His Name is John!

Zacharias was still ministering in the temple. It seems that he thought he was coming to the end of the line. He was the latest and – it seemed to him – the last in his ancient priestly line. After him there would be none in his family line to serve the Lord and to minister in the Temple in Jerusalem. Was this not end of the road? Did he not have to accept that this was it, since he and his wife, Elizabeth, had no children after many years of marriage and now they were both getting on in years?

Luke explains his Gospel, in his preface to Theophilus – to whom, we recall, the Book of Acts was also addressed – in these terms:

It is true that many have taken it upon themselves to collect together, in a well-ordered fashion, an account of the events that have been accomplished for us, those having taken place and also believed among us, as delivered to us by those who, from the outset, were eyewitnesses and who had become custodians of the word. And so it seemed quite appropriate for me – having first accurately followed up on all [these] things that were part of the stories of others –  to write [this] to you – most highly valued Theophilus [friend of God] – in order that you might know the reliability of what has been passed on to you [by word of mouth].

Luke is aware that the Risen Christ, in giving His own account of His life and ministry, had given pride of place to John the Baptist. John’s Baptism prepared Israel for the coming of God’s Anointed. The Spirit’s baptism – which, by contrast with that of John, was for all who believed, whatever their race, Jew or Gentile – would have to first come to those who had been following Jesus in His earthly ministry (Acts 1:4-5). “You shall receive power!”

And so in telling us the full story of Jesus’ ministry, Luke, in line with Jesus’ own account, is also bound to tell us about the son that God gave to Zacharias and Elizabeth. And from the time of his conception and birth they confessed that it was of the Lord. The Almighty had sent a messenger to them to inform Zacharias that this treasure would be granted to them.

With the visit of this messenger – a life-changing vision for Zacharias as he served at the right side of the sacrificial altar where incense was offered – Luke tells us in a delicate but decisive way that Zacharias was provoked to “try again” and Elizabeth his wife consented, and she conceived.

Even as the babe grew in her womb, there was great relief granted to that married couple. There had been sneering, a reproachful judgement upon her and thus of their marriage. It may not have been openly stated but “end of the road Zacharias” would need sympathy. After all, why would God have arranged it for him to marry a woman who was so evidently barren? It was deeply felt. But God in His mercy had decreed that the public reproach upon that married couple was to be decisively overcome. God is good. He keeps His promises. Elizabeth indeed conceived after they “tried again”.

It was, Luke tells us, Gabriel, the angel of the Lord who had encouraged Zacharias to do so. He was not to hold back with this “we’re too old” excuses. His stuttered advice to the angel was too disbelieving and so his mouth was stopped. He may have been in the line of Abraham, a priest in the line of Abijah, but with a child to be on the way he had been  caught out in his disbelief. He was rendered dumb at least until the baby was born.

Oh lovely story! We can hear the chorus of sentimental appreciation that our telling may receive. The old couple become parents. A surprise baby in their old age. Oh that’s so lovely. And putting it in its ethnic context – here they are in their senior years playing out the same dilemma that Abraham and Sarah had faced long ago, the background to the story of how Israel came to occupy it’s place in God’s Kingdom. And so, it seems, the story is delightful!
What a nice way for us to prepare all those “religious” people who still think that Christmas is still worth the church’s involvement in “season’s greetings”!
Won’t this story help them to hold on to their religion and be of cheer – after all there’s so much to make a person doubt these days, let alone the stopping of bible stories at state schools and kindergartens!
Optimism triumphant over pessimism!
Is this not a story that needs to be told to stir the faith of religious people of Christian background, encouraging them to have faith as they live out their lives?
And who knows, when all the preachers and theologians re-work this story they may just entice a new generation to get excited about having babies, and then having done so, they might even entice them to come to church, and maybe have them christened. And so the role of church chaplains in maternity wings of hospitals and Christian consultants to the IVF clinics will be blessed by a new wave that promotes itself as a re-spiritualisation or a de-secularisation of child-birth and using this story to encourage the millennial and “z” generations  to have babies and not give up, not even if the are among those who are not married.
And after all isn’t “z” the end of the alphabet – what is to come after “z”? And the “narrative” will be spun and given a kind of spiritual legitimacy by referring to how “end of the road Zacharias” was not really at the end of the road. And so the spiritualising of Luke’s Gospel may well run …

Nice try, but Luke was not trying to convince us about the importance of our fertility “choices” as is presupposed by the above satirical reading and application of the passage I have given. In fact Luke says right at the outset that he is writing so that those who are already believers in Jesus Christ might know the story in terms of the  background to which Jesus Himself had pointed. This is important to this way of life.

