Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, 2018.
The words that the prophet Isaiah hears in the fortieth chapter come to him after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of its leading citizens. The religious, political, and social institutions were no more. The Davidic dynasty was gone, the temple was in ruins, its priesthood scattered. Darkness pervaded everything. And so it was for this reason that in Isaiah we do not hear a call for the people to recognize their failure and confess their infidelity to God. There was no way to deny those were the case, the truth of their infidelity to God was so self-evident and pervasive.
The prophet Isaiah saw a dramatic upheaval stirring on the horizon. “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” sings our hymn during Holy Communion, a hymn that paraphrases our first reading, “speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning neath their sorrows load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.” The eleven verses of our reading sum up all of Isaiah’s message. In an astonishing announcement, God has forgiven Jerusalem and its people. His gift is unmerited, undeserved, and through no effort of their own. Their task, rather, is to proclaim this message, proclaim this gift of love, to all the cities of Judah. To stir, prod, cajole, invite, and induce the people to “Behold your God!”—behold the divine in religious astonishment, in true fear. Get ye up to the high mountain of prayer. God will feed us like a shepherd, He will gather the lambs in His arms, He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
By the time of Elizabeth, Zachariah and John the Baptist, the Jewish religion had heard and ruminated upon the prophet Isaiah for at least five centuries. Isaiah, along with Ezekiel, were among the most preached upon books of Sacred Scripture, so they would have known well Isaiah’s announcement of hope in God the good shepherd and all that went with that announcement. The temple in their day had been partially rebuilt, and so there was reason to take Isaiah’s seriously. And yet, the Jewish people, and indeed the entire temple, were under the control not of the Jewish religion but the Roman occupiers. A kind of spiritual and religious ennui had crept in: a listlessness, lassitude, a spiritual malaise. Religion had become a habit, and little more. A habit without a spark, a habit without energy, without surprise, without adventure, without unpredictability.
This is why Zachariah, a devout priest of the temple who was doing his religious duty when the archangel Gabriel announced to him that his wife Elizabeth, also a devout Jew, would bear a son, and that his name would be John (not Zachariah which would have been the custom, which indicates that John’s vocation from conception was to be on mission from God), had the rather uninspiring reaction to Gabriel’s message, despite how extraordinary its words:
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 Eli?jah, 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’s response? Disbelief. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Living a religious life purely of habit had drained him of what should have been a rich biblical imagination that recognizes that God works against all odds and despite whatever circumstances to bring about salvation for His people.
He had forgotten about what a prominent theologian today calls the Old Testament “theology of woman.” This refers to the pattern of dramatic reversal where the infertile one ultimately turns out to be the truly blessed. We this prominently in the history of the patriarchs: in Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. The true son of Abraham, for example, Isaac, traces his origin not to his biological father, but to the one who, in a new way beyond mere physical birth, has conceived through the creative power of God’s word of promise, a word that manifests through women. The great women of Israel represent the true spiritual identity of Israel.
Zachariah cannot believe that Elizabeth, elderly and therefore infertile, can be a mother. Many people of his day, particularly it seems the men, cannot believe that from this old temple and faith can come the divine spark of hope, surprise and new venture in faith. It had to be shown by God, as He had done time and time again. The pattern of forgetting God’s mighty acts, His inestimable love, that we see in the Exodus and wilderness by the people led by Moses continues to manifest time and time again in religious life.
Zechariah, because of this disbelief that is symbolic of centuries of disbelief, was put into a time-out. No more talking, God effectively told him. Your words are getting in the way. Time for you to sit quietly, watch, listen, and think about what’s going on. And what he watched was the birth of the truly extraordinary. His son was to be a key player in the true Gospel. By grace, Zachariah finally saw it. God had penetrated his denseness, his hardness of heart. “His name is John!” and all marveled in religious astonishment before the divine power. Accepting his son’s name indicated acceptance of all that was promised by Gabriel, acceptance of his son’s vocation, and therefore his own also. “You, child,” you, my son, “will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins,” (there’s Isaiah’s promised hope again, realized here in Saint John), “through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Brothers and sisters, Saint John the Baptist is a permanent herald of the new and universal act of salvation which is Christ crucified and resurrected, present to us in the Sacraments—available to us so that we too can be comforted in the darkness. Indeed that the glory of the Lord now over the earth is shed abroad; that all flesh shall see the token that the Word of God is never broken.