M ANY long years had gone by since Jeremiah the prophet cried his warnings in the streets of Jerusalem, and every one of those warnings had come true. The Jews were now a conquered people under the rule of the great Roman Empire, and although they were allowed to have a king, he was only a vassal, or servant king. The people felt bitterly the loss of their freedom, and they longed more and more for the great Deliverer whom God had promised to send—the King who was to sit on David's throne and make them once more a free people.
The time was drawing very near now when that promise was to be fulfilled. The coming of the King was close at hand. As in the early morning before sunrise the sky in the east is lit by a slow, soft light, which begins to spread upwards, faintly at first and then glowing into full glory as the sun appears, so there were already signs that the great Dawn was near, that the dark night of sin and sorrow was to fade before the Light of the World. God was sending a messenger to prepare the way of the King, and to tell the people of His coming.
It was at the time when a cruel king called Herod was ruling at Jerusalem that there lived at Hebron an old priest, Zacharias, and his wife Elisabeth. Theirs was a pleasant home on the sunny slopes of the Judean hills. And it was a happy home, too, for both Zacharias and his wife served God and loved Him with all their hearts.
But although the home was a happy one, it was very quiet and rather lonely. No patter of children's feet had ever sounded there; no childish voices had ever broken the quiet. The old priest and his wife had longed to have a child; but the years passed on and they both grew old, and the hope died away. There was to be no son to bear their name.
Perhaps it was specially lonely for Elisabeth when her husband went to take his turn in the service of the beautiful Temple at Jerusalem; but she had grown accustomed to that. She never looked for any change, but just lived her quiet life day by day. She little thought that something was going to happen soon that would change her whole life.
Zacharias had gone up to the Temple to begin his share of the service, as he had so often done before. His part was to enter into the Holy Place where God's altar stood, and to swing the great golden censer before the altar, so that the fragrance of the incense should rise in its sweetness to heaven, together with the prayers of the people who knelt outside.
Now, suddenly, in the midst of his prayers, as he swung the golden censer, the old priest looked up, and saw through the blue smoke of the incense that he was not alone. There, on the right side of the altar, stood an angel, a shining messenger from God, a vision so glorious that at first Zacharias was afraid.
But the voice of the angel calmed his fears; and as he listened to the message which God had sent his heart almost stood still with joy.
"Fear not, Zacharias," said the angel: "for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth."
He was to be a very special child, the angel went on to say, and he was to do a very special work, for which he must be carefully trained.
It all seemed so wonderful that Zacharias could scarcely believe it could be true, even as he listened to the angel's words. The doubt in his heart made him long for some sign, that he might be quite sure that God meant to give him a son.
There was no need for a sign. It was Gabriel, the angel who stood in the presence of God, who had brought him the message. That surely should have been sufficient proof that the message was true. But because Zacharias had doubted, the sign was given.
"Thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed," said the angel, "because thou believest not my words."
This was the news which the old priest brought home with him when the time of his service was ended; this was the wonderful happening which was to change the whole life of Elisabeth, the patient, lonely old woman.
The words of the angel Gabriel came true. God kept His promise and sent a little son to gladden the hearts of Zacharias and Elisabeth. But through all the months before the baby was born the old priest was dumb. Not a word could he speak, until the child was eight days old and it was time to give him his name.
"You will, of course, call him Zacharias, after his father," said the rejoicing relations and friends.
But Elisabeth answered quietly, "Not so; but he shall be called John."
That was not a family name, objected the relations; they were sure she was making a mistake. They would try, by making signs, to ask the dumb father what name he wanted.
Zacharias understood their signs, and as he could not speak he called for a writing tablet, and when it was brought he wrote clearly the words, "His name is John." Even as he wrote, proving by his words that he believed all the angel had said to him, God took away the punishment which had been sent to him because he had doubted. His speech came back, and he could now talk and thank God in beautiful words as well as silently in his heart.
It was all so strange, that as the people talked together and looked at the baby they asked each other, "What kind of child will this be?"
Then God's Holy Spirit filled the heart of the old priest, and taught him the wonderful song which we so often sing in church, beginning, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for He hath visited and redeemed His people;" and going on to say, "And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways."
In that far-away country in those olden days the roads were often very rough and badly kept, and it was the custom when a king was to pass by that servants were sent a long way ahead, to clear the path and make it as smooth as possible before the king came. They would remove the stones, clear away any branches of trees which might have fallen across the way, and tell all those they met to stand aside and leave the road clear for the coming of the king.
And this was the work which God had set for the little son of Zacharias and Elisabeth. Only it was not just an ordinary road that he was to prepare and keep clear, nor was it for any earthly king that the way was to be made ready. The King was Jesus Christ, the promised Deliverer; the road was the hearts of His people, who were neither ready nor fit to welcome Him.
As the little lad grew up, his father and mother would begin to tell him about the work he was to do; and they trained him carefully, too, as the angel had directed, making him hardy and strong both in mind and body. The King's messenger would need all his strength and courage to prepare that rough and crooked road before the coming of the King.