Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sermon: Nativity of John the Baptist

24 June 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 1:57-80

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some children are just destined for greatness.

This was the case with John the son of Zechariah. No doubt, when the elderly Elizabeth was released from the shame of barrenness, holding her eight-day old son; and when the elderly priest Zechariah – who had been struck with the inability to speak – prepared to receive his child into the people of God through circumcision – they must have been one proud couple.

John was a miracle baby. His nativity was the stuff of angels and signs and wonders. He even leapt in the womb in the presence of his cousin Jesus, who was Himself inside the womb of His virgin mother.

God was certainly up to something.

But on this day, the day of a ritual circumcision of an eight-day old child of Abraham, nobody knew what was to come to pass. “What then will this child be?” they asked. “For the hand of the Lord was with him.”

The Holy Spirit spoke through the child’s father, the priest who suddenly found his voice, and who began to prophesy in answer to the question: “What then will this child be?”

Zechariah answered the question not by speaking immediately about his little boy, but rather in praising God for His mercy, for the Lord’s visitation and redemption. Zechariah preaches about salvation, and that this salvation is linked to “the house of His servant David.”

On the occasion of the fulfillment of the covenant of circumcision in his son, Zechariah prophecies of the Lord’s remembrance of His end of the deal in the holy covenant, sworn to their ancestor 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.”

So far, Zechariah’s prophecy says little about his miracle-baby, about what this child will be.

But then, the boy’s father addresses his son: “You, child,” he says, “will be called the prophet of the Most High.” He speaks of blazing a trail before the Lord, one who will prepare the path, a preacher of salvation, a forgiver of sins, a bearer of divine mercy, one who brings light to those sitting in darkness, and life to those helplessly mired in death. He is to be a guide to bring people to a pathway of peace.

Zechariah watched the child grow and “become strong in spirit.”

“What then will this child be?”

Even though John was a miracle child, I can’t imagine any parent not asking the same question: “What then will this child be?”

All parents hope their children will make them proud. Parents today go to extraordinary lengths to mold and shape their children into something great – be it playing classical music to them, enrolling them in schools when they are still babies, following them about with hand sanitizer, buying them anything their heart desires, hovering over their every move as they grow up, sending them to the finest schools – no matter the cost, involving them in sports and activities and exposing them to people who may help them get a career.

We are a culture obsessed with greatness – at least in a worldly kind of way.

Zechariah’s son was to be great. In fact, our Lord Jesus Christ was to say about John that no man born of woman would be greater. John would grow up to be emulated and admired, revered and venerated. His name and image are displayed in churches around the world.

And yet, John would have been a big disappointment to most parents today. He never went to college, never had a job, did not fit in with polite society, angered the authorities, and ended up in prison.

John was destined to live in the desert, a long-haired preacher who wore funny clothes and ate grubs. He was not one to wear soft clothing and live in a palace. He did not play sports, did not have a reserved parking spot, was not written up in the society pages, and would never find himself on Oprah.

John had no future in politics, except to become a political prisoner. John was to end his life in a dungeon, having his head cut off.

This hardly seems to be the fulfillment of the proud papa’s prophecy. One can only imagine how puzzled people were to see what John’s cousin Jesus considers to be greatness.

And yet, John was, and is, in fact, among the greatest of all men. John was a faithful preacher of the Gospel, the baptizer of our Lord Jesus, a saint who lives forever in the presence of the Triune God, victorious over sin and death, triumphant over the very devil who sought his life. John continues to be a hero to Christians of every stripe, in every corner of the world, whose proclamation in Scripture lives on. His simple sermon: “Repent and hear the Good News” is still our sermon today. His life of faithfulness unto death is the very definition of what it means to be a Christian.

John decreased while Christ increased. John pointed all of us to the Lord Jesus Christ. John courageously spoke truth to power. John gave up His life and received eternal life. St. John relinquished his own head to serve the Head of the Church. And in so doing, John’s head bears the crown of glory for all eternity.

Greatness is not determined by the world, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Greatness does not lie in prestige, money, intelligence, education, accomplishment, or in the accumulation of temporary things. Rather, greatness lies in confessing Christ and living as a recipient of God’s mercy and grace. Greatness lies in receiving the gifts of God and living in His divine will – a will that may include dying for the sake of something greater. For in John’s case, his greatness was a reflection of Christ’s greatness.

“What then will this child be?” This child is a confessor of our Lord Jesus Christ and a proclaimer of the Good News of salvation!

There is nothing greater than to be a disciple of Christ, a believer in the Gospel, a partaker in Holy Baptism, and a child of God given to grow and become strong in spirit through the very Word of God. There is nothing greater than confessing that there is One who is greater still. And the greatest men born of women are those who confess their unworthiness to untie the sandals of the truly great One. St. John the Baptist taught us such humble greatness:

The last and greatest prophet,
He saw the dawning ray
Of light that grows in splendor
Until the perfect day.


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

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