The Birth of John the Baptist.
Once upon a time, long ago in the land of Judea there lived a priest called Zechariah. His wife's name was Elizabeth and they were good people, and lived by the laws of God and of man.
But there was a great sadness in their life for they had no children and now they were too old. Elizabeth was particularly unhappy because in those days it was considered a great disgrace for a woman to have no children and in fact most men would divorce such a woman and marry someone else. But Zechariah was a good kind man and he stayed with Elizabeth.
One day it was Zechariah's turn to go into the temple, into the holiest part where ordinary people were not allowed, and there to burn incense and pray to God. And while the priest
did this the congregation waited patiently outside.
Zechariah had just got the incense going and the scented blue smoke starting to ascend, when to his great astonishment he saw an angel standing by the alter looking at him. He was very tall and dressed all in white, his hair was like polished copper and his eyes were the clear blue of the summer sea.
Zechariah was terrified. He fell to the ground and covered his head with his hands. "Do not be afraid, Zechariah", said the angel. "I am Gabriel, and I have been sent from God with a message for you. Your long prayers have been heard and your wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, you are to call him John. He will be a great joy and ....."
"But Sir,' interjected Zechariah so surprised that he forgot to be afraid.
"He will be a great joy", continued the angel silencing Zechariah with a wave of his hand. "Many nations will rejoice at his birth."
"But Sir," said Zechariah again. "My wife Elizabeth is a very old lady."
Once again the angel imperiously signalled the old priest to be quiet.
"……… he will be a great joy and bring many of the people back to God and ..... "
"But Sir," insisted the stubborn old priest, "I think you must be mixing us up with some other people my wife Elizabeth is far too old to have a baby!”
Gabriel stared in amazement at Zechariah. His blue eyes no longer looked like a summer sea, but had become distinctly frosty.
"Heaven knows I am a patient angel," said Gabriel, glancing up to Heaven to assure himself that he spoke the truth. "But never, never in my life, have I had such difficulty in delivering a message."
"Yes, but” said Zechariah.
"SILENCE" said Gabriel loudly. "I have been visiting this planet since it was little more than a blob of boiling mud, and in all that time no-one has ever argued with me."
"But Sir” said Zechariah.
"Right!, that's it" said Gabriel, "That's done it." He pointed a finger straight at Zechariah's open mouth and the old man felt a peculiar fizzing sensation at the end of his tongue. He tried to speak again but no sound came out.
"Now," said Gabriel, with a slightly less than angelic expression. "Now perhaps I might be permitted to get a word in, edgeways. As I was so patiently trying to explain, your wife Elizabeth
is going to have a baby and whether you believe it or not is neither here nor there. You are to call him John and his job is to announce the coming of the Lord. And you,my friend, will remain silent and not be able to speak, at all, until the child is born."
And with a crackle of electricity, the angel was gone.
All the time that this was going on, the people were waiting outside becoming more and more worried and wondering if anything had happened to Zechariah.
"He's been gone simply ages", they said to each other. "Do you suppose we should go in and see if he has been taken ill?"
"But we are not allowed into the holy place", said others. "The Lord might be angry if we go in there."
At last, while they were still discussing what to do, the door opened and Zechariah appeared on the step. He looked quite wild, he opened his mouth but no sound came out. He pointed to the heavens and flapped his arms up and down to indicate wings.
"Oh, dear, whatever has happened to the old boy," they said to each other, "Perhaps he has had a stroke, he doesn't seem able to speak.”
“But why is he waving his arms about like that and pointing to heaven? perhaps he has seen a vision."
They stood aside and let Zechariah make his way home. Zechariah tried to explain to Elizabeth what had happened by writing with a stick on wax tablet, but she just stared at him with startled and worried eyes and shook her head. 'Angel' he wrote 'in the temple, you will have a baby.' Elizabeth looked at him sadly and taking his hand, led him to bed to lie down.
However as the weeks went by the amazing suspicion began to dawn on that perhaps she was going to have a baby.
At first she could hardly believe it, but when she was really sure her great joy knew no bounds. She felt a little shy however and did not go out of the house much, avoiding her friends and neighbours. One day, after five months, Elizabeth's young cousin Mary came to visit her from Nazareth.
Mary told her she too had seen an angel and was going to have a baby.
For a long time the two women chatted together about the wonderful things that had happened.
After three months Mary had to go home and in due course of time Elizabeth David birth to a fine baby boy.
Her happiness was complete.
She was not even worried because Zachariah could not speak.
They now knew what the angel said was true and he had promised that the priest's voice would return to him when the child was born.
On the eighth day they took the baby to the temple to be giving his name.
All the relations took it for granted that as the first and surely the only son, he would be called Zachariah after his father, But Elizabeth spoke up.
"No no," she said "his name is John."
"John! chorused their relations in amazement "What sort of name is John? We had a cousin Jonathan that he took to drink and married a Hittite. Surely you don't want to call the child after him. No, no, Zachariah is the obvious name for the baby.
Someone handed the old priest his waxed tablet and he wrote on it 'his name is John'.
Immediately he felt a curious fizzing the sensation on the tip of his tongue and he opened his mouth and shouted.
"HIS NAME IS JOHN, OH PRAISE BE TO GOD, HIS NAME IS JOHN."
And the whole family started to shout and sing and dance about and praise God for the wonderful thing that had happened.