Announcing the Birth of the Forerunner

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Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilos, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zachariah [which means “God remembers”], of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth [which means “God’s promise”]. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zachariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

And Zachariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? (rhetorical: doubt) For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

And the people were waiting for Zachariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zachariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John [which means “God is gracious”].” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors.

And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel

LUKE 1:1-25, 57-68, 76, 80

When Zachariah hears the Angel he says, “How will I know?” This is not a question. In Hebrew, when you want to make an emphatic statement, you ask a question. God says to Gideon (forcefully), “have I not sent you?” (Judges 6:14) It means “Look!! I am sending you!” Likewise, in the history books in the Bible, they say, “as for the rest of the story … is it not written in the records of the kings of Israel?” (1 Kings 16:14) That means, “everything about it is all written in that book.” In today’s gospel, Zachariah is telling the angel that he does not believe. That is why the angel confronts him for doubting.

The consequence of expressing doubt was that now Zachariah was not allowed to express his doubt to anyone else. He was not allowed to cause others to doubt. This was not “instant karma” or poetic justice. God made him mute out of concern for the community.

What did the Angel say would happen through the ministry of St. John the Baptist? He said that John would, “Turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.” I was surprised at this when I re-read the gospel this time. I would have expected the angel to say that the children’s hearts would be turned to their fathers, because that sounds like a conversion towards obedience. The children should obey their parents. To be sure, the angel did not say that children should not obey, or even that the fathers would obey the children. But the angel did say that the hearts of the fathers would be turned, in other words they would love their children. In what way did the fathers not love their children, then, that the angel would need to say that?

We have to remember that “love” in the bible is a description of actions that arise out of fondness and dedication. In the Bible, love is not an emotion or an attitude per-se. What he means is that he fathers will begin to do what is good for their children. What will the fathers do? The “disobedient will be turned to the wisdom of the just,” i.e. the wisdom that leads to being just. The fathers did not love their children, because the fathers were disobedient to God and did not follow (or even know) the wisdom of the just. The unjustness of parents is detrimental to children. Your sins are hurting other people, even the ones you say you love.

When we express disbelief in the promises of God, that infects our children, it affects our friends, our co-workers, people we do not know. When we speak words of disdain or contempt for that which God has called Holy, or when our actions show contempt for what is just, this is not love for our children, but hatred towards our children.

We do this when we ignore the small obediences that God has given us. Speed limits. Being careful about what we watch on TV so as to avoid immoral and unedifying things. Expressing opinions about other people, when they are not present. Pettiness and bickering and stubbornness, especially towards our family. This proclaims loud and clear, that we do not agree with Jesus when he says that our righteousness should exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. We do not agree, because we do not do it.

We defy God in the small things, and still we expect to have credibility as the moral compass for society. Perhaps we express more disdain and more despair about the state of society around us than we express praise and love towards God. Perhaps we are more preoccupied with what society is doing wrong, than with the suffering of those who are right next to us. We would not have time for preoccupation with society if we were properly attentive to our families and our friends. Where is the defiant hope and stubborn faith that God will make all things new in the end? The gospel is “repent and believe … for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

When we preach about politics more often than we praise God, that tells anyone listening that we do not believe that Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, because our attitudes and our alliances bind us together with a nebulous and ecumenical notion of a “Christian society.” We identify ourselves first and foremost as belonging to the “Conservative Christian” tribe, the majority of whom are people who reject our faith. When we adopt this heterodox worldview, even if it goes under the heading of “Conservative Christians,” that is like telling the world that the Orthodox Church has nothing to add, nothing different to offer. When our words about society are identical to the hand-wringing of all others around us who call themselves Christians, that is not the fulness of the faith. That is not love towards our children, because it muddies the waters and obscures the uniqueness of the church which has the fullness of the faith.

Perhaps we presume to correct the church and revise the gospel? We imply that, “yes, the Orthodox Church has the beauty of icons and incense, and a liturgy that enraptures us, but doesn’t the church need to modernize in its attitudes towards the things which are pressing and controversial in today’s society? Doesn’t it need to modernize a bit?” People normally do this because they fear, more than anything else, being rejected and not belonging in the secular world. Can we trust God to give us a fulfilled life even if we are outed as Christians? Even if we are known to be different, can we still feel accepted and loved somewhere? That is the fear behind these those who advocate for overturning the Church’s vision of morality and the God-given vision of order of the family and the hierarchical leadership. If we see obedience, submission and hierarchy as the enemy, and we talk about the Church in the same tone of voice, and with the same phrases as other people do when they speak of revolution, protests and activism, then we are proclaiming a false gospel. Perhaps, in our ambivalence towards the gospel of holiness, we are proclaiming that God’s promise to keep his Church forever, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is an ideal, and not a reality? Obedience becomes the enemy, and rebellion becomes salvation.

The children are listening. The world is listening and watching. It would be better for us, if we were prevented from acting with such presumption. Perhaps we too should be made mute so at least we would not cause the little ones to sin. Or if we are not made mute, at least we could be given prayers to pray, and psalms and hymns to sing, so that we learn to speak the right words. That is precisely why the church gives us these words of prayer and song which are tested by time, and passed down to us from generation to generation. The silent prayers of the priest at Orthros say, “for we know not how to pray as we ought unless Thou, o Lord, dost teach us.”

The angel said “John will turn the disobedient back to God.” And when Zachariah’s mouth is opened (i.e. when God makes him able to speak again), he says, “God … has visited and redeemed his people.” The angels says, John “will” preach, but Zachariah says, “God has redeemed his people.” Why?

It is because the salvation of God is unavoidable, unthwarted, a blessed assurance for those who love God. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.

In Romans 8, St. Paul writes,

“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Today’s gospel says that John lived in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation. He was a Nazarite. What is that? In Numbers 6, God tells Moses that people may voluntarily dedicate themselves to God for a certain period of their lives. And during that period they do not cut their hair, drink wine or go near a dead body, which was traditionally interpreted as including meat. It was something kind of like how Orthodox monks live (in case you didn’t know, Orthodox monks and nuns do not eat meat).

John dedicated himself to a life that was completely different than the lives of those he was sent to, so as to have the moral authority to call them to a higher path. It gave him the moral authority to say such harsh words as “you are a brood of vipers.” People put up with his bluntness because he was so obviously filled with the Holy Spirit.

His life of holiness lead him to the moment when he saw the Son of God descending into the water, filling the whole of creation with new life. John the Baptist was able to hear the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism. He told the crowd, “I saw the spirit descending,” in a way that makes me wonder if the others perhaps had not seen it. None of the gospels say that anyone besides Jesus or John heard the voice of the Father (they also do not explicitly say that the other people did not hear it).

We dedicate ourselves to humility, to the small acts of righteousness which are in fact enormous. We forgive those who are closest to us, those who hurt us the most with even the smallest of actions. We ransack our hearts so as to make the fullest confession of our sins, and when we do that, we receive the greatest joy, the most potent reminder of the forgiveness that is from God. We are faithful with our tithes, thoughtful with our words, softly spoken so as not to burden others with our opinions. We pray for others, looking eagerly for any opportunity to bless others. We follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit which has been given to the Church, even we fear that we will not be able to belong fully to the fallen world.

John the Baptist described Jesus’ ministry as the wedding of the Bridegroom with his bride (who is the church). We are on the road to the heavenly wedding banquet. This is the way to the true gathering place of God’s people. This is the joyful celebration of the brethren who dwell together in peace. This is the way to a pure heart, and those who are pure in heart will see God.

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