His visit was preceded by a substantial advance party. A thorough security check was carried out on all buildings and precincts he would visit - and on any neighbouring buildings and precincts - anywhere "within gunshot", I suspect.
Throughout the whole visit the same careful security was evident. One of our sons was in Canberra at the time. He commented that by Australian standards the precautions seemed extraordinary. Yet, with the international status of the USA, the safety of the US President could have ramifications for world peace.
But - someone greater than the United States President was coming!
Zechariah and Elizabeth, a couple who thought of themselves as "old" and "well on in years" (Lk. 1.18), had just had a baby boy whom they named "John" (v. 60). The angel had announced beforehand that the child would have a special divine destiny - " he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (v. 17).
That's it - "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that someone greater than their son John was coming soon!
Elizabeth's cousin Mary had been with them for the past three months. Mary was having a baby in six months' time. When she arrived, Elizabeth had greeted her as "the mother of my Lord" (v. 33).
John has important work to do, but someone greater is coming. And now, Zechariah, who hasn't said a word for the past nine months, is able to speak again. He praises the Lord and speaks out about the Lord's plans for his son John -
"And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (vv. 76-79).
The Lord is coming and John is to prepare the way for his arrival. The rising sun will come from heaven. John the Baptist, as we call him, saw himself fulfilling Isaiah 40.3 - "A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God'." (as in Jn 1.19ff)
Prepare? How could John "prepare the way for the Lord"? What could he tell the Jewish people that would "prepare the way of the Lord"? How can he "give [God's] people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins" (Lk. 1.77)?
We hear that John "went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (3.3).
"Repent" means to turn back. It is to recognise that something is seriously wrong about our manner of life. It is to acknowledge that we are sinners. It is to turn away from that self-seeking, self-pleasing, self-exalting - and self-destructive - lifestyle. For all who truly repent, God offers forgiveness, salvation - release from all the nasty eternal consequences of our sin.
The children's song warns that Santa Claus is coming to town - you'd better watch out because he will find out who's naughty or nice! That's a fun song to sing. But we're not talking about Santa here! Sin is far more serious than whether you're "naughty or nice". It affects and infects every one of us - young and old. Unlike Santa, the Lord already knows all about us. And his call on our life is for all of our life - not just for Christmas time!
That is why the call to repent means more than a temporary cosmetic adjustment! John is very direct with his hearers - "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (v. 8a). Repentance means turning from an old way of living to a new way. It isn't repentance if we say and do the same sort of things we said and did before.
Now all of that can be very discouraging. It sounds as if people have to "pull up their socks." But, severe as John's words sound, they are to be understood under "the tender mercy of God."
John was the last of the "old-style" prophets. Jesus is "the rising sun from heaven." In Jesus the message of God's tender mercy comes through much more clearly.
The angel told Joseph, "[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1.21). That was his mission. His call to repentance and change brings salvation and hope much more clearly. We are not just forgiven, but born anew, born of the Spirit (Jn 3.3,5). God's "tender mercy" - his grace - enables us to change, to become new people.
Well, are you ready?
No, I'm not asking whether you have your tree and decorations up, whether all your Christmas greetings have been posted, whether you've bought all your presents, whether you have chosen your Christmas menu, or decided on your Christmas guest list!
But - are you ready for the Lord? He came for you - have you thanked him for coming? He lived and died for you - have you repented of your sin and received his forgiveness? He came alive again for you - have you acknowledged him as your Saviour and Lord? One day he's coming again - to sum up everything at the end of human history.
Are you ready for the Lord?
Now is the time! Repent and believe the good news! Then live it - by his grace and in the power of his Spirit!