This past Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the church heard the preaching of John the Baptist to the ‘brood of vipers’ as he called them, recorded in Luke’s gospel. It was a reminder to me of how we learn incrementally and how long it can take me to connect the dots. It is testimony also to the limitations of hearing scripture read in short extracts such as one experiences in a worship service.
The dots I mean are the appearing of John the Baptist in the desert, preaching, and the birth of, well, John the Baptist. Somehow the clouds broke on one occasion of saying or singing Canticle 4 “The Song of Zechariah” also known by it’s Latin first line, Benedictus Dominus Deus.
A little more than half way through are the lines, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins;…To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way peace.”
I experienced this canticle just as a canticle until the question came to me one day, “who is this child that this refers to?” It becomes painfully and embarrassingly obvious if one just reads all of the first three chapters of Luke to get the context of it all. It is none other than John the Baptist, six months older than Jesus and his cousin. These are the words spoken by Zechariah when his speech returns after having been struck dumb three months earlier by the angel Gabriel because he was skeptical about what Gabriel had just told him – that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son.
Some editions of the Bible make it easier to tie things together by proving headings for small chunks. For example, the Thompson Chain Reference Bible I’m looking at right now has these helpful headings: “The Birth of John the Baptist;” and four pages later, “John the Baptist Prepares the Way.” The actual text isn’t so helpful. John comes on the scene in the desert as “John son of Zechariah,” not “John the Baptist.” There is in the text though this tie back to Zechariah’s prophetic words thirty years earlier, in reference to John as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about “a voice of one calling the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord.”
So I‘m reminded once again of the words of the collect about scripture, that they are written for our learning; and that we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them” so that we may “hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 15-December-2015.