Lesson Focus: Christ has come and is coming again. We are called, just as John the Baptist was called, to prepare the way for the coming of God.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Describe how John the Baptist was to prepare God’s people for his coming.
Understand what it means to walk in the way of peace.
Identify themselves with the mission to which John had been called.
Catching up on the story The story of John the Baptist’s birth is, in some ways, plain and ordinary. It’s plain and ordinary in two ways. First, we know it so well. Second, John’s birth narrative is similar to other great figures in Israel’s history where barren parents give birth to a child. Yet, it is this similarity to other birth narratives in Israel’s history that makes it so earth-shattering.
The script goes like this: There is a barren couple who are old and well past their prime. Barrenness, the inability to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, was a mark of shame. It was thought to mean that somewhere, somehow, someone in the family had sinned, and this was God’s punishment on them. Of course, we don’t think like that today. Here, we find Elizabeth and Zechariah in the same shoes as Abraham and Sarah. Barren.
Yet, in the midst of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s barrenness, they are faithful, just as Abraham and Sarah had been. One day, while Zechariah was doing his duties as a priest in the Temple, an angel of the Lord appears to him and announces that he and Elizabeth will soon have a son who is to be named John. Zechariah is a little slow to believe because he and his wife are so old and past the years that people normally have children. So, he questions the words of the angel. Zechariah’s disbelief earns him the loss of his ability to speak until the day the child is born.
John is born, and eight days later, when the child would have been circumcised and formally given a name, the couple’s neighbors and family want to know what he will be named. When Zechariah writes that his name will be John, immediately he regains his ability to speak. All who hear of this story begin to wonder just what this child will become. We don’t have to wait long to find out; this child, like the other children who were born by the power of God from barrenness, will become a great instrument in the hands of God. It is from dark barrenness of all kinds that God does his most fantastic work.
Read Luke 1:67-79
Our text picks up after John’s birth. Luke has already reported for us the birth announcement from God to Mary. When the time came for the child to be born, the couple’s neighbors wanted to name him after his father. Zechariah, on the other hand, had been told by the angel that the boy’s name was to be John. As soon as Zechariah insisted that the boy’s name be John, he was able to speak again. Immediately following his renewed ability to speak, he began to prophesy, as he was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Israel at this time was under Roman rule and oppression. They believed that God was going to send for them a savior who would free them from their oppressors. Forgiveness would be given, and national restoration would take place. Some thought this would happen in a military campaign; others did not. What was clear, however, is that Israel was also waiting for someone who would herald the coming of this savior. Luke is telling us that this John is that coming herald.
Blessed be the Lord! This first part of Zechariah’s song, verses 68-75, deals with God’s continued faithfulness to Israel. This hymn begins with a blessing directed toward God. This hymn is often called the “Benedictus” because the first word, blessed, is benedictus in Latin. With this blessing, Luke begins to connect the narrative around John with Israel’s past and her hopes and dreams for the future.
Why is God to be blessed? He is blessed because he has “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” The NRSV’s translation of “looked favorably” can be more literally translated, “visited his people.” In the Old Testament, when God “visited” his people it almost always had to do with bringing about deliverance (Nolland, 86). Surely, at this point Zechariah knows some of the significance about what is to take place through Mary. In a very real way, God will visit Zechariah and his people. Redemption and deliverance is right around the corner.
In verse 69, Luke begins to make a clear connection between God’s work and commitment to Israel in the past through the likes of David, and what is happening presently. God is raising up a “mighty savior,” literally a “horn of salvation.” The horns of an animal were seen as symbols of power and strength. Here, the image depicted is that God is raising up one who will be strong and powerful and will act in strong and powerful ways for Israel. The one who will be this horn will not be just anyone, but one from the house of David. Again, there is a strong connection between God’s saving acts in the past and the ones that are coming.
As we move through the hymn, an element of national salvation begins to emerge. This mighty savior will come and will save Israel from her enemies and from the hand of those who hate them. All of this will take place as a result of God’s covenant with Israel through Abraham. Israel will finally be able to serve God without fear. We might be tempted to read this in an overly political way, that Zechariah is celebrating the sure defeat of Israel’s political enemies. The fact is, however, that by the time of Luke’s writing, Jerusalem had been conquered completely by the Romans, and the Temple had been destroyed. Without over spiritualizing this part of the hymn, we must read it in a future tense. Ultimately, all our enemies will be destroyed, both politically and spiritually, but it has not yet been completed.
The fact remains that Zechariah is celebrating the God who has been and will be completely faithful to his people. God has not left his children to die but has continued to work for them toward salvation and redemption. Zechariah’s son is now an important part of Israel’s salvation history.
And You Child… At verse 76, the song shifts to speak more directly about John. The language of this part of the hymn almost begs the reader to imagine a quaint scene where Zechariah and his wife are surrounded by friends and family. Zechariah is holding his new son and is uttering this song. At verse 76, he turns his gaze from those around him to his child. Addressing his son, he says, “And you, child…” Every parent spends some time gazing at their newborn child and wonders what they will one day become. What an amazing thing it must have been for Zechariah to look down on his child and know that the life that he holds will be used in a special way by God.