And here we note something peculiar in Luke’s account – consider Luke’s report of the angel’s reassurance:

For with God such things are surely not impossible! or No word of God shall be devoid of His power (Luke 1:37).

The messenger was reassuring Mary about the fact that she and her aged aunt have conceived. God can and does what He wills with His creation. In these instances the coming into the world of a new life, an image-bearer of the Lord, is not to be considered as an arbitrary “one off” – the pregnancy of the aged woman who was sneeringly considered barren is no less an event blessed by God than the conception of the young woman who has never yet been united with a man, let alone her betrothed.

Here the Good News shines into the gloom of well established traditions and we are left appreciative of how Zacharias’ dismissive unbelief contrasts with Mary’s faithful confusion (1:34).

I suspect that those of us Christians prone to the sentimentalist “smoothing” of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth stand in need of listening carefully to what that messenger of the Almighty said to Mary. I have the suspicion that contemporary young people are somewhat more impervious to the Gospel than I was when I was noted out of church-going complacency to seek a “Christian perspective” 45 years ago. In conversing with younger people, and thinking long and hard about their responses to what I thought the Gospel of Jesus Christ has to say to them, I have become very much aware that there is an instinctive tendency abroad that would interpret anything that I, and “my generation”, might say in terms of a suspicion that “my generation” is wanting to make my generation’s norms normative for this generation. It’s not that this younger generation is so much suspicious of our generation; it is that there is the widespread belief abroad that this is what every generation does and that they are keen to remind us that that is so and that older should not be imposing their norms on those who are younger.

The problem, however, as Nurturing Justice has pointed out previously this is part of a perspective that assumes that public ethics needs to be subjected to this theory that social life is at root the amalgamation of sovereign individual choices.

In other words, I am trying to counter the view that the Christian political option put forward here by Nurturing Justice is simply doing what we are all presumed to do – make our own time, our own norms in our own generation normative for everyone else, those older and those younger. What then is the consequence of this “suspicion”?

The result is the widespread presumption of a “new normativity”, the view that we all have to resist this oppressive tendency and simply allow everyone in each generation to form their own norms, to decide their own choices, to experience genuine freedom of choice in all spheres of life according to what “comes up” in their own generation’s time.

And so in this generation the revolt is no longer a revolt against the generalised norms that prevailed in the youth of their parents, we see the emergence of a “new-breed” against what was normative when the parents of the “new-breeds” were new parents. Think about it! How did it happen that for some the political front-line became debate about the public lavatory? Is it not an attempt to challenge parental nurture with the demand for “gender-choice” by those overawed by the demands of delicate “new breeds”?

And at points Nurturing Justice will be tolerated, even warmly. Even given a few “thumbs up” or “likes” when it seems we are giving expression to this neo-liberal post-modern view! But for a person to follow the Christian line suggested by Nurturing Justice? That’s going too far. That would imply that a younger generation does not need to make their own choices.

If following Christ is going to truly promote freedom it will have to do without any attempt to suggest that a new generation’s choices to embrace freedom as they freely choose to see it should be circumvented in any way whatsoever.

Exactly how we – the older post-war generation of the inaugural teenage “generation gap” – got into this situation of effective teflon-like communication slippage, requires a lot more further reflection. It has something to do with what is relentlessly sold to us as “new”, “innovative”, “upgrade” and so on. But it is also to do with our willingness to buy this ideology. It has something to do with “popular culture”.

It has something to do with “commercialisation”. It has much to do with the understanding of what being “progressive” means; it has to do with the assertion of human rights in a new hyper-individualised way that demands respect for chosen identity no matter what. (It might also require us to ignore the fact that the current identity-ideologists are the latest form of platonic essentialists, the inheritors of a deconstruction that was confessed a few years back to be the definitive gateway to enlightenment and freedom).

I received a reminder about this state of affairs after delving into my archives (see the recent posts that I have re-published from 1989 papers) . I found a copy of “Interchange 49” published by the AFES Graduates Fellowship of 1991. And there following my tryptic on how the Sermon on the Mount can help us understand the defining moment of the “Dawkins’ reforms” for how university students were set to be decisively and intensively nurtured in the individualism of neo-liberalism, is an article by my friend, Zadok director and editor Gordon Preece: “The Future Extent of IVF Research”. That was a quarter century ago.

What are we to say now? It seems that such “radical Christian perspectives” have scarcely skimmed the surface of Christians of our own generation let alone previous or subsequent ones. And Christian professionals, like myself and Gordon, (and others) may have been unremitting in trying to set forth a Christian perspective on (what I have referred to in this blog as) “body politics” and still there is a need to start all over again when we address Christians with Biblically-directed urgency, let alone figuring out how to address those of other religious commitments, let alone the politicians that need to hear about a Christian political option! Let alone Gen-X, Gen-Y and Gen-Z!

