Sunday, June 24, 2007

Sermon: Nativity of St. John the Baptist

24 June, 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: Luke 1:57-80 (Isa 40:1-8; Acts 19:1-7)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today the Church commemorates St. John the Baptist, the one of whom our Lord said: “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater.”

Our Lord is not one to carelessly fling around flattering words. For consider what He says – there isn’t man born of a woman who is greater than John. Our Lord Himself was born of a woman, and so He is telling us John the Baptist is as great as Himself. Of course, John did not live the perfect life, or die for our sins, nor rise from the dead. But the faith he bears, the repentance he preaches, the condemnation he metes out to the unrepentant, and the Good News he gives to those who earnestly desire peace with God - is the very same faith, preaching, law, and grace worked by our Lord Jesus Himself. In fact, John is a prophet, the greatest prophet, the last prophet to precede the Prophet to end all prophets. John bears the very Word of God – the Word of God that is Jesus Himself.

This is why the Church throughout the world pauses to praise God for John’s life, death, witness, and preaching – his boldness, his suffering for the sake of Christ and His Church, his martyrdom, and his ministry of baptism.

But you will notice that we are not surrounded in the red paraments and vestments that commemorate the death of a martyr. Today, we do not focus on John’s faithful ministry and the laying down of his life for the sake of Christ and His Word – rather we focus on something John could never in a thousand years take credit for: his miraculous birth.

John was conceived by a godly elderly barren woman, St. Elizabeth. She becomes a New Testament reflection of the numerous examples in the Old Testament of the Lord’s favor shown to faithful women who have been subjected to shame for the sake of a fruitless womb.

John’s father, St. Zacharias, was a righteous old priest, who shared in his wife’s shame of not having a child. He faithfully carried out his ministry according to the laws and statues of God, giving the gift of absolution to the people of God based on the covenant of the promised Messiah – who was closer than Zacharias could have imagined. While obediently burning incense as an offering to the Lord, the angel announced that Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s shame was coming to an end (which was also to mean the shame of the entire world since the sin of Adam and Eve was going to be made right through the birth of this child and his cousin).

For just as the elderly Zecharias and Elizabeth would have to wait no more for the blessing of a son, all the world would soon no longer have to wait for the blessing of all blessings, the birth of the very Son of God. It was to be Zecharias’ son who would point to the Son of God, and give us the gift of the canticle used in our liturgy: “O Christ Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world!”

The Gospel reading for this celebration of St. John’s nativity begins with rejoicing – Elizabeth’s friends and neighbors rejoice and celebrate the great mercy of the Lord shown to her after the birth of her son. In the midst of this rejoicing, Zacharias and Elizabeth still have an obligation to the law. As faithful parents within the covenant of God, they bring their son to shed blood through ritual circumcision. In this ceremony, their son John becomes an adopted son of God, becoming an heir to the kingdom. In this ritual, a young boy is given a name, for his identity is rooted not in himself and his accomplishments, but rather in being born into the family of God through the blood of the covenant.

Zacharias and Elizabeth shock their friends by naming the boy “John” – a break from family tradition, a name that means “God is gracious.” Of course, they did not pick this name, but God Himself did. “God is gracious” means “God is merciful.” It means “God is forgiving.” For this is God’s message to the world through the birth of His last prophet, the final messenger to herald the birth of God in the form of man. The Good News that “God is gracious” is proclaimed through a miraculous birth, a boy born to a woman who, according to science and reason, should never have conceived. John is not only the forerunner to Jesus in his preaching, but even in his very birth.

What makes John as great as any man born of a woman is not his faithfulness (though it is great indeed), not his martyrdom (which is certainly heroic), not his preaching (which is truly the Word of God) – but rather, the very birth our Lord mentions. John was “born of a woman” – and that miraculous birth, that proclamation “God is merciful” carried out by a helpless child born under the curse of the law to aging parents racked by shame – is where his greatness truly lies. John did not become great by what he did for the Kingdom of God, rather he was made great for the sake of what God did in establishing His Kingdom. John did not become St. John at his death, but rather John had already been St. John for nine months by the time he was born, circumcised, and given the name “God is gracious.”

“Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…”

John’s sainthood was a gracious gift to John when John could do little more than leap in the womb in confession of being near the yet-unborn Jesus. John’s sainthood was given to him when he was conceived, given birth, circumcised, and called by a name that is also a confession. And John’s life was a testimony to that grace of God, his good works a living out of that grace, his preaching a vocalization of the grace, and his death a blessed entrance to the Kingdom he heralded through the grace of the Savior to whom he pointed.

“Among those born of women,” says our Lord Jesus in tribute, “there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” However, our Lord doesn’t end his tribute to His cousin named “God is gracious” here. He goes on to say something curious, something that captures the mystery of the Kingdom of God. He continues: “but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Our Lord Jesus on one hand says “no one is greater…” and then says: “he who is least” is greater.”

The Kingdom of God is not like our fallen, miserable world in which we judge by appearances. It is not like our sinful existence in which each person has a different “worth” depending on usefulness to society, intelligence, material wealth, or any other criterion. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of mercy, of graciousness, of gifts given. Greatness is a function of humility, the first shall be last, the last shall be first, “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain brought low, the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth.” What the Godless world calls evil, is in fact, good. What the world and its prince embraces as virtue, is in fact wicked.

The wild-looking preacher in the desert is, according to God’s kingdom, a man of sober greatness. The poor prophet who eats bugs and wears camel hair is, according to God’s kingdom, a man of riches. The provocative teacher who comes across to kings and priests as a trouble-maker is, according to God’s kingdom, the one who ushers in the Prince of Peace. The child whose conception rendered mute a priest of the Old Covenant, was in fact one whose birth brought forth the inspired New Testament song of St. Zacharias, words of Holy Scripture that have been sung by the Church, by those redeemed by the Lamb, by fellow members of this topsy-turvy Kingdom in their liturgy of morning prayer that has continued for centuries:

Blessed is 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,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father 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 the days of our life.

This glorious hymn composed by the father of John the Baptist on the occasion of John’s nativity is the very summary of the Kingdom of God, of the Christian life. For it is God who saves us, who is merciful, who visits us, and redeems us. He keeps his promises, he remembers his covenant – which means we have this merciful gift of holiness and righteousness, so that we may indeed serve him without fear all the days of our lives – just as the saintly example of his son John has been given to us to emulate.

Thanks be to God for the holy nativity of St. John the Baptist, with whom this day we yet again thank, praise, and worship the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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