“And you, child will be called prophet of the Most High…” Here, we begin to learn about who John will be and what he will do. Whereas Luke refers to Jesus in 1:32 as “Son of the Most High,” John will be Jesus’ prophet, specifically the one who is called to go before this coming King Jesus. Just as an earthly king would send representatives ahead of him to ensure that residents of a town he planned to visit would be well prepared for his arriving, here God is sending John ahead to prepare his people for the coming of God’s visit in Jesus Christ.
How is it that John will prepare God’s people for God’s coming visit? Zechariah tells us through a series of infinitives: John is going “to give knowledge of salvation…” “to give light…” and “to guide…” First, Zechariah tells us that John will give to the people knowledge of salvation. The phrase, “knowledge of salvation” may be a bit misleading for us. It does not mean that John merely proclaims that salvation is coming or outlines the way in which salvation can be achieved. That salvation was coming and specific ways in which it could be received was already known in Israel. Rather, the phrase “knowledge of salvation” is a Hebrew idiom that deals more with the actual experience of salvation. John will not, in his own power, grant people salvation, but will physically and practically lead people through the experience of salvation (Nolland, 89). John will do this through his preaching and his leading of people to baptism. As we look at the second part of verse 77, we notice that this knowledge of salvation will lead to the forgiveness of sins. Again, John is not forgiving sins; he is leading people to an experience of God’s salvation and through that salvation their forgiveness of sins.
The second infinitive is found in verse 79 but must be kept with the preceding verse as the reason for the giving of the light is given there. It must be noted, however, that John is not the one giving the light, as our English translation might suggest. God is giving the light, but John is the one focusing it on God’s people. John’s job is to prepare the light, to present the light in such a way that the people will recognize it for what it is.
Verse 78 points to the reason for the song, for John’s birth, and for Jesus’ coming. God, in his “tender mercy” has decided to visit us (the NRSV’s “break upon us” is the translation for the same word we discussed above in verse 68, “visit.” Remember there that God’s visiting carries with it a sense of God’s immediate action for the ones he is visiting). It is through God’s compassion and tender mercy for his people that God decides to initiate his visit to us in the person of Jesus. This visit will be like the coming dawn after a great, dark, and hopeless night. Those who sit in the shadow of death will not have that shadow removed from them. The light is coming, and with the light comes life.
The third infinitive, “to guide” works off the second. In a world filled with darkness, it is hard to find one’s way. There are many obstacles in the path and, if one is not careful, the wrong step can lead to death. Here, the giving of the light will allow John to help guide God’s people in the way of peace. Here, “peace” is not just the absence of conflict; it is a state of being that is marked by blessing and favor from God. The way of peace that is described here is the fulfillment of the Jewish greeting, shalom. Shalom is the way things are supposed to be; it is the time and place and way of being that sees all things working for the glory of God their creator.
John, this prophet of the Most High, has been called to prepare God’s people for God’s coming by leading people to an actual experience of salvation and forgiveness that is present in this dark and chaotic world because of the great and tender mercy of God. The light that John prepares the people to receive will be the light that fight backs the darkness of death and sin, the light that leads us to walk in the path of justice and righteousness. This light, which dawns with the birth of Jesus, will guide our feet so that we might discover peace, God’s shalom, his hope for the whole world.
So What? I wonder if you and I aren’t called, by virtue of our baptism in the Christ Jesus, to enact a ministry somewhat like Johns? I wonder if, as we emerge from those baptismal waters as children of God, we could hear the words of God speaking to us that we “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…?”
I don’t mean to say that we will be prophets, predicting future events. I do mean that as we celebrate Christ’s first coming, and eagerly anticipate his second coming, that we might lead God’s children –especially those lost ones– to experience God’s salvation and forgiveness. This is more than just a verbal proclamation but an actual concrete and physical leading of people to salvation. I wonder if, this Advent season and beyond, we can become the kind of people who actively seek out and draw those who are sitting in the shadow of death into the dawning light of Christ? I wonder if we can be a church that actively seeks out the way of peace, the way of God’s shalom, the way things should be, and lead others to that path too? By the grace of God, we will.
Group Discussion Questions
In verse 68, the text says that God has “looked favorably on his people.” The original Greek’s sense is that God has “visited” his people. In the Old Testament when God “visited” his people it meant that God was about to actively work for the benefit of God’s people. What stories in the Old Testament might be examples of God “visiting” his people? How might those stories be similar to what’s happening here in Luke?
Verses 68-75 serve as a brief summary of God’s relationship with Israel to this point. Why would Zechariah give such a summary? How might what God is going to do here through Mary and John be connected to all that has gone before?
Why is John being called to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (vs. 76)?
What does it mean to “give knowledge of salvation to his people” (vs. 77)?
What does it look like, for us and those around us today, to “sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (vs. 79)? How might the dawning light of Christ help those who sit in the shadow of death?
John is said to help us walk in “the way of peace” (vs. 79). Peace here is more than just the absence of conflict; it is the wholeness that comes from living in a state of blessing by God. For the Jews, peace was encapsulated in the idea of “shalom.” What is shalom? How might we, as a church, walk in and help others walk in the way of shalom?
John was a special character in the story of God’s salvation for humanity, yet we may be called to be like John in the way he prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. During Advent, we not only celebrate Jesus’ first coming, but we eagerly anticipate Jesus’ second coming. Using this passage, how might we take up a role similar to John’s?