By setting ourselves to articulate such a Christian perspective we now must face up to the fact (again) that we need to re-articulate against the dominant trend. We find ourselves, as Abraham Kuiper so neatly put it 125 years ago, fighting what seems to be a perpetual rearguard action.

So to return to Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist …

But before we get back to the issue of reproduction, of baby John growing and then jumping about in his mother’s womb at the sound of the also-pregnant Mary’s voice, let us consider briefly our everyday life, and how what we take for granted impinges upon how we read this ancient story. Here we are in a world bursting at the seams, while we in the privileged west debate how many homeless asylum seekers we take into our wealthy polity, being filled to the brim with reports and news and public questioning everything, which sooner or later confronts us with the developments that have been formed and guided by the dominant world-view of our time.

Yes, male university students in California have, for decades, supplemented the repayment of their university loans by cash received from weekly visits to sperm banks … do we have to reiterate just how much our political life is now dominated by questions, doubts and demands to do with sexuality, marriage and family, fertility research, pharmaceutical phantasies, hormone treatment, let alone the new “products” on offer to enhance “transitioning” for the masses so that they can embrace the sexual identity in which they find themselves? Do we have to reiterate this? Possibly not.

And whether or not we use the terms of deepest profanity to express our frustration (at least as such terms were never to be uttered publicly or privately 40 or 50 years ago), we should still become aware of how brutally sexualised our everyday language can become. One only has to take a glance at articles in the free music magazines that are waiting for you to pick them up at railway stations or other public places and public libraries, to realise just how seemingly “normal” such profanity has become – at least for some in that “market niche”. I’m not going to degrade my blog by listing these. But think about this taken-for-granted language and, if you dare, reflect upon the occasions of your own use of these terms.

“Woe is me!” lamented Isaiah broken, “Woe is me! For I am done for; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Let me add as an aside that if I were in a secondary school class-room as a teacher I might find myself chalking these terms all up on the board in a lesson for Grade Ten students, or if I were still teaching at university in a course on the Sociology of Pop Kulcha Deviance, in order to form a discussion that aimed to begin to think about how to  subject our everyday language to the kind of rigorous normative critique that we all, and not just a rising generation, need. Why? Because even if we do not enunciate the filthy words as part of our speech, they are ready and waiting to take up residence in our lives, there in the films, books, punk-rockified articles in music magazines, let alone in music lyrics….

And so I am seeking here to discuss Luke’s account of the birth of John, in order to find whether there is a way to begin to deal with such an everyday problem which has a decisive impact on who we are, what we do and how we talk. Consider: how can we ever properly deal with the political questions of sexuality, let alone marriage and family, as long as an utterance of the famous four letter word is presumed to be merely a public signifier of the right to “freedom of speech”?

Does it not get regular utterance in spitted anger or in terms so dismissive that it then becomes a convenient piece of punctuation, fully ignoring the word’s etymology but at the same seeking to fully exploit its explosive potential? Is not one of these famous prominent reviling words, as we well know, referring to that event between our parents when we (or at least the vast majority of us) were about to be conceived? If all we had to educate ourselves about sexuality was our language, and we began our self-education by considering how this word is used in our speech, would we not very soon become convinced that all of us had been conceived in anger, by an act that was repulsively violent, even by rape?  Let’s get serious shall we.

We confront ongoing public agitation about sexual violence and family violence, sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse, and yet are we really ashamed, or even willing to become ashamed if we have lost the ability to be embarrassed, by our language, our thoughts?

In all the talk about sensitive souls who don’t want to be told that a same-sex sexual attraction is no basis for a marriage, we have not heard these wiseacres – politicians and bandwagoning professionals – making the case for cleaning up the language that litters and spews out in public life! Just how much are we willing to tolerate in our own speaking and conversation with others?

How are we to find a way to expunge such God-cursing words from our own thinking, extracting them from our own hearts?

Maybe we need to rethink in a truly radical way and ask ourselves whether our own language usage, the words we use, as well as those we keep “powder dry” for when we might need to use them, reveals a revulsion in our hearts about the way God has made us and allowed us to come forth? That’s what I think we, of this generation, whatever our age, should keep in mind as we read the early pages of Luke’s Gospel.

Well, what specifically has this to do with these first chapters of Luke? I would suggest that our conversation on this matter has everything to do with our appreciation for the birth of John the Baptist because it involves us personally in the very reality that is being discussed here – sexual intercourse between husband and wife, father and mother. And that act of “late in life” sexual marital intercourse, no doubt delicately done, needs to be appreciated in its creational fulness.

