Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Let me begin by saying this morning: Don’t panic. I know you don’t have your Christmas shopping done. You probably haven’t even started. But everything is ok. You have plenty of time. It’s not a week or two until Christmas.
It’s true that our hymn of the day that we just sang, “When All the World Was Cursed,” is an Advent hymn that we normally sing on the Third or Fourth Sunday of Advent. During the Communion distribution we are going to sing “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” which is more of the same. But its ninety degrees outside, and winters in southern Illinois are never that mild. It is in fact June and not December.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. And while this day falls at the end of June, the reason it does so involves December. Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, is of course, December 25. If you go nine months earlier, you have March 25, the Annunciation of Our Lord when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be pregnant with the Son of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. At that time, Gabriel told Mary that her relative, the aged, Elizabeth was also pregnant. In fact, it was the sixth month of her pregnancy. Add three months to the Annunciation and you arrive at today, the end of June as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.
In the Gospel lesson for today we hear about the naming of John who had been born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke describes them as pious and faithful Jews – in fact Zechariah was from the priestly line and served in the temple when it was his turn. Yet in spite of this, they had not been able to have any children. Their prayers had remained unanswered for many years. Now they were both old, and Sarah was long past her child bearing years.
As Zechariah was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and announced, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” This in itself was amazing and wonderful news! But then the angel proceeded to tell Zechariah that this son was going to have a unique role in God’s plan of salvation. He said, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Zechariah doubted the angel’s words. And so Gabriel said that Zechariah would be unable to speak until the child was born. In our text we hear the moment when this occurred. At the naming of John, Zechariah spoke. But he didn’t just speak. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied.
As parents, we all have hopes and dreams for our children. We may not know exactly what they are going to do, but we want them to have success and to live fulfilling and meaningful lives. Zechariah had no doubt about this because of what God was doing and the role that his son John would play in this.
The aged father announced: “"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and 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 from of old.” Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah declared that Yahweh was now fulfilling the promises spoken by the Old Testament prophets. He was sending the Messiah – the descendant of King David who would bring redemption and salvation to his people.
This was the pivotal moment in God’s saving action. And his son John had a key role to play. Zechariah says in our text: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah was right. Some thirty years later, John showed up in the wilderness area along the Jordan River proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This baptism administered by John was unusual. The Jews were very familiar with various ritual washings. But these were all self-administered. John was different because he applied this washing to others. It was so distinctive that it soon provided the designation by which John was known: John the Baptizer.
John prepared the way by calling people to repentance as they looked for the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom – his end time reign. He declared: “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We have great stuff in our Gospel lesson today. God’s miraculously blesses a faithful, aged couple with a child. He announces through Zechariah that he is sending the Messiah descended from David to bring redemption and salvation. We are told that John will prepare the way for the Lord to give the knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.
Yet all here is not as we might expect. John the Baptist called people to repentance - all people, including the king, Herod Antipas. Luke tells us, “But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” Jesus the Christ was baptized by John, and began his ministry. Miracles were done, but the Last Day didn’t arrive. And so from prison John – the prophet – experienced confusion and doubt. He sent the question to Jesus, “Are you the coming One, or should we look for another.” And finally, after her daughter performed what amounted to a pole dance for Herod, the vengeful Herodias received the martyred John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. But while John was the great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus Christ and the reign of God, his story also turns out to be one of confusion and doubt; of suffering and death. We need to ponder this, because at times our lives are too. Things don’t go as we expect and plan. There is suffering and death. These circumstances generate confusion and doubt about God’s love and care. Perhaps they even create anger at God as we question his ways.
In these situations we find ourselves tempted and falling into sin. When this happens, don’t try to explain it away in the attempt to justify yourself. Instead confess your sin to God. And turn in faith to the One for whom John the Baptist prepared the way. In Jesus, God did indeed visit and redeem his people. Yet he did this not only for Israel. He did it for all people. He did it for you. By Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead he has freed you from sin. Through baptism you have been buried with Christ. His saving death has become yours. And in your baptism you also have the guarantee that you will share in Jesus’ resurrection when he returns on the Last Day.
In Jesus you receive forgiveness. And in the Lord you also have the reason that you are now able to face unexpected circumstances - times of disappointment, suffering and death - in faith. If you look at our text, you won’t find anything about suffering and death. When you look at John the Baptist’s preaching, you won’t find it there either.
Jesus Christ is the One who has accomplished all that the inspired Zechariah expresses. But he did it in the way of the suffering Servant – he did it in the way of suffering and death. The Lord responded to John’s question from prison by saying, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Jesus acknowledged that things were not going exactly as John expected.
Above all, we see this on Good Friday. When the Son of God hung dying on a cross, mocked by those below, it did not look like God was at work. It did not look like God was anywhere to be found. Yet because of Christ’s resurrection we now realize that this was actually God’s greatest action to save us.
Because of our faith in the crucified and risen Lord, we are now able to look at circumstances we don’t understand – things we don’t want – and trust that God is still present and at work in our lives. The God who worked in unexpected ways in order to give us forgiveness and salvation can be trusted when everything about your life seems unexpected and unwanted. This is so because you have already seen what he did in Jesus for you and how he did it. The resurrection of Jesus is the shining light that illuminates our darkness. He is the great “Yes!” from God that drives away fear and doubt, even when we don’t understand.
Jesus Christ does this for us. And he also gives us hope. In our text Zechariah refers to the “tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Because Jesus is the risen and ascended Lord we have hope as we look for the sunrise from on high of the Last Day when the Lord returns in glory. We live knowing that the times of disappointment, suffering and death will end. In confidence we look toward the day when our risen Lord will put an end to the darkness of death forever, and will guide our feet in the way of eternal peace.