Then as now we’ve never lacked idiots declaring—often with sandwich boards—that the end is near. Perhaps that’s why Luke gives us two long chapters of backstory so that we take this “idiot” John the Baptist seriously.
First there’s Elizabeth’s extraordinary pregnancy when she and Zechariah are “very old” (CEB). Then Mary’s even-more extraordinary pregnancy, being a virgin. John is born to Elizabeth, and his father Zechariah responds with a lengthy prophecy speaking of “a mighty savior” and of being able to serve God “without fear.” Mary, even before Jesus’ birth, sings what we know as the Magnificat:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
After Jesus’ birth the shepherds convey the words of the angel and the angelic military chorus, and Simeon and Anna add their witness in the temple. So, John the Baptist is no ordinary “idiot.”
John’s message is, I think, three-fold: (1) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God is coming to set things right. (2) Repent! When God comes it’s prudent not to be obviously part of the problem: stop hoarding, stop extorting! (3) Me, I’m just the warm-up act. It’s all very apocalyptic. The newspapers might have called it the “Apocalypse Now” tour. Things have to be pretty bad for apocalypse to sound like a good idea, and the crowds flocking to John give us a pretty good idea of life in the benevolent claws of the Roman Empire.
And, at the end of today’s Gospel: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In those words of the Divine Voice many hear echoes of three biblical texts:
The new king’s witness in Ps 2: “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Ps. 2:7).
The Lord’s introduction of the servant in the midst of exile: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1)
The Lord’s words to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2).
John is hardly underplaying what’s going on here! And all three of these texts continue to echo in Luke’s Gospel. Psalm 2: Jesus sorting out his messianic role, which is essentially about what it means to live as a human being. Isaiah 42: Jesus assuming the mantle of the servant—and invites his followers to do so as well. What sort of service pleases God? Genesis 22: Jesus continuing on a trajectory over which he has limited control.
There are many things that we might explore in this and the other readings. Since we’ll be doing the renewal of baptismal vows in a few minutes I’ll focus on just two.
First, this salvation that everyone’s been celebrating—Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna, John—doesn’t play out predictably. Luke’s mention of John’s imprisonment brutally yanks John offstage, and signals what Jesus is getting himself into. This is probably not what John had in mind when he proclaimed “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And Simeon had warned Mary “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And the echo of the words to Abraham in the words to Jesus. Fast-forwarding to Paul, who started his career very certain of how God’s salvation was going to play out, being baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection means giving up our illusions of control.
Second, for all that Zechariah, Mary, John, etc. get right, there’s plenty that they don’t get right, plenty of room for ongoing repentance. Zechariah responds with so little faith to Gabriel’s announcement that Gabriel decides it would be better for all concerned if Zechariah would just shut up until John’s birth. The story we heard last week of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple: every parent’s nightmare, but also evidence that Mary and Joseph had no idea who was living under their roof. This pattern continues with the disciples, so that in Luke’s telling they chose the Last Supper to continue their argument about who’s the greatest (22:24-30). They all end up abandoning Jesus. So, when in the renewal of the Baptismal Covenant we say “I will, with God’s help,” Luke would probably want us to remember that “God’s help” includes graciously accepting our repentance. Jesus tells us to accept a brother’s or sister’s repentance even seven times a day (Lk 17:3-4); our firm hope is the God does likewise.
Let us close with the collect for Friday from Morning Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.”