“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress . . .” (Lk 21:25) is easier to take when we remember the Song of the Angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:15) — P.K.
Who is John? Well, all his neighbors wondered the same thing at the time of his birth. (Lk 1:66) No one in his family had ever held the name: “John.” (1:62) But Zechariah insisted to give him that name. Actually, it was Elisabeth who first spoke it, Zechariah being struck speechless by the Gabriel as a sign. (1:20) Yet, his tongue is freed the moment he writes the words: “His name shall be John,” on a tablet. (1:63)
After that, Zechariah proclaims the “Benedictus,” the psalm reading for this Sunday taken from Luke 1:68-79. It is well known to those who say the daily prayers of the church as it is the response to the Gospel reading in the services of Vigil or Matins.
That canticle is truly amazing as it foretells God breaking in from on high to keep the promises made to Abraham. It also proclaims John as a prophet. The hand of the Lord is with him. (1:66) It also introduces the theme of John’s proclamation: He will go before the Lord to prepare the way; to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because in the tender compassion of our God, the down from on high will break upon us.
When John disturbed the silence of the wilderness around the Jordan, the place where he has spent most of his life (1:80), it should not surprise that he proposes baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sin. He is the prophet, the last prophet before the Messiah does indeed come to seek those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
The other thing that might strike us is that immediately after telling of Zechariah singing his song and a brief synopsis of John’s life that sets the stage for chapter 3, Luke tells us of the birth of the Messiah whom John already knew: Jesus, the Son of Mary, announced by Gabriel, the same angel who foretold John’s birth. When John recognizes Jesus in Mary, his own mother blesses Mary — the Hail Mary — and Mary sings the song known as “Magnificat.” (1:41-42 and 1:46:55)
The two canticles are rightly called “Gospel Canticles,” and, as mentioned before, are used to respond to Gospel reading at daily prayer. The Gospel, as Luke hopes to spell it out, is set forth in them. Our reading ends with an echo of last weeks reading as well: all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (3:6) Last week we were invited to lift up our heads because that salvation was even at hand. (21:28) The Gospel message of the canticles was there as well.
So when John preaches Baptism and repentance and forgiveness of sin, maybe we need to see it in the light of Benedictus and Magnificat, and perhaps Gloria (2:14) as well, since it has been sung when our story in chapter 3 comes around.
Yes, I know, John is advertised as a firebrand preacher who called people: “a brood of vipers.” (3:7 and Mt 3:7) That is next week’s Gospel text. But, John is also not merely condemnatory in Luke — unlike Matthew. No, John is conciliatory he does not just condemn but teaches better living — as does just about all of the Gospel of Luke. For example: The great sin of the Rich Man is to not notice and be reconciled with the poor man, Lazarus, at his gates. (16:19-31) There as in John’s preaching recalled next week, Abraham looms in the background.
It is hard, even in Luke, to make John a preacher of “Love,” unless one has the proper perspective on “Love.” Graham Green in Power and the Glory has the drunken priest describe God’s love this way: “It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”
But, that love, once only written in Isaiah 40 and quoted by Luke in verses 3:4-6, now has to gain a voice. It is much like John’s father’s fate: The word written on the tablet suddenly set loose the tongue held in chains to that point. God’s promise is seen in the baby John and now praise must follow, the redemption of Zechariah and Elisabeth has been seen, surely the redemption of Israel will and must follow. The written word now gains and gives voice. Likewise with Isaiah. (quoted from the Greek New Testament in our reading)
40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
4 Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
The Angel Gabriel’s words have proven true and become true in flesh both in John and later in Jesus. Surely Isaiah’s words will find likewise fulfillment.
You have read, most excellent Theophilus, (Lk 1:3) the ordered account set out for you from eye witness reports. Now, will those words remain locked in a prison of a heart that cannot speak or act in response to hearing of the presence of the Love of God come to his people? Is God’s presence, God’s Love to you a thing that you will run a mile to get away from? Who will lie at your gate and in what state are they whom you have not reconciled yourself to? The Songs of the father of the prophets, the Mother of God, even the Angels invite you to believe and join with the mother of Faith — church — to join singing those canticles, to hum them in the streets as beggars and those who are mourning under sorrows load fill your eyes. You are invited to hear Zechariah’s words: “You my child will be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way. To give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, etc” and know that Zechariah was singing about John but that mother church is singing about you. So, you, Theophilus, what will you sing?