Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sermon: Nativity of St. John the Baptist - 2018

24 June 2018

Text: Luke 1:57-80 (Isa 40:1-5, Acts 13:13-26)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

At first glance, John the Baptist doesn’t really seem that important.  He’s a little like the person at the banquet who introduces the main speaker.  He’s like the warm-up act, whom people forget about once the headliner takes the stage.

Unlike his namesake, St. John the Evangelist (who wrote five books of the New Testament), St. John the Baptist wrote no books of the Bible.  The other John was at the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost – and lived until the end of the first century.  John the Baptist barely saw Jesus get started in His ministry.  While Peter, Paul, and John had influential disciples of their own, St. John the Baptist’s disciples all left him to follow Jesus.

But our Lord said that among those born of women, no man was greater than John the Baptist.  John was the youngest person to ever confess Christ, leaping in the womb when his cousin Jesus, Himself in His own mother’s womb, drew near.  John set the standard of courageous preaching, proclaiming truth to power, calling the king to repentance.  John was the last of the Old Testament prophets and was a New Testament martyr for Christ years before St. Stephen would become known as the Church’s first martyr.  To this day, Eastern churches are all required to have a prominent icon to John displayed before the altar, for John does what every pastor and layman are to do in their vocations – to point to Christ!

What higher calling, what more exultant work is there, dear friends, than to point sinners to their Savior, to confess or preach Jesus as “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”?  Yes, this line in our Liturgy, in the Agnus Dei, was first spoken by John – and we sing it three times every time we celebrate Holy Communion.  We also sing John’s confession in the Gloria in Excelsis, when we draw our attention to Jesus and point to His atoning word on the cross – just like John the Baptist did three years before our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection.

Indeed, we must remember that John’s ministry was miraculous.  Even his birth was supernatural, being born to a woman who had been barren, to parents past the age of childbearing.  In order to bring John into the world, the Lord God suspended the normal order of the limitations of age.  For age leads to death, and barrenness is a limitation on the Lord’s command to “bear fruit and multiply.”  Zechariah and Elizabeth were object lessons in the Lord’s plan to overcome death and aging, and to bring fruit out of the wilderness.  And like his cousin Jesus, John’s birth was heralded by an angel and accompanied by signs.

Even his name was not of the ordinary.  Instead of being named after his father Zechariah, this future baptizer of Jesus was named “John.”  The name Zechariah means “the Lord remembers.”  But this son of Zechariah is given a new name in accordance with the Lord’s instructions: John means: “The Lord is gracious.”  Yes, indeed, God remembers His covenant, but He does not remember our sins when they are covered by the blood of the Lamb that taketh away the sin of the world.  Instead of focusing on remembrance, John the Baptist’s name centers around God’s grace.  Even the name of John points to Jesus, whose own name means: “God saves.”

And as soon as Zechariah obeyed the word of God and commanded his son to be called “John,” the judgment was lifted, and the temporarily mute Zechariah “spoke, blessing God.”  And this caused those who witnessed this miracle to fear God, which the Psalmist teaches us, is the beginning of wisdom!

Zechariah the priest of the temple, the husband of Elizabeth, the father of John, himself prophesied on that day of the circumcision and naming of his son.  First, he prophesies of Christ: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.”  Zechariah’s canticle describes Jesus as the “horn of salvation” in the “House of… David.”  He remembers the prophets, he reminds us of salvation, and he confesses the Lord’s mercy.  And this priest who is at the end of his own ministry at the end of the age, he whose name means to “remember,” reminds us of God’s promise to “remember His holy covenant.”  Zechariah proclaims our deliverance from our enemies, the most vexing of which are sin, death, and the devil – not to mention the world and our sinful nature.  And we are delivered so that we might “serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”

But Zechariah’s time of service is fading fast.  He is passing the torch to his miraculous son, the cousin of Jesus, the one who will preach Jesus and die for Jesus, who will be the voice crying in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord” Jesus.

And Zechariah prophesies about his son the prophet: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways.”

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Zechariah lays out what St. John will do: “give knowledge of salvation” in the “forgiveness of their sins.”  And by God’s “tender mercy,” those who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” will find themselves in the Lord’s “sunrise” to “give light” to those who do sit in darkness, guiding their “feet into the way of peace.”

This is John’s mission, dear friends.  John is not the Savior, even as his preaching included words such as these: “I am not He.  But behold, after me One is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.”  John will follow his calling to decrease, even as Jesus is to increase.  John will preach the law and the gospel without compromise, and he will die for the truth of the very Word of God – the living Word being Jesus of Nazareth, his own cousin whom he will baptize in the Jordan.

The preaching of John is the preaching of the church: a call to repent, an invitation to the waters of Holy Baptism, a pointing to the Lamb of God, and the good news of forgiveness, that is: “comfort.”  For the prophet Isaiah prefigured John and prefigured all preachers in his prophecy, words given to him by God to speak: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned… for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Indeed, dear friends, the mouth of the Lord continues to speak in His Word.  We continue to hear this Word, receive this call to repent, focusing our eyes on Christ the Lamb of God, remembering the cross and the grace of God in our atonement, calling to mind the waters of Holy Baptism, and proclaiming to the world that Jesus has come to bring comfort, to bring forgiveness, to bring peace with God and with men, and to remind each one of us that in Christ, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Not even the sword can silence that mouth.  John has spoken because the Lord has spoken.  And because the Lord has spoken, the church continues to speak.  We speak of Jesus, of forgiveness, and of the Gospel.  Thanks be to God for His mercy and for bringing His holy prophet St. John the Baptist into the wilderness of our fallen world, a desert transformed into a garden by the work of the Christ that John proclaimed, that we might indeed serve the Lord “in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.”  Amen.

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

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