When Zechariah saw the angel, the tiny altar shovel slipped out of his hand and clattered on the floor. Hot coals bounced into his sandals and onto his toes.
“Ai-yah!” He kicked them away.
The angel picked up the coals and put them back on the fire. He laid the shovel in the hand of the old priest. “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. You and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.”
Zechariah set the little shovel down by the altar fire. “Did you say ‘baby’?” Women in Hebron said Elizabeth would make a good mother, and she would, if they could only get pregnant.
“You heard right. You’ve got a baby coming—in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
Zechariah’s knees wobbled, but he spread his feet, stood straight, and stared at the candelabra.
We could never get enough.
He wrote no book, braved no lions’ den.
Yet we loved his shaggy look, his in-your-face.
We hid with him at the Kerith. We marveled at the widow’s bottomless flour barrel.
We peeked over his shoulder. It was okay that the Lord didn’t send him with messages like, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” But we snarled at “dogs will drink your blood” and cringed at “your bowels will drop out piece-by-piece.”
His fiery chariot? We knew it would bring him back to us. So, when Nebuchadnezzar knocked down our temple and roped us like cattle and marched us 900 miles north, we seriously looked for Elijah. His fiery horses didn’t break through the clouds over Babylon, but would we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? No way. We hung our harps on a willow tree and dreamed about the young man in goatskin.
Then Cyrus sent us home! On the road back to Jerusalem, we told stories about that long-ago boy who stepped out of the crowd and faced down a king. But would such a brave lad would hide from the soldiers? Oh, yes. After the horrors of exile, we got it.
We were so ready to hear what he learned from that still small voice. And then Malachi promised the Lord would send us us Elijah.
“Did you say, ‘Elijah’?”
“You will call him John.”
“John, okay. But you need to realize you’re talking to a very old man about having a baby. And my Elizabeth, well… Are you for real?” Zechariah reached over to touch him.
The angel took a step back. “You want real, Zechariah? Here’s real. You’re going to be mute until the big event.” The angel disappeared.
“A rope. We shoulda put a rope around that old boy, so we could haul him out like Moses dragged out Nadab and Abihu.”
“Rope? You old fool. Don’t believe every moldy tale your buddies in the market tell you. We never tied a rope around a priest. Not in Moses’ time. Not ever.”
“Well then, age limit. When that old geezer dragged in last night, I took one look and knew he’d never make it through the incense. Fifty! Fifty is as old as we should let any priest go in there.”
Zechariah stumbled out among them and did a charade to describe the angel. When he went home to Hebron, Elizabeth became pregnant. She hid away for the customary five months and then stepped out and sang to her friends. “Look what the Lord has done for me!”
The baby arrived, and eight days later, Zechariah welcomed people into their home for the circumcision. But the guests looked past him. “So, Elizabeth, what’s this child’s name?”
They looked at her mute husband. “But your family has no such name.”
Zechariah took a slate and wrote, “His name is John.” As he handed it to them, his face flushed, and he spoke. “The Lord has come to his people!”
John wore a camel’s hair shirt fastened with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild honey, and people left the comforts of home to hear what he had to say.
“Snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Stop flashing your pedigree about.” He bent down to the river bed and straightened up with a stone in each hand. “The Lord can turn these into children of Abraham.” He grasped the limb of a pear tree. “Take a good look at the axe in the Lord’s hand, because if your tree doesn’t bear good fruit, he’s cutting it down.”
Not as gory as bowels falling out a piece at a time, but right there in their face.
“Are—are you Elijah?”
“Ha! Don’t you wish. No. You know who I am? I’m a voice. A voice that says, straighten up. The Lord’s clearing the floor. Grain to the granary, chaff to the fire.”
Many did go straight. But not the king.
John told him, “Send your brother’s wife back to your brother,” so King Herod threw John in prison. He kept him down in the damp dark for a long, long time.
Way back when John first heard the voice of Mary, he did a dance right there inside his mother’s womb. But after all these weeks in Herod’s cell, those moves wouldn’t come to him.
A dove once floated out of the sky right in front of John and settled on Jesus. But down here, the only thing falling from above was cockroaches.
John once shouted to the crowd, but only a few friends gathered at his bars.
He sent two. They worked their way through the crowd and stood in front of Jesus. “John wants to know. Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”
Heads snapped up. Eyes slid sideways. The buzz of the multitude fell off. Did they hear right? Hadn’t John called Jesus, “The Lamb of God”?
So, loud for the crowd, Jesus quoted Isaiah. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news.” He let his hands rest a moment on the two friends’ shoulders. “Look, guys, what John needs is for you to look around and tell him what you see, what you hear.”
As the two headed back to John’s cell, Jesus asked the mass, “Remember when you went out to John in the wilderness?” Faces turned his way. “Did you search the reeds for patterns from the wind? Were you hoping to see someone in a soft robe?” Several shook their heads and smiled.
“No. You were looking for a man who doesn’t hold back, who lets the truth bubble out. And you found him, the messenger of Malachi.”
Eyebrows raised, but Jesus nodded. “That’s right. Believe it or not, John is that Elijah who was to come.”
– or –
At Herod’s birthday banquet, his step daughter danced for the guests, and Herod stood. “What can I give you, child?” He made a grand sweep of the arm. “To the half of my kingdom!”
“Just a minute.” She skipped out to her mother amid whispers. “How sweet.” She pranced back in. “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Right now.”
Conversation stopped. The king glanced toward his guests. But he spoke to a guard, and soon a soldier brought in John’s head.
When Jesus heard what they did to his cousin, he got in a boat and went off alone.
A few weeks later, he took three friends up a mountain. At the top, the three friends sat under an oak tree. Whoa! Jesus’ clothes glowed whiter than white. He crossed the clearing. What’s this? He stood and chatted with Moses and Elijah.
“Let’s build three cabins. One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But Jesus waved goodbye to Moses and Elijah, and his clothes lost their luster. He led his three friends down the mountain and back to the city.
Malachi 4:5 – I will send you the prophet Elijah.