The Birth of John the Baptist
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel alternate between stories of two births. One is the annunciation and birth of John the Baptist, who was, for Luke, the last great prophet of the Old Testament and who prepared the way for someone greater than any prophet—Jesus the Messiah. The annunciation and birth of Jesus is the other story. The story of John sets the very Jewish environment into which Jesus and John were born. Jesus’ annunciation and birth begins to move the Gospel into the environment of the Roman Empire.
We read today that Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives rejoice with her because God has shown her mercy in the birth of a son. But they are confused when she tells them that his name is to be John, which means “God has been gracious.” Zechariah has been unable to speak since Gabriel appeared, because, he doubted the angel’s word. But when he writes on a tablet “John is his name” all are amazed, and a great fear comes upon everyone. Fear, along with joy and praise, is for Luke the appropriate response to God’s mercy. People ask, “What, then, will this child be?” But this question has already been answered by the angel. “He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.”
The name John means “the Lord is gracious.” In the birth of John and in the birth of Jesus the Messiah we see the grace of God breaking forth into a world broken by sin and death and without hope. John’s miraculous birth shows the mercy and favour of God in preparing his people for the coming of its Lord and Saviour, the Christ. John the Baptist was the sign that points to the coming of the Messiah.