And the Award Goes To
Miracle on 34th Street, A Street Car Named Desire, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Godfather Part II, The Untouchables, City Slickers, The Fugitive, The Usual Suspects, Jerry Maguire, Good Will Hunting. This odd collection of films all share something in common, and it is not that these are the movies I still own on VHS. All of these films had an actor who won the academy award for best supporting role in those films. An excellent supporting character needs to help drive the message of the story forward, while also not overshadowing the lead. The supporting character must recognize his proper place in the chain of events to come, and help to lift up the role of the lead character to be an effective support. In our gospel lesson for today we get a rare glimpse at the backstory of an individual who had one of the best supporting roles of all time.
Every Christmas we get to hear about the incredibly unique events revolving around the birth of our savior, Jesus. But Luke begins his gospel, his orderly account that he had carefully investigated, with the uniqueness of the birth of John. Luke 1:5 notes how there was a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth were descendants of a priestly line and are described as upright individuals. But God had allowed Elizabeth to be barren and now they both were well along in years. Through random selection, Zechariah is chosen to go into the temple of the Lord to burn incense. Zechariah goes in alone and the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces to him that his wife will bear a son who will be given the name John. Not too surprisingly, despite this message coming from an angel of the Lord, Zechariah responds to the angel, that can’t be right, my wife and I are super old. The angel strikes Zechariah with being mute, seemingly as a punishment for his doubts, but really as an additional sign for both him and the whole community. Luke interweaves John’s story with Jesus’s story of pre-birth and continues then in verse 57 with the actual birth of John. Now it would seem that the practice of naming at least boys in that day was to give them a name on the 8th day, the day that they were circumcised. An argument breaks out between John’s relatives and John’s mother as to the name of this child. The relatives thought that he should be named after his father, after all Zechariah meaning the Lord remembers is a very respectable name. But Elizabeth insisted that her son would be named John, the Lord is gracious. It would seem that despite Zechariah’s inability to speak he must have somehow communicated the full story of what had taken place to his wife. The relatives respond back to Elizabeth how no one has that name in the family. They think, surely the boy’s father will want him named after himself, so they ask him what his thoughts are, and after being given a writing tablet he writes “his name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and he began to speak, praising God. As I said before, the seeming curse of muteness was a blessing in disguise, for in the occurrence of these events all the neighbors were filled with awe, talking about these things, and asking what is this child going to be, for the Lord’s hand is with him. What a remarkable backstory, an unlikely pregnancy, a person whose tongue was bound is released upon the sharing of the truth, and the recognition of people that God was at work. Surely this boy was destined for greatness. But what greatness was he bound for, what then is this child going to be?
Luke answers that question with the Holy Spirit filled prophesy of Zechariah. Zechariah prophesies that the time has come that was promised. The time when God will come and redeem his people. God has raised up the horn of salvation, announcing victory over the enemies. As he said through His prophets of long ago this will come about in the house of his servant David, that salvation from all enemies and from the hands of those who hate the people of God would come. God had sworn to rescue his people from their enemies with the result that they can serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all of their days. This is the big picture of what God is at work doing within the world. After Zechariah lays out the big picture, he finally answers the question of who this child will be. Referring to John he says, you my child, will be called a prophet of the most high for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him. John would have the greatest supporting role of all time. He is the one who is spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, when he said “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all the people will see it together.” John, the one whose name means the Lord is gracious, would come as Isaiah foretold as comfort to God’s people. As Zechariah says it, God’s people would be given the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of God. The rising sun will come from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
So John was sent by God to be a prophet, and to testify about the one who is far greater than he is. John is the support role to the real main character of this story, which is Jesus. The story that John tells is the story of The Lord’s grace, that God’s salvation is coming, be ready, repent and be forgiven, for the time of deliverance is at hand, don’t be distracted by the cares of this world or you just might miss it, be ready. And Jesus comes to be where John was baptizing at the Jordan, and as a good support person, knowing his place with respect to the story John says “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus comes to him and desires to be baptized. For a moment John misunderstands how he best supports the message, for he says to Jesus, recognizing who the main character is, it is you who should baptize me. But Jesus tells John that he must do so now to fulfill all righteousness, in other words, this action of John was a part of his supporting role. John will baptize Jesus not because he is greater, but because it is done in accordance with the will of God. And after this was accomplished, then John’s supporting role was complete. He had done as his father Zechariah had prophesied. He prepared the people for the coming of God’s salvation.
And Zechariah’s other prophesy has been fulfilled. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the God of Israel has redeemed His people. Jesus, who is a descendant of David, has brought about salvation from the enemies of God’s people. These enemies are not a specific nation at a specific time or place in history. Rather these enemies, who hate the people of God, who hate us, these are sin, death, the devil and his minions. God has shown mercy, remembered his covenant, rescued us from the hand of our enemies so that we can serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness all our days. This is the message that John supported, he may not have won an academy award, but his role was more important that any role in any film ever made.
And you all as well have been called to serve in a supporting role. You are a part of God’s story, a part of furthering the rule and reign of God. In God’s story, Jesus is still the main character and you support his ministry and his mission. His mission is still to bring salvation from the enemies of God’s people. This is brought about by telling others the good news about Jesus. You are not called to serve in exactly the same way as John, but each of you are called to a unique supporting role, using the gifts and relationships that you have been entrusted with by God to further His kingdom. May the Lord who has saved you also guide you as you support His mission. In Jesus’s name, Amen.