We take for granted so often these intimate scenes that are common throughout the Bible, but so very rare in the rest of ancient literature. We gain a glimpse not only into John's birth, but also into the pained conversations that must have happened between Elizabeth and Zechariah -- likely, as Z will use later, employing a writing tablet of some kind -- as well as the dynamics within the community. The circumcision of a firstborn male is a major event within the circle of friends and neighbors that surrounded this couple, and no doubt there had been many quiet conversations behind closed doors about oh, how tragic it is that Elizabeth is barren, they're such a nice couple, why would God do such a thing? And now here they are, circumcising their firstborn and the entire community comes to celebrate with them.
But even here in the midst of their joy, God's presence, God's plan strikes a sour note. "His name is John." The community expects that the naming of the boy will honor the family, will honor Zechariah's lineage -- but this is not a family name. Yet God has demanded this, and Zechariah and Elizabeth are agreed. His name is John. Like Samuel a thousand years before, this child will never really belong to his parents. Luke tells us as much when he concludes this chapter -- John was "in the wilderness." Whether this refers to the Essenes at Qumran (who are never directly mentioned in the Bible) or to some other dimension of preparing this prophet, we don't know. John's teaching and practice will have a lot in common with the Essenes, but that detail lies beyond what we know.
We do know that John is set apart for God's work. He is Elijah reborn, not in the sense of literal reincarnation but in the sense of the prophetic archetype. He will prepare the way for the Messiah. He will lead the revival among the Jewish people that turns their hearts back to the Lord in preparation for God to visit and redeem them (1:68).
Zechariah's song points out how different our understanding has become. We carefully separate church from state, religion from politics, finances from recreation, family from the wider community, and all the rest. Our lives are full of lines that keep things in their proper categories. For the first century Jews (and most of the rest of humanity through history) however, things blend together like the different elements of a stew, sharing each others' flavors and being influenced by each other. So the anticipation of the Messiah was religious and political and relational and military and devotional, without dividing one from the other. The gathering around John's circumcision is a spiritual event but it is also a party and it is also deeply traditionally religious and it is political. So Zechariah's song crosses all these boundaries and back again -- it is completely, entirely about God getting into the mess of every sphere of life, without exception. When Zechariah speaks (v. 77) about the forgiveness of sins, everyone in earshot knew that it was their sins that took them into Babylonian exile five hundred years before, and it was their sins, still standing between them and God, that allowed the Romans to dominate their land at the present time. Those sins were not merely political, however, they were deeply spiritual.
The realities of everyday life do not fall into neat categories. If our relationship with God is out of whack, everything, every dimension of our lives will be strained and skewed. Repentance, then, involves a turning back to God who stands at the center, the core, of every dimension of life, and surrendering our political views, our spiritual practices, our dietary habits, our alcohol consumption, our extended family relationships, our local community structures, our marriages, our parenting, our attitudes about other countries and other races, our beliefs about the deepest questions of life and death -- we surrender all of this to God, recognizing his kingship over us. God will not tolerate being cordoned off into one "spiritual" area of life. This is the message in Zechariah's song, and this is the message John will proclaim once he appears publicly in Israel. It is the message we need to hear two thousand years later.