“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:17).
We know that angels will appear on Christmas Eve, in due course, and soon enough, to greet the Savior’s birth; but for his part, the angel Gabriel is hard at work long before that, preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. In the Advent season we encounter him twice in Luke’s Gospel, part of the advance team making on-site visits, checking to see that everything’s prepared.
The second of these is Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary, to announce to her that she will be the mother of the Messiah. She has to say “yes” to the amazing invitation; she must be prepared in faith and openness of spirit to accept the call. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35). She tells Gabriel in response, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).
But even before this, Gabriel appears (as he does in our Gospel tonight) to Zechariah, a priest serving his term in the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah is married to Elizabeth, and they are both persons of a certain age, getting on in years as our Gospel puts it. Zechariah and Elizabeth have no children, no successor to follow in the priestly line, but Gabriel’s message for Zechariah is that Elizabeth will bear a son, to be named John.
This news is surprising and significant. Gabriel tells Zechariah that the birth of John will not only be a cause of joy for his parents, but also for many in Israel. Part of joy, of course, is that it comes suddenly and unexpectedly, when we are least expecting it. John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the angel tells him; he will go before the way of the Lord to prepare people for his coming. He will be like the prophet Elijah, filled with the same spirit and power; a force for reconciliation in Israel. He will, in the words of the angel, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:15).
John, in other words, will carry forward the work that Gabriel has begun, himself preparing the way for the ministry of Mary’s son. John’s own ministry is one of preparation, emphasized by the double form that mentions “making ready” and “prepared” in the same breath. John’s ministry will be all about preparation, making ready for the ministry of Jesus, for the coming of the Lord.
Every Scout knows that “be prepared” is the motto; and every Advent brings the invitation for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are to be watchful and wakeful; with oil prepared and lamps burning; constant in prayer and attentive to what God is doing. But the experience of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and of Mary as well, is a reminder that “the Lord will come suddenly to his temple” (Mal. 3:1), in the words of the prophet Malachi, with a capacity to surprise us and to shake things up. As Jesus tells us, again and again in the Gospels, about the coming of the Son of Man, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36).
All of this makes preparation that much more important. Remember, Zechariah wasn’t sure that he wanted to cooperate, to hear the message; but we need to listen and respond and prepare ourselves. We prepare for what we believe is ahead, but God has surprises in store. We have our game plan; God has his. The lesson is not that preparation is futile or fruitless, but that sometimes we are preparing for we know not what, for challenges ahead and opportunities for grace that we could never have foreseen. So thank God we are prepared, even though the future is more than we can tell, and God’s grace more than sufficient for the time.
The preparation for us in these remaining days of Advent is to listen carefully for the word that God will speak to us, in Scripture, song, and liturgy; to be open and faithful and ready to respond to the word that God will speak. We make our rounds, and do our jobs, and pay attention to what’s before us, and God will speak to us just as surely as he did to Zechariah. May God bless us in this Advent season, as the Lord prepares us for the good things to come.
– The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee