23. June 2012
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Isaiah 40:1-5; Acts 13:13-26; Luke 1:57-80
No one knows what to think of John. Yes, as we hear in Advent, he’s an odd fellow, camel hair, dieting on locusts and honey, and preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. The strangeness of John began long before that. John’s ancestry is one of note. His father is a pastor and his mother a pastor’s kid. Preachers beget preachers. The Word of God dwelt richly in his family, with his father serving and his mother listening. And as you know, pastors aren’t normal and their children even less so.
Yet, even pastors and their families struggle with the same manner of sin, disease, and death as the layperson in the pew. Elizabeth is no exception. She is barren, infertile, and unable to conceive. Not the sort that God can use—whole, undefiled—right? Well, not unless you think of Sarah, Rebekah, Hanna, Rachel, and Michal. Come to think of it, God seems to think barrenness, a consequence of the curse, to not be a barrier to His working great things, much like our sin, death, and not even the power of the devil can stop Him from saving us. Strange and wonderful.
All changes when Zechariah is visited by the angel Gabriel. Even the priest is scared of the messengers of God. We don’t blame him. An angel swings a flaming sword to bar entrance to Eden. Angels show up and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. An angel wrestles Jacob all night. Angels are terrifying. Yet, what seems strange to the people is now common appearance. God sends angels, that is, messengers, to terrify us every week. Zechariah prays but is rightly terrified with God speaks. We should fear God and so does John’s father.
But this is no normal angel. This angel comes with good news. He is an evangelical angel, a messenger of the Gospel. He comes and announces that Zechariah and Elizabeth will conceive! John is the miracle baby, the “surprise” child that the elder parents didn’t expect. Much like his cousin Jesus whose conception came by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, John was given to unlikely parents. But that’s how God works. He miracles with even unlikely and underserving folks, especially with them. He glories in weakness. He gives joy where we least expect it and gladness in the midst of sorrow.
And God’s blessings are infectious. They are given and they multiply. He blesses this barren couple and many rejoice. He gives a small infant child and God makes him great before the Lord. A child is born where no child is expected and the whole community rejoices. Such is the way of God, giving gifts personally but also overflowing into the whole people of God.
John is strange and wonderful. He is blessed with the same Spirit that conceives his cousin. The Spirit of the Father and the Son comes forth from Mary’s womb and causes John to rejoice in the presence of the savior. He is unlike anyone since the days of Elijah, the great prophet who defeated the prophets of Baal, who condemned wicked Jezebel and called Ahab to repentance. John is like every prophet before but greater, turning the hearts of the fathers to care for the spiritual health of their children, calling to transgressor to repent of his wickedness, and pointing all to the promise fulfilled in Jesus.
But this is not easy to believe. For no woman conceives, barren or fertile, but by a miraculous creative Word of God. No prophets has come in the greatness of Elijah. Angels almost never have come bearing good news. We doubt God’s holy messengers. We do not believe God can create from nothing. We do not think a Word of God can bring about exactly what it says. No different for Zechariah.
Even faithful Zechariah let his stupid reason cloud his faith. The angel Gabriel speaks and the response is “what? are you nuts?” Ah, Zechariah, we know how you feel. God the Father says: Behold, I wash you with water and the Word and you are now my beloved. We ought to say amen, that is, it shall be so! Instead we say, I only see water and hear plain words. Ah, foolish Christian! This is God speaking and promising! When He speaks, it shall be so! And so it was for John’s parents, having heard the Word, doubted or hid themselves.
While doubt may have clouded these faithful parent’s will, they dutifully served God by following His command to be fruitful and multiply, trusting this Word even when age and barrenness seemed to prevent it. God glories in weakness. He gives according to His good and gracious will. And so Zechariah and Elizabeth returned to the way of the Lord, walking blamelessly in this command and bearing a child where God has now spoken. Strange conception? To be sure. Miracle baby? Absolutely! Surprising to us? Not anymore. We know that God works His wonderful act of salvation through weakness, poverty, messy, and infertile means. He makes the weak strong, the poor rich, the broken whole, and the barren fertile by His holy Word sent by His messengers.
This is not some distant future event but an ever present reality. God glories in you when you struggle with your sin and plead to Him for mercy. As you confess that you are without any merit or worthiness, utterly poor in spirit, God blesses you with the richness of forgiveness. Your hardened heart is a barren, parched wasteland without love for God, and yet, miraculously, by God’s own grace and favor, He speaks and thereby creates a new and clean heart within you. This Word blesses you with rich supply, restores you to righteousness, and gives you love for God and neighbor. And stranger yet, this Word comes to you from the mouth of fellow sinful men, appointed to God to carry it worth by their own weak voices and poor spirits.
But God’s Word comes not only through his holy prophets, apostles, and pastors, it first comes from the father. Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. (Incidentally, exactly as Gabriel told Zechariah they would!) And on the eight day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered [because dad could not; remember: his tongue was tied by the angel for doubt], “No; he shall be called John.”
The Word of God, given by the angel, is spoken by Elizabeth. But the people did not want to hear it. And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
Yes, St. John the Baptizer’s prophetic ministry in the wilderness was odd. Camel hair, locusts, baptizing in the Jordan… strange. But the story of his birth is just as bizarre. A barren and aged couple conceives. Angels visit during the Divine Service. The father and priest’s speech is bound. The child, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaps in his mother’s womb. And his name is John. Strange and wonderful.
While much is learned from the birth and life of St. John, just like his cousin, his importance is not merely his ancestry, his miraculous conception, or his name. St. John is remembered by the church for what he does. And even before the child grew and became strong in the spirit, his father Zechariah prophesies what he does. He sings the great Benedictus which we still sing in Morning Prayer and Matins. And as hymns go, He speaks of the great and awesome works of God in His son Jesus and even through His holy prophet John.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited and redeemed his people. Who? Jesus. Does what? Visits in the flesh and by His death redeems. Redeems who? YOU. And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. Who is He? Jesus, the son of Mary and thus son of David. What is He? The very source of salvation. As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. How do we know he is the one? Jesus fulfills what was spoken by the prophets. Who does he redeem us from? Our enemies and all haters of God. What compels Jesus to do this? To show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham. What was the promise to Abraham? To grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Why has Jesus saved us? He restores us to life again with him by granting us His Word and Spirit for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
Ah, but how does this happen? How does one know to repent? How does one know he is forgiven? First, St. John is sent. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Why is he sent but to prepare the way for Jesus. How? To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. Why would God do this? Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high. And no ordinary sunlight but a special sun, the Morningstar, Christ, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
What are we to think, then, of St. John? He is a bit strange from conception to ministry. But he is the one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. He comes speaking a holy Word of preparation: “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!” The whole playing field is leveled. Jew, Gentile, man, woman, white, black, all are leveled, humbled by his call to repentance. Everyone humbled so that in Christ’s own forgiveness, all who believe in His name are exalted.
So also, God still send to you his angel, his messenger, his prophet—with strange stories, odd names, and bizarre families. Listen to him. For in this message, odd as the messenger may be, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. I am not he. I shouldn’t even touch his sandals. Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold, the horn of salvation, the way of peace, the sunrise from on high, the holy visitation.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church