The name John in Hebrew literally means ‘God is gracious’, and the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist show God as gracious in several ways.
Luke records how John’s parents, Zecharias and Elizabeth, had suffered from infertility for many years and so were childless. They were a godly couple following ‘the commandments and ordinances of the Lord’(Luke 1:6) and Zecharias was a priest. One day he had the rare opportunity, chosen by lot, to offer incense and pray in the temple sanctuary. Whilst he was performing this honour the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced that he would have a son, who he was to name John. More than that, John would be the long expected forerunner to the Messiah, going on ‘“before him in the spirit and power of Elijah… to prepare a people prepared for the Lord”’(Luke 1:17). Unwisely, Zecharias didn’t trust Gabriel’s words and demanded proof. As punishment he was rendered speechless until the time came to name the child, at which point, ‘He asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.”… His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke, blessing God.’
Firstly we see God as gracious in the simple kindness He showed to this devout couple, granting them a child in answer to their prayers. As Gabriel announced, ‘“your request has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You will have joy and gladness”’(Luke 1:13-14). We should note the timing and generosity of the gift. No doubt Zecharias and Elizabeth had prayed many times, over many years, and wondered why God seemed not to answer. Little did they know that He had a plan not only to answer their prayers, in His good time, but with a son whose significance was beyond their wildest dreams. God knows how and when to give good gifts to His children, and delights to do so.
Secondly, God is gracious to the contrite sinner. We know from Luke’s description that Zecharias and Elizabeth were basically a godly pair, following God’s ways. However, when Gabriel appeared, Zecharias made a bad mistake. Nevertheless, he was wise enough to know the proverb ‘My son, don’t despise Yahweh’s discipline, neither be weary of his reproof: for whom Yahweh loves, he reproves; even as a father reproves the son in whom he delights.’(Proverbs 3:11-12). He didn’t kick against God with sullen angry resentment. He served his time of enforced silence in repentant reflection, then obeyed God in naming his child ‘God is gracious’. So God, in His grace, blessed him still further with prophesy: ‘His mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue freed, and he spoke,’… ‘Zecharias, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied’(Luke 1:67).
His prophesy brings us to the final and greatest way in which God is shown as gracious by these momentous events. God was answering the prayers of Zecharias and all Israel for their long awaited saviour, an anointed Davidic king, ‘“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has… raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets who have been from of old)… you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people…”’(Luke 1:68-79). God is gracious because ‘God is gracious’ would prepare the way for the Lord (i.e. God himself, the ‘Most High’) Jesus (Greek for ‘God saves’) Christ (Greek for the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, which means ‘anointed one’).
The only appropriate response to all this grace is praise, ‘“Blessed be the Lord”’(Luke 1:68) indeed!
So we must wait, prayerfully, patiently, expectantly. Just as John’s parents had to wait years for their son, and Zecharias had to suffer months before regaining his speech, and Israel had to wait centuries for their Messiah, we must wait patiently, for millennia, for His return: ‘But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’(2 Peter 3:8). In God’s good timing, when the elect are gathered in, we will join with the great multitude ‘saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns! Let us rejoice and be exceedingly glad, and let us give the glory to him.”(Revelation 19:6-7)