The biblical story of John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, begins even before his birth. His leaping in his mother’s womb is seen as a great alleluia in anticipation of the birth of his redeemer, and the good news of Jesus Christ is related in all four gospels as beginning with John as Christ’s forerunner. He seemed to have a predestined role akin to that of the Old Testament prophets, particularly in encouraging the people of God to live lives worthy of their calling and in imminent anticipation of the coming of the Anointed One. In the tradition of the early Fathers, John was seen as endowed with grace before his birth, and consequently the Church has always kept the celebration of this day with greater solemnity than that of his death.
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the Lord God will say,
for he shall speak peace to his people and to the faithful,
that they turn not again to folly.
Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together,
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;
Truth shall spring up from the earth
and righteousness look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give all that is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him
and direct his steps in the way.
Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.
Luke 1.57-66, 80
The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Today we hear of the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The elderly Elizabeth who miraculously became pregnant following the visitation of an angel to Zechariah has given birth to the promised son. We join the narrative at the moment of the baby’s naming, eight days after his birth. According to Jewish custom and practice all who had gathered for the celebration of this wonderful event expected to hear Elizabeth announce that her baby would be named after his father. Instead, a new path was forged, the baby was to be named John, as foretold by God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel.
When the message of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was delivered to Zechariah, the priestly father expressed doubt that God was really working in their lives. The angel’s response to this doubt was to take away Zechariah’s power of speech until this moment in the history of humanity. And that is where we are in today’s reading. The baby has been born, he has been brought to the synagogue for naming and circumcision, and the baby’s mother has honoured the words of the angel and confounded those amongst whom she was standing. The congregation turned to the father for some sense of normality to be restored, and Zechariah joined his wife in honouring the command of God. The baby was to be named John. Then, just as suddenly as it was taken away, Zechariah had his power of speech restored.
There is a great lesson for us in what happens next. The narrative is clear and unequivocal: immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. So much had happened in the preceding nine months. The life of Zechariah and Elizabeth was turned on its head. Not only was the elderly Elizabeth expecting a child, but Zechariah was rendered unable to exercise most of his priestly duties. There was much time for the couple to reflect upon the message of the angel Gabriel. Then, Zechariah’s tongue was freed.
At this moment the baby’s father did not busy himself with gossip and accounts of his experiences in the preceding months, instead he praised God. In the midst of the amazed assembly, Zechariah brushed aside the everyday and the irrelevant, and he praised God.
Let us pray that we might recognize God working in our daily lives. Let us pray that we might be ever open to the promptings of God’s Holy Spirit as we seek to live lives of faithful discipleship. Let us pray that the first words we utter in every situation may be words of praise for the God who loves us so much.
Prayers of intercession
In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father.
Lord God, who promised Zechariah a son filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, to prepare a people fit for the Lord: we pray for reconciliation between all people.
Lord God, when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting the baby leapt in her womb: may she who believed your promise be blessed among women, and may we proclaim with joy the good news of your Christ.
Lord God, at John’s birth Zechariah proclaimed he would be the prophet of the Most High: we pray for all who preach the Good News.
Lord God, when your Son came to the Jordan and was baptized by John he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending as a dove: may we who are baptized into your Church faithfully proclaim in the world the words of your beloved Son.
Lord God, John proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God and John’s disciples followed Jesus: help us to follow him also, and by our words and deeds to bring our families and friends closer to you.
Lord God, who sent John to witness to the light, to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness and to prepare the way of the Lord: comfort your people and bring your healing to the sick and needy, to the broken-hearted and the oppressed, to prisoners and captives.
Lord God, John preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and suffered imprisonment and death for proclaiming your Law: we remember all who have died in your service, joining our prayers with John the Baptist and all the saints; grant us with them a share in your eternal kingdom.
God our Father, in your tender compassion the dawn from on high has broken upon us. Shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
Prayer for the week
Lord of all,
inspired by your word and your love,
your apostles preached the good news to all people.
Strengthen us to be apostles in our own lives,
that through the goodness of our actions,
the thoughtfulness of our faith
and the quality of our common life,
many might come to know the joy of life with you,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Lord’s Prayer
Let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.