The entire biblical witness is that we cannot actually grasp the significance of this account if we fail to see it as part of the bigger story of John’s cousin, the Person for whom John prepared the way. And Jesus told His disciples in the short time before He left them that they indeed needed to remember the story of His cousin, John the Baptist.

For Christians, those who have come to believe, that means this is also an important page in our own story, the story of our place in God’s kingdom, as children in God’s own family, born again into it, as the image bearers male and female He created us to be from the outset.

Let it sink in and as you do so don’t try to push away all the “body politics” echoes that begin to resonate in your imagination and mind. Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel came to redeem His entire creation and that includes us, which means that the moment of our own beginning to come into this world is also part of His overall superintendence of God’s Kingdom. Ponder it.

Zacharias was provoked to “try again” from a vision he had of Gabriel – the messenger of God. He gave voice to his reservations and Luke tells us that the angel stopped Zacharias’ mouth – he was unable to speak until the baby was born.

Let’s dwell there for a brief minute. Let us note Luke’s account that the priest Zacharias was unable to speak from that moment until the baby was born. That means he was dumb at the moment of John’s conception. Enough written – ponder it.

But before we get to John’s birth in this account, Luke tells us that Elizabeth in her five months confinement, overcame the sneering, reproachful judgement of her community, perhaps of those who even had some “blokey sympathy” with “end of the line” Zacharias.

But Luke also tells us that Elizabeth could sing about her confinement because God had acted in her life to stop the presumptive hurt of those who sneered at her childlessness:

For five months she hid herself saying: “Thus in this way has the Lord worked for me when he investigated my condition in order to take away the presumptive [hurtful] view men had of me [about my lack of children]”.

Did not she and her husband have to deal with the oh-so-pious questions about their marriage?

What could God have been doing by allowing one of his priests in the line of Abijah to enter into a marriage from which no offspring would be born? That presumption could only arise because people were in denial of God’s overflowing mercy to those who are childless:

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 54:1)

Elizabeth says in effect:

The presumptive arrogance that I had brought Zacharias to the end of the line has been thoroughly undermined by the intervention of the Lord Almighty. Hallelujah!

And the irony too is that in its arrogance it was hopelessly forgetful of how Abraham and Sarah were blessed, and that began this long, long story of God’s patience with His people. And so Luke tells us that Elizabeth, like Zacharias and Mary, were poets, song writers.

Elizabeth sang her song because the cruelty was overcome in a most remarkable way. And here then was born, accompanied by such wordsmithing, the one who would prepare the way for Israel’s Messiah!

And we see how, when the birth was celebrated that the family and friends automatically assumed that the baby would continue Abijah’s line, with a young Zacharias just like his father. But when Zacharias backed up his wife’s insistence by writing:

His name is John!

Not only was his tongue loosened, but from this time we have now received his resultant paean to the Lord God of Israel.

This song of the repentant priest who got his voice back when God brought His promises to fulfilment in his life, joins the chant of his wife and the song formed by Elizabeth’s niece, Mary of Nazareth, from when she visited her aunt during the time of her own pregnancy.

A new section of the Book of Worship of the People of God was inaugurated.

Well blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;

For in His oversight He has wrought emancipation for His people;

And has raised up [one who will sound] a horn of rescue,

salvation for [us] His people,

And in the house of His houseboy David.

As He spoke by the mouths of His holy, ancient prophets,

Rescue/salvation from our enemies

Out of the hand of all that hold us in contempt.

To give and keep on giving the mercy shown to our fathers

In remembrance of His Holy Covenant

The oath He guaranteed to Father Abraham to give to us,

So that fearlessly we would be delivered from an enemy's grasp,

To serve Him in pure integrity and right-standing

All our days.

And you, young man of my house

You will indeed become known as the prophet of the Most High

For you will go on before the face of the Lord

To prepare His paths,

In order to give understanding of salvation to His people,

The forgiveness of their sins

All because of nothing less than our God's tender mercies.

By which, as from the dawn the sun rises to its full height

In order to shine upon those dwelling in deep darkness

Sitting it out in the shadows of death.

And instead to guide our feet into the peaceful way.

And so Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist, and whatever reason the Almighty Lord of heaven and earth had that His Son be born without a human biological father, we notice that Luke decisively affirms the goodness  of the gentle and sensitive human act that brings a new generation into God’s world.

He has told us, as a prelude to the ongoing story of God’s own Kingly decree to bring in the complete recreation of His fallen world, that this most important part of God’s creation remains for us humans, male and female, to responsibly cultivate and to delight in, as in our human life we receive a new generation of male and female, just like ourselves, whether we are married or not, since we then live under the canopy of His persistent love, care and mercy.

BCW 7 10 16

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