He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15b-17)
The angel tells Zechariah more about the identity of his future son. John the Baptist’s role is a vital one, but it is a singular one. While I respect those who are teetotal, this isn’t binding on believers today. John is special, so special that he has the distinction of being filled with the Holy Spirit before he is born – literally, “in his mother’s womb”. In Psalm 139:13, the psalmist declares: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” While God created us and knew us, Scripture states that we are filled with the Holy Spirit when we choose to believe in Christ. The clearest way one can profess this is in being baptised. The connectedness of baptism with receiving the Holy Spirit remains fundamental to all Christian traditions. But John the Baptist’s unique role is to baptise Christ, so it is logical he is filled with the Spirit before birth.
Yet, not all of John the Baptist’s role is so different from that of believers today, although we stand at a different point in history: following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Firstly, John’s role involves turning people around. The same verb (epistrepho) is used in both v.16 and v.17 to talk about turning Israel back towards God, and slightly more cryptically, to turn parents towards children – perhaps we might interpret this as bringing families and people together. John’s role is specific to this moment of history, but believers still have a role to encourage people to turn towards God and towards one another in love. Secondly, John’s role involves preparation and getting people ready (v.17b). Advent is, of course, a time of preparation and getting ready for the coming of Christ; and we are still called to help other people to get ready for the Lord, when he returns a second time – even if we do not know when this will be.