In Greek Mythology, Echo was a spirit maiden who lived in the mountains and loved to sing and dance. She fell in love with her own voice and often gossiped. She was eventually cursed to only repeat other’s words.
Eventually, she fell in love with Narcissus, but she was unable to tell him how she felt. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because he only loved himself. Over time, her beauty faded, and she wasted away. Today, they say, all that remains of Echo is the sound of her voice.
Have you ever gone to a place where you could hear an echo; maybe the hills or a canyon? An echo is generally softer and sounds a little hollow compared to the original voice. Sometimes it is distorted or even unclear.
The dictionary describes an echo as a reflection of an original sound that arrives to the listener some time ‘after the first direct sound’. It’s a copy and copies are never as clear as the original.
God’s promises echoed through time. The prophets had proclaimed a time when God would send a Savior, but that had been far back in the past. In fact, the last word from God had come over 400 years ago during the time of Malachi.
The priest Malachi had shared these words from the Lord, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day when the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)
But all those who had heard Malachi were long gone. For many, God’s promise rang hollow. Had God forgotten his people? The Israelites were desperate, and they prayed for a new voice, a new prophet. But they would have to wait a while longer.
The voice of Christmas began with an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was an elderly priest who was upright and lived blamelessly. His wife Elizabeth was also faithful and God-fearing, but they had no children because Elizabeth was barren.
As Zechariah was in the Temple burning incense to the Lord, an angel named Gabriel appeared to him. “Do not be afraid”, the angel said, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (Luke 1:13)
Most Israelites believed the appearance of an angel meant bad news or signaled the end of life, so they were often startled and afraid. But this angel had good news.
“This son will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He should never drink wine or fermented drink and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth.”
He continued, “Many Israelites will come back to the Lord because of him. And he will go before the Lord, in the spirit of Elijah.” The Spirit of Elijah means in boldness, power and holiness.
Because Zechariah questioned the angel, he was made mute and was unable to speak until after the child was born. You can read more about him and Elizabeth on your own right now I want to stay focused on John.
After 9 months, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. And the whole community came to celebrate the birth of this miracle child born to an aged couple. On the eighth day, the child was to be named and circumcised, but Zechariah was still unable to speak. You see, it was the duty of the father to name his son and since he could not speak, the other men in the family decided to name the boy Zech Jr. to honor his father.
By giving the child the same name, it meant that this child would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest. But Elizabeth spoke up quickly and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
This started a debate with the family. A mother was not supposed to name her son. Also, no one in the family was named John. This name was just not acceptable. That is when Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. Then he wrote, “His name is John”. John in Hebrew means gracious.
Immediately, Zechariah was able to speak, and he praised God and sang. The villagers were in awe and the gossip spread about this child born to an elderly couple with a new name. And they asked, “What will this child one day become?”
You see, his parents had broken the mold. John would be distinct and have his own voice. He would also have a different life than his father. Eventually, John would heed the call to live as a prophet. He would leave home and live in the desert wilderness.
The life of a prophet was a simple life. It rejected the ideals of society and focused on prayer, meditation and reading the Holy Scriptures. Most likely, John lived in a cave and survived off the land which was no small feat.
John would have looked like a crazy, disheveled man to us; with long scraggily hair, wearing animal fur with a belt made of rope or leather and eating bugs and honey. But to the Israelites, he looked just like an Old Testament prophet.
Listen to how Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1:8, “He was a man with clothes made of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” Looking at John was like looking at Elijah!
The life of a prophet is set apart and often secluded in the wilderness or the desert, but it is also a time spent building a strong inner spiritual life. And John’s later life, spoken through scripture, gives us clues to what he was doing in this time period.
Some of the strengths John developed in the desert were; a strong prayer life, deep knowledge of scripture that he could quote from memory, a deeper resolve in the things of God and he also mentored disciples.
In Luke 11:1 the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” One scholar explained, “It took 20 years in the desert for John to be ready for just 6 months of public ministry.”
Some might say, it took him that long to find his voice. But, when John began preaching and baptizing, he left quite an impression. The Israelites had been praying for a sign or a prophet, now they had one. It is no wonder they came out in droves to see him. It had been almost 500 years since anyone spoke with such conviction and presence. “Repent”, he said, “For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
This was the voice they had waited for, not an echo but a new authentic voice. Some asked him, “Are you the Messiah? Or are you Elijah?” His answer was no. This was John. He came in the Spirit of Elijah, but he was his own distinct man. Many Jews, today, are still waiting for the arrival of Elijah because John said he wasn’t him.
Yet Jesus clearly said to his disciples in Matthew 17:12-13, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” Scripture says, “That’s when the disciples understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.”
John’s light burned bright, but he burned out quickly. He was bold, direct, and brutally honest. John drew a lot of attention to himself, because people talked about him. So, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Roman soldiers also came out to listen and watch him. That is when John got political and talked against the Roman leaders. He was finally arrested after pointing out Herod’s sin and later would be be-headed at the request of Herod’s daughter.
In Matthew 11:7-14, Jesus said these words about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
“This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
“And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
You see God ‘needs and wants’ new voices. The Pharisees were good at echoing the laws and words of scripture, yet they had no real voice of their own. Their words were memorized but the heart, the intent of the law, was missing.
As we begin this advent season, don’t just listen to the echoes of words written long ago, listen with new ears and an open heart. Listen for the first time, to the fresh clear voice of Christmas.
The time is at hand, repent and believe the Good News. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. “I baptize you with water”, John said, “But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”. (Matt 3:11)
“Look for yourself and see, the Lamb of God is coming to take away the sin of the world”. (John 1:29) “And he shall become greater and I shall become less”. (John 3:30)
John found his voice; have you found yours? We have a true story to tell the world; a story of a Savior who came to set us free; a Savior who forgives and loves us. And that certainly is Good News for a weary world.
Your assignment is…to listen to the voices of hope this Christmas. Ignore those who grumble and complain. Listen to for the sounds of joy, excitement and the wonder of the season. Jesus came near, and that changed everything! Believe it.