Elizabeth and Zechariah receive amazing promises about what their son will do for the world, but they probably will not live to see those promises come to fruition. They stand with us on the long road to salvation, playing their part in God’s unfolding story.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Feast of St. John the Baptist
Text: Luke 1:57-80
“Prepare the way of the Lord!” That was John’s cry in the desert: prepare! As he taught and baptized his people, he knew that his mission was never an end in itself. Instead, he was merely getting ready, laying the groundwork for someone even greater. Tragically, he was killed before he could fully see what he had been preparing the world for. He never got to witness the wonder of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But even though he couldn’t know exactly how God’s promises were going to be fulfilled, he knew that their fulfillment was at hand, and he lived by that faith. That bold witness is what we honor today.
But funny enough, today’s Gospel isn’t really about John. The Baptist is a baby. Instead, we read about his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah – and they are even one step farther removed from seeing God’s promises fulfilled. Their job is to prepare the way for the preparer, and they understand that well. They see an unbroken chain between their lives and the coming Christ. They know themselves to be in the midst of God’s unfolding story – not the beginning, and not the end, but along the way on the road towards salvation.
On one hand, this is a joyful place for them to be. They had given up on having children, and now, they not only have a son, but a chosen son who will usher in the Messiah. They are living in a time when ancient prophecies are being fulfilled, when God is showing up in a new and exciting way. They know their Scripture, so they know what God is planning for the world. They know that they are standing on the brink of a new era of mercy and salvation, life and peace. God’s light is dawning after a long and painful night. They clearly see where this story is headed, and it is good. Their role in God’s plans is good.
But on the other hand, their role is also bittersweet. Their story is one of amazement, but also of loss and longing. They are already very old, Luke says, when John is born – so old that it is a miracle that they are having a child at all. So how much of their son’s life will they be present for before they die? Luke doesn’t tell us. Will they get to be proud of his preaching, and of the great crowds that he inspires? Will they ever shake their heads at their strange child’s diet and choice of clothing? Will they get to see their nephew, Jesus, teaching and healing and transforming the world, and know in their hearts that this is what they had been waiting for? Or, more likely, are they preparing the way for promises that they will never live to see fulfilled? When they bring this child into the world, they are embarking on a journey, knowing full well that they probably won’t make it to the destination.
And that’s where we are. We stand with Elizabeth and Zechariah on the long road. We are living in the middle of a sacred story that we will probably not see brought to completion, not in our lifetimes. In faith, we proclaim that the story of this earth will end in joy, when all things are reconciled with God. With Zechariah, we announce that God is coming to forgive sins, to scatter darkness and death, and to bring long-awaited peace. We hold fast to that truth, because in the end, God’s victory is the only truth that matters. But the day-to-day reality of how we live that promise, that’s a harder task. We are in the middle of a long human journey, far from the beginning of the story, but with no clear happy ending in sight. All we can do is take the world that we have been given and do our part to bring it just a bit closer to the reign of God. We love each other, we strive for justice and peace, and we try to leave the world a little less broken than we found it. And then we pass the torch on to the next generation and hope they can build on what we’ve done.
This is hard work, because the world around us says that our shared story is going to end poorly. The news screams it out every day. The church, we are told, is declining, our country is in turmoil, our planet is getting hotter. The world is filled with powerful cruelty, powerful evil, and especially after this painful week, it doesn’t look like that evil will be going anywhere soon. We would have good reason to be overcome with despair. We would have good reason to suspect that we have spent centuries preparing the way for promises that will never be brought to fruition. Even though we say the dawn is coming, it’s easy to feel like the night is going to last forever, like we’re on a journey that’s twisting and turning but ultimately going nowhere. The forces of despair or strong, and the only way to fight back against them is with stories of God’s unquenchable, unconquerable love for the world.
The stories that we tell matter. They matter because we can’t anticipate God’s reign if we don’t believe that God is really coming. Are shaping ourselves with God’s stories of love and mercy and hope, or are we giving in to the world’s stories of futility? Whose truths are we choosing to live by? To see the difference this makes, we need only look to Zechariah. Zechariah is in the middle of the mess, just like us, but he speaks words of hope, not of sadness or regrets, because he is confident in God’s story. He looks back at the long, hard history of his people, and he would have every right to see it as a story of disappointment after disappointment and tragedy after tragedy. But instead he clings to the history of God’s loving promises, from Abraham, through David and the prophets, to his own day – and there he finds the assurance that God’s work isn’t done. He knows that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and that the Spirit has given him a part to play to pave the way for Christ.
If we believe that the light of Christ is dawning on all things, then we too have a part to play. We are called to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. The road is long and uncertain, and may at times feel futile. But we can go out with good courage, because on the other side of that uncertainty is God’s sure victory. God’s morning is coming. Blessed are we who are granted a chance to see that, no matter what shadows the world may throw at us. Blessed are we who prepare to greet the dawn. Because when we stand vigil, waiting and preparing and hoping for Christ’s light, then Christ’s light begins to rise in us, and then we know that our preparations are not in vain.