Baptist fulfilled in part the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 - "Behold, I will send to you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and advent day of Yahweh." John came in the spirit of Elijah before Christ's first coming. He was told to "restore the heart of the fathers to the sons and the heart of the sons to their fathers ..."

There is nothing to stop us doing that with our families at any time. I said John the Baptist fulfilled part of that prophecy because he represented Elijah at Christ's first coming. Many Christians believe that the Church of Christ will fulfil that role before the second coming of Christ.

At one time it was fashionable in Christian circles to play down the possibility of Christ's literal return. But this world desperately needs the advent of Christ now. And He already has come in the hearts of believers.

We, like Christ, know what it is like to be human, and we can rejoice that God has proved His love to us in Christ. We may not be great prophets like John the Baptist, but we can be like Zechariah. Because despite his weaknesses he was called upright. May we say with him, "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and has redeemed His people."

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© James Johnson

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