The circumstances surrounding the birth of John the Baptist were strange, and perhaps as a result have for long been misunderstood.
We start our story just short of a year before his birth. The man who would become John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and as such took his turn at presiding over the events in the Temple. This was a solemn event as the priest was representing the entire nation as he ‘prayed for the peace of Jerusalem’.
It’s worth bearing in mind here that most serious commentators agree that the use of the word ‘Jerusalem’ does not refer to the built city, rather he was praying for the House of God, and as he did, suddenly an angel appeared and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will call him John.’
Now this is where most people get it wrong. They assume that Zechariah was praying for a son. He and his wife were old and she was thought to be ‘barren’, but when you consider his reaction to the celestial announcement, it is clear that family matters were not on his mind. He was there to pray for his people and that’s just what he was doing. He asked: ‘How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.’
We have often thought that because of the angel’s message, the old man was praying for a son, someone to carry on the family name, a child to relieve the shame of childlessness that Elizabeth would have felt in that culture. But those prayers are little prayers. Zechariah was praying a big prayer, he was praying for the peace and security of his people, and the answer to his prayer was to be the birth of his own son.
Listen for a moment to what the angel said: ‘He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
As Zechariah stood in the temple in Jerusalem that day, his responsibility was to pray for his nation.That was the prayer God heard, and that’s the prayer that God was going to answer through their son John, for in time, he was the one who urged the people of Israel to repent and be ready for their Messiah.
This time of year focuses minds on the past, and on the future. As it does, let’s follow the example of Zechariah as he prayed for his nation, for don’t we live at a time when we need to see the hearts of the parents turned to their children? And the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous? So let’s lift our eyes off our own problems, however big they might be. Let’s pray about the breakdown of family values in our society. Let’s pray for the poor, the suffering, the lonely. Let’s pray that their world will be changed for the better, remembering always that God often uses us to answer our own prayers.